How Soon Is Now (as made famous by The Smiths)

“How Soon Is Now?” is a song by the English rock band the Smiths, written by singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. Originally a B-side of the 1984 single “William, It Was Really Nothing”, “How Soon Is Now?” was subsequently featured on the compilation album Hatful of Hollow and on US, Canadian, Australian, and Warner UK editions of Meat Is Murder. Belatedly released as a single in the UK in 1985, it reached No. 24 on the UK Singles Chart. When re-released in 1992, it reached No. 16.

In 2007, Marr said “How Soon Is Now?” is “possibly [the Smiths’] most enduring record. It’s most people’s favourite, I think.”[3] Despite its prominent place in the Smiths’ repertoire, it is not generally considered to be representative of the band’s style.[4] Although a club favourite, it did not chart as well as expected. Most commentators put this down to the fact that the song had been out on vinyl in a number of forms before being released as a single in its own right. The original track runs for nearly seven minutes; the 7” single edit cut the length down to under four minutes. The complete version is generally used on compilations.

A cover of the song by Love Spit Love was used in the soundtrack for the 1996 film The Craft and later appeared as the theme song of the television series Charmed for eight seasons.

Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr wrote “How Soon Is Now?” along with “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” during a four-day period at Earls Court in London in June 1984.[5] His demo was originally called “Swamp”. In contrast to the frequent chord changes he had employed in most Smiths’ songs, Marr wanted to explore building a song around a single chord (in this case, F♯) as much as possible, which also appealed to producer John Porter.[6]

Marr recorded the song with bandmates Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce that July at London’s Jam Studios. After a night out celebrating the session for “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, the trio had reconvened the following afternoon to record what became “How Soon Is Now?”. Porter was impressed by the basic riff Marr showed him, but felt the song needed something else. Their discussion turned to the early recordings of Elvis Presley, which led to an impromptu jam session of the song “That’s All Right”. During the jam, Marr worked on his chord progression for “Swamp”, which inspired the arrangement.[7]

They recall the session as being accompanied by heavy marijuana use. “We used to smoke dope from when we got out of bed to when we got back to bed,” recalls Porter, and Marr concurred: “You’re from Manchester, you smoke weed till it comes out of your ears.” Joyce said the band even replaced the studio’s light bulbs with red ones for ambience.[6]

Porter recorded the first takes with microphones set up at varying distances from the band to better create a “swampy” mood. Marr was able to keep the F♯ chord going for as long as 16 bars at a time. Despite only doing a few takes, they had filled an entire reel of tape, as one had gone on for 15 minutes.[6]

Marr and Porter decided to add a tremolo effect to the guitar part. He was inspired by Bo Diddley’s distinctive syncopated shuffle guitar style, Hamilton Bohannon’s “Disco Stomp” and the two guitars in the instrumental break of Can’s “I Want More”. The effect was created by running the original guitar track through the studio desk into three separate Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers, each with the tremolo control set to a different oscillation speed. Marr and Porter would adjust each by hand while the music played to keep it in rhythm; when they failed, engineer Mark Wallis would rewind the tape and start them again. Some of these segments were no longer than ten seconds.[6]

To make sure the beat was the same throughout the song, Porter took a noise gate and set it to be triggered by a drum machine, using percussion instruments Joyce typically did not, set to 16th notes. This created what he called “a swirling signal” that balanced the analog tremolo effect and made sure the whole song stayed on the same beat. The guitar tracks were then “bounced” down to three of the master recording’s 24 available tracks, and the 15-minute version was cut down to 8 minutes. This was longer than any previous Smiths song had been. But, Porter told Tony Fletcher, “we looked at each other and said, ‘It sounds fucking great; let’s keep it like that.'”[6]

The rhythm has been compared to Diddley’s “Mona”, later covered by The Rolling Stones.[8][9] After a break, Marr and Porter added a few overdubs, including a slide guitar part that “gave [the song] real tension”, according to the guitarist.[8] It was created using an early harmonizer that was also able to cache 1.2 seconds of delay, a very large amount for the time. Artists had been using it as a sampler; Porter claims that he recorded the delay rather than the original to give it some “weirdness”. He also claims that he played one of the slide guitars; Marr disputes this but gives him credit for his leadership in recording the song.[6]

Marr’s other lead guitar part was the harmonic lick after each verse. This is almost a direct quote of a synthetic vibraphone part heard on rapper Lovebug Starski’s “You’ve Gotta Believe,” from the previous year. The guitarist meant it as a direct response to some critics who had pigeonholed the Smiths as 1960s revivalists.[6]

That night Porter sent singer Morrissey a rough mix of the song in the mail. The following morning Morrissey arrived and laid down his vocals, culling lyrics from various works in progress in his notebook. According to Porter, the singer completed his vocals in two takes.[10]

The song contains only one verse which is repeated twice, plus a chorus and a bridge. The subject is an individual who cannot find a way to overcome his crippling shyness and find a partner. Two couplets from the song are well known in pop culture, the opening to the verse:

“ I am the son, and the heir, of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular ”
and the chorus:

“ You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does. ”
The opening was adapted from a line in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”.[10] Music journalist Jon Savage commented that the song’s lyrics were evocative of contemporary Manchester gay club culture.[11]

The tune is built around a guitar chord that rapidly oscillates in volume. As to how the distinctive resonant sound was achieved, Marr gave the following account in 1990:

The vibrato sound is incredible, and it took a long time. I put down the rhythm track on an Epiphone Casino through a Fender Twin Reverb without vibrato. Then we played the track back through four old Twins, one on each side. We had to keep all the amps vibrating in time to the track and each other, so we had to keep stopping and starting the track, recording it in 10-second bursts… I wish I could remember exactly how we did the slide part – not writing it down is one of the banes of my life! We did it in three passes through a harmonizer, set to some weird interval, like a sixth. There was a different harmonization for each pass. For the line in harmonics, I retuned the guitar so that I could play it all at the 12th fret with natural harmonics. It’s doubled several times.[12]

When Rough Trade owner Geoff Travis first heard “How Soon Is Now?”, he felt it was too unrepresentative of the Smiths’ sound to be released as a single. Despite pressure from Porter to save the song for a later single release as an A-side, “How Soon Is Now?” was included as B-side on the 12″ single release of “William, It Was Really Nothing” in August 1984.[13] According to Porter: “I thought ‘This is it!’ … but I don’t think the record company liked it … They totally threw it away, wasted it”.[14] Night-time British radio picked up on the song almost immediately, however, and by autumn it had become the most-requested track on request shows by DJs John Peel, Janice Long, and Annie Nightingale.[15] It was subsequently included on the Smiths’ compilation album Hatful of Hollow, released on 12 November 1984. The song was also featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 film Out of Bounds, but was not included on the accompanying soundtrack album.[16]

The song was released on Sire Records in the United States, backed with “Girl Afraid”, in November 1984. It was expected to sell well and, for the first time, a video was made to promote one of the band’s tracks. However, the song failed to chart. Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis blamed poor promotion: “I can’t understand why ‘How Soon Is Now?’ wasn’t a top 10 single, but perhaps I’m being naive. If only their singles had been played on the radio”.[17] Morrissey expressed his disappointment in an interview with Creem magazine: “It’s hard to believe that ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was not a hit. I thought that was the one…”.[18] “How Soon Is Now?” was released as an A-side in the United Kingdom on 28 January 1985. The 7″ featured an edited version of the track, and the B-side was “Well I Wonder”, from the about-to-be-released Meat Is Murder album. The 12″ single included a new instrumental track, “Oscillate Wildly”. It peaked at No. 24 on the UK Singles Chart, a lower placing than the band’s three previous singles, which had all hit the Top 20; according to John Porter, “Everybody knew the Smiths’ fans already had it”.[19]

Following the acquisition of the Rough Trade catalogue by Warner Bros. Records, “How Soon Is Now?” was issued again as a single in the United Kingdom in September 1992. A 7″ single and cassette featured the edited version, backed with a live version of “Handsome Devil”, recorded at The Haçienda on 4 February 1983 (this had originally been the B-side to the Smiths’ first single “Hand in Glove”). Two CD singles featured tracks from the Smiths’ back-catalogue which were, following the demise of Rough Trade, unavailable in the United Kingdom at that time. The re-issue reached number 16 in the UK singles chart.

“Morrissey and co have once again delved into their Sixties treasure-trove, and produced a visceral power capable of blowing the dust off Eighties inertia. The majestic ease of Morrissey’s melancholic vocals are tinted with vitriol, as they move through vistas of misery with plaintive spirals around the pulse of Johnny Marr’s vibrato guitar. The string’s muted strains conjure wistful signs that bridge the schism between crass sentimentality and callous detachment. Each repeated phrase intensifies the hypnotic waves, with results that outflank anything since ‘This Charming Man’. Catharsis has rarely been tinged with so much regret, and shared with so much crystalline purity.” – Melody Maker, 2 February 1985

“For the most part, Morrissey is the Hilda Ogden of pop, harassed and hard done-by. I guess what seems like meat to one man sounds like murder to another.” – Gavin Martin, New Musical Express, 9 February 1985

“The tremolo pulse that opens ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is the kind of sound musicians and listeners spend a lifetime chasing after: something never heard before and never successfully replicated since.” – Philip Sherburne, Pitchfork, 24 August 2015.[21]

Sire Records chief Seymour Stein called it “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of the Eighties”.[7][19]

The single’s cover art was a still from the film Dunkirk (1958) featuring British actor Sean Barrett, praying but looking sufficiently as though he was holding his crotch to have the sleeve banned in the United States,[33] where a photograph of the band backstage at the 1984 Glastonbury Festival, which had previously appeared on the gatefold inside the Hatful of Hollow compilation, was used instead. It is the only time a portrait of the band has appeared on the cover of one of their releases.[34] Morrissey called it “an abhorrent sleeve – and [given] the time and the dedication that we put into the sleeves and artwork, it was tearful when we finally saw the record…”[35]

British 7″ and 12” versions of the vinyl bear the matrix message: THE TATTY TRUTH / TIM TOM[36][37]

Sire Records made an unauthorised music video to promote the song. It intercut clips of the band playing live (including a shot of Johnny Marr showing Morrissey how to play the guitar), an industrial part of a city, and a girl dancing.[38] The band were not pleased by the result. Morrissey told Creem in 1985, “We saw the video and we said to Sire, ‘You can’t possibly release this… this degrading video.’ And they said, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t really be on our label.’ It was quite disastrous”.[35] Nonetheless, the video has been credited with helping make the song their most famous in the United States, along with heavy exposure on college radio.[39]