“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is a song by the English rock band the Smiths, written by guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Morrissey. Featured on the band’s third studio album The Queen Is Dead, it was not released as a single in the United Kingdom until 1992, five years after their split. It peaked at No. 25 on the UK Singles Chart. The song has received considerable critical acclaim; in 2014, NME listed “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” as the 12th greatest song of all time.
In 2005, Morrissey released a live version of the song as a double A-side with his cover of Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach”, reaching No. 11 in the UK Singles Chart.
The Smiths began working on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” during its late 1985 recording sessions at London’s RAK Studios. In early September, the band recorded a rehearsal tape of the song performed in the key of F# minor. Four days later, the group made a monitor mix in the key of C# minor, this time accompanied by a synthesised string arrangement Marr created on an E-mu Emulator (credited to the “Hated Salford Ensemble” on the album release). While Morrissey was cynical about using synthesised strings, the lack of a budget to hire a real string ensemble as well as the band’s reluctance to allow outsiders into the recording process changed his mind. The recording was completed in November at Jacobs Studios in Farnham, where Morrissey redid his vocal part twice and Marr added a flute melody.
Written in tandem with “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, the two songs share the same key as well as similar chords. Simon Goddard noted that both the guitar break in “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and the flute section in “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (originally written as a guitar part) are based on C# minor arpeggio figure. The song features an ascending F#m–A–B chord sequence that guitarist Johnny Marr took from the Rolling Stones cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”. Marr said in 1993 that he included the figure as an “in-joke” to determine if the music press would attribute the inspiration for the part to “There She Goes Again” by the Velvet Underground, who he contended “stole” the figure from “Hitch Hike”. Marr commented, “I knew I was smarter than that. I was listening to what the Velvet Underground were listening to”.
AllMusic’s Tim DiGravina argues that while depressed characters were a regular feature in Morrissey’s work, his lyrics on “There Is a Light” “ups the sad-and-doomed quotient by leaps and bounds.” Goddard argues in his book Songs That Saved Your Life that the basic narrative story is similar to that of the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause, in which Dean—an idol of Morrissey’s—leaves his tortuous home life, being the passenger to a potential romantic partner. In fact, a line from that movie (“It is not my home”) is quoted in the song. According to Goddard, an earlier version lacked some of the finished version’s ambiguity, culminating in the line “There is a light in your eyes and it never goes out”.
Due to a dispute between the Smiths and its record label Rough Trade Records after the group completed The Queen Is Dead, nine months passed after the release of “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” before the group issued another single. Once the matter was resolved, Rough Trade owner Geoff Travis felt that “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” should be the band’s “comeback” record. However, Johnny Marr was insistent that “Bigmouth Strikes Again” be the band’s next single. Despite Travis’s advocation of the song, Simon Goddard expressed doubt that the song’s “explicit glamorisation of suicide” would have endeared it to daytime radio. Regardless, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” became the second Smiths song to top BBC Radio One disc jockey John Peel’s Festive Fifty poll in his 1986 tally. The song was shortly thereafter included on the 1987 compilation album The World Won’t Listen. In October 1992, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” finally received a single release by WEA to promote the …Best II compilation. The song reached number 25 on the UK Singles Chart, making it their last UK Top 40 appearance to date.
Music critics consider “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” to be one of the Smiths’ finest efforts. Simon Goddard wrote, “In a straw poll among Smiths fans today, ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ would more than likely still come out victorious”, which he credits to the “perfect balance” of Marr’s compositional skills and Morrissey’s lyricism. AllMusic’s Tim DiGravina calls it “a standout among standouts from the Smiths’ masterpiece third album, The Queen Is Dead.” In 2014, NME listed “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” as the 12th greatest song of all time. The website Acclaimed Music lists it as the 78th most acclaimed song of all time, and the 8th most acclaimed song of the 1980s.