Heinemann £20

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths, By Tony Fletcher

The outsider's guide to Eighties Britain

The subtitle gives it away. The short, glorious story of the Smiths, only four albums and five years from start to finish, is now a "saga". Just as that implies, it drags on and on, and if you lose track of the blood vendettas and Morrissey's frequent falling outs, you'll find it hard going.

Twenty-five years since their fatigued separation, it's clear that the pointless battles the band fought, such as refusing to make videos or to appoint proper management, harmed only themselves. Yet those were different times, as this biography points out in frequently unnecessary detail. Thatch ruled from afar, pop music was desperate, and decent coffee was two decades away. Like many artists under dictatorship, Stretford's Steven Morrissey chose internal exile, and, in tandem with crack local guitarist Johnny Marr, expressed his disgust to a growing audience of fellow outcasts.

Marr and his schoolchum bass player Andy Rourke might have continued dabbling with jazz-funk (and in Rourke's case, heroin). Instead, they made up the musical core of the Eighties' cleverest and most prolific band. Even apart they were uniquely unsullied and unreformed. By refusing to reform, they defied the capitalist logic which insists that bands such as U2 or REM persist long after their relevance has passed. (The otherwise confused "Paint a Vulgar Picture", on their patchy swan song Strangeways, Here We Come, predicted and rejected this inevitability.)

Their enduring appeal and influence deserves investigation. A Light That Never Goes Out, though, is just the story of a band, heavy on music business machinations and thin on illumination. A diligent editor could have trimmed it simply by excising the author's speculations on the importance of everything from the vagaries of council housing policies to the career path an unsplit Smiths might have followed. Tony Fletcher, best known for a definitive Keith Moon biography and an enjoyably idiosyncratic history of New York's music, is certainly informed, but humour is not his strength

You see, the Smiths were a lot of fun. I should know, I saw them 39 times that I can remember. (Marr once mentioned "a mad fan who follows us everywhere" – me! – in an interview with the teengirl bible Jackie.) Their concerts were celebrations of outsiderdom, each venue a sanctuary from the ugly world outside. Morrissey successfully romanticised nothingness and failure – no wonder so many identified with him. Has there ever been a wittier Top 10 single than "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"? If there has, I've not heard it.

The author gives too much respect to fashion's great myth, that the newest thing is always the best thing. But the Smiths' genius lay in their simultaneous representation of past, present and future; Morrissey's shameless purloining of favourite literary sources and Marr's attempts to rewrite classic singles. Whole eras and genres collide in their music: Sixties soul and rock, funk, glam, rockabilly, African high life and plenty of studio electrickery. It was hardly their fault that the next generation of guitar bands were rather less competent and imaginative. To paraphrase Jonathan Ross on Peter Cook, they fulfilled their youthful promise while they were young. It still awaits the definitive account.

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