“How Soon Is Now?” was the Smiths hit that never quite was. Their U.K. record company buried it on a B-side in 1985 because they thought the track – built around a swooping tremolo attack on a single F-sharp chord that sounded like guitarist Johnny Marr was surfing a tsunami – wasn’t representative of the band. And although the head of their American record company called it the “Stairway to Heaven” of the Eighties, it didn’t make a commercial dent in the States, either.
That didn’t stop the song from becoming a show-stopping anthem at Smiths gigs, as you can see in this concert they played on October 23rd, 1986, at the National Ballroom in London. The camerawork (by a fan in the audience) is a bit shaky, but the sound is excellent: The show was broadcast on the radio and later edited down into the live album “Rank.” (Alas, the record company rejected Morrissey’s suggested title of The Smiths in Heat.) Incomprehensibly, “How Soon Is Now?” was left off the record in favor of weaker material such as the instrumental “The Draize Train.”
Even with the wobbly cinematography, it’s easy to see how fully Morrissey was working it that night. Wearing jeans and an Elvis Presley T-shirt, he swiveled his hips so relentlessly that he appeared to be in danger of dislocating his pelvis. Traditionally, that dance move denotes raw sexuality, but here it felt like he was churning butter.
Meanwhile, Johnny Marr added to the song’s apocalyptic feel with some guitar solos that could rip open the seventh seal. The Smiths’ lineup at this gig also included a fifth member: Craig Gannon, who joined the band earlier that year during a period when bassist Andy Rourke had been fired because of his heroin problems, and stayed on as second guitarist even after Rourke’s return. Generally speaking, Marr was a nimble enough player that another guitarist was superfluous, but here, playing in tandem paid off.
Morrissey added lyrics that neatly summed up his approach to life: “I am the son and the heir to a shyness that is criminally vulgar/I am the son and heir of nothing in particular.” When he sang them, he made being awkward sound like a manifesto. And when he reached the chorus of “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” it sounded like the only truth in the world.
The song got short shrift in the Smiths’ own career, but had a second life after the band broke up: Marr’s epic guitar riff was sampled in Soho’s hit single “Hippychick,” and Love Spit Love’s cover version of “How Soon Is Now?” appeared in the movie The Craft and served as the theme song to the TV show Charmed. The duo t.A.T.u. had some success with their own 2002 cover; asked about it by interviewer Andrew Harrison, Morrissey declared it “magnificent,” but admitted he didn’t know much about the group. Told that they were teenage Russian lesbians, Morrissey replied, “Well, aren’t we all?”