Book Review: “Songs That Saved Your Life (Revised Edition)”

SmithsTitan Books has published a new edition of Simon Goddard’s definitive 2002 The Smiths – Songs That Saved Your Life. With a new subtitle of The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, this edition includes a new prologue and updated epilogue, as well as a reassignment of the band’s media appearances to an appendix instead of inserted in between the chapters on each Smiths recording, which makes up the heart of the book. The songs are also no longer numbered and the footnotes have been absorbed into the text. As Goddard writes in the prologue, “There is, I confess, a sliver of my psyche that could write a different version of this book every year for the rest of my life…”

Needless to say, the depth in which The Smiths’ catalog of songs is examined by Goddard is incredible. There is nothing like the work of an intellectual super fan; as a music lover alone I enjoy the spirit of celebrating the story of a band and its success, so as a big fan of The Smiths, it was especially rewarding. The book is focused more on the breakdown of how each song was written and recorded than the story of the band’s rise and fall, but the latter is integrated well. Long sections on the band’s history are printed in italics to separate them from the song discussions.

If you’ve ever been mystified by Morrissey’s awesomely specific-sounding yet ambiguous lyrics, here are all his references and allusions laid out for you. I knew that he frequently quoted from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, but I didn’t know that another favorite source was Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (which even sounds like a Morrissey song title!), and now that’s definitely on my list to read.

Most enjoyable is Goddard’s account of Johnny Marr’s memories, opinions and details on how the music of The Smiths came about – his 60s music influences, his struggles with managing the band, his unique songwriting partnership with Morrissey, and their learning curve in the studio production of their songs. Other fascinating details include the way Marr would create sound effects by dropping knives onto his guitar strings or how Morrissey owned a BBC sound recordings album that was frequently used for background noises.

Each single and its B-sides (remember those?) are broken down by influence, creation, production and reception, and I recommend reading the book with the music on hand, so you can immediately look up certain songs for reference. The chronology is sometimes confusing, since Goddard will discuss songs when they were first written and then later again when they were released. He also faithfully records the differing accounts as to why the band broke up, speculation on whether Marr was the subject of several of Morrissey’s lyrics, and who decided how to split the profits among the band members – leaving quite a few things (necessarily) wide open. There are also many funny moments, such as the band’s failed attempts to be strictly vegetarian for Morrissey’s sake, or a judge’s description of Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable when his own interests were at stake” in Mike Joyce’s royalties case in ’96! Ah, Morrissey…

Image via Titan Books’ website 

Simone Snaith

About Simone Snaith

Simone Snaith writes young adult and fantasy novels, and sings in the band Turning Violet. A fan of scifi, fantasy, the supernatural and most things from the '80s, she enjoys reviewing music, books and movies. You can read about her own books at simonesnaith.com.
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