This is the 63rd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the summer of 1984, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr recorded a home demo called “Swamp.” The demo was his attempt to try to channel the sound and spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite the fact that his main exposure to the band had been hearing The Gun Club’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle.”
Around that time, The Smiths had been readying “William, It Was Really Nothing” for its release as a single. When Marr gave Morrissey demos for the tracks that would appear on the single, he included “Swamp.” When in the studio with bandmates Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, Marr began playing the riff from “Swamp,” hoping they could make it into something they could use for the single. Marr was quoted in Simon Goddard’s “Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of the Smiths 1982-87” as saying,
I remember us playing it for a while and me really hoping we could make it sound like a Smiths track, because the chances were it might not have. So I had me fingers crossed that it was gonna be like us, already liking it myself and having given it to Morrissey.
With producer John Porter in the studio, Marr, Rourke, and Joyce played into the evening, tweaking the song to make it sound more mysterious and trippy. The weed helped, Joyce recalled: “We just took all the lights out in the studio, and put red bulbs in and got, well, stoned. Off our tits. That was it really.”
Porter said he told the trio to play as long as they felt they needed to play, which ended up being four or five minutes at a time. They got a few good takes, and they ended up splicing them together.
But Marr was still not convinced that this “Swamp” song sounded like The Smiths yet. He had been wanting to add a tremolo to a song for a while, as he had been inspired by at least three tracks that used the effect: Hamilton Bohannon’s “Disco Stomp,” Can’s “I Want More,” and Bo Diddley’s “Mona.” Marr and Porter achieved the effect through a highly involved process of playing the song without any effects, then relaying the track through amps while controlling the vibrato to create the texture.
In Goddard’s “Songs That Saved Your Life,” Porter explained that Morrissey’s absence from that session was normal for the band:
By then our sessions eventually got into a pattern… We would pretty much do the tracking and then everybody would just leave me and Johnny to it. Mozzer wouldn’t even be there, unless it was a song they already knew. Most of the time we’d make these things up in the studio so it was pretty much done by the time he came in and put a vocal on top. I’d normally post a copy of what we’d been doing that day through his letterbox on the way home and then he’d come in the next morning with his notebook of lyrics and write something that seemed to fit.
Morrissey joined his bandmates in the studio within a few days and recorded his vocals within a few tracks. Morrissey’s lyrics for The Smiths and his solo projects have been dissected and celebrated, but the opening lyrics of the song initially known as “Swamp” are among his most famous:
I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular
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 lines were inspired by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which had including the phrasing “to be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.” The song, of course, became “How Soon Is Now?” The name came from Marjorie Rosen’s 1973 book “Popcorn Venus,” in which she asked, “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is ‘now’?”
“How Soon Is Now?” was released in August 1984 as the B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing.” Radio listeners fervently requested the song, such that it eventually came out as its own single. But by the time the single was released, the song had appeared on the 1984 compilation, “Hatful of Hollow.” Outside of the UK, “How Soon is Now?” had been released on some releases of 1985’s “Meat Is Murder.” “How Soon Is Now?” peaked at Number 24 in the UK, though when it was re-released in 1992, it reached Number 16.
But despite its underwhelming performance on the charts, “How Soon Is Now?” became one of The Smiths’ most enduring songs, if not the most enduring of the band’s catalog. Seymour Stein of the label Sire called it “the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of the 80s.” There’s no shortage of the best songs lists that feature “How Soon Is Now?”: it’s Number 477 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Number 4 on NME’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Number 10 on Pitchfork’s list of the 200 Best Songs of the 1980s.
Part of the song’s longevity comes from the fact that it never went away. Not only has The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” been featured in many films and TV shows, so has its many covers and samples.
English pop trio Soho sampled “How Soon Is Now?” for its 1990 dance track, “Hippychick.” The song begins the same as the The Smiths’ song, with Marr’s iconic guitar riff. It’s not until the drum machine kicks in that one can tell the difference.
American band Quicksand’s post-hardcore/alternative metal cover of “How Soon Is Now?” was released as the B-side to the the band’s single, “Dine Alone.” It also appeared on the band’s 1993 debut album, “Slip.” The psychedelic, trippy feel of Marr’s tremolo effect is lost in a wall of crunchy guitars and pounding drums. And Morrissey’s words — ironic in his understated delivery — sound whiney and emo when shouted out.
Love Spit Love, which was the side project of Psychedelic Furs’ singer Richard Butler, recorded a cover of “How Soon Is Now?” for the soundtrack for the 1996 movie, “The Craft.” It’s a faithful cover, with Marr’s riff firmly intact. The biggest difference, not surprisingly, is Butler’s gravelly vocals in place of Morrissey’s smoother voice. The song was a good fit for the movie, as the creepy riff fit in nicely with the movie’s supernatural themes.
And after Love Spit Love’s “How Soon Is Now?” was featured in “The Craft,” it was used as the theme song for the WB’s show “Charmed,” about a family of witches.
Everclear covered “How Soon Is Love?” for the 1996 compilation, “Jabberjaw: Pure Sweet Hell.” Similarly to Quicksand’s version, the subtlety of Marr’s riff was lost. The backing track was loud enough that Art Alexakis’ vocals were drowned out and the more Alexakis-y characteristics of his voice were harder to hear, which could be good or bad, depending on your view of Alexakis and his band.
Punk band The Meatmen covered “How Soon Is Now?” for the 1996 compilation, “The World Still Won’t Listen: A Tribute to The Smiths.” The guitars were heavier than in The Smiths’ version, but the real noticeable difference was the vocals, which toggled between sounding like Harvey Fierstein and Type O Negative’s Peter Steele. That, and the fact that the band changed the line “I am human and I need to be loved” with “I’m inhuman and I need to be fucked.”
That same year, The Meatman skewered Morrissey with the song, “Morrissey Must Die,” which appeared on “War of the Superbikes II: The Double Album.” It was… graphic.
A version by metal band Paradise Lost appeared on the reissue of the band’s 1997 album, “One Second.” The drums on The Smiths’ version were noticeable, yet in the background, but on Paradise Lost’s “How Soon Is Now?,” the drums had the force of a hammer. And though it’s subtle, “a shyness that is criminally vulgar” was changed to “criminally broken.”
Snake River Conspiracy covered “How Soon Is Now?” for the band’s only full-length album, 2000’s “Sonic Jihad.” Though the riff got an industrial-tinged makeover, it was faithful to the original. Singer Tobey Torres played the vocals as coolly as Morrissey did, without giving in to the temptation to over-emote.
Russian duo t.A.t.U. covered the song for its 2002 album “200 km/h in the Wrong Lane.” The instrumental arrangement sounded mainly the same, except updated with smooth keyboards and some soft piano parts. OK, fine. But the real difference to be heard in this version was in the vocals. Whereas Morrissey sang the song as if he was lazily deadpanning words he didn’t care about, Julia Volkova and Lena Katina belted out the lyrics, as if these were Gospel truths that needed to be heard right now. Any irony or sarcasm in Morrissey’s version was scrubbed in this passionate rendition.
In 2010, singer Janice Whaley committed herself to a rather daunting project: record the entire catalog of The Smiths by the end of the year, using only her own voice and basic editing techniques. She launched a Kickstarter campaign and set to work. The result was “The Smiths Project,” an impressive collection that comprised a cover of every Smiths song. And she did it ahead of schedule. And it’s really, really good. Her version of “How Soon Is Now?” is especially cool considering that she was able to capture some of the eery parts of the song, all with just her voice.
As I’ve written about before, comedy cover artist Richard Cheese has made a niche for himself recording tongue-in-cheek swing/lounge parodies of popular songs. His cover of “How Soon Is Now?” appeared on his 2011 album, “A Lounge Supreme.” As is the case with all his songs, it was done in an over-the-top, schlocky lounge style. But, like most of his songs, it was pretty good.
Electronic act Solar Fake recorded a version of “How Soon Is Now?” that recast Marr’s guitar riff as adark and sinister track. Singer Sven Friedrich’s breathy vocals matched the dark tone, sounding both robotic and grim. As one does.
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins performed a version of “How Soon Is Now?” on the Comedy Death Ray podcast. It takes a few listens to appreciate it, because on the first listen, it’s hard not to think, “This is Paul F. Tompkins? This is pretty good!” On subsequent listens, the instrumentations are easier to notice, but on the first few, you can’t help but focus on Tompkins’ schtick throughout the song.
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs covered “How Soon Is Now?” for their “Under The Covers” compilation series. The duo hit home runs on most of the songs they picked, but this one felt off. Even conceptually, it feels like a stretch to have Sweet cover “How Soon Is Now?” Sure, he appealed to disaffected youth about a decade after The Smiths had done the same, but Sweet and Morrissey appealed to different types. Sweet’s angst was plucky and earnest, whereas Morrissey, more often than not, came off like a sarcastic whiner. Sweet trying to sing this song sounded like a Boy Scout hacking on cigarettes to prove he wasn’t a goody two shoes. And yet I liked it.
Cas Haley, who was a runner-up on season 2 of “America’s Got Talent,” covered “How Soon Is Now?” on his 2013 album, “La Si Dah.” It’s a shockingly upbeat version, considering the original was by a guy who made a living out of being a sad bastard idolized by other sad bastards who then felt inspired to write sad bastard poetry they would perform at sad bastard open mic nights. Most of the covers of “How Soon Is Now?” try to outdo the Morrissey version in sounding tortured and angsty, and here’s Cas Haley cheerfully sauntering into the song like he’s Ben Harper or Sister Hazel or some other guy who has no business singing Morrissey songs. Well done, Cas Haley. Well done.
The 2015 compilation “A Dreaded Sunny Day: A Tribute to The Smiths” featured a version of “How Soon Is Now?” by The Us that was even longer than the original. And that is saying something. This slow burn of a cover took some time to build up, as the vocals didn’t kick in until a minute and a half into the song. The Us rearranged the song so that it sounded nothing like the original, save for the lyrics, which were sung by both a man and a woman. And even the styles of singing were different: she sang as if she were in an opera, and he sang as if he were in an emo band. And yet, it worked.
In 2016, 8 Bit Arcade’s “The 8Bit 80s” turned several ’80s songs into simplified versions you’d hear in arcade or Nintendo games. But as simplified as they might have been, they were not simple. The 8-bit version of “How Soon Is Now?” has much of the same complexity of Marr’s guitar work, just in 8-bit form.
The idea of covering The Smiths is a bold one, for any number of reasons: the songs are well-known, thus upping the pressure; the band are beloved by a rabid fan base; Marr and Morrissey can be rather critical of their songs’ covers; and most of all, the songs are pretty good as it is.
In 2011, Popdose’s staff compiled its list of the greatest cover songs of all time. And in his blurb about Love Spit Love’s “How Soon Is Now?,” Zack Dennis wrote:
I’m not thrilled with the idea of anyone covering songs by the Smiths — there’s very little anyone could do to any of them to make them better (or even do them justice). But if someone held a gun to the head of a kitten and told me that to save its life I had to articulate a genuine complaint about “How Soon is Now,” I’d say that perhaps their near-perfect anthem to loneliness meanders along too much and the music eventually becomes repetitious.
We won’t be asking anyone to put a gun to anyone’s head – kitten or otherwise – but Dennis hit upon the difficulty of making a good Smiths cover. But Dennis acquiesced and gave Love Spit Love credit where credit was due, saying the band “delivered a version that trims the song down to just over four minutes, and adds just the right amount of angst to counterbalance Morrissey’s self-pitying shyness.”
Love Spit Love kept the vibe of the original, but was able to put its own spin on the track, in part because Butler’s voice is so recognizable. But if a band doesn’t have an instantly recognizable veteran singer like Butler, it’s hard to do the song while emulating Marr’s creepy riff.
Not that it’s an easy riff to copy. Part of what makes Marr’s tremolo effect impressive is knowing the lengths he went to in order to achieve it. According to Goddard’s book:
Without the aid of samplers or digital simulators, Marr and Porter had to create their tremolo effect manually on traditional analogue equipment. The first step involved taking the basic rhythm guitar part, which had been recorded as a ‘dry’ DI (Direct Input) take, without any effects. This dry guitar pattern was next relayed to four Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers, each with its own vibrato tremolo switch. As Marr’s plain rhythm was played back through the four speakers, Porter and Marr controlled the vibrato on one pair of amplifiers apiece to create the swampy, shuddering texture required. Whenever their tremolo slipped out of sync, the recording was stopped then recommenced, sometimes recording in bursts of only ten seconds at a time. Marr and Porter overdubbed further finishing touches at the end of the session, including its mesmerising slide guitar.
Synthesizers have advanced and evolved since then such that anyone covering “How Soon Is Now?” would not have to go to that trouble now. But that’s also why Marr’s riff sounds so distinguishable from the covers.
The covers that most stuck out to me were the ones that jettisoned the riff completely. Janice Whaley’s project was so layered and textured that it was easy to forget the only instrument on there was her voice. And the version by The Us made the choice to use two vocalists and an altogether new arrangement. It sounded nothing like the “How Soon Is Now?” we’re used to, but then again, that’s the hallmark of many good covers. Otherwise, why listen to a cover that sounds exactly like the original?