“How Soon is Now?” was written by The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Morrissey.
Marr’s haunting, tremolo and sliding guitar part prepares the perfect sonic atmosphere for Morrissey’s angst-ridden lyrics.
“I am the song and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar,” the singer croons to his listeners.
Upon the band’s break-up, writer Simon Reynolds named this dark tone as the key element that made the band so appealing:
“Why were The Smiths ‘important’? Because of their misery….The Smiths finest moments - ‘Hand in Glove,’ ‘How Soon is Now?’, ‘Still Ill’, ‘I Know Its Over’ - were moments of reproachful, avenging misery, naked desperation, unbearable reverence - free from the ‘saving grace’ of quips and camp self-consciousness.
If there was laughter it was black, scornful scathing….they were like those gauche youths who turn up to house parties only to cling to the dark corners in chaste disdain, driven by the naïve, vaguely inhuman conviction that all merriment is a lie.”
Morrissey’s melody lingers and falls. With the lyrics, it mourns the paralysis of social anxiety and fear, with a deep conviction of worth. “I am human and I need to be loved. Just like everybody else does,” he reminds us.
It is the tragedy of knowing what is needed, but unable to achieve it all the same - of losing hope and knowing “soon”, is never soon enough. Marr’s guitar part relishes in that ambiguity. Its complexity comes from effect, while the riff is really quite simple. Inspired by Bo Diddley's guitar strum around an F# chord, Marr and producer John Porter began experimenting with a tremolo effect.
While Marr and Porter have told slight variations on the details of how they accomplished it, the result was a mystical sounding tremolo resembling the opening of Rolling Stone’s cover of Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby)”, but with a modern twist.
Pairing this ambience with the siren of the slide guitar, The Smiths created their iconic song opening. If the tremolo guitar found its origins in the world of Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones, the slide guitar turned to another legendary British group of the sixties - The Beatles. Morrissey wasn’t interested in backing vocals on any Smith songs, but Porter felt the track needed another addition: "I started thinking, well, if The Beatles had done this, they would have done some 'oohs' and 'aahs' or something at that point in the song, so I would get Johnny to do a guitar part that would be the equivalent of having a backing vocalist.” The harmonizer effect on the guitar’s wailing slide only adds to its captivating color.
Quite a technical discussion around the song's composition.
Nicely done and by a Smiths fan too.