This song is about a lover's crippling pessimism and how it blights an otherwise ideal relationship. The Smiths' front man, Morrissey, explained to Star Hits magazine: "I just wanted to use the theme of complete loneliness. It was important to me that there'd be something searingly poetic in it, in a lyrical sense, and yet jubilant at the same time." Guitarist, Johnny Marr, told the biographer, Simon Goddard, that he assumed Morrissey wrote this song about their friendship, "purely because we were the only people hanging out with each other at the time."
Morrissey told Star Hits magazine that the couplet, "Though we may be hidden by rags, we have something they'll never have," is his favorite Smiths lyric: "It's how I felt when I couldn't afford clothes and used to dress in rags but I didn't really feel mentally impoverished."
The lyric, "I'll probably never see you again," is lifted from the Shelagh Delaney play, A Taste of Honey. Morrissey also paraphrases "Everything depends upon how near you sleep to me," from Leonard Cohen's "Take This Longing," in the lyric, "Everything depends upon how near you stand to me."
This was The Smiths' debut single. It was recorded in one day at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, England and released through Rough Trade Records in May 1983. This master was later remixed by the producer, John Porter and included on The Smiths' 1984 self-titled debut album.
Morrissey picked the single's purposefully controversial artwork – an image of a naked man standing with his back to the camera. This was snapped by Jim French, who was famous for his homoerotic photography.
The Smiths were very proud of this song and expected it to be a huge hit. Morrissey commented at the time of its release: "I think the record is so absolutely perfect in every respect that if it just dribbles away I shall be ill, probably for ever." Unlucky for Morrissey, the song flopped, peaking at a miserable #124 on the UK chart.
In 1984, The Smiths wrote to the '60s chanteuse, Sandie Shaw, asking her to record a cover of this song. Though reluctant at first, Shaw was won over after reading Morrissey's praise of her in the press. Shaw told Melody Maker: "I said I'd go into the studio with them on the proviso that if I didn't like the result we'd scrap it - but we had so much fun and I think the single's great." The cover reached #27 on the UK chart - Shaw's first big hit in over a decade.
Asked by NME in 2013 what his favourite Morrissey lyric is, Johnny Marr replied that it would probably be all of this song. Because, he explained, "it's such a statement of love and friendship and has a sense of going forward. And it has a kind of genuine spirit about it."
The Smiths closed their final show at London's Brixton Academy in December 1986 with this song, ensuring that Morrissey's final words onstage were, "I'll probably never see you again."
Sandie Shaw spoke to The Daily Telegraph April 11, 2013 about her collaboration with The Smiths. She recalled:. "It was fraught because Morrissey is always a very difficult person for everybody but the upside was Johnny Marr, who's just a delight to work with."