This song - which guitarist, Johnny Marr, described as The Smiths' "most enduring record" - is about their frontman Morrissey's crippling shyness. It has since become an anthem for the alienated and socially isolated.
Marr revealed to Rolling Stone
magazine that he set about composing a memorable introduction: "I wanted an introduction that was almost as potent as 'Layla
.' When it plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is."
This was a very complex song to record. Marr broke the process down to The Guitar Magazine: "I wanted it to be really, really tense and swampy, all at the same time. Layering the slide part was what gave it the real tension. The tremolo effect came from laying down a regular rhythm part with a capo at the 2nd fret on a Les Paul, then sending that out in to the live room to four Fender Twins. John was controlling the tremolo on two of them and I was controlling the other two, and whenever they went out of sync we just had to stop the track and start all over again. It took an eternity."
The Smiths installed red lightbulbs in their London studio to create the perfect atmosphere to record this song in.
This song was named after a question posed in Marjorie Rosen's feminist film study, Popcorn Venus - one of Morrissey's favorite books.
Morrissey lifted the line, "The heir to nothing in particular," from the 19th century novel, Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
Marr told The Guardian newspaper that the producer, John Porter, misjudged this song's opening lyric: "I remember when Morrissey first sang, 'I am the son and the heir...' John Porter went, 'Ah great, the elements!' Morrissey continued, '...of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.' I knew he'd hit the bullseye there and then."
The Smiths had difficulty playing this song live. Marr, in particular, struggled to recreate the guitar effect in concert. Bassist, Andy Rourke, called it "the bane of The Smiths' live career."
Unlike many British acts, The Smiths hadn't made any music videos. By 1985, MTV was very popular in America and a key to promoting songs to a young audience, so Jeff Ayeroff, who was in charge of video promotion at Warner Music, parent to The Smith's US label Sire, commissioned a video. Video directors weren't easy to come by at the time unless you had a substantial budget, and Ayeroff only wanted to shell out $5,000. He hired Paula Greif, who had been designing album covers, to make the video, giving her the instruction, "Find some performance footage and put a girl in it."
Greif did just that, using footage from a show in Leicester shot in 1984 by the band's live sound engineer, Grant Showbiz. She combined this with Super 8 video she shot of a female model dancing as if she was at the show. The band had no involvement.
Morrissey told Creem magazine that he detested the video. "It had absolutely nothing to do with The Smiths," he said. "Quite naturally we were swamped with letters from very distressed American friends saying, 'Why on earth did you make this foul video?' And of course it must be understood that Sire made that video, and we saw the video and we said to Sire, 'You can't possibly release this... this degrading video.' And they said, 'Well, maybe you shouldn't really be on our label.' It was quite disastrous."
Morrissey and Marr receive 25% of the royalties for the Soho hit, "Hippychick
," which interpolates this song's guitar riff.
The band Love Spit Love, which included Psychedelic Furs members Richard and Tim Butler, recorded a new version of this song for the 1996 movie The Craft, which is about a coven of strikingly attractive teenage witches. In 1998, this same cover version was used as the theme song to the TV series Charmed, which is about a coven of strikingly attractive teenage witches.
The song also appears in the movies The Wedding Singer (1998) and Closer (2004).
The Russian duo t.A.T.u. of "All The Things She Said
" fame covered this song in 2002. Marr slammed the "silly" cover, though Morrissey called it "magnificent." Their version was used in the 2008 episode of Gossip Girl
The late Jeff Buckley was utterly mesmerized by this song: "The first time I heard 'How Soon Is Now,' I can remember things changing in myself. It was 1984, in my friend's apartment in this really horrible building in Hollywood. We were there eating some sort of horrible food, with ketchup 'cause we didn't have any money, and it came on the television. The video was great, but the song completely blew everything away. It was the first time I ever heard writing like that over music like that. It influenced me because the writing was so great, because Morrissey's lyrics were so great in such a way, I don't know, like just completely freaky, unique."
This was the B-side to the "William, It Was Really Nothing" single, which was released in 1984. After British radio picked up on the song, it was released as a standalone single in 1985, when it charted at an underwhelming #24, much to the disappointment of Morrissey, who bemoaned to Creem magazine: "It's hard to believe that 'How Soon Is Now' was not a hit. I thought that was the one." It was reissued for a third time in 1992, when it charted at #16.
The single artwork was a still of the actor, Sean Barrett, from the 1958 film, Dunkirk. Barrett was praying in the image, but because he also looked like he was holding his crotch, the sleeve was deemed to be offensive and was consequently banned in the US.