It began, as decidedly few things in this world do, with a cassette single of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up”. In ‘87, my experience with alternative music had only just begun. It had started in a distinctly slow manner only a year prior, on the fateful day when I decided that my tastes leaned less towards Motley Crue’s Theaterof Pain and more towards the Alarm’s Strength. (Some would say it was unfortunate that I made this decision only after purchasing both albums, but, hey, all I can tell you is that it’s 15 years later, and, given the choice, I’d probably still listen to “Home Sweet Home” over any track on Strength.) The Crue might’ve been winning MTV’s Friday Night Video Fights week after week, but when I saw The Spirit of ‘86 , a 75-minute concert by the Alarm, I was blown away. There were 20,000 people at this concert, the music sounded awesome, but . . . who the hell was the Alarm? They sure as hell weren’t being played on the radio, at least not in my area.
So, with that, I went and bought my first alternative album. From there, it was kinda slow going with my development into alternative culture. From the Alarm, I moved on to the Cult’s Electric, mostly because it was on sale at the record store I frequented at the mall . . . but, then, for months, all I’d listen to was their cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”, simply because it was already familiar.
It wasn’t until I went see Sid and Nancy at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, Virginia, that I saw the light.
I’d never heard a single song by the Sex Pistols before that night; I only went to see the movie because a fellow senior at Great Bridge High School, Tom Nuckols, invited me along. Or did I invite myself? Sadly, these facts are lost to history. Either way, though, I went . . . and, on the way, Tom slapped in his cassette copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and my virgin ears were assaulted for the first time ever with “Bodies”.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the words, so feel free to sing along.
“F*** THIS AND F*** THAT / F*** IT ALL AND F*** THE / F***ING BRAT!”
You can imagine that a lad who’d grown up listening to top 40 radio wasn’t exactly prepared for lyrics like that. I mean, the sum of my experience with obscenities in song lyrics came from Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and the unedited version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.
And, yet, with Johnny Rotten’s unrestrained and arguably gratuitous use of the F-word, my eyes were abruptly but completely opened to the world of music beyond the confines of top 40 radio. There was no turning back; I bought Never Mind the Bollocks the very next day.
But, of course, just because I was now willing to embrace this whole other world of music that wasn’t being played on the radio, my transition into the guy whose license plate would eventually read “No Top 40” wasn’t going to happen overnight.
It would take me years to determine that my DNA contains a gene that leaves me wholly unable to ignore a pop hook, no matter whether it’s played incessantly on the radio or not.
As such, it was hard to explain why I was preaching the gospel of the Cure’s Staring at the Sea, R.E.M.‘s Life’s Rich Pageant, and the Housemartins’ London 0 Hull 4, but was still unable to deny the fact that I really, really liked the debut single by Rick Astley.
I mean, c’mon, even now, the song holds up. It’s just a damned fine pop song.
But, back then, there was no way in hell that I was going to admit to my new, alternative music-listening friends that I liked it. So when I snuck that cassette single into the McDonald’s break room that day (yeah, I worked at McDonald’s; so sue me), I had to make damned sure that no-one else in my peer group was going to bust me for listening to it. I lucked out; no one else was there. So I listened to it. Several times, in fact; after all, the B-side was, as I recall, just an instrumental version of the song. And, eventually, my break was over, and I went back to work . . . but the cassette single stayed in the player.
Fast-forward to a few days later. I’m on break again, and, not remembering that my Rick Astley cassette is already waiting for me in the player, I notice my friend Brian’s cassette case sitting off to the side and decide to investigate the case’s contents in search of quality listening material. What I found was the Smiths’ The World Won’t Listen.
I didn’t actually own any Smiths material at this point, but I had, at least, heard Louder Than Bombs and the recently-released Strangeways Here We Come, and I liked them both, so this seemed like something to slap into the old tape player. When I did so, my mind was blown.
The first three songs were familiar from Louder Than Bombs: “Panic”, “Ask”, and “London”. I wasn’t so hot on “London”, by God, I loved those first two tracks. The fourth track, however, was new to me: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. I loved it instantly. But the following song, “Shakespeare’s Sister”, didn’t strike me as being on the same level.
Then came the sixth song . . . and, oh, that sixth song: “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”.
There was a time in my life when I couldn’t imagine that my favorite song of all time would ever been anything but the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” While that didn’t change at the precise moment I heard “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” for the first time, it did, eventually, change.
I was 17 years old, just out of high school, just into alternative music, finally beginning to meet new friends that weren’t related to the lifetime of public school memories that had only recently ended, and about as awkward with the opposite sex as you could imagine. I wanted to see people. I wanted to see life. I heard Morrissey singing, “And in a darkened underpass, I thought, oh, God, my chance has come at last . . . but, then, a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn’t ask.” And I knew exactly what he was talking about. Not that I’d even been in a darkened underpass, mind you . . . but I had been guilty of many a crush on many a young lass, and, more often than I not, I never managed to tell them how I felt, simply because I was petrified at the possibility of rejection.
It was the chorus, though, that really got me.
“And if a double decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die / And if a ten ton truck / Kills the both of us / To die by your side / Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine”.
It’s the most depressingly romantic sentiment I’ve ever heard, either before or since. By the time the song ended, and Morrissey sang the title to fade, I knew that this album would be in my collection when payday next came around if not before. Still, this song . . . I loved this song. And I clearly couldn’t go until payday without hearing it again.
Then, I noticed the Rick Astley cassette single in the other side of the dual cassette player and I had an idea. So, with a little ingenuity and know-how, I taped over the B-side of the cassette single and put on “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out”. And I listened to it, alone in my car, singing along at the top of my lungs, until it squeaked.
I still have that single somewhere. I’ve not listened to it in years, of course, since I did, indeed, go out and buy The World Won’t Listen on CD when payday rolled around. I laughed to “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” and I cried to “Asleep”. But no single song has ever affected me as much in one listen as “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”.
Time has passed, and I’ve bought every single album by the Smiths (and Morrissey, too) and come to love them all. I soon discovered that “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” originally appeared on The Queen Is Dead, and, heard in its original context, I’d have to admit that fits better there than it does in the middle of a collection of singles, album tracks, and B-sides.
But (and call me sentimental here) I still prefer to listen to it as track 6 of The World Won’t Listen.
Obligatory happily-ever-after post-script: Almost fifteen years after the fateful day that I first heard “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out”, my wife and I were on our honeymoon in England, and she sang the song’s chorus to me while we rode on the top level of a double decker bus. Thanks, Morrissey.