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Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now: The Story Behind The Smiths’ First Top 10 Hit
Warner Music
In Depth

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now: The Story Behind The Smiths’ First Top 10 Hit

Taking barely an hour to write, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Know has endured as one of The Smiths’ signature songs.

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The Smiths’ fourth single, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, arrived in stores in May 1984. The first new song the band issued following the release of their acclaimed self-titled debut album in February of that year, it was immediately snapped-up by their ardent fan base, gifting The Smiths their first UK Top 10 hit. However, while this blissful yet bittersweet song sounded effortless, it was actually the end result of the band’s first trip to the US: an ill-fated midwinter sojourn which didn’t go as planned.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here.

The backstory: “I was like, Where the hell did this come from?”

The Smiths had flown to New York City late in December 1983. As one of the UK’s fastest-rising bands, they were due to play a series of introductory East Coast dates, but while they were able to perform at New York’s Danceteria on New Year’s Eve, drummer Mike Joyce was struck down with an especially debilitating flu, forcing the group to cancel the remainder of their scheduled shows.

Guitarist Johnny Marr, however, was determined to salvage something from the group’s first trip to the Big Apple – and he did so by holding Sire Records’ boss Seymour Stein to a promise he’d made while courting The Smiths just weeks earlier.

“Seymour Stein took us out to dinner, to wine and dine us,” Marr told NME in 2013. “He was telling me about when he took [The Rolling Stones’] Brian Jones to get a guitar in New York, so I saw my opportunity right there.”

Marr replied to this anecdote by agreeing to sign The Smiths to Sire in the US if the record mogul also bought him a guitar. “In a moment of weakness, he took the bait and he said, ‘Sure. I’ll get you a guitar.’” Marr recalled. “So, true to his word, although I had to wait around all day, we went over to 48th Street.” Known locally as “Music Row”, 48th Street was where such legendary shops as Manny’s Music, Sam Ash Music and Greco’s Custom Guitars could once be found – and it was where Marr saw a striking, red Gibson ES-355 practically “glowing” in a store window.

Stein duly purchased the guitar for Marr, who felt he ought to repay his new label boss’ trust by writing a song on it. Taking the instrument back to his Manhattan hotel room, Marr got to work instantly: the first thing he played after lifting the guitar from its case was the intro and main riff to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. “I was like, Where the hell did this come from?” he later said. “I’d better turn it into a song.”

The lyrics: “I would realise that I was here working with these people that I despised”

Impressed by his co-writer’s creativity, Smiths frontman Morrissey penned lyrics which some would come to take the wrong way. Missing the humour inherent in the singer’s finest works, a few listeners have suggested the title of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now reflects the message in many of the best Smiths songs – even though it was actually inspired by Sandie Shaw’s 1969 single Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now. In other cases, lines such as “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now” upset those who heard in them an attack upon the notion of holding down a job at a time of mass unemployment in the UK. However, four decades on from its release, the song sparked a TikTok craze among a generation of youths struggling with the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic and a global recession have had on their lives.

Reflecting on the song’s lyrics, Morrissey later told Melody Maker, “On the very brief spasms of employment that I had in the past, it always seemed to me there were moments of the day when I would realise that I was here working with these people that I despised. I had to talk to these horrible people and ask them what they did yesterday, and I would have to report to a boss that I couldn’t stand.”

He added: “When you’re in that position, which was the absolute basis of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, you realise that you’re actually spending your entire life living with people you do not like and doing something you do not like, which is incredibly distressing. That line ‘People I would much rather kick in the eye’ – yes, literally, sometimes. I mean, let’s be perfectly honest: sometimes we do get so angry with people that we’re not adverse to violence. Which of course is a terrible thing to say, but truth nonetheless.”

The recording: “That was the point the stars aligned”

Fortunately, the recording of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now proved rather less fractious. With Marr, Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke all putting in sterling performances, the song came together during a session at Fallout Shelter, in Hammersmith, London. Once again, the recording was overseen by John Porter, producer of The Smiths’ debut album, though the session also introduced the band to a new collaborator who would play a significant role in their future.

“I’d seen them performing This Charming Man on Top Of The Pops a couple of weeks before they came in to record, and I loved everything about them,” engineer and Smiths co-producer Stephen Street said in a 2020 interview with Music Tech.

“I was really excited when I found out Rough Trade had booked them a session with us,” Street continued. “John Porter produced and I was the engineer, so I just made sure I was as useful to him and the band throughout. One of the tracks they worked on was their next single, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, and my hard work was definitely noted by Morrissey and Marr. They asked me back to assist them. That was the point the stars aligned for me.”

The legacy: “One of The Smiths’ most successful singles”

Indeed, the stars were aligning to near-perfection for just about everyone in and around The Smiths by the time Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now was released. Issued on 21 May 1984, with Suffer Little Children and another excellent new song, Girl Afraid, on the flip, the single came in yet another striking entry among The Smiths trademark artworks, this time featuring Viv Nicholson, who famously squandered her and her husband’s massive win on the football pools in 1961. Climbing to No.10 in the UK, the song went gold, reinforcing the fact The Smiths were fast becoming indie-pop’s standard-bearers. Quite a result for a tune which seemingly appeared from nowhere.

“I had all that song worked out within an hour or so in New York,” Marr told NME. Immediately after finishing Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, the guitarist knocked out the 50s-style riff for Girl Afraid – “Maybe because it looked like a rock’n’roll guitar,” he said of his brand-new Gibson. “I imagined [it] as a piano song,” he added of the eventual B-side. “Those two songs were always, in my mind, like a pair, because I wrote them in the same day, on this guitar.”

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