From Rolling Stone:
Morrissey cribbed the line “The heir to nothing in particular” from George Eliot‘s Middlemarch. But guitarist Marr had another reference in mind: Derek and the Dominos. “I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as ‘Layla,’ ” he said. “When [it] plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is.” Mission accomplished.
Producer John Porter was impressed by the basic riff Marr showed him, but felt the song needed something else. The pair’s discussion turned to the early recordings of Elvis Presley, which led to an impromptu jam sessions of the song “That’s All Right“. During the jam, Marr worked in his chord progression for “How Soon Is Now?”, which inspired the arrangement.
During recording, Marr created an oscillating guitar effect that plays throughout the song. After a break, Marr and Porter added a few overdubs to the track, including a slide guitar part that “gave [the song] real tension”, according to the guitarist.
That night Porter sent singer Morrissey a rough mix of the song in the mail. The following morning Morrissey arrived and laid down his vocals, culling lyrics from various works in progress in his notebook in the process. According to Porter, the singer completed his vocals in two takes.
Probably the most played Morrissey/Marr song of all time, “How Soon Is Now?” is an epic throwback to ’60s psychedelia, a lushly produced symphony of Johnny Marr guitar perfection, and perhaps the ultimate statement of Morrissey’s bold miserablism. That it’s one of the most compelling songs of the 1980s is nearly impossible to deny. Marr’s guitar wraps around itself and back again, its tremolo seemingly echoing straight out of an ecstasy-hazed Hacienda. The sole song from Meat Is Murder produced by John Porter, “How Soon Is Now?” certainly seems more dance-oriented than most of the tracks from the Smiths‘ sophomore album. Mike Joyce‘s drums virtually mimic a drum machine, as he two-fistedly pounds the same sharp beat for nearly seven minutes. Morrissey exudes confident depression, foregoing the crooning whine present on so many of the band’s early songs. He seems relatively detached offering droll lines like “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” His lyrics might be hopeless, but he sounds coolly at ease. A semi-jokey whistle that crops up now and again paints the picture of a bold swagger, suggesting that Morrissey knew the band would continue to be revered by a growing army of fans and discussed in tones the British press hadn’t used since the Beatles. Along with the more dancefloor-friendly songs of their Manchester peers New Order, the Smiths helped to inspire an entire cache of local talent with the druggy textures of this song, spawning similar genre-hopping outfits like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Though it isn’t necessarily indicative of the Smiths’ general style, and though die-hard fans might feign disgust at those who instantly label it a favorite, “How Soon Is Now?” etches and rattles with a seemingly timeless sense of cool. So what if it was the first introduction to a mass audience across England’s borders? So what if the song makes countless appearances across the band’s discography? Any song at once so standoffish and yet so charming deserves as broad an audience as possible.