[jefito’s note: You see those two guys up there? That’s Ken from Gaper’s Blog and his old pal Jeff, otherwise known as the people responsible for today’s Smiths Guide. I’m a casual fan, myself — it’s only been during the last five years or so that I’ve gotten over the notion that all Smiths fans are dour, trenchcoat-wearing geeks, and come to realize the band actually made some fine, fine tunes.
Anyway, my hat’s off to Ken and Jeff; they’ve done what I aspire to with these things — mix heartfelt fanhood with objective criticism — and it’s an entertaining read besides. Enjoy! –j]
The Smiths: “Kings Of Wimp Rock”
This was the name of the Smiths section at Wax Trax! Records on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago in the early 80’s — but we were undaunted. We’d heard the hype and heard the songs and would’ve bought Smiths records even if those title cards read: “The amount you enjoy this band is inversely proportionate to how many times you will get laid during high school.”
Despite a lifespan of less than five years and only four proper albums, the Smiths’ impact on British pop music cannot be overstated. Sure, you could elicit quite a feud if you were to pit “How Soon is Now?” against New Order’s “Blue Monday” as the most enduring British indie song of the ’80s — but for personalities and consistently solid tunes, Bernie/Hookey cannot touch Morrissey/Marr. Through his lyrics, singer Steven Patrick Morrissey elevated awkward adolescence, Oscar Wilde, and celibacy to cult status whilst guitarist Johnny Marr redefined sangfroid cool with his lush, dreamlike guitar riffs. They were a stunning combo when it worked and equally as frustrating when they couldn’t leave personalities aside to keep the band going. And whereas once they decried incessant “re-issue” and “repackage”-ing of old songs, they’ve committed the same offense themselves (possibly due to a queer sense of irony) so this review will focus on the 4 true album releases, the 2 collections of singles plus an underwhelming live album.
The Smiths (1984)
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Produced by what one reviewer called Elephant Ear Productions (big, flat, and grey), The Smiths took what was apparently an intense and unique live act at the time and pounded their music down into a lackluster and meandering debut. The album demonstrates little of the charm that would later lead to their devotional — nay, fanatical — following, and I imagine made people on both sides of the pond wondered what the fuss was all about.
The great melodies and lyrics are there — “This Charming Man” (download), “Hand in Glove,” “You’ve Got Everything Now” among them — but muffled guitars and tinny vocals keep the tunes from having much impact. “Miserable Lie” (download) is the closest thing to rocking here and that it does.
There are some real stinkers here as well — “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” is a low-grade b-side at best and “Suffer Little Children” is a strange and somewhat offensive invocation of children who were murdered in the 1960s in Manchester by the infamous “Moors Murderers.” Fortunately we can put this album down to rookie error as later they re-recorded the better songs — such as “What Difference Does It Make?” which later showed up on Hatful of Hollow — and they never played the crappy ones again!
Hatful of Hollow (1984)
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Although apparently recorded alongside The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow — (the first of the Smiths’ band-assembled compilations) — was a quantum leap for the band and a great primer for the Smiths neophyte.
Kicking off with the 2 minute pop-song bliss of “William, It Was Really Nothing” (download), the Smiths deliver clever lyrics, brilliant guitars and the rhythm and production finally coalesce. As promised, a more primal, percussive version of “What Difference Does It Make?” shows up here, vindicating Joyce, Rourke and Morrissey who preferred this version to that of the debut favored by Marr and producer John Porter. “How Soon Is Now?”, their signature track, was successful before this came out but fits in nicely and is another great example of where Morrissey and Marr actually become more than the sum of their parts and the tremolo amp setting becomes legendary. Side A finishes with the nationalistic “Still Ill” which not only verbalizes the sentiment that the world is going to shit, but says it with the angry, driving beats and the wailing harmonica (which apparently was intended to take the piss out of the snap-happy “Hard Days Night.”)
On Side B, “You’ve Got Everything Now” is given a new lease on life with brighter vocals and drums which don’t sound like they’re recorded in an abandoned warehouse and even the moaning “Reel Around the Fountain” seems upbeat and cheery here. And as such as some would like to slam “Please Please Please” (download) as a sell-out track, it struck a nerve with so many that its impact, however schmaltzy, cannot be denied — and it has a great mandolin (!) part, to boot. Yankee film auteur John Hughes used it in two of his films.
Meat Is Murder (1985)
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Evidently they learned from the mistakes of their proper debut and got it right with their next proper album release. For the opening track, “Headmaster Ritual” (download), Morrissey reflects on the abuse he suffered growing up in close-minded Manchester — mocking both those who inflicted it and his own pitiful defenses. The album keeps up its pace through the next few songs with some great quotables such as: “I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death — and I need to cling to something” (”What She Said”).
After somewhat maniacal rants in “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” the mood drops into a seductive and dreamy “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” (download), which is truly one of their finest moments complete with a Beatlesque false ending. Side B kicks off with some sarcastic mocking of his hometown (Stretford actually, not Manchester) with “Nowhere Fast” followed by the maudlin “Well I Wonder.” Then with the stunning “Barbarism Begins at Home,” Morrissey takes us back to his childhood again, only this time his famous wailing comes out in force as he sardonically quotes the abuse he most likely received for being so precocious.
Opinions are divided on whether the title track (complete with over the top abattoir sound effects) is anything more than an juvenile whine about the food industry or a vegetarian call to arms — yet you can’t deny that the line “the flesh you so fancifully fry” hits an alliterative sweet spot. They approached brilliance here and this album hit number one in the UK album charts in February 1985 (yes, over 20 years ago but who’s counting?)
The Queen Is Dead (1986)
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By the time The Queen is Dead came out, the Smiths had not only ‘arrived’ but made themselves at home and were barking orders at the staff. Loudly confident now, they start off with a rocking assertion that (once again) Britain is going to hell in a handbasket. Morrissey also seems to have full freedom to drop in even the most bizarre imagery — e.g breaking into the queen’s residence with a “sponge and a rusty spanner.”
The album then dips quite sharply into a mediocre rant at the system (”Frankly Mr Shankly”) and two weak tracks which are definitely fast-forward material (”Never Had No One Ever,” “I Know It’s Over”) — but let’s not forget, even The Stone’s Exile had filler. “Cemetry Gates” (download) brings everything back up to par with some great jabs at those who accused Morrissey of plagiarism over a pleasantly simple guitar riff.
Finally on Side B, with “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (download), we’re back to the slamming guitars and rhythm section which backs up Morrissey’s wonderfully bizarre lyrics about slips of the tongue (“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt. As the flames rose to her Roman nose, and her Walkman [switched to “iPod” in recent live versions] started to melt!”)
“The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” with its autobiographical content and feathery guitars is, unfortunately, the last corker on this album. With a melodramatic chorus “If a ten ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/The pleasure, the privilege is mine,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” endures as one of the Mozzer’s most achingly romantic moments even if it lacks the punch of the rest of the album. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” ends the album on a sour note, as the mesmeric guitar line is thrown in the toilet by Morrissey’s nonsense lyrics which hardly make sense, much less complement Marr’s efforts. Trouble between the two must have been brewing at this point!
Louder Than Bombs (1987)
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Louder Than Bombs, like Hatful of Hollow, is a terrific compilation that includes singles, previously released material and odds-n-sods that didn’t make their way onto proper albums. Along with Hatful, this could be seen as an excellent primer for mid-to-late period Smiths.
Louder contains a notable amount of songs exclusive to this collection. The strongest of the lot is “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (download), which is among Marr’s finest guitar work, including an uncharacteristically scorching solo. “Panic” (download) is another keeper that alone justifies the purchase of this collection with its “Hang the DJ” chorus. The Morrissey-inspired pun of “Oscillate Wildly” is easily their best in an admittedly small stable of instrumentals. And “Rubber Ring” is another Marr guitar standout and among their best non-album tracks.
But as well as these strong tunes, the album also has some quirky B-sides which gave the Smiths a much deeper legacy than their peers. “Shakespeare’s Sister,” “Unloveable,” and the touching “Asleep” each show a different side of the band — and although it would be wrong to call a compilation their best album, it’s not a stretch to say that the Smiths were probably at their best when banging out a single as opposed to trying to patch together an album. Alas, any of the tracks mentioned here could’ve easily replaced some of the lesser album tracks on Meat is Murder or The Queen is Dead and even among the ones not mentioned, there’s nary a bad one in the bunch.
(BTW If you see a similarly sequenced album called The World Won’t Listen at a reasonable price, buy it as it contains the prescient instrumental “Money Changes Everything.” Not only is it a quality Smiths track but it saw additional duty as the melody of the Bryan Ferry track “The Right Stuff” — compare the two and see for yourself — for whom Marr was doing session work at the time. A lawsuit was promptly filed by Morrissey and he won…)
Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
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Sadly, singles do not an album make — and the cheese had indeed slipped off the cracker by the time Strangeways hit the bins. Perhaps the most telling clue was that the only photo of the band in the album was one of Marr slumped in a chair facing the studio floor. At times the record was a demonstration of the bands greatest strengths: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” (download) could make the short list of the best they ever released, with an inspired Morrissey lyric about a pain being so great that it would make “A shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass-murder.”
The single “Girlfriend in a Coma” had the requisite loping bass line from Rourke and cynical lyrics from Morrissey for a chart topping single — but the Smiths by then was clearly a ship off-course. “Paint a Vulgar Picture” (download) stands out as a song which became a darkly ironic reality as no less than five compilations of previously released Smiths material have been reissued since they split up. And funnily enough, the final track (on the final album) “I Won’t Share You” could have been written about the wads of cash Morrissey and Marr had accrued whilst leaving their rhythm section as poorly paid help, which was later rectified in court leaving almost no possibility of a reunion — thank goodness!
Rank [Live] (1988)
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If you were told the Queen was coming over for tea, you’d certainly want to be dressed in your Sunday best, right? Well, you’d think that if you knew your final contractual obligation would be a live album — your first and only — you’d set out the best service too, right?
So, why does this excellent performance lack such live staples as “How Soon Is Now?,” “Stop Me, If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” and “What Difference Does it Make?” There are some great live versions of some great songs here (”The Queen Is Dead [download], “The Draize Train” [download], & “What She Said” [download]) to be sure, but nothing that would convert anyone not already acquainted with the band. This album is certainly a missed opportunity.
As often happens with bands that break up prematurely, the legend of the Smiths grew exponentially upon their split. Morrissey was the first out of the gate with a post-Smiths solo release less than a year after the breakup. Marr was content being a highly paid and high profile sideman for the likes of Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders, The The and Talking Heads, to name a few. Marr also shared the spotlight with fellow Macunian Benard Sumner (New Order, Joy Division) and Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys) in the alternative supergroup Electronic, before finally making his proper solo debut with the record Boomslang billed as Johnny Marr + The Healers in early 2003. Except for his participation in a lawsuit filed against Morrissey/Marr over royalties, bass player Andy Rourke has been silent, having retired from recording. Drummer Mike Joyce was part of the same lawsuit with Rourke and also joined the Buzzcocks on the early nineties.
All parties staunchly deny any possibility of a reunion despite princely sums of money being offered. Of course any time that more than one Smith gets together, people talk as happened in late January when Rourke came out of retirement and played one song (“How Soon Is Now?”) with Marr’s Healers at a cancer benefit in Manchester. It seems unlikely however that the rift between Marr and Morrissey with thaw anytime soon and that’s not such a bad thing.