A Downloader's Diary's Guide to The Smiths


A Downloader's Diary's Guide to The Smiths:

Bigmouths Strike Again

by Michael Tatum


Because the hyperactive British music industry covers such little geographic ground, careers can often explode, burn, then smolder into ash in alarming record time, which explains why this beloved Manchester quartet could release four albums and ten standalone singles in a mere four years, never chart a 45 higher than #10 in their homeland, yet be missed so intensely after their breakup that they've been offered millions of dollars to re-form for an afternoon -- proposals they've shot down without exception. Choosing their moniker precisely for its anonymity, the Smiths revolved around the strangely glorious partnership of two opposites, forged when nonpareil guitarist Johnny Marr (born John Maher) knocked on the door of bohemian eccentric Stephen Morrissey (who would drop the Christian name he hated soon enough) to play Leiber to his Stoller in May of 1982. Although the duo originally imagined themselves as songwriters rather than performers, they soon rethought that strategy, and with the addition of bass player Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce -- both, like Marr and Morrissey, working class and of Irish ancestry -- the band came together in December of the same year. Despite their collective professional inexperience, success arrived surprisingly quickly: they released their debut single, the bewitching "Hand in Glove," in May of '83, recorded four legendary sessions for John Peel's radio show between May and August, while simultaneously hashing out their debut album on Rough Trade (then the UK's preeminent indie label) with Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate. But when pro-producer John Porter worked magic on an interim single -- the masterful comedy routine "This Charming Man," in which a "jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place" talks Morrissey's sexually confused nerd-protagonist out of an ill-advised marriage -- Rough Trade prexy Geoff Travis was impressed enough to ask Porter to salvage the job everyone in the band's orbit thought Tate had botched. And how did that turn out? That and more in this, A Downloader's Diary's second full-artist exploration (the first was KISS).

 

The Smiths: The Smiths (1984, Sire) Their legions of acolytes unfairly blame producer John Porter for this debut's flat sound rather than copping to the early Smiths' tendency for woolgathering -- indeed, the band had already recorded most of these tracks three or four times without success. That in itself must have been dispiriting, though it's worth noting Porter himself found the duo's early material "meandering," and having been together only a short time, the band must have been too preoccupied feeling out their dynamic to brighten the arrangements -- Andy Rourke in particular is more sedate here than he would be from the spritely "This Charming Man" onward. Revisiting this record for the first time in years however, the overall tone strikes me as fitting to the material. With the exception Morrissey's well-timed delivery of the slacker credo "No, I never had a job/Because I never wanted one," the wit that would become their calling card is purposefully almost completely absent. Instead, they languidly unfurl -- in what had to have been a first for rock and roll -- a somber bildungsroman in which a teenage boy loses his virginity to an older man: "It's time the tale were told/Of how you took a child and made him old." With occasional detours for class-conscious sarcasm and punk nostalgia, this part tender, part painful experience and its aftermath is explored from all angles: wistfully on "Reel Around the Fountain," role-reversed on "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," out-and-proud on "Hand in Glove," bitterly on "What Difference Does It Make," and on two ill-advised heterosexual detours thrown in for good measure, with abject humiliation. Leading up to a song the significance of which I had never fully registered: "Suffer Little Children," a lugubrious rumination on Manchester's gruesome "Moors Murders." Years later, it's still unlistenable, but thematically it's revealing -- a song about the vulnerability of trusting innocence falling into the wrong hands, a metaphor for what might have happened had young Stephen's first sexual experience been with someone more devious. So maybe we should shift the blame for this one to the auteurs, one of whom wasn't ready to be a star, and the other of whom merely followed his lead. B+

The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow (1984, Rough Trade) An accidental classic, released budget-priced in the UK because Rough Trade conceived it as stop-gap product between proper records, the unlikely definitiveness of this compilation suggests divine intervention. Famously comprising ten songs culled from the BBC radio shows that preceded their proper debut and peppered throughout with six songs originally appearing on singles, one wouldn't expect it to cohere. Showcasing the attractively agile jingle-jangle hooks that made them famous would be one thing, but this adds an unlikely extra dimension by documenting the fiery energy completely absent from their later records, which were sometimes emasculated to the point of passive asexuality -- comforting to their doleful acolytes, but completely useless to curious outsiders. If several of the songs later remade for The Smiths are a draw (surprise: session rat Paul Carrack does have his uses), this primal "What Difference Does it Make" punches holes in the studio wall, while the remaining obscurities display the band at their most graceful (the fluttering "Back to the Old House," the exquisite Shelagh Delaney re-write "This Night Has Opened My Eyes") and brutal (the salaciously carnal "Handsome Devil"). And the landmark singles reveal how key producer John Porter was to their early success, including three from one legendary twelve-inch: the cattily anti-marriage "William, It Was Really Nothing" and the deceptively beautiful "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" each get their business done in roughly one hundred and twenty perfect seconds. Their B-side, this record's centerpiece, the monolithic "How Soon Is Now," was the reason scrawny teenage kids like me coughed up import-prices for this collection's first CD reissue in the late '80s, after which it took permanent residence in our record collections, right next to Murmur and Candy Apple Grey. Were we fools to blow those hard-earned twenty bucks on a mere sixteen songs? You shut your mouth. A

The Smiths: Meat Is Murder (1985, Sire) With Margaret Thatcher de-regulating the market, crippling the power of unions, and invading the Falklands to boost her sagging approval ratings, England circa 1985 would have been a fine time for agitprop. Unfortunately, despite what you've heard, this ain't it -- unless you count the repulsively carnophobic title track and the two that come out against corporal punishment (the latter especially not a particularly controversial stance) there's nothing here that could be described as explicitly political per se. Even the one in which the Moz drops his pants to the Queen ("I'm a man of means/Of slender means,") signifies more as satire than protest. But of all Smiths records, this is the one that engages the most with the outside world, which I suspect is why many fans consider this the dark star in their catalog, and also why -- what a coincidence -- it rocks the hardest, particularly on the first six songs of the original UK release (leave "How Soon Is Now" on Hatful of Hollow where it belongs, please). The middle triptych on side one sympathetically addresses a working class that only finds release from provincial boredom in sex and violence -- a stabbing at the fairground juxtaposed against lovers scrawling their names on their arms with a fountain pen, illicit sex in a railway station alley when the marriage bed gets dull, the "tattooed boy from Birkenhead" who awakens the prudish bookworm's libido in the pile driving "What She Said." And the two songs sandwiching that sequence are two of their undeniable peaks: "The Headmaster Ritual," a condemnation of "the belligerent ghouls who run Manchester schools," and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," in which Morrissey joylessly blows a smug journalist in the backseat of his car, only deriving satisfaction from the knowledge that someday, inevitably, that empty cynic will one day be as lonely as he is. B+

The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (1986, Sire) Americans guffaw at the bald-faced football mentality of UK music magazines, like when NME myopically declared the Arctic Monkeys' debut the fifth all-time greatest British album the month of its release. Though I'm sure a similar argument could be mounted against Rolling Stone and its reflexive five star reviews for Bob Dylan, in a perverse sort of way I admire the Brits for that -- what links the Kinks, Blur, and the Jam (not Oasis) is a healthy disinclination to cater to the tastes of the American audience, undoubtedly why their countymen cherish them, even if those bands sometimes sound grumpily reactionary to us Yanks. This analysis applies as well to the record Q anointed the third best album of the '80s, which limits its political statements to swipes at the Royal Family, spends two songs dishing on Morrissey's gleefully antagonistic relationship with the British press, and dedicates two more to Dole Age denizens who would rather spend their time debating Wilde and Keats in graveyards than suffering through the indignation of day jobs. Though not wholly convinced myself of its supposed masterpiece status, as a compact disc this makes more sense than a piece of vinyl -- "I Know It's Over" may be their most epic weepie, but sequenced alongside the dirge-like "Never Had No One Ever," it's a leaden doorstop in the middle of side one. Likewise, even if one of the two throwaways charmingly celebrates a cross-dressing vicar, their positioning toward the end of side two ends the record on a misbegotten note. That leaves their two greatest achievements. In the title powerhouse, the band razes Buckingham Palace with a wrecking ball while Morrissey greets Her Majesty with "a sponge and a rusty spanner" to chat her up on the wretched state of the nation. The other is a tribute/parody to melodramatic teenage death ballads in which the undying light of young love is subsumed by an oncoming double-decker bus. Following that with a bemused ode to a nudie calendar is an act of typically droll British self-deprecation. Which is funny. But still. A–

The Smiths: The World Won't Listen (1987, Rough Trade) This half-cocked gambit to assemble a Hatful of Hollow 2 might have made the grade had Rough Trade waited a measly three months -- this band was that prolific -- for the twelve-inch of "Sheila Take a Bow," which would occupy three of the first four tracks on this record's stateside equivalent Louder than Bombs, released later that spring. Instead, they compensate by lazily reprising four mega-obvious titles from their previous two studio releases to pad this out to the requisite seventeen tracks (the infamously horrid Twinkle cover "Golden Lights" was added to subsequent digital reissues). The five good-to-great A-sides (including one rejected) prove the band had mastered the catchy single -- the eternal cheap shot "Panic," with its irresistible exhortation to "Hang the DJ!" is an obvious highlight -- but except for the startling bridge of the culture-thieving "Shoplifters of the World Unite," what's missing is depth. I know that's a tall request from such perpetual post-adolescents, but it reminds me why smart people prefer albums to singles -- not because they're organically conceived by the artist rather than than thrown together by some label lackey (indeed, a good compilation would qualify in this category) but because good ones are laid back to front in such a way that respects variety, flow, and nuance. By contrast, this is inevitably more haphazard, making room for two superfluous instrumentals (instrumentals? from the Smiths?), the self-parodic "Unlovable" ("I wear black on the outside/'Cos black is how I feel on the inside?") and the socially irresponsible suicide paean "Asleep." Leaving profundity to four-count-'em-four stellar obscurities: two very different takes on kids leaving the North for the big city, Morrissey's truest/only celebration of sexual devotion, and the astonishing "Rubber Ring," in which the auteur acknowledges that "the songs that saved your life" -- i.e., his songs -- will fade into sentimental memory once his audience grows up. B

The Smiths: Louder than Bombs (1987, Sire) Purchased on an innocent whim by yours truly on a San Francisco choir trip to impress high school crush L, the nostalgist (and perhaps solipsist) in me believes "Is It Really So Strange?" should be the first Smiths song everyone should hear -- better to convert the benighted to the Moz's unique persona with a wacked-out travelogue in which the protagonist murders a nun in a dither of sexual confusion than with a stately ballad in which a variation on that character loses his virginity to an older man, even if in the end, the latter is truer to his vision. This twenty-four track pig-out, designed as a primer for the American audience and similar in functionality to Sire's less messy (if more juvenile) Catching Up With Depeche Mode, starts off strong and doesn't include any tracks owners of their three proper studio albums would have already owned -- even the lone repeat, "Hand in Glove," is the superior single version. But it ignores chronology, frustratingly compresses the mix, signs off with the two-song nadir of The World Won't Listen, and chooses inferior versions of "These Things Take Time" (slicker), "Back to the Old House" (more conventional), and "Stretch out and Wait" (would you believe, Morrissey turns out to be an impressively subtle vocal stylist?). If this was the only Smiths record I owned, I'd probably (please excuse the cliché) play it to death. But in more ways than one, this could give unsuspecting young people the wrong idea. B+

The Smiths: Strangeways Here We Come (1987, Sire) Bored with feeling locked into six-string jingle-jangle and perhaps -- though Marr denies this -- slightly pressured to beef up the sound to take the band to the stadiums like R.E.M. and U2, this boldly announces its paradigm switch by not even incorporating guitar into the tango-ready arrangement of the destiny-manifesting opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours." Consciously taking The White Album as its model, this flitters all over the genre map: glam, zydeco, folk, whatever the fuck the two-minute travesty "Death at One's Elbow" is. When it works, as on the cataclysmic "Death of a Disco Dancer," which casts a cynical eye at the baggy hordes collapsing from extreme dehydration at Ecstasy-fueled raves, or the lovely "Girlfriend in a Coma," which shows up adolescent revenge fantasies for the empty boasts they are, it almost justifies Stephen Street's dense, theatric production. But when it doesn't, as on the overrated "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me" (Morrissey rips the t-shirt from his chest while emoting atop Mt. Sensitive), the limp threat "Unhappy Birthday" (didn't you learn your lesson on "Girlfriend in a Coma?"), and the sourly prescient "Paint a Vulgar Picture" ("Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!") you're reminded how much of a difference a carefully drawn lyric can make. When your pettily banal closer only gains its modest modicum of interest from its putative hidden message to your songwriting partner, that's a problem. B

The Smiths: Rank (1988, Sire) A post-mortem live album borne out of contractual obligation presents all kinds of problems, beginning with the obvious fact of being at the mercy of the material left at your disposal, in this case a set recorded at Kilburn's National Ballroom in October 1986, right around the release of "Ask" and naturally showcasing material from the current The Queen Is Dead. One would figure Morrissey's impishness would translate well to a live setting -- consider stunts as the band's Top of the Pops performance of "William, It Was Really Nothing," in which he crooned the initial verse while dreamily propping his head on his hands, then coming to life for the chorus by ripping open his shirt to reveal the sardonic slogan MARRY ME. But on that appearance they mimed to pre-recorded tracks -- here, the band rushes the tempos, at times reducing Morrissey to flubbing lyrics so that they resemble incomprehensible animal noises. Likewise, Marr's guitar-playing, often elegantly interwoven on these songs' studio incarnations, here leans heavily on vague wah-wah washes and depressing showbiz moves like replacing the lilting highlife figure dancing through "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" with a bluntly loutish bleat worthy of an Aerosmith solo. Although I will say the brief but delightful snippet of "Marie's the Name (of His Latest Flame") that contextualizes "Rusholme Ruffians" for the young'uns does make me pine for a whole album of Elvis covers. It's not too late, guys. B–

The Smiths: The Sound of the Smiths (2008, Rhino) It's said that singles represent this band's natural métier, which is why most fans revere 1995's self-explanatory Singles, which marches chronologically from "Hand in Glove" (May 1983, didn't chart, and what do you expect with homoerotic cover art) to "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me" (December 1987, highest UK chart-placing #30) and encoring with the single-that-should-have-been "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." It's serviceable and consistent in ways their proper studio albums are not, and can be found cheap from the usual online sources. But though the deluxe 2-CD version adds an extra disc of unwisely chosen ephemera, I prefer this more thoughtfully compiled 2008 upgrade, which augments Singles' original eighteen tracks with five mostly early vintage add-ons that remind us first and foremost they were a rock band, not merely a cult pop phenomenon. Occasionally you could imagine subbing a selection here and there -- I would have switched Meat Is Murder's laughable funk workout "Barbarism Begins at Home" with "What She Said" or "Rusholme Ruffians," and Marr's folk leanings are criminally shortchanged. But from declaring your short-lived romance by bragging that "the sun shines out of our behinds" to offhandedly noting that "eighteen months hard labor" is a fair enough penance for your interpersonal fuckups, this smashes the canard this band was strictly for mopes and schoolmarms -- with a few devastating exceptions, almost every one of these songs boasts at least one line that will make you laugh out loud. I'll assume you already knew that. But this improved configuration more deftly showcases the wily moves and clever riffs of the greatest British rhythm guitarist this side of Keith Richards. Play "Brown Sugar" alongside "The Headmaster Ritual," or "Jumpin' Jack Flash" alongside "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "How Soon Is Now," and ask yourself the real reason why Johnny Marr's former partner hasn't been the same since NME declared the Smiths were dead. A