The Smiths – The Tatty Truth
Having happily taken on board this challenge (hell I even volunteered to write this) the realisation that it was going to be an absolute nightmare to write came quickly and suddenly.
So I did what I always do, decided to forgo my responsibility and pushed it to the back of my mind for a bit and promptly forgot all about it. Until the other day when it came to the fore again in the shape of a politely nagging email from Incendiary HQ. So with exams over and all other possible excuses exhausted I settled down with seven Smiths albums, a bottle of red and my instructions to not "get too earnest" still buzzing in my ears.
The Smiths - 1984
The Smiths is a strange one. It's often overlooked in favour of The Queen is Dead or Hatful of Hollow and dismissed as poorly produced and labelled 'dreary' - even in comparison to their later output. And yet it contains some of The Smiths most famous and highly thought of songs, This Charming Man or Hand in Glove for instance. So who's right then? The truth is that The Smiths contains some of the bands most searingly poetic and best work and yet also some of their slightly more 'challenging' recordings and is generally hampered by its leaden footed and grey production - songs like Reel Around The Fountain end up plodding instead of skipping along with only a brief bit of tinkling piano adding any colour to the mix. Not that all of the blame can be put on the production: The Smiths quality control was still a little awry when they recorded this album with Miserable Lie in particular being particularly cringe worthy – try introducing someone to the Smiths by playing them Miserable Lie and I guarantee they'll run for the hills the second Moz starts yodelling. Still, it also contains some bona fide classics in the shape of Hand in Glove, What Difference Does it Make?, and the definitive studio recordings of This Charming Man and Still Ill which all set the template for Smiths records to come; jangly picked guitars, unusual song structures and the Morrissey croon. A 'must-have' then; for This Charming Man et al but perhaps not one for the beginner.
(important old buffer note; This Charming Man doesn't appear on the original vinyl LP, so be warned, if you want to build a Smiths vinyl collection, then prepare to pay through the nose for the two Charming Man 12 inches with Troy Tate's mix & b-sides of Jeanne/Wonderful Woman, etc, etc, etc. And prepare to do this all through the Smiths back catalogue, as most of the singles such as Shakespeare's Sister were stand – alone releases, often containing a selection of non album b-sides spread over 7 & 12 inch versions, gawd help you all - ed )
Hatful of Hollow - 1984
I must admit I've never really liked Hatful of Hollow. Even when I started to like the Smiths I still didn't like it. This was an untamed rocky Smiths I really wasn't used to, where was the jingle-jangle of Frankly Mr Shankly? Where were the beautifully intricate numbers of later years? And then there's that bloody harmonica on it which ruins a good few songs such as Still Ill – why they ever thought sticking a jaunty harmonica over its sinister opening guitar chugging is a mystery to me. And then one day I stuck it on and really liked it. It's not all gold of course, but for an album of BBC sessions it's really rather good. (Rather!? It's fucking brilliant, possibly their best –ed). The acoustic version of Back to the Old House is a particular highlight and a brief respite from the sound of a young and vibrant Smiths cracking through rocking versions of the likes of These Things Take Time and What Difference Does It Make. Well worth its cut-price both at the time and now and perhaps a better representation of what the young Smiths were really like than The Smiths ever was. (And it's got How Soon is Now on too - ed).
Meat is Murder - 1985
Meat is Murder is the bridge between early-Smiths and late-Smiths containing some of the raw energy of early recordings and the intricacy of later ones and its production is far improved over The Smiths. Johnny Marr's guitars rarely ever stray from the sublime and this record is a testament to his ever increasing ability and range of styles from the Elvis pastiche of Rusholme Ruffians, the rocking out on What She Said or the understated acoustic melancholy of one the Smiths most underrated tracks, Well I Wonder. Lyrically, Morrissey steps up a gear and delivers his most potent set of lyrics to date managing the classic Morrissey trick of being both frighteningly serious and hilariously funny in the same song. In style too he's progressed from the early monotone to varying pitch, delivery, style and even throwing in a whole host of shrieks and yelps. Even the 'forgotten Smiths' play a vital part be it the thunderous drumming of Mike Joyce on What She Said or Andy Rourke's bass work, which is never less than brilliant throughout.
And while the funk ending of Barbarism Begins at Home or the melodrama of the title track might not be too everyone's tastes this is by and large an excellent album. As ever, it takes a few listens to get into and get over the fact that The Smiths never were that keen on silly things like choruses but its well worth the effort.
The Queen is Dead - 1986
If I can dare to compare The Smiths with Oasis here (for there might be young' uns reading) (no you fucking can't -ed) then The Queen is Dead is the Smiths' What's The Story Morning Glory, the moment when they were at their biggest and most celebrated in the independent music press.
Largely considered The Smiths best album it's only hampered by the slightly difficult track ordering which seems designed to put the listener off by placing the slightly superfluous and ever so slow Never Had No-One Ever right after the albums stand out slow-y, I Know it's Over. Still, that's what skip buttons are for.
After the apocalyptic opening of title-track it's pretty pure quality for the rest of the album: Frankly Mr Shankly sees the Smiths at their most fun musically and lyrically and is followed by I Know it's Over, perhaps Marr's most intricate arrangement and along with Asleep, Morrissey's most heartbreaking lyrics.
That the album also contains Bigmouth Strikes Again, perhaps the most immediate of any Smiths track for the uninitiated and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, the most perfect synthesis of Morrissey and Marr ever committed to tape, raises The Queen is Dead into the league of the all time great records. Still the best place to start for those wanting to get into the Smiths.
Strangeways Here We Come - 1988
The last Smiths studio album is a mixed bag. Ignore what they say about it being the best Smiths album, that's cobblers, but it does contain some of their best and most experimental work. Starting with the entirely guitar-less A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours, a track born out of Johnny Marr's determination to "get away from this jingle-jangle thing" was a bold move and a really rather brilliant one with Morrissey's acerbic one-liner's - "There's too much caffeine in your bloodstream, and a lack of real spice in your life" - perfectly complementing its high-stepping keyboards. What follows however isn't of such great quality: Two glam-rock pastiches in the shape of I Started Something I Couldn't Finish and Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before are nothing bad but nothing life changing either, just like the really rather poor Unhappy Birthday and Death at One's Elbow which by The Smiths high standards are lazy both musically and lyrically. It's by no means a disaster of a record though, Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me lays the melodrama on thick but it's hard not to get swept along by it and there's always the delightfully slight and sweet Girlfriend in a Coma and I Won't Share You. A mixed bag then, and not even a remotely cohesive album; the tracks jump all over the place from no guitars at all suddenly to glam rock - but worth it for the good stuff and the brilliant opener.
Rank - 1988
Perhaps not the best record of The Smiths in concert simply because 5 or 6 tracks have been cut from the performance meaning there's no There is a Light..., How Soon is Now or That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore but it does have some saving graces, most noticeably an absolutely stonking version of Still Ill with an unhinged Morrissey gurgling and shrieking throughout. I Know it's Over also deserves special mention for outstripping its studio incarnation through sheer emotion alone. Bolstered by fifth-smith Craig Gannon, The Smiths had never sounded so muscular which serves the more rock-based tracks well with Marr now having free reign to add wailing feedback to the likes of The Queen is Dead.
Louder Than Bombs - 1987
Whilst not a studio release as such, Louder Than Bombs remains perhaps the best Smiths compilation (and was released just after The World Won't Listen which had some of their bigger hits on) in 1987, to all intents and purposes as a stop gap album to capitalise on their sudden found acceptance with the mainstream after the hits of Panic & Ask. As such earns its place in this list. For a band as uncompromising musically as the Smiths you might have thought that the opportunity for cash-in compilations was limited but even a quick glance down your local HMV reveals that to get to Louder Than Bombs you must first fight off the attentions of The Singles Collection, The Very Best Of.. and The World Won't Listen. And that's without mentioning The Best of (Vol 1) and The Best of (Vol 2).
It's worth the asking price alone though for Asleep, a mournful piano ballad in which Morrissey drops the humour for once with startling effect and sings of suicide. Also chucked in are the hilarious upbeat stomp of Sweet & Tender Hooligan and the pining acoustic lament of Half a Person as reminders that the Smiths didn't really 'do' bad songs (save of course the hideous Golden Lights also included here) whether on album or for b-sides. A very worthy purchase; encompassing all the different moods The Smiths could conjour up in their music.
Words: Michael Evans.