The unlikely pairing of socially awkward Steven Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, extroverted and four years Morrissey’s junior, formed the nucleus of The Smiths, whose witty and stripped down music was an influential force throughout their brief existence. Inspired by punk (according to legend, Morrissey’s musical epiphany can be traced back to the same Sex Pistols concert that also inspired members of The Buzzcocks and Joy Division), they gave themselves a bland name to differentiate themselves from exotically named synth-pop acts A Flock Of Seagulls and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Johnny Marr’s arpeggios and jangly Byrds‘ derived textures are the most noteworthy instrumental feature of the group’s sound. A lot of the emphasis is on vocalist Morrissey, who’s alternately a campy lovelorn crooner and a consummately English wit. This enigmatic approach does create problems – often the upbeat, humorous songs are stronger than the mournful dirges, and it’s sometimes difficult to know when he’s serious and when he’s ironic.
The Smiths’ discography is quite messy – a lot of their best songs are on singles, so the compilations Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen are two of their strongest efforts. Unfortunately those two albums also share eight tracks in common, so there’s a bit of redundancy. I think they only really reached their potential as an album band on 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, but at the same time almost everything they recorded in their short lifespan is worth hearing. My first Smiths’ album was 1995’s Singles compilation; while it’s an almost perfect collection of Indie pop, it leaves out too many essential songs to be an effective summation of The Smiths’ discography.
The Smiths Album Reviews
The Smiths’ 1984 debut is remarkably assured, with the group having figured out their signature sound, and if anything overusing it; the arrangements are homogeneous, and even a moderate alteration such as the addition of a harmonica to ‘Hand In Glove’ seems revolutionary in the context of the record. An average running time of more than four minutes for each track is too long for the stripped down sound, and some variations in style would have been welcome, and the result is a record that’s well-crafted, but less than the sum of its parts.
It’s the singles that stand out, mostly because they’re delivered with more energy – ‘This Charming Man’ (with the memorable line ‘Why pamper life’s complexities/When the leather run smooth on the passenger seat?’), ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make’ – while the low point is ‘Miserable Lie’, ending with a couple of uncomfortable minutes of Morrissey falsetto.
Hatful of Hollow, released later in 1984, features six of these songs, some in improved stripped down BBC session form, and render this album somewhat obsolete; as good as some of the remaining songs are, there’s little compelling reason to buy this if you already own Hatful.
Hatful of Hollow
More like a compilation of available tracks than the proper followup to their debut, Hatful of Hollow flows well enough that it feels like a studio album. Five of the tracks are BBC Radio 1 recordings of material from their eponymous debut, while the group’s non-album singles to that point are also included. Hatful of Hollow is largely in the style of the debut, but with more diversity coming from the later singles, while the reworked songs are tangibly rawer than their original incarnations.
Many of the tracks still have a relatively low key approach, although the excellent singles ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ and particularly the more elaborate and pulsing ‘How Soon is Now?’ stand out with more direct arrangements. The sameness tends to bury some of the less memorable tracks, particularly in the second half of the album, but Hatful of Hollow is filled with gems. Opener ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ is an utterly perfect two minute pop song, ‘The Night Has Opened My Eyes’ has an alluringly mellow riff, while the plaintive ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ is concise and gorgeous.
Hatful of Hollow is a much stronger buy than their debut and contains many of the same tracks – unless you’re a hardcore fan, you might just want to skip the debut and start here.
Meat Is Murder
Meat Is Murder is easily The Smiths’ weakest studio album, but it’s hardly anything to be ashamed of, since they broke up before they even hinted of running out of ideas. If anything, Meat Is Murder is an uncomfortable and undisciplined transition between the stark approach of their initial recordings and the studio based approach of The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come. Most of the songs stretch out longer than they should, while the group are often over-reaching.
‘How Soon is Now?’ is recycled from the previous year’s Hatful of Hollow to act as the centrepiece here, an admission that the album otherwise lacks a single. The other bona-fide Smiths’ classics here are ‘The Headmaster Ritual’, topped off with Morrissey’s tremulous wordless chorus, and the melodically plaintive ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’. Elsewhere, Meat Is Murder is a little uninteresting and forgettable – there’s slow languid material like ‘Well I Wonder’ and the long funk groove of ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ overstays its welcome.
Meat Is Murder is interesting, showing The Smiths unsure where to go next and exploring some surprising areas, but it’s not very convincing most of the time.
The Queen Is Dead
The Queen Is Dead is a regular feature on top albums of all time lists, especially those compiled by British writers, and it’s a substantial step forward from its predecessors; while the lack of diversity on Hatful of Hollow blunted its impact, and the excessive diversity of Meat Is Murder was distracting, this time the balance is right; there’s everything from epic ballads to British music hall to hard rock, but it’s all indelibly stamped with The Smiths’ sound. The Queen Is Dead is amazingly strong considering the adverse circumstances the group found themselves it at the time; Rourke was struggling with a heroin addiction and Marr was involved in a car crash, and the album was pieced together relatively quickly.
The title track is as close to hard rock as The Smiths ever got, while ‘I Know It’s Over’ climaxes stunningly in the memorable “it’s so easy to laugh” bridge. ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ succeeds by not taking itself too seriously, with a music hall feel and a fantastic guitar break from Marr, while ‘Cemetery Gates’ is a wonderful jangler with allusions to Wilde and Yeats. The brace of singles on the second side are all among The Smiths’ finest; the jangly and euphoric ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, the aggressive ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and the gorgeous ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’.
The Queen Is Dead is easily the greatest single album that The Smiths ever made.
Strangeways, Here We Come
Strangeways, Here We Come lacks the amazing high points of The Queen Is Dead, but still shows plenty of creativity, enough for it to rank as The Smiths’ second best studio album. It’s mostly mid-tempo pop-rock, but there’s plenty of variation within – a couple of the songs are even devoid of guitar, namely the opening ‘A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours’ and the grandiose orchestrated ballad ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ while ‘Death At One’s Elbow’ ventures into rockabilly.
‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ is charming and pretty, and the catchy pop of ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ is another highlight. The last couple of tracks are somewhat nondescript and Strangeways, Here We Come feels a little slight at just 35 minutes.
Unfortunately Strangeways was to be The Smiths’ last album; Marr left the band directly after it was made, a rift that Morrissey claimed could have been healed if it wasn’t for the press coverage driving them further apart. The group bewilderingly soldiered on briefly as a three piece before calling it a day, leaving Morrissey to appear alone in the album’s videos.
Louder Than Bombs
A collection of The Smiths’ non-album material, Louder Than Bombs was actually released before Strangeways, but it looks tidier underneath. It’s actually less useful than it could have been, doubling up on eight tracks from Hatful of Hollow, and missing the group’s final b-sides, the Cilla Black cover ‘Work Is A Four Letter Word’ and ‘I Keep Mine Hidden’, as well as a couple of 1983 b-sides also unavailable on CD. There’s also a song, ‘Money Changes Everything’, only available on the British compilation The World Won’t Listen, which Louder Than Bombs draws from. In fact the whole Smiths discography is such a mess that a complete three or four disc box-set would be a sensible release; the group only released a handful of really substandard songs in their short career, and one comprehensive set would make more sense than having to buy three copies of ‘Hand In Glove’ to obtain all of their easily available studio recordings.
Still, originally a double LP set, fitting onto one CD, Louder Than Bombs is a great buy with plenty of terrific non-album singles like ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, the Kirsty McColl duet ‘Ask’ and ‘Panic’ with its famous “Hang the DJ” lyric. There is some obvious filler, unsurprising for b-sides; most noticeably the Twinkle cover ‘Golden Lights’ and the instrumental ‘Oscillate Wildly’. But there’s plenty of interesting material too – ‘London’ and ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ are arguably the hardest rocking tracks The Smiths ever recorded, especially the punk like thrash of the former. ‘Half A Person’ is one of the Smiths’ most effective songs too, with the lines “Sixteen, clumsy and shy/I went to London and I/I booked myself in at the Y.W.C.A./I said: “I like it here – can I stay?””
Louder Than Bombs is a messy compilation, but there’s lots of great stuff here.
Ten Favourite Songs by The Smiths
William, It Was Really Nothing
How Soon Is Now?
Shoplifters Of The World Unite
The Boy with the Thorn in His Side
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Girlfriend in a Coma
Frankly, Mr. Shankly
Bigmouth Strikes Again