The Sound of The Smiths
, November 3rd, 2008 16:11
It's rare, these days, to be impressed by Morrissey - but here we are. When Rhino Records asked the increasingly odd, if decreasingly diverting old so-and-so to provide the title for this new compilation of now very old Smiths songs - two discs mixing the over-familiar with the largely overlooked - his suggestion was so simple and startling, you might almost applaud. The Sound Of The Smiths. Though doubtless inspired by some ten-track Cilla Black comp in an inch-thick cardboard cover, it's the last thing you'd expect, not least for its modesty, framing The Smiths as first and foremost a musical force. What's more, it offers a lifeline to weary, wary critics wondering what's left to say about the most over-discussed band since The Beatles, now whatever cultural oomph The Smiths possessed has faded like twenty-year-old Levis, leaving faulty memories, the wasted youth of grey-haired men... and these recordings, still spinning in student halls, shorn of context but grown hoary with VH1 obeisance. So, let's leave aside the half-baked (and often spurious) lit-crit that's always dogged discussion of The Smiths, the pernicious influence on a generation's social skills; let's forget the whole frame of reference, the inverted nostalgia, the camp, the elegant if insubstantial reading list. It really doesn't matter anymore. Let's do something few have bothered to do - let's listen hard to the sound of The Smiths.
Strange as it may seem, the greatest hits are a poor place to start. Every Smiths best-of feels underwhelming, since their singles are for the most part self-contained statements, rather prickly in each others' presence; what's more, for such a self-conscious pop group, the hits are oddly unrepresentative. Heard in isolation - or set against a memory of 80s radio – little buffed pebbles like 'Ask' and 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' are bright and intriguing. Listening to the lot in one sitting is just frustrating, like an hour of light petting - always hinting at transcendence, bound by some peculiar propriety. It's hard to hear them now as anything but teasers, the vexing product of The Smiths' (heroic) refusal to accept that they were, in fact, an albums band. It doesn't help that the catalogue is so uneven – few bands' A-sides, over so short a time period, swing so wildly between artistry and schlock. It would take a heart of stone not to groan as 'This Charming Man', still so fresh and daring, gives way to that lead-footed, idiot-dancing dirge, 'What Difference Does It Make?' A little later (since this set drops European singles and reissues into the running order), 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', poised and almost perfect, runs headlong into the clangorous codswallop of 'Panic'. You used to get in trouble for saying this, but now it seems self-evident. The Smiths were a very uneven singles band.
The Smiths - This Charming Man
It's on disc two, comprised of B-sides and oddly-chosen album tracks, that their true depth and delicacy almost comes across. Free of the pressure to be the smash-hit group they felt they had to be, The Smiths' real strengths surface, and have little to do with that waggish froth. Though they often seemed embarrassed by the (all-too-obvious) fact, their forte was melancholy, and their skill - their style - was to make defeat sound perilously alluring. Early ballads like 'Wonderful Woman' and 'Girl Afraid' are almost literally hypnotic, whirlpools of gloom, Marr's looped, luminous guitar lines building an eerie and inescapable momentum; if now and then the music shifts and starts to climb towards the light, it's so the inevitable plunge feels more satisfying, reassuringly right. Little wonder Smiths fans tended to wallow. This stuff demands it, brainwashing you into limitless introspection, an adolescent siren song. As 'Back To The Old House' (even here, in its inferior electric version), drifts towards that dewy conclusion, it gets harder and harder to stand up.
The upbeat early tracks are more striking still - circular structures against which Marr's rococo riffing can run wild, obsessively repetitous but so intensely melodic on their own terms they rarely even need a chorus. A (non-) singer could not have hoped for a more perfect platform: Morrissey's voice carries beautifully through these open spaces, clear and loud and dry. He doesn't lead these songs, they revolve around him, so he's free to groan, yelp, leave his lines irregular lengths, repeat some key phrase three or four or five times, without ever getting in the way, or – important, this – needing to sing more than five notes. Perhaps as much as the damp atmospheres and tinted melancholy, it's this songwriting technique (far removed from the sub-Cole Porter craftsmanship of most post-Beatles pop), that marks out The Smiths as a Manchester band. You see a similar approach in the songs of Joy Division, The Fall, Happy Mondays, all raised on constrasting styles of repetitive, rhythm-based music (for all those Stones/Byrds overtones, Marr's early songwriting style is in fact a fusion of British folk and Seventies funk).
Morrissey, for his part, may have required this free range just to function as a singer, but the clarity and unique timbre of his voice are underrated elements of the early Smiths sound. Weak as it is, with its vague lugubriousness and rather fruity vibrato, that voice stands out a mile from the stylised pomposity of his peers (and indeed, the open-throated roar of the standard rock vocal), and has a raw-boned richness which anchors the songs surprisingly well. Even towards the end, as The Smiths drift into low farce, he can elevate something as slight and silly as 'Half A Person' with the lilting luculence of that (still-limited) voice. I'd argue that Morrissey was for a time a great singer, not just for his outre phrasing, or the fit between the lyrics and that dreamy, dolorous tone, but simply for the unconventionally gorgeous sound he made (and lest anyone be under any illusions about what Marr would have done without him, this set includes two late-period instrumentals, the pretty-but-vacant 'Oscillate Wildly' and 'Money Changes Everything', which might have made memorable themes for BBC dramas, but don't really go anywhere). What let Morrissey down, ultimately – here as elsewhere – was a complacency he couldn't afford. As early as 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', he's giving voice to nothing but that rapidly developing ego; by the excruciating 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish', all that's left are exaggerated mannerisms, smirking postures, an absurdly hollow self-satisfaction.
For all the intrigue of the best of their later work – the title track of 'The Queen Is Dead', for instance, which pushes the circularity and droll dramatics of those first few songs to a lurid fever pitch - The Smiths peaked early. In fact, you can date it: the 12” single of 'William, It Was Really Nothing' (all three tracks included here). The instant before the onset of self-parody and conceit, 'William' is an astonishing piece of music, blindingly bright, brimming with Marr's most restless and glorious guitar (that fanfare rising to the second chorus, like a bouquet blooming from thin air - crowned with a cry of real abandon from an audibly transported Morrissey – remains, perhaps, The Smiths' most magical moment). Too many of their sweetest ballads suffer from Morrissey's awkward attention-seeking, or unwelcome, leavening humour: not so the simple beauty of 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want'. Best of all, of course, is 'How Soon Is Now?', a startling spacewalk which sounded like nothing on earth in 1984, and has lost little in the interim.
The Smiths - 'William It Was Really Nothing'
Yet it's hard to ignore the suspicion that it should sound even better – it's almost undone by a certain forbearance, the gormless rigidity of the drumming. The Smiths' rhythm section was always lacking in cohesion, Andy Rourke's pale funk basslines perched precariously on the balls-out bombast of Mike Joyce, and it's this lack of fluency which often makes The Smiths sound awkward, unco-ordinated, all elbows and knees. There are times when it really works: 'Handsome Devil' sounds as gangling as it should, hurtling and ungainly (Marr supplies a disconnected sequence of cock-rock riffs, rubbing in the mood of horny disorientation). 'This Charming Man' needs a man like Mike to hold it in place with that unyielding thud, while the guitar skitters. He sounds fine when it's clobberin' time.
But when The Smiths' sound grows softer and more bittersweet, when it calls for calm or some sort of subtlety, Joyce has nothing to offer but rimshots and (relative) restraint. The infuriating 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' more or less sums it up. Rourke and Marr are playing with real elegance, weaving limpid, leaf-green textures, and their mate's blithe wallop leaves them high and dry. A more daring drummer would be in his element, playing off the bass guitar's deft switching of metre, riding that loose-limbed, spring-fresh flow; Joyce hits and hopes, and all the hard work goes to waste. Over his unsympathetic thump, the arrangement sounds lightweight, rather too pleased with itself, lacks the coherence to lift those twittering sixths and sighing major-sevenths above the level of kitsch.
To be fair, though, you could have had Jaki Liebezeit playing on this stuff and he'd still have sounded rotten – the drums are plastered with so much reverb, the snare sounds like a door slamming in a meat freezer. If in many ways The Smiths transcended the 1980s, here's a way in which they didn't: it's remarkable how badly-recorded this stuff is. While the drums are splashy and far too loud, the bass is wiry and lacking in bottom end, the sweetness of Marr's guitars too often salted with hideous digital chorus effects (and mixed perversely low). Most British guitar bands sounded like this at the time, the warmth and power of 60s and 70s rock production displaced by the tinny, ear-exhausting swish of early digital – the remastering here does nothing to correct that – but The Smiths suffered worse than most. And it's a terrible shame, because Marr's inspired arrangements deserve a production that allows them to shine, not his own control room stumblings, or the chrome-plated crassness of Stephen Street. Contrast the rich tone of Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker with the distant prickliness of Marr's; compare the sharp perfection of Richard Thompson's acoustic sound with the car-keys cling-clang on 'Stretch Out And Wait'; listen to the depth of Jimmy Page's massed overdubs, then Marr's attempt at a similar trick on 'Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' - no richness, no perspective, just a grim welter of treble. Critics who wrote off The Smiths as anaemic and insubstantial, and there were a few, were surely responding as much to the meagre sound of these records as to the music (it's no coincidence that Smiths-sceptics tended to be high on the brutalism of that era's hardest hip-hop).
Then again, the live tracks here sound even worse. 'Meat Is Murder' (from the 12” of 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore') has some nicely creepy guitar – Marr channelling, of all things, Pink Floyd's 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' - but that weak, flailing chorus, decked with lowing sound effects and an overheated Morrissey vocal, borders on the comical. Their cover of James' 'What's The World?' is new to me, and thoroughly dreadful, grandiose 80s indie served up stringy and undercooked. Only the hammering 'London' has any guts, suggesting Marr's decision to draft Craig Gannon as second guitarist was in fact rather shrewd (though he might have picked a better man for the job). Many clucked at the “rockism” of the two-guitar line-up, but by now The Smiths were playing rock music, nothing more; with a singer uniquely ill-equipped for ass-kicking, they had no option but to bolt on some extra texture. Like all but a handful of bands who make it big, they didn't so much grow as distend.
Which is why there's no happy ending - while never turning in a truly duff LP, The Smiths could not escape themselves. As Marr's song structures grew slicker and more standard, it only served to highlight the sudden banality of the lyrics (as in the bumptious 'Nowhere Fast'); improving technique inflamed a tendency to lapse into pastiche (the dismal albino funk of 'Barbarism Begins At Home') and fuzz-toned babble ('Sweet And Tender Hooligan'). Those later singles - 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite', 'Sheila Take A Bow', the vaguely unsavoury 'Girlfriend In A Coma' - do have a certain charm, but Marr has regressed from courageous to competent, and Morrissey is by this point pretty much intolerable. Perhaps the most fun you can have here is trying to imagine a brand new band weighing in with those records. My guess is that they'd be feted as mavericks, but seen as a loopy mismatch of Fleetwood Mac and Half Man Half Biscuit.
No one really needed a new Smiths compilation. There seem to be hundreds out there already, and few groups are so poorly served by the format. Heard as a whole, each album makes some colour of sense - shuffled, the songs betray The Smiths' schizophrenia, the frustrating bittiness of their output. Odd omissions, too: 'Reel Around The Fountain', 'I Know It's Over', 'Suffer Little Children', longer, darker songs which complete the picture, and without which The Smiths can seem somewhat sudsy. If this collection serves a purpose, it's to highlight the absurdity of this band being hailed uncritically, as a whole, by anyone other than the smitten, or still-smitten. But a lot of this stuff will withstand the most piercingly objective analysis, not just because it's so damn good, but because it radiates a real (and all too rare) sense of purpose. Frequent frippery, the shoddy production, the dead weight of reverence – nothing kills the feeling that this band had a reason to exist. Here, too, is a certain seriousness about the construction and performance of pop music, an instinctive understanding of the form, and the necessary lack of fear. Sometimes unsatisfying, often the backdrop for unedifying pantomime, the sound of The Smiths is the sound of a fevered appetite. It endures, like malcontentment; some things you don't grow out of.