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The Smiths

     The Smiths (Sire, 1984)
    Hatful of Hollow (Sire, 1984)
   Meat Is Murder (Sire, 1985)
      The Queen Is Dead (Sire, 1986)
      Louder Than Bombs (Sire, 1987)
     Strangeways, Here We Come (Sire, 1987)
    Rank (Sire, 1988)
   Best Of, Vol. 1 (Sire, 1992)
   Best Of, Vol. 2 (Sire, 1992)
     Singles (Sire, 1995)
      The Sound of the Smiths (Rhino/WEA, 2008)

Oh, Manchester—so much to answer for. The Smiths managed to make a career's worth of timeless rock & roll out of completely unpromising elements. Morrissey was an utterly batshit choirboy obsessed with Oscar Wilde, James Dean, and the New York Dolls, moaning and droning about sexual confusion and youthful malaise with a voice that only got weirder when he started hitting actual notes. Johnny Marr was a shy Manchester guitar geek fixated on the Beatles and the Stones who knocked on the door of the local literary recluse and asked him to start a band. The result: local indie-rock cult status, huge international pop success, countless terrible imitators, 30 or 40 classic songs, and an enduring legend as the greatest British band of the past 25 summers.

The Smiths' debut was an instant sensation, thanks to gems like "Reel Around the Fountain" and "This Charming Man." Tonally and emotionally, it's a little skimpy, with Morrissey chasing tropes such as "dig a shallow grave and I'll lay me down" over Marr's thin guitar jangle. But Morrissey had unprecedentedly dippy star power, often appearing in public wearing love beads, government-issue glasses, and a hearing aid. The Smiths added a few excellent singles to the import collection Hatful of Hollow ("William, It Was Really Nothing," "How Soon Is Now"), with a first few glimmers of wit. Morrissey sings, "You've been in the house too long, she said/And I naturally fled," probably the first time he'd ever done anything naturally in his life. But all the good songs here are also on the much stronger Louder Than Bombs, and the filler is so appallingly bad ("Accept Yourself," "Back to the Old House," the live BBC remakes) that Caligula would have blushed. Meat Is Murder was tuneless cow-humping self-parody, hammering away at the lyrical messages: meat is murder, love is larceny, girls are gruesome, etc. Fans sadly figured that the Smiths had moped their last mope.

So it may be hard for latter-day Smiths fans to appreciate how shocking The Queen Is Dead was in the summer of 1986. Johnny Marr suddenly discovered that he was born to rock, while Morrissey turned into rock's dishiest wit, playing around with rough boys in cemeteries and "writing" poetry during knee tremblers behind the Salford Lads' Club. Morrissey decided he'd rather be famous than righteous or holy, so he just chased his loud loutish lovers all over "Bigmouth Strikes Again," "Cemetry Gates," and "I Know It's Over." "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" is a sacred song by now, one that makes fans across the globe join hands and mope together. Someday he'll have to explain "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others," won't he?

The Smiths were on a truly historic roll by now, dropping unbelievably great singles and b-sides faster than fans could absorb them. "Half a Person" may be their most moving song, as Morrissey leaves his humdrum town and runs away to London, where he volunteers to be a backscrubber at the YWCA. In "Panic," he heads back to his humdrum town in defeat, vowing revenge against the world, especially the DJ playing the pop music that filled his head with big dreams in the first place. "Ask," "Is It Really So Strange?," and "Stretch Out and Wait" reach out to unlovable teen misfits everywhere with a tuneful compassion that still makes converts today. Louder Than Bombs, a vastly improved U.S. version of the U.K. collection The World Won't Listen, collects all these great songs, and picks everything worth picking off Hatful of Hollow. Good times, for a change.

Morrissey and Marr severed their alliance during the making of Strangeways, and the band broke up just as it was released. It drags quite a bit, though there are still some great songs, especially the one that begins "Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me" and the one that begins "I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday/Because you're evil." The Sound of the Smiths, which was overseen by Marr and Morrissey, is available in a single-disc version (which collects everything from Singles and adds five cuts) as well as a deluxe version, with a second disc that includes album tracks, b-sides and rarities. But you'd probably be better off starting with The Queen Is Dead and Louder Than Bombs. Rank is a live album memorable for a strange rendition of Elvis Presley's "Marie's The Name (His Latest Flame)."

Morrissey went on to a memorable solo career; Johnny Marr played in various bands, including Modest Mouse and The Cribs. From the Leeds side streets that you slip down to the provincial towns that you jog around, the Smiths remain hugely influential and beloved 20 years after breaking up.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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