Theirs Is a Light That Never Goes Out
In the song “Paint a Vulgar Picture”, Smiths singer Morrissey once sang: “Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! / Re-evaluate the songs / Double-pack with a photograph / Extra Track (and a tacky badge).” This was his depiction of the garish and ghoulish treatment inflicted by record labels upon artists whose time has passed. Two decades later, and the Mozzer is re-packaging himself on The Sound of the Smiths. Well, he is getting a little help from Rhino Records and his former collaborator extraordinaire, guitar Johnny Marr. In their first act of cooperation since 1987, they selected the track listing. Going their separate ways once again, that droll wordsmith Morrissey provided the title (while brushing his teeth, one presumes), and the golden-eared Marr supervised the compilation’s mastering.
It might seem ironic that these former decriers of post-mortem marketing would participate in their own anthologizing. Another way of looking at it, though, is that they’re just trying to set the record straight. The Smiths have already been compiled several times since they disbanded. In 1992, the horribly haphazard Best…I and …Best II were issued within a few months of one another. The songs for these comps were selected and sequenced seemingly at random. They offered nothing new to established fans and made for a clumsy introduction to new listeners. The second half of that equation was solved just three years later, with the concise and highly satisfying Singles. With 18 cuts and a one-hour playing time, it offers the band’s best-known songs in mostly chronological order. Sweet and simple, Singles hit #5 in the UK and went platinum. Why, then, would WEA slap together another single-disc compilation just six years later? 2001’s unauthorized The Very Best of the Smiths met European markets with mediocre sales and reviews. Worst of all, it just added to the confusion about which disc a first time Smiths listener should buy.
So, The Sound of the Smiths sets out to right the wrongs of The Very Best Of and to expand upon Singles. This new collection is available both as standard and deluxe editions. The former packs 23 cuts onto one CD and follows Singles’ chronological sequencing strategy. In fact, through track seven, The Sound of the Smiths is essentially the same as Singles, save for the addition of “Still Ill” and the replacement of two album versions of songs with alternate recordings. Not that one could complain too much about this redundancy. What would a Smiths collection be without the chiming, bouncing rockabilly of “This Charming Man”, the morose-yet-chugging “What Difference Does It Make?” (which is subbed for its Peel Session analog), or, of course, the epic “How Soon Is Now?” (presented here in its appropriately club-oriented 12” version)? These are the tracks that, in 1983 and 1984, established the Smiths as The Next Big Thing coming out of England’s underground music scene.
Where The Sound of the Smiths beefs up the most is with tracks culled from the band’s second studio LP, 1985’s Meat Is Murder. Though arguably the Smiths’ worst full-length, it’s really just an underachiever compared to the greatness of the others. Morrissey and Marr plucked its best songs for inclusion here: a thankfully concise 7” version of the funky and aggressive “Barbarism Begins at Home”, the sad and dreamy “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, and their jaunty and hilarious send-up of the Manchester educational system, “The Headmaster Ritual”. From 1986’s exceptional The Queen Is Dead, the selections are the same as on Singles: the big numbers “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, along with the heartbreaking (and, of course, darkly humorous) album track, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”.
Though they issued great full-lengths, the Smiths were also a terrific singles band. This is well supported by Louder Than Bombs, the excellent 1987 compilation that features non-LP singles and their b-sides. The Sound of the Smiths features a very fine run of five of these, highlighted by “Panic” (with its famous refrain of “Hang the DJ!”) and “Shoplifters of the World Unite”, which, like many Smiths songs, you can tell is great just by the title. The standard edition of The Sound of the Smiths wraps up with three songs from the band’s under-rated swan song, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come. “Girlfriend in a Coma” perfectly encapsulates the band’s biggest charms: melancholic-yet-catchy chords, head-bopping rhythms, and Morrissey crooning lyrics that simultaneously leave the listener choked up and grinning madly. It’s this commingling of emotions and intellect—this refusal of a black and white portrait of humanity—that has yielded the Smiths its legions of devoted fans over the years, and those fans will keep on coming. This is timeless music.
For many, the standard edition of The Sound of the Smiths will be all they’ll ever need. For those Smiths lovers who have all the full-length CDs (but not every 7” and bootleg), the deluxe edition actually has some special treats to offer. Disc two opens with “Jeane”, a very good and classically Smithsy b-side not found on Louder Than Bombs. The equally scarce and considerably gloomier “Wonderful Woman” is here, as well. Rarer still is the Troy Tate Demos version of “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, offering a glimpse into what the Smiths’ self-titled debut album might have sounded like had they stuck with their original producer instead of opting for John Porter. Other somewhat rare cuts include the “New York Vocal” mix of “This Charming Man” (which features an extended, dubby instrumental break in the middle; not Morrissey singing like a New Yorker) and a live cover of James’s “What’s the World?”. The rest of the disc consists of songs available mostly on Louder Than Bombs, plus a few more crucial cuts from The Queen Is Dead. In the minus column, the song “Meat Is Murder” is given the live treatment, but remains an over-the-top plea for vegetarianism with little melodicism behind it. Also, there’s the glaring omission of “Rubber Ring”. It’s a fan favorite and likely the group’s greatest b-side.
The sound on all of the material is superb. Along with a welcome boost in volume, Marr’s mastering sparkles and yields much greater separation between the instruments. That alone makes The Sound of the Smiths a worthwhile upgrade from Singles. The extra and substitute tracks here are all perfectly chosen, as well. The standard version of The Sound of the Smiths takes over as the definitive single-disc sampling of the band. A few true rarities and a generally strong selection of album tracks and b-sides on disc two probably makes the deluxe edition worth the extra seven to ten bucks, too. Either way, one of the very best bands of the 1980s is brought to a new generation of listeners, and is wonderfully refurbished (and, yes, re-packaged) for established fans.