The Smiths: Complete

Even when compiling the band's entire catalog together, the same problems remain: too much overlap, not every song is actually represented. That said, Marr did a hell of a job on the remaster ...


Band: The Smiths
Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2011-10-18
UK Release Date: 2011-09-26

It's hard being a fan of the Smiths.

On one hand, you are treated to a band that completely shifted the UK rock paradigm in the '80s, highlighting the "alternative" part of "alternative rock" by providing an escape from the soulless, hollow synth-pop sounds that dominated the charts at the time. They gave a whole generation of listeners and outsiders a sense of commonality, with a sound that was soaked in honest-to-goodness guitar pop, but married to a deft lyricism that was as intensely romantic as it was literate and self-obsessed. Although it didn't take long for the Smiths to rise to prominence, their brief stint in pop music (which, when you get right down to it, stretched a mere five years) helped define what rock music could do in the decades that followed, spawning countless imitators while inspiring just as many innovators. The band's canon has been hyperbolized to death and back again, but even now, such praise rarely feels overly gratuitous.

On the other hand, fans of the Smiths tend to get screwed over on a near-daily basis. Although the band's canon is quite expansive, their key songs are frequently (some would say mercilessly) repackaged time after time, with an endless parade of hits and rarities compilations being churned out like clockwork, leading devotees to buy the same tracks over and over again (and this goes double for fans of Morrissey's solo career). Case in point? The 2008 release The Sound of the Smiths was the group's fourth post-mortem hits collection.

As such, it's not too surprising that fans would be wary of something as definitively-titled as Complete, and who could blame them? By taking the group's four studio albums, three catch-all compilations, and their only live effort (1988's Rank, recorded The Queen Is Dead-era) and bundling them all together, there isn't much appeal here to those who already own the group's complete discography -- save for the much-advertised remastering job by Johnny Marr. Ultimately, is it worth purchasing this set? And perhaps more importantly, is this set truly "complete"?

Let's start with the second question first: no, this is not the end-all and be-all for Smiths fans, although it does come pretty darn close. The group's two noted odds-and-sods collections (1984's Hatful of Hollow and 1987's Louder Than Bombs) do a great job of rounding up the band's stray non-album singles and assorted B-sides and put them into one place. That leaves distant cousin The World Won't Listen as the straggler of the bunch, overlapping far too gratuitously with the other two compilations, leaving only "Money Changes Everything", "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", "Stretch Out & Wait [alternate vocal]", and "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby [UK Mix]" as the only genuine takeaways to be found. In short, it's the exact same gripe that Smiths fans have been having to deal with for some time: not every single B-side and off-shoot that we have a record of has found its way onto an "official" release. This is nothing new.

Yet even with that in mind, Complete actually pulls off an interesting move by trying to restore the band's discography to the way it once was. That's something achieved by going the bold route and taking the band's sophomore album (and the group's only original UK chart-topper) Meat Is Murder and restoring it to its original track-listing, before iconic single "How Soon is Now?" was tacked on to later editions following its solo success. It's an unusual (and welcome) move by the band: decreasing the amount of layover between releases instead of increasing it. Even better? It's a move that makes quite a bit of logistical sense: "How Soon Is Now?" is an anomaly in the group's canon, as it sounds like little else that came before or after it. By removing it from the Meat Is Murder track listing, the album actually achieves a greater sense of cohesion. This isunderlined by the fact that this is the release where bassist Andy Rourke's talents really came into play, something which is even more apparent without the interruption of "How Soon", which, for all intensive purposes, is the Johnny Marr Show. It's one of Complete's more welcome surprises, and somewhat overshadows that ever-gnawing complaint about the lack of the group's rarities/B-sides* appearing on any sort of official release.

(*For those keeping score at home, the noted missing tracks are as follows: the live recording of "Handsome Devil", the group's three Sandie Shaw collaborations ("Hand in Glove", "I Don't Owe You Anything", & "Jeane"), "Wonderful Woman", the live tracks from the "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" single, the studio version of "The Draize Train", "Work is a Four-Letter Word", "I Keep Mine Hidden", the live cover of James' "What's the World", the 1987 Peel sessions from the "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" single, any/all of the scrapped Troy Tate recordings, and the early cello version of "Pretty Girls Make Graves". What's even more confusing/confounding is how some of these tracks actually made their appearance on the Deluxe version of last year's The Sound of the Smiths but -- once again -- they fail to make an appearance here.)

The real takeaway for fans, however, is the Johnny Marr's remastering work here (and although Complete is presently the only place to purchase the newly-mastered versions of these albums, there are apparently plans in place to individually re-release each disc individually next year). While certain gripes have existed about the CD versions of the band's catalog, Marr addresses everything here, upping the volume, removing a majority of the tinny-sounding high-end that existed on certain recordings. Case in point... compare the new version of proto-rocker "London" to its very compressed-sounding original. Most importantly, Marr gives each instrument a bit more room to breathe in the recordings, which might not be as impressive-sounding when you listen to anything off of their debut album (the differences between versions of "This Charming Man" are only really evident in the way that Morrissey's vocals stand out a bit more in the mix), but once you get into the latter albums and singles, these adjustments give a nearly night-and-day contrast. "Girlfriend in a Coma" bounces along with a newfound warmth, "Asleep" has its edges softened ever-so-slightly for the right effect, and "Golden Lights" sounds crisper than it ever has before, making Morrissey's vocal effect-wash sound as clear as you've ever heard it. Although the remastering here isn't a revelation on the same level that it was for the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition of the Stone Roses debut album, it still serves its material extremely well, making a pretty hard argument for Complete being a definitive set for collectors.

Although the band's fans are still awaiting a great deal of things from the vaults, Complete at least feels like a step in the right direction, providing a pretty conclusive go-to for fans who are looking for a good (if somewhat pricey) starting point for jumping into the expansive catalog for the first time. Complete doesn't break any new ground, but it does allow you to have one of the most influential bands in all of rock music rounded up in one place -- and for that alone, Complete (misleading title be damned) is very much worth your time.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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