Today was the day that U.K. fans, elated from the grassroots success of making Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” the 2009 Christmas No. 1 single, attempted to make lightning strike twice with a campaign for The Smiths’ immortal “How Soon is Now?”
Call me a spoilsport, but I have my doubts that the campaign is going to make the same kind of headway. The “Killing in the Name” incident was just right-place, right-time and had suitable fire underneath it (people will buy a single so a song they don’t like will be kept from top honors – even if money keeps getting funneled to the label regardless). Second of all, The Smiths probably lack the kind of pull that other classic acts have since they’re a finished entity. There is no chance for a reunion and only a slightly bigger chance for any sort of catalogue material to unearth itself from the sands of time.
But whatever chart position The Smiths may regain in 2010, it’s really hard to deny the band’s status as one of the best rock bands of the 1980s. (Yes, don’t let the cheeky post title fool you.) They sounded like no other band at the time, and they paved the way for a distinctly intelligent kind of rock. Morrissey’s literate lyrics and implaceable persona, coupled with the complete sonic jelling of guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, have made the group one for the ages.
And catalogue fans and collectors have much to like about the group, since they were (and through the efforts of Rhino Records/WEA, still are) very diligent about keeping their back catalogue in order. Indeed, during the band’s five-year tenure, they released three non-LP singles/B-sides compilations (compare that to the four studio LPs they released in the same period). And they all hold up ridiculously well.
Which is why I would advise anyone reading this looking to start their Smiths collection to not do so in the manner which I did, with the double-disc version of The Sound of The Smiths.
At first blush, the 2008 compilation seems like a great place to start. And it many ways, it is. It has every charting single represented, as well as a few that never did make the cut. But compilations are a dangerous game when it comes to The Smiths. As a band famous for releasing lots of singles that never ended up on albums, vintage compilations like Hatful of Hollow or Louder Than Bombs almost serve as greatest-hits packages in their own right. And The Sound of The Smiths, especially the two-disc version stocked with singles and B-sides, is a particularly tricky set.
Don’t believe me? Look at the track list for the deluxe version:
- Hand in Glove (7″ Version)
- This Charming Man (Manchester)
- What Difference Does It Make? (Peel Session)
- Still Ill
- Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
- William, It Was Really Nothing
- How Soon Is Now?
- Nowhere Fast
- Shakespeare’s Sister
- Barbarism Begins at Home (7″ Version)
- That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
- The Headmaster Ritual
- The Boy with the Thorn in His Side (Single Version)
- Bigmouth Strikes Again
- There is a Light That Never Goes Out
- You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (UK Mix)
- Shoplifters of the World Unite
- Sheila Take a Bow
- Girlfriend in a Coma
- I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish
- Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me (Single Edit)
- Handsome Devil (Live at The Haçienda, Manchester 4/2/83)
- This Charming Man (New York Vocal)
- Wonderful Woman
- Back to the Old House
- These Things Take Time
- Girl Afraid
- Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
- Stretch Out and Wait (Alternate Vocal Version)
- Oscillate Wildly
- Meat is Murder (Live at Oxford Apollo 18/3/85)
- Money Changes Everything
- The Queen is Dead
- Vicar in a Tutu
- Cemetry Gates
- Half a Person
- Sweet and Tender Hooligan (Peel Session 17/12/86)
- Pretty Girls Make Graves (Troy Tate demo)
- Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
- What’s the World? (Live at The Barrowlands, Glasgow 25/9/85)
- London (Live at National Ballroom, Kilburn)
That set will net you about 16 of the 24 tracks on Louder Than Bombs, half of the 16 tracks from Hatful of Hollow and all but four songs from The World Won’t Listen. You also have more than half of The Queen is Dead on that set as well. The problem to all of this is simple: where do you go next?
Now ordinarily it wouldn’t seem so hard – until you consider that new copies of Smiths records on CD tend to be rather expensive (usually in the $15-$18 range at even your best indie store). iTunes won’t work either; The Sound of The Smiths is the only digital offering by the band. (What’s worse, the digital version has a couple extra tracks, completing those compilation albums even more in some cases.)
Eventually you will find your way – all diligent record enthusiasts do, and it really is worth it for The Smiths – but figuring out how is quite the uphill climb. So do enjoy The Sound of The Smiths, but know your next step is a tricky one.