The Smiths have been apart far longer than they were together in the mid-1980s, making the Manchester quartet today less of a band and more of an idea. It's interesting to see how a new deluxe edition of The Queen Is Dead (Warner Bros. 0190295783372), the group's most lauded album, interprets that thesis through its content and packaging.
While the band may have made for a mere cult sensation in America, but in their native England (where success was fleeting but far more consistent), they spoke for members of a disaffected generation embroiled in mundane conservative politics and national recession. That reach, combined with a musical style that we now realize influenced several decades of British rock bands--with little exaggeration, something of a Beatles for the '80s--have made The Smiths rather mythic.
And listening back to 1986's The Queen Is Dead, there may be little reason to dispel the myth. Morrissey's keening voice and acidic lyrics, Johnny Marr's bending guitar textures and the urgent, pulsating rhythm section of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce here created 10 incredible songs of love and hate, a yearning to belong in a topsy-turvy world and a steadfast desire to do so on one's own terms.
Singles "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" and "Bigmouth Strikes Again" still crackle with youthful energy; songs like "Vicar In a Tutu," "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" and "Cemetry Gates" offer delightful wordplay and rock urgency; and emotions run high on the dreamlike "I Know It's Over" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," the latter a love song that only Morrissey and Marr could have written. (The album, as well as its bonus material, has been pleasantly remastered by the familiar team of Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot at D2 Mastering, effectively superseding Frank Arkwright and Marr's 2011 remastering.)
In this lidded, compact package, fans will find The Queen Is Dead alongside two bonus CDs--one offering B-sides and outtakes, and one featuring previously unreleased highlights from an American show on the ensuing Queen tour--and a DVD that includes the album in high-resolution stereo and Derek Jarman's short film to accompany the album. The album and outtakes are encased in one digipak, with the live concert and DVD featured in their own gatefold digipaks; all discs have their own protective plastic sleeve. A small booklet of lyrics and select technical information rounds out the package.
It's here where we're really invited to consider The Smiths as "an idea." While there are no essays in the package placing the music into its proper context, there are also no images of the band themselves, either. The famous photo of the group outside the Salford Lads Club from the inner sleeve is nowhere to be found; instead, the first digipak's gatefold offers an image of a protester standing against British riot cops in 2010, wearing a Smiths t-shirt under her jacket. (A "panic on the streets of London," if you will.) The other digipaks offer alternate stills of Alain Delon in L'Insoumis (one main still, unused here, graced the original sleeve of The Queen Is Dead) as well as Jack Kerouac. (Taken together, one thinks of the etchings in the dead wax of "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" singles: "ARTY BLOODY FARTY" / "IS THAT CLEVER...")
The bonus disc offers nine alternates and outtakes, few of which are revelatory but offer some glimpses into the making of a very specific-sounding album. A longer version of "The Queen Is Dead" offers more of Marr's guitar chop, demos of "I Know It's Over" and "There Is a Light" feature uncrystallized versions of the instrumental tracks and some small variations on Morrissey's impeccable lyrics. Most surprising is an early take of "Never Had No One Ever" punctuated by muted trumpet! The studio disc closes with the B-sides to "Bigmouth" and "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side," the single of which was released nearly a year before the final album. (While the alternate mix on the "Thorn" single is absent, a major victory for hardcore collectors occurs in the form of B-sides "Rubber Ring" and "Asleep" presented in a continuous segue, as had been done on the 12" single and nowhere on CD since.)
An energetic live show taped at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts outside Boston in August 1986 showcases a significantly different band: only a month after Queen hit stores, The Smiths released a new single, "Panic," recorded as a five-piece with rhythm guitarist Craig Gannon. Perplexingly, Gannon, who was briefly hired to replace Rourke on bass before playing on the full Queen tour as well as singles "Panic" and "Ask," isn't credited anywhere in the package.
This show was recorded just a few months before the London gig released on the album Rank (1988), after the band had broken up; however, it's rather different to what that album offered. (Engineer Grant Showbiz recorded and mixed both; along with the 10 Queen tracks from other shows released digitally in the lead-up to this reissue. Six songs from Queen (plus B-side "Rubber Ring") made it onto this disc, alongside singles like "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," debut "Hand In Glove" and dynamic opener "How Soon Is Now?" (a U.K. B-side that became a Top 40 dance hit for the group stateside). "Is It Really So Strange," a new song that never made it onto a studio album (a live BBC session was included on compilation Louder Than Bombs (1987)), is also here. (Tracks recorded but not included here include "Panic," "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" and another single, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.")
It's all fascinating stuff, even if it doesn't coalesce into the usual kind of honorific box set you may expect from most artists--neither the proof (jaw-dropping extras) nor the concept (a jaw-dropping band, and here is why) are fully there, even though it doesn't take much of a close listen to understand what vital work this is and fill in your own blanks. With no Smiths in existence, it seems it's our job to address their work, their meaning, their idea--and if you're up for the challenge, then this is one Queen worth ascending to the throne that is your record collection.