Tuesday, 14 December 2010
37 Hatful Of Hollow - The Smiths
Purchased : 1st December 1984
Tracks: William It Was Really Nothing / What Difference Does It Make / These Things Take Time / This Charming Man / How Soon Is Now / Handsome Devil / Hand In Glove / Still Ill / Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now / This Night Has Opened My Eyes / You've Got Everything Now / Accept Yourself / Girl Afraid / Back To The Old House / Reel Around The Fountain / Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Had The Smiths released their debut single "Hand In Glove" a few weeks later in 1983 , or had David Jensen not picked up on it, then this purchase would be significant as the first by a band for whom my enthusiasm wasn't rooted in my schooldays. As it stands it is a marker as the last LP purchase of my teenage years.
My enthusiasm for The Smiths was actually a bit stop/start. I liked "Hand In Glove" , wasn't as keen on "This Charming Man", liked the next two singles then thought "William... " was a big let down. It wasn't until my friend Anthony lent me the debut LP in September that they finally clicked with me. We'll come to discussing that one in due course but its impact meant that I purchased this one as soon as it came out.
There's a certain irony in that since this LP largely stems from the band's (and a fair proportion of their early fans') dissatisfaction with how their debut turned out. Many diehards felt that the LP versions of tracks previously heard on sessions recorded for the John Peel and David Jensen shows on Radio One in 1983 were disappointing compared to the "originals". Of course by this time The Smiths' success had attracted new fans who hadn't heard those sessions so there was a viable market for putting those tracks out together with tracks previously released only on the flip side of their 12 inch singles. Again it's ironic that a traditionalist like Morrissey should be one of the first stars to recognise that a growing part of the rock audience turned its nose up at buying singles. The success of Hatful of Hollow (it stayed in the LP charts for a year helped by being at mid-price) inspired other acts to put together such odds and ends compilations at strategic points in their career and also the Strange Fruit label set up to release the results of John Peel sessions (though their EPs were always quite expensive).
The LP kicks off with their most recent single "William It Was Really Nothing" apparently inspired by Associates singer Billy McKenzie although its lyric warning a friend against marriage seems closer to Wham-era George Michael or Terry Hall (whose career nosedive, interestingly, coincided exactly with the rise of The Smiths). Clocking in at just over 2 minutes I still find it a bit throwaway with the repetition of most of the lines despite the emphatic halt and then re-ascent of Johnny Marr's guitar line between the two verses.
The first of the session tracks pops up next, a version of "What Difference Does It Make" recorded for John Peel in May 1983. It's important to remember that the purpose of these sessions from the BBC 's point of view was primarily economic , to reduce the amount of "needle time" as any pre-released vinyl played generated a payment to the Performing Rights Society and this expense was harder to justify on the less popular evening programmes. (The BBC were not averse either to using these session tracks as substitutes on their earlier shows; I remember Peter Powell getting caught out when he used a Haircut 100 recording during his album chart rundown and they'd left a Birthday greeting at the end of it. ) As such a quick turnaround culture prevailed at Maida Vale; you didn't get many overdubs or sound effects whoever the artist. That's immediately apparent here with Marr's guitar lines much less dense and therefore giving Andy Rourke's bass more prominence. The other major difference is in the drumming with Mike Joyce (rather clumsily) trying for a jungly rumble which he was persuaded to straighten out on the finished version. I am going to leave discussion of the lyrical themes of the tracks that ended up on The Smiths until we get there.
"These Things Take Time" was originally recorded for David Jensen a month later (and appeared on the 12 inch of "What Difference Does It Make"). It's one of Morrissey's many tales of sexual ineptitude "behind a dis-used railway line" (there are plenty of these in Manchester) where his partner is needed emotionally rather than physically. It also addresses his fear of desertion, perhaps as a consequence - "vivid and in your prime you will leave me behind " . Anchored by Rourke's grinding bassline , Marr chimes and glides hypnotically behind the vocal ; even on an average song the inter-dependence is mesmerising.
Next comes a session version of "This Charming Man" recorded for John Peel in September 1983. Apart from lacking the striking intro this doesn't differ that much from the single version. This is their signature song (and their biggest hit when re-released in 1992) but it's never been one of my favourites due to its relatively optimistic air and less focused lyrics including the Sleuth steal - "a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place". I've always interpreted the song as being about a rent boy being fawned upon by an older predator.
"How Soon Is Now" follows; it's almost laughable that this track was originally thrown away on the 12 inch of "William..." While not quite my favourite Smiths song (it goes on for too long at nearly 7 minutes and the bassline plods) it is an undeniable classic from the first sawing shudder of Marr's guitar (achieved by open tuning I'm told) . Morrissey drops in at unpredictable intervals with the outsider's wail of impatience for a transformative event and then the killing realisation that it won't happen "So you go and you stand on your own, then you leave on your own and you go home and you cry and you want to die". Marr's work empathises with sympathetic shimmers , ironic whistles and the tinkling glass effects suggestive of a shattered ego.
"Handsome Devil" is a song that even Morrissey would think twice about writing now with its overtly paedophilic themes -" I think I can help you get through your exams". When he sings about getting his hands "on your mammary glands" you know he's singing in character and the glands in question are budding against a crisp white school blouse. This version was recorded in May 1983 for John Peel (no stranger to a bit of underage skirt in the less concerned 70s himself). Marr switches between long pregnant chords and an urgent choppy riff that along with Joyce's Rick Buckler-esque strident drumming makes this one of their most aggressive songs.
"Hand In Glove" is the original single version that first caught my attention while revising for A levels in May 83. From a single drum beat, Marr's descending arpeggio and scrawny harmonica riff lead into a relentless churn of acoustic, electric and bass controlled by Joyce's emphatic drums. Morrissey's distant wail emerges from the maelstrom declaiming a great love but the mournful tone belies his words and the last lines "But I know my luck too well and I'll probably never see you again" suggest this is a fantasy based on the barest contact, a girl on the bus perhaps (making this a distant ancestor of James Blunt's You're Beautiful ) . Though not a hit till polished up and given to Sandie Shaw it remains a great calling card for the outstanding group of their time.
The first side ends with a version of "Still Ill" from the September 83 Peel session. This is a rather raw version bookended by corny harmonica solos that were replaced by scratchy white funk guitar on the finished version. Morrissey's vocal is less than expert but still a great song.
So many riches and we're only halfway through. "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" was their first Top 10 single in June 1984 and to casual observers the archetypal Smiths song juxtaposing a bright guitar jangle with lachrymose self-pitying lyrics. Morrissey bewails his lot and then makes a confession of Mr Lockwood-esque sexual timidity "Oh you've been in the house too long she said and I naturally fled ".
"This Night Has Opened My Eyes" (from the September '83 Peel session) is one of their darkest songs, dealing with the abandonment of a baby with Morrissey's tenderest vocal giving the lie to his Goodbye To Berlin disavowal of emotional involvement -"I'm not happy and I'm not sad". Marr's spare clipped playing is the perfect accompaniment to such a haunting song inspired by Morrissey's love of sixties kitchen sink dramas.
The version of "You've Got Everything Now" is from the David Jensen session of June '83. Again the lack of overdubs (and absence of Paul Carrack's keyboards) gives Rourke's bass greater prominence and the song is taken at a slightly slower tempo than the finished version.
I've always thought "Accept Yourself" was one of their weaker songs, at least until the output of their final year together. From an August 83 David Jensen session it has Morrissey conducting a dialogue with himself alternating between his usual self-pity and self-help positivity. This is also reflected in the music which lurches between Pretenders melodic flourishes and antagonistic pounding emphasised by Joyce's crude tub-thumping. It's an awkward, uneasy listen.
"Girl Afraid" by contrast is one of the best songs on the album. The B-side to "Heaven Knows...." I think it's a better song. Morrissey doesn't come in until 50 seconds in allowing Marr to weave his melodic magic around one of Rourke's best basslines and the quickly-improving Joyce's crisp drumming. It was originally written for piano and you can hear that in the guitar lines. Morrissey tells the tale of an unhappy relationships from both perspectives (the male one surely inspiring Wham's Everything She Wants later in the year). It's brief but perfect.
The rhythm section sit out "Back To The Old House" an acoustic lament for a lost childhood love (albeit from a distance) . Marr's lines seem to be almost tripping over each other in their elegaic dance while Morrissey is at his softest and most lovelorn. Years later Everything But The Girl would enjoy their biggest hit by re-writing the song as Missing.
The penultimate song is the legendary Peel session version of "Reel Around The Fountain" without Paul Carrack's keyboard parts and with much more upfront drums and bass.
Finally we have "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" - a sub-two minute slice of utter perfection though musically it owes quite a lot to Tracey Thorn's Plain Sailing . It's the most direct heartbreaking Morrissey lyric of all just pleading for a change of luck because "Lord knows it would be the first time. Marr rounds it off with a mandolin solo and we've come to the end of the LP.
So bye bye teenage years. It's perhaps fitting that their passing should be marked by a record that captured so much of their essence (particularly the later ones). It's so hard to write anything new in praise of The Smiths , a beacon of light in a dark decade, a giant cairn on the summit of the eighties to which you can only add your little stone.