Wednesday, 6 July 2011
59 The World Won't Listen - The Smiths
Purchased : 14 March 1987
Tracks : Panic / Ask / London / Bigmouth Strikes Again / Shakespear's Sister / There Is A Light That Never Goes Out / Shoplifters Of The World Unite / The Boy With The Thorn In His Side / Asleep / Unloveable / Half A Person / Stretch Out And Wait / That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore / Oscillate Wildly / You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby / Rubber Ring
This is a sobering milestone - the first album to be purchased from wages after four weeks' work as a trainee accountant. It was bought in Manchester on a Saturday morning after receiving my first salary payment the day before. I remember also buying George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter on that trip and in the afternoon Rochdale beat Peterborough 3-2 a vital win in their ultimately successful battle to avoid the newly-introduced automatic relegation to the Vauxhall Conference. Despite four changes of job, a marriage, a birth , two deaths and a re-location since then it doesn't feel too long ago. And part of the reason I think is that LPs purchased since this one haven't in the main been played as much as those before which might slow this blog down a bit.
Anyhow, back to The Smiths. This LP was conceived by Rough Trade not the band themselves and was basically a mopping up operation collecting together all the singles and B-sides since the release of Hatful of Hollow up to and including the underwhelming current single "Shoplifters Of The World Unite". If , like me, you hadn't bought all those singles it was an excellent value for money purchase and we got it to number 2 in the charts.
It starts with their July 1986 single "Panic" which sadly gave birth to the McCarthyite speculation about Morrissey's attitude to race that continues to this day. Which DJ in particular does he want to see on the gallows ? To my mind it seemed instantly obvious that the primary target was Radio One's fiercely pro-Tory and anti-indie celebrity DJ, Steve Wright. The list of place names in the first verse is there to hammer home that "National" Radio One is the enemy. Even someone as brainless as Samantha Fox guest reviewing the singles for Smash Hits got that point. Having said all that it's never been one of my favourites. Both words and music are too bludgeoning ; the arrival of Craig Gannon to share the guitar burden doesn't seem to have inspired Johnny Marr to produce anything special for this track beyond an obvious love of T Rex's Metal Guru. Still it became the joint biggest hit of the group's lifetime so it did its job.
By contrast I regard its follow-up "Ask", released in October 1986, as the last top quality recording of the band's career. It was certainly Gannon's swansong but in a way the group's too. Probably the happiest song in their canon it sees Morrissey extending the hand of friendship to another wallflower reasoning that they could share their pessimism about the ultimate threat if nothing else - " if it's not love then it's the bomb that will bring us together ". For the last time Marr achieves the perfect blend of acoustic and electric lines that marks all their best work. As a bonus you get Kirsty McColl on backing vocals although she's not mixed very high.
"London" ( B-side to "Shoplifters..".) by contrast is a good indicator of the quality slip of their last year's work. A close cousin to "Shakespear's Sister" which we'll come to in a moment it starts with a feedback howl then becomes a 100 mph rockabilly thrash with Morrissey droning an uninspired address to a modern day Dick Whittington. The last half minute is OK when Mozza shuts up and Marr introduces a melody line but otherwise it's forgettable.
Next up on this very uneven side is the sheer class of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" their 1986 single plucked from "The Queen Is Dead". I 've always thought the inspiration for this song was my own MP at the time, Geoffrey Dickens a right wing rent-a-mouth who disguised his own interest in deviant sex by loudly denouncing any supposed reference to it in art or culture. In that guise he had launched the furore over "Handsome Devil" in 1984. Morrissey's self dramatising and violent imagery mesh perfectly with the palpable fury in Marr and Joyce's playing. There are two very different guitar breaks in the song ,the first achingly melodic, the second a rhythmic thrash that explodes into spitting licks preceding a final chorus. It's so rich you want the song to go on forever.
Instead "Shakespear's Sister " follows. Both Morrissey and Marr have stoutly defended this standalone single from May 1985 which is near-universally regarded as their first mis-step. The title comes from an essay by Virginia Woolf but isn't referenced in the song in which the protagonist rejects the twin sirens of suicide and his mother for love and then well , there's a silly irrelevant verse about protest singers and the song ends after barely two minutes. The music again is a rockabilly thrash with occasional " How Soon Is Now " swoops and is the first example of a problem that Morrissey still hasn't resolved in his solo career. When he writes in the rockabilly idiom whether with Marr or Boorer he can't come up with a tune. With radio uninterested the single limped to number 26 then disappeared.
Then the rose between two thorns. "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" , included because it was considered for a single and made number one in John Peel's Festive Fifty for 1986 , is my favourite record ever. It's about the desire to go out on a high, Pete Townsend updated for the raincoat brigade. Morrissey the wallflower gets in someone else's car and fantasises about being wiped out before it turns back into a pumpkin. He fails to seize the moment " A strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask" - but it lives on as a golden memory of a time when he had chances. It was the song I specifically asked our DJ for at our wedding reception , not particularly appropriate perhaps ( and Julie hates The Smiths ) but it had to be done. The music is incredibly sympathetic , Marr toning down the gutar heroics in favour of strings and flute and allowing Andy Rourke's supple bassline to dictate the flow of the song.
Then it's back to earth again with "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" which raids the T Rex songbook again. This time it's Children Of The Revolution that gets mashed up with the judder and glide guitar sounds of "How Soon Is Now" . That's probably my favourite Bolan song but this is a long way from The Smiths' best. It's not the easiest song to interpret but it seems like Morrissey's getting in the head of a kleptomaniac who's tried going staraight but "I was bored before I even began". Morrissey's fascination with working class criminality has always been the least appealing facet of his writing to me and the second hand music and lack of melody don't compensate.
The needle swings the other way again for "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" the September 1985 single which stopped the rot as far as the singles chart was concerned. Now I'd always taken this song as Morrissey's most succint summation of the geek's dilemna - how do you find someone to share your love if you don't have the tools to go out and find them ? - but he told Margi Clarke on The Tube that it was actually a dig at the music industry after the failure of the last two singles. Tellingly it marked the end of the group's admirable but commercially unviable resistance to making videos. Whatever the context it's still an immediately engaging song with a dense layering of ringing guitars and a rock solid bassline. Morrissey's yodelling coda made sure it went over the three minute mark.
Side Two begins with its B-side "Asleep" an unabashed piano ballad about longing for death although there's no actual exhortation to commit suicide. Marr lays down a simple melancholy figure and then conjures up the spirit of Joe Meek by surrounding it with wind sounds. Morrissey sings it sotto voce as if afraid of waking from his dream of death before the burble of wind chimes carry him away.
This is a more even side and it continues with "Unloveable" the slow burning B side of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" . The languid pace and Morrissey's slightly awkward phrasing recall "I Don't Owe You Anything" from the first LP. Morrissey's abject self -pity threatens to make it a dirge but after a couple of hints earlier in the song Marr injects some bite three minutes in with some stinging guitar for a memorable coda.
Next up is "Half A Person" originally B-side to the patently inferior "Shoplifters...". The story of a downtrodden stalker following her idol to London , Morrissey and Marr both play it soft with Morrissey at his most plaintive and Marr just adding electric colour to an acoustic strum. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt would eventually hit big with the same story in 1995's Missing.
"Stretch Out And Wait" is the band's most overtly sexual song, Morrissey commenting laconically on the impulse to have sex amongst the underclass -"Amid concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way". The acoustic guitar work and Joyce's brush strokes suggest Everything But The Girl again and it's easy to imagine Tracey Thorn singing it but it's not one of their stronger songs.
We've already covered "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" in the "Meat Is Murder " post and the decision to include it again here was highly questionable. So we move on to "Oscillate Wildly" a rare but wonderful instrumental originally on the B-side of "How Soon Is Now ?" It starts with a simple yet enthralling piano figure before Joyce comes in with insistent hi- hat and Rourke chips in with both a prowling bassline and unexpected cello. But Marr dominates fitst with some dazzling guitar work and then a chokingly melancholic keyboard melody. You're then left tense waiting for it to come round again which it does leading us out of the song. It's such a sad yet life-affirming tune that you wonder why no film director ha picked up on it.
The only previously unreleased track ( not exactly new as Gannon's on it ) is "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby" a phrase apparently directed at the band by Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis. In Morrissey's hands it becomes a weapon to crush the hopes of whoever the song is addressed to. Musically it introduces some new elements to the band's sound; Marr's guitar acquires a pyschedelic tinge while Joyce lays down a thumping Northern Soul stomp on the chorus. It's notable that this song has a more conventional verse chorus format than most of their songs and probably would have made a good single but they decided otherwise.
That just leaves "Rubber Ring" an intriguing song from the B side of "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" in which Morrissey extols the virtues of his favourite singles as an emotional crutch, effectively an update of The Carpenters' Yesterday Once More. All the band excel here ; the verses hang on the late night prowl of Rourke's bass recalling Thin Lizzy's Dancing In The Moonlight while the giddy rush of the chorus is powered by Joyce's tumbling drum rolls. Throughout , Marr experiments with backwards guitar to eerie effect until Joyce's final crecendo is suddenly interrupted by a vocal sample from an ep accompanying a book about communicating with the dead ( Joe Meek again ? ) . It's a surprisingly effective way of bringing the LP to a close.
"The World Won't Listen" seems like something of an anachronism now ( I know Oasis have done it since in conscious imitation ) when the whole concept of "the single" has been turned on its head but few other bands of any era could have put together such a compelling LP from what were mostly offcuts. The band may not have liked it but it only reinforced their greatness.