As many others have noted, The Smiths Complete is actually incomplete. Yes, the box set includes all the albums released by the band but not every song released by the band. By my count about 30 tracks were never released on the albums and it would have made for a nice extra couple of CDs to round everything out. But that's a small gripe. Here we have pretty much 90% of what the band released in their lifetime and it sounds fantastic.
I will have a longer post about the Smiths later. Yes, I will address the fact that many people find their music insufferably sophomoric, maudlin, childish, immature, self-absorbed, etc. Yet, although I am close to retirement age, I still think they produced one of the most impeccable catalogs of music in the history of modern pop. I would not hesitate to mention them in the same breath as the greatest bands of all time. You would think that their music would date them. But remarkably there is something timeless about the package.
Perhaps my enduring fealty to the Smiths is explained by the fact that I lived and went to school in Manchester in the mid/late-1970s. I was a little boy lost in the grim post-Oil Shock landscape of industrial England. For a while I went to Plymouth Grove Primary School (Junior 3 and 4) and then moved to Central High School for Boys (1st and 2nd Forms) which no longer exists, alas. (Although there is apparently an actual history book about the school). I imagine that at some point somewhere I crossed path with either Johnny or Stephen. Perhaps we shared a bus ride, unbeknownst to each other. I do get a lot of the arcane 1970s-era allusions to Manchester and England in the songs of the Smiths. I know what they're talking about. "The Headmaster Ritual," the opening track to Meat Is Murder, one of the finest opening tracks in rock history, begins with the couplet:
Belligerent ghouls / Run Manchester schools
I couldn't have put it better.
But I don't think that the Manchester connection is really the main thing. Like all bands/music that we hold dear, I think it was the age at which I heard the Smiths for the first time, which was roughly in my late teens/early twenties. Besides the Replacements, I can think of no other band, whose music I processed on such a personal level. Even as youthful angst predisposed me to feel like an outcast, their music slung me into a world where outcasts and uncool people had songs written about them. Of course, with the distance of middle age, I now understand that all teens and young people think that they are impossibly different from everyone else when in fact they're (mostly) just like everyone else. But nevertheless the experience itself was defining.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my (still unfinished) rock'n'roll memoir. It's the one on the Smiths.
One of the girls I hung out with a few times that fall , A., was pretty. Some— in fact, many—said she was beautiful. She was not overweight, but everything about her physical appearance made you think round, her lips, her pretty eyes, her hair, her cheeks, her shoulders. There was one particular moment, I remember with her that fall, it might have been the last time I saw her for many months. [My roommate] B. had just bought a car, a blue Toyota or Mazda hatchback. He was driving with A. and myself as passengers—and I had taped The Queen Is Dead on a cassette which we were wearing out listening to; the act of driving and listening to music seemed to elevate our lives beyond the ennui of small town American life. A., who may have been listening to the album for the very first time, wanted to listen to one of the slower songs, “I Know It’s Over.” Her roundness came together in the ‘O’ she made of her mouth: I Know It’s Over. So we played it, as we drove past our apartment, B. unwilling to stop the car since if he did it would leave us in silence, a silence whose uncomfortable imminence was building minute by minute, second by second as the song gathered strength. We followed Morrissey’s voice from one spectacular verse to another, and amazed at where he was taking the song, the song reached a crescendo; we laughed nervously at the ridiculous lyrics, and gosh, how true were they, huh? That’s sort of how that album was, it was ridiculous, but gosh, how true was it, huh? But through it, through the ten songs, the band starts with small premise, and takes the songs to places that seemed unattainable when the songs began.
I would have to say that The Queen Is Dead is one the best albums of all time. On some days, I think it is the best single piece of music released during the rock era. I felt this way in 1986 and my opinion has not changed although I suspect most people who are above 30 would not make such an admission (or indeed believe such a thing) since the Smiths are indelibly linked with the idea of youthful angst, not with the idea of graceful adulthood.
The inside cover of The Queen is Dead shows four young men. The one thing that always struck me was that all four looked self-assured and self-possessed and…adult in that photograph. They didn’t look like weak English boys like the Cure. These guys, especially Morrissey standing right up front, looked totally in control. And the music on that album reflected that feeling. Was this was their response to anybody’s accusations that the Smiths were effeminate or soft or too emotional? The first song lays to waste that motion. Its as if the band deployed an army of guitars and platoon drums, and carpet-bombed it across the musical landscape. One time, maybe about three years later, I had a friend over at my apartment in ___ and we were making dinner. She could take or leave the Smiths. But I spread out my two speakers on opposite corners of the empty living room and put on the title track, the opening track of the album, and turned the volume up. It was like rolling thunder—even then, after listening to it a hundred times, it was like getting a sudden dose of uppers. My friend, for a second, was converted. Johnny Marr, the guitarist uses a wall of fine-tuned amazing subtle guitars that seem to rage, while Morrissey, the singer, grabs hold of the song, and goes where you wouldn’t expect the melody to go. And for all the clichés that we throw at the Smiths about their clichés to self-involved loneliness, Morrissey never took the easy way out with lyrics. In a flurry of words tripped over words tripped over words, chaos comes to live. By the end of the song, the song stops for a second, as if to gather breath, and then runs headlong back into a fantastic vortex with a tremendous drumroll. A minute later the song is over. What a fantastic rush to begin an album.
And that was just the first song. Each song on the album played like a little symphony, a self-contained short story that packed enviable amounts of imagination into it. Those songs are so indelibly linked to 1986 and 1987 that even now, it’s hard to be objective of their beauty and the little moments inserted into songs to elevate the songs from brilliant to breathless. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the penultimate song on the album begins on a multiple crashing cascade almost identical to the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again,” but then takes you into an entirely different world, the mind of an adolescent dismissed by his guardians and fleetingly adopted by a friend. There is a moment in the song after the first verse and after the first chorus, when the song pauses, then lurches back into the second verse, a moment when literally it’s as if the song lifts you up and gently sets you down to revisit the story, a moment that lasts maybe a second, maybe less, but is sublime, in the timbre of a bass note pulled up between the beautiful strums of massed acoustic guitars. Soon Morrissey opines:
And in the darkened underpass / I thought Oh God my chance has come at last
But then a strange fear gripped me / And I just couldn’t ask
These lines are horribly embarrassing on one level, and yet I think every person has suffered through such a moment in their lives.
The album ends with “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” a strange song whose words meant so little to me that they puzzled. Yet the music, the guitars, the melody was another stab of genius. An arpeggio guitar figure of stark beauty built on reverb propels the song literally and methodically into the stratosphere. Over it all, Johnny Marr strikes sharp stray guitar notes randomly during the coda. They feel like little shiny sparks, maybe shards of light, punctuating the shiny surface of a glorious melody. Strange, incandescent, and unbearably melancholy. These songs were so deceptively simple that it is a deceptively meaningless thing to say so. Marr not only played but wrote guitar parts so complex that it’s nearly impossible to figure out. Meanwhile, Morrissey’s genius was to direct the vocal melody to odd places, perched often between notes, uncomfortable.
The Queen is Dead was the original soundtrack for 1986-87, and perhaps I heard it too many times. For many years after, the Smiths became my favorite band, no, not my favorite band, but one of two bands I lived and died for. Other bands were favorite bands, but not the Smiths. In a quest that lasted several years, I tracked down pretty much every song they’d ever released from the most obscure b-sides to rare compilation tracks. I became a music completist, one of the most expensive and ultimately pointless projects of a music fan. I also rediscovered their two previous proper albums (The Smiths and Meat Is Murder) as well as various compilation disks (Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs). They were all brilliant pieces, especially Meat Is Murder, which is much deeply affecting than anything they’d done or would do, a statement that barely kept your head above water. “The Headmaster Ritual,” the first song off of Meat Is Murder was a song evidently about Morrissey’s experiences in public school in Manchester in the 1970s, an experience that I shared with him. All those lines made perfect sense to me, since I also fucking hated to go play football in the stinking dirty mud on the playfields on dreary rainy afternoons at school in 1977. I hated it. And the more you hated, the more the fucking gym teachers would torture you over it. The same old stodgy bastards. Same old suit since 1962. And can we please stop talking about the bloody fucking Second World War?
Eventually, liking the Smiths became an albatross since many people in our circle in ___ identified me, especially me, with them. Naturally, this opened me up to ridicule for being self-absorbed and self-pitying, a charge that, let’s face it, was pretty much impossible to defend against. Yes, I get it, I’m feeling sorry for myself because no one loves me and I’m ugly and the world sucks and the people I like don’t like me and why should I even bother to get to know anybody because in the end you always get rejected and even if somebody liked me I’d probably still fuck it up and sex is such an alien idea since no one in their right mind would want it with me because I suck and the world sucks and heaven knows I was looking for a job and then I found a job and I’m miserable now. So yeah, people made fun of me. I would have too! Naturally, one of the occasionally repeated charges was the I liked being depressed, that it was an act, an artistic statement, a way of being cool, that I wallowed in it when I was perfectly capable of being normal and cheery and optimistic. Exhibit A was my music. Cue up the Smiths. And you know what, the accusations fueled my snarky negative comments about life and shit which themselves fed my friends’ feeling that it was all an act. Circular. What can I say? Thank you Morrissey and Marr.