The Smiths

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

Strongest album: Hatful of Hollow
Must to avoid: Strangeways, Here We Come

The Smiths are a band worshipped across the globe by legions of black-clad, angsty teenage goth girls, and despised by most everybody else. The reasons are entirely due to lead singer Morissey's persona. The "oh, the agonies of life!" whining of this miserable, hypersensitive, vegetarian, celibate moppet can certainly put you off the band for good, but you really shouldn't. The other reason to pay attention to the Smiths is that they contained possibly the best English guitarist of their generation, Johnny Marr. Forget Morissey and groove off Marr's brilliant rhythmic jangle, and you'll discover some quite worthwhile and ocassionally wonderful pop songwriting. When Morissey takes over, particularly on his torturous ballads, the Smiths live up (or down) to all the harsh words spoke of them; when Marr takes center stage, as on their classic single, "How Soon Is Now?" they're much more tolerable.

Shoplifters' Union is the best place to go first if you're curious about the lords of mope; provides a ton of links - be careful, though, Smiths fans tend to be a bit obsessive!

The Smiths (1984) ***

Their debut lays the foundation for what would follow: faultlessly crafted pop songs that update late '50s pop-rock within an attractively spare setting, great high-end guitar playing from Johnny Marr that never showboats but rather brilliantly weaves into the songs' bedrock, and warbling would-be-faded-matinee-idol crooning from the lead singer that almost undoes all the good stuff going on. About half of these songs wound up later in the year on Hatful Of Hollow in superior renditions; this one is a bit too thinly produced - spare shouldn't mean flimsy. If Morrissey didn't subvert this widely appealing pop with his mannered voice and the covering of such cheery subjects as sadomasochism, child molestation, and murder, this pop might actually have gained wide appeal. It actually did in Britain, where the Smiths became the most influential band of their generation - which says more about the sorry state of British pop in the '80s than the Smiths' actual achievement. I really dig that harmonica playing on a number of cuts, though.

Hatful Of Hollow (1984) ****

For me, this is the prime dose of Smiths, and all that I really need. As I stated earlier, about half of the debut found its way onto this 16-cut compilation of singles and BBC sessions, but the reduncancy is more than made up for by the fact that these versions have a raw edge that makes them sound about a zillion times better than they did on the debut. Interestingly enough, those tracks from the debut aren't really the high points, either; the Smiths were a better singles band than album band, and it's here that you'll find "How Soon Is Now", perhaps the Smiths' best single due to Marr's heavily grooving, nagging guitar line that decisively edges out Morrissey's "shyness that is criminally vulgar" claptrap. "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," (Morrissey's theme song, and the subject of a hilarious punch line in The Commitments) "You've Got Everything Now," (self-help blues: "others conquered love but I ran," oh just shutup) "Girl Afraid," (most sensible males are at least a bit, but I think Morrissey takes it a little too far) are all great singles that show off everything good about the Smiths. If you don't like what you hear here, then you won't like anything else the band has done.

Meat Is Murder (1985)

That may be, but remember: Hitler was a vegetarian! I don't have this disc and I haven't seen any cheap copies yet.

Reader Comments

Steven Knowlton,

I wish people would stop repeating lies that Joseph Goebbels made up! If we don't believe the Germans are divinely destined to rule Eurasia, why should we believe that Hitler was a vegetarian? He wasn't, he ate sausage like a trencherman. He also smoked and slept with his niece! He was as odious personally as he was politically.

Re: The Smiths. I don't have any of their records, but Kirsty MacColl covers "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby" and it's the low point of her career.

The Queen Is Dead (1986) ***1/2

Their best album is revered in certain circles as a holy talisman of Brit-pop, but even though it's more consistent than usual, it's still a Smiths album. Yes, you've got "Bigmouth Strikes Again," that coasts on the breathless rush of Marr's guitar, but you've also got "Never Had No One Never," an insufferable ballad in which Morrissey moans about his virginity. The album kicks off with a snippet of "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty," and then Morrissey begins painting a picture of Blighty at her rainy-day worst: 9-year olds who peddle drugs, ladies who complain that he can't sing, oh the Empire has seen its final days! The best song on side one has Morrissey invoking the spirit of Oscar Wilde in a showdown with the spirits of Yeats and Keats, and the disc ends with the "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others," which phases in from a dream and sounds like it's constantly fading out. The problem - other than Morrissey's affectations, which (typically) mar too much of the material - is that Marr's guitar has slowly been inched to the background on a number of tracks. Considering that Marr's guitar is our holy garlic against Morrissey's goth vampirism, that's a bad development. It doesn't stop this from being a good album, but it would with the next one....

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) **1/2

The Smiths were trying hard to break free of the confines of their stripped-down style, and this album splatters keyboards and string sections all over the place, creating an ornate mess. Stephen Street's overproduction doesn't help, either. It starts off fine, if unspectacularly, with "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours", and starts rolling downhill. The only real high points are the oddly bouncy "Girlfriend In A Coma," and a return to the "classic" Smiths sound "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before," that counts as the album's best song by virtue of placing Marr's guitar front and center where it belongs. "Death of a Disco Dancer," "Unhappy Birthday," "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish," - Morrissey lives up to his reputation as pop's best writer of song titles that the songs themselves can't live up to (for further fun, check out his solo career hits, "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful," "You're the One For Me, Fatty," etc. - just don't make the mistake of actually listening to the songs behind the titles). The Smiths ended their career with a whimper instead of a bang.

Louder Than Bombs (1987) ****

A very generous collection of singles and miscellany designed for the American record buyer (the British version, The World Won't Listen, is somewhat different). Since Hatful Of Hollow and The Smiths weren't widely available in the States at the time, there is some slight overlap with those discs. However, that's easy to overlook considering the sheer bulk of material - 24 songs in all. Newcomers, and even casual fans like myself, will cry overload; this is a hard LP to get through in one sitting unless you're a Smiths fanatic. Since the Smiths were at their best as a singles band, this is where you'll find a great deal of their essential work: "Half A Person," in which Morrissey goes to London to join the YWCA and mutters, "16, clumsy, and shy/That's the story of my life," which for once is actually affecting, not affected; "Panic" - on the streets of London, hang the DJ 'cause the songs he plays don't speak to my life; "Ask," with pretty backing vocals from Kirsty MacColl; "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby," a song that actually lives up to its title, and stands as the Smiths' angriest and best anthem. It's basically a double album that fits onto one CD, which makes it a great bargain.

Rank (1988)

After the Smiths' breakup comes the inevitable live album cash-in. Morissey went on to a solo career that I don't care about, since Marr was the main reason I liked the band. Marr, unfortunately, has moved on to a post-Smiths career that can only be called disappointing; working with electronic bands that bury his guitar, and performing as a shockingly unobtrusive session guitarist for folks like the Talking Heads. Drummer Mike Joyce joined the recently reformed Buzzcocks, and I forget what happened to bass player Andy Rourke, though I'm sure he's still in the biz. There are at least a couple of "Best Of" compilations for the Smiths out there, but if you're only going to buy one album by the band, either Hatful Of Hollow or Louder Than Bombs are more sensible investments. Watch out for the Smiths reunion tour that's sure to happen within the next decade - don't say I didn't warn you....

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