Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Want The One I Can't Have

There are four stories of The Smiths.

The first is that of the improbably iconic rock band, fanatically embraced by a legion of hyper-loyal followers. Rarely could even an English football team have been supported in such a partisan, proprietary manner. Hordes of teenage and post-teenage males (in a kind of gender-reversed Beatlemania) lost their bearings over either the insecure, sexually confused, gladioli-toting totem of a lead singer, or the jesus-of-cool guitar player. (Who were the other two again?) These Smiths were the second coming of The Only Gang In Town.

The second story of The Smiths is the story of the band that released four studio albums of original material. This would be the Smiths that most middle-aged, chin-stroking, Mojo-reading music fans would recognise, and most of those would hold these Smiths in very high regard, particularly given the status of one of those albums, not unreasonably so, either, as a "classic".

The third Smiths are the Smiths that brightened up the radio between 1984 and 1987. I can't think of any successful pop group in the post-Beatles era to have released so many non-album singles, and to have consistently charted so high with them; this is particularly so when you consider that neither "This Charming Man", nor "How Soon Is Now", two of their best-known songs, were initially included on albums. In fact, if you only knew The Smiths as a singles band, you nevertheless knew them as one heck of a band.

The fourth story of The Smiths falls somewhere between the cracks of the other three. These Smiths are a band that have been forever shaded by their early demo recordings. I can vividly recall hearing these Smiths coming through the airwaves on a very patchy 3RRR one night while I was back at the farm during university holidays. This was long before they had any records out, and I had no knowledge, and crucially no mental image, of Morrissey or Marr, and no sense of any "hype" that may have been building around them. The Smiths were just a name. And it seemed to be a particularly fitting one for purveyors of such no-nonsense, back-to-basics, four-guys-in-a-room rock and roll. The NME, then my eyes and ears on the British music scene, arrived at Eastaways Road eight to ten weeks after it was written, so by the time I saw their name in print The Smiths were well and truly off and running.

From this distance it is impossible to imagine how revolutionary those early recordings sounded. By late 1983 the radio, even "alternative" radio, had ossified into a very pale imitation of the synth-pop that I had grown up on, all style over substance and not a lot of style at that. What The Smiths did was, on the one hand, strip all of that away and, on the other, write some stunningly original songs. It was a combination that had to set the world on fire.

Awash with anticipation, I marched into the original Missing Link Records, in Flinders Lane, on the day of release in this country of the first, self-titled album. I bought it, took it home and played it. A noose of expectation hung around its neck. I listened to it end over end, for weeks, and I can to this day run it through my head from start to finish without, I don't think, missing a note. I tried to convince myself it was everything I had hoped, and expected, it would be, but something of their vitality seemed to have been sapped in the process of making it. I couldn't help but compare it with those demos that I had heard on the radio, and the comparison wasn't kind.

Was mine a minority opinion? In any event, The Smiths went from strength to strength. A friend of a friend brought the first known copy of "Meat Is Murder" to one of our house parties at 166 Nicholson Street. Side one, on first listen and in the context of mild inebriation / boyish enthusiasm, was incendiary. (It still sounds that way in the cold light of 2011.) This was what I wanted The Smiths to be. But when the record eventually came my way all I could think was that by the end of side two they had sacrificed all of the momentum they had built up for uncharacteristically trite "statements", and abattoir sound effects. (The seven minutes of stilted funk that made up "Barbarism Begins At Home" didn't attract it to my young, post-punk-infused ears, either, although now I hear it quite differently.)

There appeared to be two separate realities running along in parallel to one another. In one, the hit singles kept coming. In another, The Smiths were a band perpetually mired in controversy. (Although it is possible the one fed the other.) Somewhere in the middle of all this "The Queen Is Dead", their third album, appeared. Yes, it is the masterpiece everybody says it is, but by then they were so huge they were no longer "my" Smiths in any way (at that stage I was subsisting on an unhealthy diet of The Fall, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Big Black, Einsturzende Neubauten, Butthole Surfers. And, uh, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions), and I confess that I didn't even hear "Strangeways, Here We Come" until I bought it second-hand several years later. (It turns out to have been a very good record, after all, possibly only slightly shaded by "The Queen Is Dead". It somehow sounds like a final album -- not that the wind had gone out of their sails, but there is a sense that they knew it was over. There is probably another essay in this. I am not going to be writing it, though.)

And that was it.

It was probably inevitable that my favourite Smiths album would be "Hatful of Hollow", where some of those radio phantoms that had beguiled and eluded me (or something sounding very like them) sit next to a string of their best singles. I always took the existence of "Hatful of Hollow" as amounting to an admission by the band that they themselves weren't entirely satisfied with how the first album came out. (I am prepared to entertain the idea that I might be wrong about this.)

It might be because of the way that the four albums, in isolation, fail to tell the true story of The Smiths. It might be because a collection of just the singles leaves too much out. It might, I suppose, be because there continues to be money in it. But the unending stream of Smiths compilations, starting, I suppose, with "Hatful of Hollow" itself, probably bears witness to the fact that there is no single way of listening to The Smiths that tells anything like the full story. The best attempt thus far, and the one that is probably a necessary purchase even if you have every Smiths record ever released, is the two-disc version of "Sound of the Smiths". It does such a good job of bringing together the best bits of each of the different Smiths narratives that, after listening to it in its entirety, you do feel that, yes, that was The Smiths. I might be wrong about this, but I understand that  this is the first post-Smiths Smiths compilation in which a member of the band actually had a hand. It may be no coincidence.

Not long ago something funny, or at least serendipitous, happened. I was reading one of Mark Richardson's "Resonant Frequency" columns on Pitchfork. In it he was writing about The Smiths, and the peg on which the article hung was a recently surfaced bootleg vinyl release entitled "Unreleased Demos & Instrumentals". You can find digitised versions of it on the Internet. (Well, duh.) It has a cover that makes it look for all the world like an authentic Smiths release. It spans the length of their career. And it turns out to be the Smiths record that I had been vainly searching for since the night I first heard The Smiths.

I suppose every band evokes its own time and place, but I can't help thinking that the metallic, harshly bright sound of the records of the middle of the 1980s, presumably a response to the new-found possibilities inherent in compact-disc technology, and a corresponding inability amongst studio boffins to leave anything alone, was particularly damaging for The Smiths. Added to this, in the case of The Smiths, were some questionable choices of producer, and "embellishments" (piano parts, assorted overdubs) that didn't so much embellish as get in the way. If any band should have been heard unadorned, it was The Smiths. And this is what this bootleg, for the most part, gives you. (There are still strings where and when you need them: one cannot be that much of a purist.)

Richardson does a better job of analysing the record than I ever could. What these recordings do is bring the listener back to the idea of The Smiths as four highly talented, individual but sympathetic musicians, together in a room, making the best music they could make. You can practically hear them glancing across at each other and grinning in amazement at what they were capable of doing. You can hear, in the distance, the faint but unmistakable ringing sound of future cash registers. 

Or can you?

This is where we finish up, then: in the field of discourse known as "art versus commerce". Would The Smiths have been as successful as they were if these essentially unadorned recordings were what was presented to the wider listening public? Would they have made the leap from late-night public radio to megastardom without the backing of a record label and the inevitable compromises, artistic and commercial, that that backing brings? Maybe this bootleg is special (to me) purely because it represents a path that wasn't taken. These recordings are never likely to be commercially released. But The Smiths continue to be an important touchstone, and "Unreleased Demos & Instrumentals", I reckon, is the clearest picture we have yet had of why, as four people in a room, they stood out enough for those commercial forces to sit up and take notice, and why The Smiths still matter. At the very least, it will brighten up your day.