The Sound Of The Smiths (updated 30/7/2011)

Only the hottest cutting-edge bloggage here, friends – this entry is a review of a two and a half year old CD that I’ve only just got round to acquiring which is itself compiled from tracks recorded and released over twenty years before that. Why on earth would you review a compilation CD, particularly one featuring a band who have already been over-compiled to the point of exhaustion by greedy record companies (“extra track/and a tacky badge”)? And if you were enough of a nut to buy a CD composed solely of songs you’ve already got in your collection why not get it straight away? Well, it’s like this…

The thing about The Smiths on CD, as opposed to The Smiths on all those beautifully packaged and designed albums and singles that I collected obsessively during my teens, is that they’ve always sounded crap. I know a lot of people, including one or two whose judgement is otherwise pretty sound, will be taking the opportunity to righteously sneer and be wearyingly dismissive on reading that assessment (“they’ve always sounded crap to me too, mate”) but it’s nonetheless true – the albums available now are from the original CD masters, which were done in the 1980s, and they’re tinny and over-compressed and the music just doesn’t live the way it does when you hear it on a 12 inch record. This isn’t vinyl fetishism by the way, I haven’t got unusually sensitive ears for this kind of thing and I’m perfectly happy to listen to most things on CD or even mega-squashed MP3, but this stuff is just bad. And that’s just a little bit heartbreaking, given how many hours Johnny Marr in particular spent slaving over the amazingly intricate arrangements of subtly layered guitars and effects that are one of the reasons this band was so extraordinary. Morrissey’s vocals and lyrics are so arresting, and the songs generally so short and compact, that it’s easy to miss this stuff, but it’s true: many Smiths songs have a dozen or more separate guitar tracks on them. And most of them just get lost on CD.

So I’ve been waiting for a Smiths re-mastering programme for a while. And with the release of The Sound Of The Smiths I thought I was going to get it. The unique selling point of this collection, what it has over Best or The Singles or whatever other ropey round-ups there are out there, is that the tracks have for the first time been re-mastered for CD, with Johnny Marr overseeing the process to boot. I heard an interview with Marr at the time this came out in which he mentioned that he’d been involved in re-mastering all the original albums, so I started anticipating some class of boxset: the four studio albums, all the BBC sessions, the aborted first stab at the first album produced by Troy Tate, all the many and splendid B-sides, the live album…it could have stretched to ten discs, easy, with no barrel-scraping necessary. Surely, the new compilation was just a taster? I held fire on it, and waited.

And waited. Thirty months later there’s absolutely no sign of any Smiths reissues coming, and the rumour that Morrissey is refusing to authorise them because they would give estranged drummer Mike Joyce an income stream seems to have gained more credence. The Sound Of The Smiths is still out there, and finally curiosity has overcome me. Was it worth the ten quid it cost to get a bunch of old songs I already own?

Absolutely. The first big plus about this album is the sheer quantity of material on it. It was released in both one disc and two disc editions, with the first disc consisting mainly of tracks released as singles, both in the UK and elsewhere, and the second being a mix of B-sides, alternate versions and the odd album track, and it goes without saying that the two discer is the one to go for. There’s a total of 45 tracks here, with only one song appearing in two different versions, which means that close to two-thirds of all the songs recorded by the band are represented. No collection that still manages to omit Reel Around The Fountain, I Know It’s Over, This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Rubber Ring could ever really be called definitive, but it’s not half bad, certainly striking value for money, and if you’re only ever going to get one Smiths album this just about edges it over The Queen Is Dead.

The second justification for getting this is the inclusion of a handful of high quality rarities that haven’t ever been properly rounded up before. We get the jaunty Jeane and the mysterious Wonderful Woman from the B-sides of This Charming Man, the searing live take of Handsome Devil from the 7 inch of Hand In Glove, a cover of fellow Mancunians James’s What’s The World, which I think was only ever issued on a cassette single, a harrowing live Meat Is Murder, and the Troy Tate produced demo of Pretty Girls Make Graves. Oh, and there’s also the extended New York vocal remix of This Charming Man, which seems a bit of a liberty given that the band never authorised it and it takes up space that could be occupied by one of the omissions I’ve mentioned. While I’m on the subject of rejigged singles, it’s worth mentioning (because the sleeve notes don’t always) that some of the tracks on the first disc are specifically 7 inch versions, so no atmospheric intro on Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me here.

And to finish where I started, the third and best reason to get this CD is the improvement in the sound quality over the existing album versions of these songs. The remastering is just great – the songs sound bright, vibrant and punchy, with bass and high end coming over as they should, and the wealth of detail in the recordings can finally be heard clearly. For ten pounds it’s a steal. I may not be getting a Smiths boxset for Christmas just yet, but this will do nicely for now.

Postscript, 30th July 2011: Rhino records has just announced that they’ll be releasing an eight album set this October consisting of the four studio albums, Hatful Of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, Louder Than Bombs and the live album Rank, all re-mastered with the approval of Johnny Marr. The pedant in me recoils a bit at the fact that this is being marketed as a “complete” collection, but it looks like a must-buy, particularly at £35 for the standard release. There will also be a stupidly lavish limited edition containing LPs, DVDs, posters, prints, 7″ singles and probably Morrissey’s long-lost sense of his own ridiculousness, all for a somewhat higher price. ‘Bout bloody time.

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