I’m surprised it’s taken this long, to be honest. At some point in this list I was bound to come to an album where I have to ask the question – is it OK to still like this, or even listen to it?
And, you know, I could say, well, I still listen to Wagner, and move on. But I think this deserves a little attention, because it’s an interesting example of how, in 2022, I feel like we’re all supposed to have a black or white opinion on everything, and we’ve lost the nuance in so many arguments.
So, let’s start with this: in recent years, the lead singer of the Smiths has made public statements which make me profoundly uncomfortable, and which are about as far from my personal opinion on certain things as it is possible to get. And, as I don’t know him or have to interact with him in any way, that’s just fine. He is entitled to express his opinions, and I’m entitled to disagree with them. I choose not to amplify those opinions, although I reserve the right to hear them and make my own mind up.
Which I have done, and – like I say – I don’t agree, and am in some part concerned that those opinions might influence people negatively, which is why I choose not to amplify them.
So much for that, but what about the songs he wrote and sang nearly 40 years ago? Is my listening to them in some way complicit in something? Well, first of all, it’s purely my business what I listen to, I think – I put headphones on and no-one else can hear, and me listening to an old Smiths album isn’t going to influence anyone to do anything.
But what about me writing about that album? Does that run the risk of somehow legitimising the singer’s viewpoints?
Here’s the thing. I don’t know.
I’m aware that’s something of a radical thing to say in 2022. I think I’m supposed to not only have an opinion about it, but to be certain, even strident in my views. I have a feeling that I’m supposed to leave this post blank with a note which says I was going to write about the Smiths’ album Hatful of Hollow here, but have chosen not to. But I haven’t done that, as you can tell.
Two things about that decision, then I’ll move on to the reminiscing and dancing about architecture you all came here for. Firstly, the internet isn’t the rest of the world. Certain opinions and debates are blown up out of all proportion to how they affect the rest of the word, and being fearful that something I or anyone else writes down on the internet will somehow cause someone else discomfort, or lay me open to accusations of – oh, I don’t know, something about the oxygen of publicity, I guess – is the quickest way to self-censorship and being unable to articulate any of my opinions, so I’m not doing that.
Secondly, this is a Smiths album, and not only do I not have a problem with the opinions of three quarters of the musicians on it, I’d like to actively promote their playing, particularly Johnny Marr, as we’ll see. They no more knew what their singer was going to say about things decades in the future than I did when I first bought and loved this album.
Oh, and just to complete all the controversies, I said way back at the start of this that there would be no compilations, and while I’ve already unwittingly broken that rule, this time I did it knowingly. This is, indeed, a compilation, but as it’s largely a compilation of different versions of songs from the ones released elsewhere, I’m going to allow it.
I’m also going to allow it because, my rules, my list, and I want to talk about this music.
Back in 1984, I didn’t like the Smiths. Not even a little bit. I thought they were miserable (whatever happened to having fun in music, I wondered aloud at times), tuneless and vaguely silly. All of which was down to the fact that I hadn’t properly listened to them, and was having my first moment of ‘there’s nothing new to be said in music; it’s all been done’.
I’d have a few more of those over the years, haven’t been right yet, and hope I never will be.
The scales fell from my eyes some time after hearing Sandie Shaw’s version of Hand in Glove, I think. It is bright and while I don’t know that it suits her voice that well, I remember hearing it in an end of year roundup of some kind, and thinking that perhaps I should seek out the original, which turned out to be significantly better, played at a lower tempo and in a minor key. I wasn’t sure about the voice, but it suited the song.
After poking around some other Smiths songs to see if perhaps I’d misjudged them a little, I decided I should try a whole album. The trouble was that the majority of the songs I knew, which were the singles, didn’t appear on the debut album – yes, I was that shallow at that time. I don’t know who alerted me to this album; probably an article in Sounds, but it could have been anyone. However it happened, I celebrated having actual disposable income by going out and spending some of it on a compilation album by a band I thought I didn’t really like.
Yes, disposable income. By the time I bought this, I was permanently and gainfully employed. I’ll get round to the whole ‘not being a student anymore’ thing shortly.
The songs on Hatful of Hollow are actually terrific. I may spend more time on the guitar work than the vocals and lyrics in the next few paragraphs, but that’s almost entirely because that’s what I focused on at the time.
The thing about guitar was that I’d spent years equating brilliant guitar work with distortion and speed; power and pyrotechnics, and it wasn’t until I really listened to how Johnny Marr made his guitar do extraordinary things on this album that I really shook off my ‘louder and faster is better’ mantra and started to listen to the rest of the world.
In the back of my mind, I was convinced this was a double album, but it turns out to have been a really tightly packed single album – a whole hour of music on a standard sized 12-inch disc. I’m listening to a digital version today, so I can’t tell if the original suffered in any way from just how much music was crammed on to it.
The first couple of tracks – William, it was Really Nothing and What Difference Does it Make? – zip by, partly due to their familiarity and partly because these are short pop songs. I’m struck that these are indeed slightly different versions to the ones I’m so familiar with, and I’m really hearing the rhythm section, so often overlooked, driving these along.
These Things Take Time is the first really interesting song to me, because I’m so much less familiar with it. It’s very definitely an early Smiths song – the sound isn’t quite fixed yet, and you can hear Marr playing with the guitar line, working out what he wants it to sound like, while the lyric is a kind of proto-Smiths set of words. All in their correct place, just less convincing than others here.
This Charming Man, on the other hand, is fully finished, and although again it’s a different version to the well-known one, it bounces along convincingly. I think I may actually prefer it to the single version – it feels slightly less polished, and more like a band figuring out how to play it. Right here is where I first properly heard how complex a simple guitar line can be – it’s breathtaking, even at this slightly slower pace.
How Soon is Now always seemed to me to be a deliberate attempt at a psychedelic wig-out. I’m not sure anyone told the lyricist, as the words are rooted in the usual concerns; deliberately or otherwise, they are squarely aimed at the ‘teenage boy suffering from tumultuous hormones’ market – the one I was definitely in a few years earlier. My remedy was Jim Steinman, but this was it for an entire generation, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is by far the most played track on the Spotify version.
It’s also nearly seven minutes long, which seemed to me the opposite of what all this indie music was supposed to be about, but I don’t know where you’d trim it – the guitar drone which constantly shifts channel hypnotises you and defeats all critical faculties. It’s definitely the centrepiece of the first side, probably of the whole album.
I didn’t immediately remember Handsome Devil, but it’s an archetypical Smiths song – and then there’s the line which rhymes ‘hands’ with ‘mammary glands’ and while I cringe now, I recognise the way it’s specifically written to provoke that kind of response. The nearly 60-year-old me laughs and shakes his head; the 22-year old me probably laughed uproariously.
I can now confirm that this version of Hand in Glove is, indeed, better than the Sandie Shaw one. The voice is better suited to it, and it all sounds more polished and confident. It’s also in the right key, but that’s probably down to familiarity as much as anything. And it ends properly with the Beatles-invoking harmonica.
Talking of harmonica, the beginning of Still Ill really doesn’t sound like the Smiths at all. Until the guitar and voice shove the intro out of the way, and then it doesn’t sound like anyone else at all. I’m listening closely to the way the song is structured, and – as with a few of these, but it’s clearest here, I think, the guitar line is sparse and clean, but somehow fills out the entire centre of the song. The bass work is splendid, and lays a foundation, but where most bands would lay down a sequence of chords, Johnny Marr weaves a delicate tracery of guitar under the vocal line, yet still manages to make it sound complete and full.
Side two starts with the stereotypical Smiths song Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, which is saved from being outright parody by – guess what – the stunning guitar work. I know exactly why the lyric worked and presumably still works for a certain kind of listener, but I’m a little cynical about it now – I like to think I always was, but I suspect not. It’s written in a way which carefully ticks all the teenage angst boxes, but I don’t know how honestly felt it was, or was ever supposed to be.
The lyricist says certain things for effect, is what I’m saying.
This Night Has Opened My Eyes is much more like it from a lyrical point of view – it’s a properly told story, and remarkably close to Tender Blue from last week’s entry by EBTG. Hearing these two albums back to back, as it were, reveals that they were much closer in spirit than I think I understood at the time.
You’ve Got Everything Now is another one which only came back to me once I started listening to it; it’s another one which is a little Smiths-by-numbers, but it has a forcefulness to it which works; it’s a perfect example of what a Smiths album track sounds like – not quite catchy enough for wider exposure, but does all the things you’d expect it to. It goes without saying that the guitar work is remarkable and propels the whole thing along.
I remember liking Accept Yourself at the time, and I see why now – it’s only the voice which makes it sound particularly Smiths-like; musically, it’s unusually rock-like, and serves to demonstrate how the same building blocks can be used to make something different; it even provokes a slightly different vocal treatment for most of its length. Love the final chord, too.
Which all set us up nicely for Girl Afraid, bouncing in with an irresistible hook which holds the vocals at bay as long as it can, then only reluctantly accepts that the words require a slightly different tone, but which keeps pushing its way to the front. I like to think that it’s the guitar line which wins the battle, and has me singing along by the end.
I have only now remembered that the reason I loved this album was that it pulled me in with the familiar songs at the beginning, then surprised me with this run of songs on the second side. After the two previous tracks shifted the sound a little, Back to the Old House rips up the template entirely; a delightful fingerpicked acoustic guitar track underpins a properly mournful lyric, sung without most of the usual layer of ‘performance’ over it. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity and likely the best track on side two.
Reel Around the Fountain was controversial then, and remains so today, thanks to its deliberately vague suggestiveness – I think it may have been intended as a commentary on, or reaction to, all those seventies songs of ‘boy becomes man after one night with woman’ songs (Maggie May, anyone), but it’s clumsily done, and felt slightly icky at the time, and probably more so now. And I’d like to say it’s a shame, because the music deserved more, but I’m afraid even that isn’t quite true either – it’s a bit plodding, in truth.
Fortunately, it’s not the last memory of this album, as the final track is the curiously joyful Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, which always seemed to me to be self-parody, but is musically just gorgeous, and is surely intended to make you laugh rather than nod thoughtfully, which is a strange way to end a Smiths album, but is definitely part of the reason I wanted it in this list.
I definitely loved it back then; it opened my eyes not only to the Smiths, but to a whole scene I’d been neglecting. I’m not able to listen to it now with the same ears I had back then, but I’m not going to stop listening to things because I no longer see one of the band members in quite the same light I once did, and I’m pleased to have revisited it now, and been reminded of the tracks I’d almost forgotten, but which turned out to be the reason I liked it so much in the first place.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
If I had to pick one, it would be The Queen Is Dead, and only partly because of Douglas Coupland and the lightbulb moment in his novel Girlfriend in a Coma where I realised he was peppering the text with Smiths lyrics. The other studio albums are all worth exploring, if you have decided that you are comfortable listening to the Smiths.
Compilations to consider?
Well, this one. I think I’m supposed to say Louder Than Bombs, but if you really want a Smiths compilation, there’s a Best Of from 2001 which I used to play a lot back then.
Do you know, I had to look it up. It’s called Rank, and it had entirely slipped my mind. Make of that what you will. I do remember, having thought about it, that it didn’t feature any of the early singles.
So many books, of which I think Johnny Rogan’s The Severed Alliance is probably still the best. As always, I’m prepared to be enlightened.