Sunday, 23 November 2008

What Difference Does It Make?

The Smiths Go Back to School in 1984

November 10th saw the release of ‘The Sound of the Smiths’ and at face value to most present fans of The Smith’s this may well just seem like another money making exploitation of their die hard loyalty. And in a way it is just that. The record is a collection of songs which have become a standard feature of any Smith’s compilation, since their split in 1987 with a light sprinkling of album tracks, which have been remastered by guitarist, Johnny Marr. However I’d argue that this record is of extreme importance, a powerful body of work which hopefully introduces The Smith’s to a new generation of consumers who I’d hope will benefit from its influence as many have done before.

For better or for worse, The Smiths have provided influence and inspiration for a number of prominent bands whom inhabit today’s music scene, from Radiohead to MCR, from Oasis to The Libertines, from Mark Ronson to The Cribs. The Smiths have been identified as the most influential UK band since The Beatles and I have to say that I completely agree.

So what makes The Smiths great? The consistency and strength of musicianship within The Smiths is unsurpassed by any guitar band since. Starting from the back, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke form a phenomenal rhythm section. Joyce’s drumming is consistently spot-on, it’s not flashy and it does not detract from the music. Rourke combines with Joyce’s no-nonsense approach by picking inventive and melodic bass lines, it has been commented that Rourke’s bass lines are like ‘a song within a song’- not bad for a man with a severe heroin addiction. The two combine to devastating effect on several tracks and this is demonstrated most potently on the funky Barbarism Begins at Home and the pop classic This Charming Man.

Joyce and Rourke provide the perfect musical foundation to complement the melodic genius of lead guitarist, Johnny Marr. Johnny Marr is considered with awe by those who are aware of his musicianship, hence the excitement in recent years when he has linked up with the likes of Modest Mouse and The Cribs. His influence’s range from Motown’s girl groups to funk to folk and he manages to infuse these together to create The Smiths sound which resonates throughout this album. From the weaving melodies of What Difference Does It Make to the bitter driving rock of How Soon Is Now, to the bleak balladry of That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More and the anthemic There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Marr’s innovative musicianship leads to an interesting and vibrant range of songs which defines the sound of The Smiths but never becomes samey a la Coldplay, which I believe is the quality which separates the very best bands from the great bands.

Another factor which differentiates the best from the good bands is the quality of the lyricist and the charisma of the frontman. The Smiths had arguably one of the very best in the business for both these factors in Morrissey. Morrissey is often conveyed as a miserable git singing songs of alienation to a pop beat but I refute this as Morrissey’s lyrics are far cleverer and more intriguing than a five year self indulged lament. Morrissey uses dry and observational wit in his lyrics to add melodrama to his work, as in Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now where his witty tongue-in-cheek lament combines with Marr’s jovial guitar work to provide a joyously funny song. He uses observational humour is used as an attack on provincial England in Nowhere Fast as he dryly quips that ‘Each household appliance/is like a new science/in my town! Morrissey’s lyrics also enjoy a degree of sexual ambiguity (as in This Charming Man) which has led to much speculation on the singer’s sexuality and interest in the band. This tactic has been shamelessly employed by indie bands since, one of which dominates our current scene (Bloc Party). Furthermore Morrissey uses his lyrics as a stage for vicious and cruel attacks on his enemies. The Headmaster Ritual is an unrelenting attack on his past tormentors (Belligerent ghouls/ run Manchester schools/ spineless bastards all) and Panic is an attack on irrelevant DJ’s of the day (Burn down the Disco/ Hang the Blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/ says nothing to me/ about my life – a sentiment with which anyone who has been dragged to Arena against their will, must agree!)

I think that maybe one of the strengths of his lyrics is that they are easy to relate to, to those with an exaggerated sense of self importance. This arrogance gives Morrissey a platform to comment with authority on both personal and political issues. And thus Morrissey’s lyrics chart his personal journey from a self confessed ‘back bedroom casualty’ to a spokesman for a generation and this album certainly reflects this. Morrissey’s charisma and opinionated lyrics ultimately make him either someone you love or someone that you despise.

Of course I can go on and on about the strengths of The Smiths and maybe I have but I must plead with you to give them a chance, and this album could be that chance. Of course like any compilation it does leave out some songs which some fans would like to hear on it and as I said before it is arguably just a money making exploitation of existing fans. But you could take the view that this release is just another sad indication of a growing trend, along with the reformation of countless ‘legendary bands’ such as The Police and The Sex Pistols in recent years that our current crop of indie bands are limited in comparison and so people are looking back nostalgically to better times. Sadly I have to agree. We need another Smiths from our generation that people can look back upon in twenty years and think ‘it was better when…’ However until then I’d advise people to get into The Smiths if they haven’t already, as they truly are great band. No other band I have encountered before or after The Smiths have produced a body of work consistent in quality from their first album to their last. The Smiths never wrote weak tracks like, Revolution 9 (The Beatles) or a Skag & Bone Man (The Libertines), they were consistently great throughout their 5 year career and I struggle to find a weak song on any of their albums. ‘The Sound of The Smiths’ only scratches the surface of the Smith’s repertoire but is still a great collection of songs which stands up to any album in the chart at the moment and is a great introduction to the band for new fans. If you don’t have a Smiths album this a good place to start.

Tim Cox

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