For a band that lasted only five years and released only four official full-length albums, the Smiths’ catalog is a nightmare to untangle. The 70 or so songs the band eventually issued were consistently brilliant — an idiosyncratic amalgam of character studies, political insight, and life-changing anthems for the eternal outsider. In Britain, they were immediate and justifiable stars. But in the States, the action was more confused. While the unarguably wonderful manner in which the Smiths’ music has aged over time has burnished their greatness beyond dispute, it is difficult to express how alienating the challenge they presented to American audiences was during the mid-1980s. For a band exemplified by a prototypical British archness and the intentionally ambiguous sexuality of lead singer Morrissey, they engendered a dissonant confusion for mainstream audiences accustomed to “manly” acts like Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams. Even as ostensibly progressive bands like U2 and R.E.M. flourished on commercial radio, we were not quite prepared to reckon with the challenge of the Smiths’ frontman: a dyed-in-the-wool rock star who didn’t at least on some level reference his “love of the ladies.” If Boy George was easier to accept, it was because he was a simple caricature — a pure entertainer in drag, not that far from Milton Berle or Benny Hill. Morrissey was something different altogether: icy, acid of wit, and foreign in nearly every regard.
In spite of these obstacles, the Smiths held in their favor those great levelers that always tend to be most consequential: amazing songs and an inspired live show. The visionary A&R icon Seymour Stein was eager and smart enough to bring them aboard Sire Records, but by the time the Smiths began issuing albums Stateside, their catalog had already become a baffling miasma of differing UK and US variants. There were repetitive singles’ collections and a vast handful of alternate takes, rarities, and other sundry oddities of note. On “Paint A Vulgar Picture,” Morrissey himself comes across as appalled by the seemingly unchecked mercantilism implied by the persistent reconstitution of the group’s catalog: “Re-issue/ Re-package/ Re-evaluate the songs/ Double-pack with a photograph/ Extra track and a tacky badge.”
Full-lengths aside, the Smiths crucially possess the special designation of being perhaps the greatest singles band since the Beatles, issuing A- and B-sides so formidable as to inspire awe. The band was so utterly flush with great material that timeless classics such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” “Panic,” “Ask” and “Shelia Take A Bow” never even bowled their way onto one of the Smiths’ official full-lengths. At the peak of their powers, they resembled nothing so much as the Fab Four, producing ingenious material at a breakneck rate that nearly defies credulity.
Unfortunately they were like the Beatles in other ways as well. That the Smiths ultimately spent nearly as much time suing one another in court as they did making music is regrettable but perhaps appropriate. The unstoppably wonderful songs that Morrissey and guitarist and key collaborator Johnny Marr created together were nearly always indictments of one kind or another, from the leering bigots depicted in “Hand In Glove” to the unfeeling employer in “Frankly, Mr. Shankly.” As a solo artist, Morrissey once memorably sang: ’Beware, I hold more grudges/ than lonely high court judges.” And goddamn if he hasn’t been true to his word. Twenty-five years after the fact, you get the sense that the man wouldn’t cross the street to pour water on his former bandmates if they were hairdressers on fire. Maybe no other artist has ever treated the tradition of rock and roll with quite such the litigious air as Morrissey. Everyone is on trial. Pardons are few and far between.
Ultimately, what we are left with is a fractious and frustrating catalog that nevertheless ranks easily alongside the best and most extraordinary in contemporary music. Of course, the Smiths are never far from our hearts or the news: Next month, Marr will release his first true “solo” album — and based on the music we’ve heard so far, the early reports, and even in his own words, it’s his most Smiths-ian work since parting ways with Moz; Morrissey, meanwhile, kicks off a U.S. tour this Wednesday on Long Island, NY, preceded tomorrow night by an appearance on Letterman. (And of course there are perennial calls for the band to reunite, always met with hilariously staunch refusals.) So what better time to look back on the mighty career of one of pop music’s best-ever outfits? Slight disclaimer: In order to accurately capture the band’s catalog, we have expanded this countdown to include (and combine into one writeup) the band’s two great, but highly similar singles compilations Hatful Of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs. No respectable record library would be complete without both of these collections. Of course, the same could be said of every other album in this slight but unforgettable discography. The Countdown starts here.