Not wishing to sound all Noel Gallagher here, but when I were a lad, young folk knew how to start a Smiths collection. We'd drag ourselves away from splitting our sides over Noel's House Party or quaking in pre-millennial terror at The X-Files, catch the bus into town, and buy a copy of The Queen Is Dead on CD (or cassette for the poor kids). What with the lack of the internet in any meaningful sense and Radio 1's vigorous scorched earth policy towards music pre-1990, some of us hadn't actually heard any Smiths beforehand, basically investing on grounds of reputation alone. I'm pretty sure that the closest I came to prior exposure was seeing Morrissey perform tracks off Maladjusted on TFI Friday. Times were hard. But we got by: turned out The Queen Is Dead was quite a lot better than Maladjusted in, say, the way winning the lottery is quite a lot better than being shot in the balls. So I liked it, I bought their other records, 11 years flew by tolerably enough, and here I am pondering the point of The Sound Of The Smiths.
The trouble with compilations of music by this band is that they released the two best ones – Hatful Of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs – during their own mayfly lifespan, while the singles have been collected in any number of permutations since. So there's no point dwelling on The Sound Of The Smiths' first CD – it's the singles in chronological order, and is almost identical to 2001's The Very Best Of The Smiths. The songs on it are very, very good, but the disc only exists as a cynical way of getting a big selling back catalogue a prominent place on the Christmas shelves.
The second CD bears more discussion. For some obscure reason opener 'Jeane' has never been issued anywhere apart from as B-side to 'This Charming Man'; it's fantastic, a ragged, lo-fi stomp that would have fitted nicely onto The Smiths, a guilt-stricken Morrissey calling time on a joyless love affair. "No heavenly choir for me and not for you", he sighs to the eponymous lady (yeah, yeah) over a primitive Marr jangle and a bed of his own ebullient whooping. 'Wonderful Woman' is another B-side of the same vintage and obscurity, a funereal fog spiked with dreamy Marr arpeggios and a harmonica drifting in like the ghost of the blues, Morrissey stretching out the line "what is wrong with her?" into a pure, melancholic bleed. Aaaaaaaaand that's about it. A furious live take on 'Handsome Devil' is better than the Hatful Of Hollow version, hellish rockabilly that'd set Mark E Smith reeling. The instrumental 'Money Changes Everything' is reasonably hard to come by, but unfortunately sounds a bit like Pink Floyd jamming on 'Careless Whisper'. A live cover of James' 'What's The World?' was probably fun at the time. Other than that, the disc is a dumb-witted mix of B-sides already collected on Louder Than Bombs, more live stuff, and for some obscure reason three Queen Is Dead album tracks. Lord know what the logic for it all is – naturally the band had diddly-squat involvement – but it hardly constitutes a satisfying rarities collection. Hardcore fans have other ways and means of tracking down 'Jeane' and 'Wonderful Women', while somebody unfamiliar with the band is unlikely to be juddering with ecstasy at the inclusion of 'This Charming Man – New York Vocal'. Annoyingly it points to the fact there are still difficult to obtain Smiths songs, only Warners clearly can't be bothered to release them in meaningful form – would a reissued Louder Than Bombs with a second CD of obscure B-sides and the Sandie Shaw sessions be too much to ask?
So yadda yadda yadda, a best of isn't as worthwhile as a group's actual albums, what a shocker. The point being that The Smiths are such an easy band to collect that there's no excuse for this opportunistic repackaging, hence the low mark. If you're trying to get somebody into the band, get one of the studio albums - if they like it they'll work through the other records just fine. Whatever the case, please don't buy The Sound Of The Smiths for somebody as a Christmas present just because they muttered something about being into them in the 80s. That's what David Cameron's kids are going to do when they grow up. You're better than David Cameron's kids.
4Andrzej Lukowski's Score