One step in becoming a great band is believing you’re great, and The Smiths had no problem with that. Before playing a single note together Morrissey and Johnny Marr were convinced their music would have an impact, and their audience quickly took The Smiths as seriously as the band did. Few groups have had such a simple or perfect chemistry. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce played every rhythm with authority, including the tight rockabilly beats that were part of the Smiths’ sound from the beginning. Johnny Marr played acoustic guitarist as well as anyone in rock music, and he was equally impressive on the electric. Along with being unusually gifted at devising music to bring out the emotion behind the lyrics, Marr was the band member who holed up in the studio, layering guitar tracks in order to create a full, symphonic sound that owed much to Phil Spector. Lyric writer and vocalist Morrisey had less patience with the recording process, but it didn’t matter: a few takes was all he needed to convey the angst, irony, and bizarre sense of humor that marked his lyrics.
The Smiths’ reign was brief—1983 to 1987—with their output limited to four studio albums, a posthumous live release, an EP, and 25 singles. During those same years the band also put out three compilations: Hatful of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, and Louder than Bombs. That sounds simple enough, almost, but completists have had a heck of a time putting together a definitive Smiths
2 October 2008 The Absolute Sound
collection. Among their struggles: back in the vinyl days US and UK releases differed, there were US- and UK-only releases, their record company altered an LP that had already been released, and there were alternate mixes to hunt down. The dawn of the CD was hardly a panacea, as Smiths fans complained about sound quality and a surplus of pointless compilations. Surely listeners must have fantasized about one release that would contain everything the band had ever recorded so they could finally be done with the matter (and hopefully it would sound good, too).
In spite of its title, the eight-CD Complete doesn’t quite contain every official release by The Smiths (sorry). It does, however, include every full- length album that originally came out on vinyl, and even though there’s lots of redundancy, Complete covers enough ground that even some sticklers might say: close enough—especially because the sonics are considerably improved. Like many Smiths fans, Johnny Marr was unsatisfied with earlier CD mixes, and Complete is the fruit of the legal battle he fought and won to finally re-master the music of the Smiths. Ultimately the project involved more subtraction than addition in an effort to make the music sound more natural (and closer to the original records). The artificially boosted high end has been removed, and the compression that marred previous CDs has been reduced. Although I haven’t heard it, there’s also a vinyl version of Complete, plus a deluxe edition featuring everything on LP and CD along with all the singles. Such luxuries would only appeal to fanatics—but hearing that the line for a recent general admission Morrissey concert began two days before showtime leads me to suspect they’re still out there. (Sadly, the show was postponed.)