My work today took me to Kilmarnock’s grand old Grand Hall, scene of the Ballroom Blitz and the venue in which during October 2015 Johnny Marr played a one-song soundcheck (The Headmaster Ritual) to an audience of one (me) before playing then signing my trusty old Telecaster and a couple of Smiths records before being joined by his band for the soundcheck proper. I was there today for a multi-agency course, part of which involved networking the room by finding the other lost souls who happened to have the missing parts of the same jigsaw that I’d found on my chair when I arrived. “Snowman?” some fellow room circulator would ask uncomfortably in your general direction. “Sorry, I’m an elf,” was my standard ridiculous reply. Once located, my fellow elves and I were allocated a table and a task, part of which involved telling a story to someone at your table. Given the venue and the fact that the chap next to me had already mentioned Gruff Rhys and Super Furry Animals, I fancied that he’d quite like my Johnny Marr story. As it turns out, he did, especially when I got to the punchline about how he played Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others on my guitar, his silver nail polish twinkling with each open-stringed twang.
There’s a version of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others that appears on the new-ish Queen Is Dead box set. It’s listed as a demo and has all the hallmarks of a band finding their uncertain way with a new tune, but it’s quite spectacular. Johnny’s riff hasn’t quite developed into the full-blown shimmer of the album version, but, much like a moonlit sea in your favourite Mediterranean bay, it sparkles with a lucid quicksilver glisten, 80s chorus pedal effects ‘n all . It’s worth stopping to consider that Johnny was only 22 years ‘old’ when he wrote and recorded it, which brings more than a tear of frustrated disbelief to my eyes every time I think about it. When I was 22 I was still trying to master the bastard F chord. Johnny, of course, would choose to play his F by sticking a capo on the 4th fret and playing the much easier C chord, but how was I to know that back then?
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (demo)
There’s a general feeling amongst the Smiths community that there was a great opportunity lost with the box set. I have to admit to a creeping sense of disappointment with it. It looks great and it sounds great, which is surely all that really matters, but at the eyewatering retail price (that I happily paid) I can’t help feeling a wee bit let down. I’ve lived with it since October and rather than dive in feet first with a hamfisted and potentially regretable review, I’ve waited this long before making my mind up.
It does look great. Sturdy and big, with the black shadow of the famous album cover looking righteous and regal on the front. (It is The Queen Is Dead, after all). But what was wrong with the original’s iconic racing green colour? Or the inner sleeve artwork? Where’s the Salford Lads Club image? That’s as much a part of Smiths’ heritage as the music itself. The new image, the girl wearing the Hatful Of Hollow t-shirt at the Westminster riots is a cracker. It says more than 1000 words ever could, but it’s a modern image. I get it. I appreciate why it’s there. But to include it at the expense of the original is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps Stephen Wright, the photographer that day at Salford Lads Club wanted a hefty fee for including his picture. Who knows?
And what about sleevenotes? Most box sets of this gravitas carry an extended essay from one or more of the makers and shakers. The Queen Is Dead has nothing. Smiths geeks such as myself love eeking out new information. When Mike Joyce told me a few months ago about the colour of shirt Morrissey was wearing when he recorded I Know It’s Over, well, stone me! I had to lie down in a darkened room for over 4 minutes. It’s mindless minutae to some but total treasure to me. And I’m far from alone in Smithdom. Where were the pictures of the recording sessions? The Smiths larking about with half-filled tea cups? Andy Rourke making bunny ears behind Morrissey’s untoppable quiff? They just weren’t there. That’s what was disappointing.
And the music? Well, it sounds fantastic. Johnny has done a smashing job remastering it. It’s clean, vivid, shiny and new, which I can say no more about my well-thumbed original. From now on, the new version is my go-to copy. I still have the original, of course, beautifully autographed by the wunderkid guitarist, so it’s not as if it’s going anywhere anytime soon, but I doubt I’ll ever play that particular copy again.
The demo tracks sound fantastic. Compared to the slightly ropey mp3s that circulated a few years ago, these sound like freshly-minted masterpieces. My problem is the lack of demos. There are, if you know where to look, more versions of these tracks out there, the parping Penny Lane by way of Coronation Street take of Frankly, Mr Shankly for starters. It’s by no means an era-defining complete set.
The Smiths – Frankly, Mr Shankly (demo)
Likewise with the live album. I like the sleeve image of a skewed and wonky Jack Kerouac which, if you squint a bit and use your imagination, looks a wee bit like a morning after the night before Johnny. It would’ve made for a decent budget-priced release in its own right. It’s taken from a late-era Smiths show, with an interesting career-spanning setlist played by a band at the top of their game. It’s good ‘n all, but it sounds kinda flat. It certainly doesn’t have the metallic feral velocity of the Rank album. If you want to hear late-era Smiths in all their volume, stomp and glory, that’s the one for you. And as with Rank, it’s an incomplete show. Maybe the box set includes all of the show that was recorded, but I doubt it. What a missed opportunity!
For the vinyl lover – and there are literally thousands of Smiths fans who bought this boxet – the non-inclusion of the Derek Jarman-filmed Queen Is Dead promo is a glaring miss. There were other opportunities. What about a download code? That’s standard with any vinyl release nowadays. They might even have considered a second live disc of QID-era tracks. There’s that terrific Thank Your Lucky Stars bootleg that does the rounds. It’s sensational. And what about a cleaned-up version of the only ever live take of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others? It’s worthy of inclusion for Morrissey’s extra Carry On Smiths verse alone.
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (live, Brixton Academy, 12.12.86)
Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe not. But in an era when anyone from Bon Iver to Bon Jovi can get away with releasing a 10th Anniversary Edition album with all manner of bolted-on goodies, it does look like the people looking after The Smiths sold us short. The gullible fools that we are.