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.
13 thoughts on “Somewhat Marrvellous, Somewhat Disappointing”
Superb, as always Mista Callsta.
Coupla quick observations _
Who wouldn’t like your J Marr stories?
When I was 22, I was going to beach parties in Jersey, worrying about the ratio of Smirnoff to Coke in a litre bottle, whether it was going to last all night, ……….. arpegios to major 8ths to minor chords and frets etc – WTF!
‘mindless minutae’ – it’s what keeps us going mate, one mans sleevenotes is another mans homework!
Mr J Marr has always/has now/will always have exquisite taste in footwear.
and finally, please try hard to NEVER mention (even fleetingly) Bon Jovi in your brilliant blog ever again. Speak soon.
Sold us short? Don’t worry, there’s bound to be another “reissue, repackage, repackage” in the future to address the shortfall.
Disc 4 (DVD) features hi-res tracks (24bit 96kHz PCM stereo) from “The Queen is Dead” as well as a film “The Queen is Dead” directed by Derek Jarman. So you get the Jarman QID movie with the QID Deluxe Edition and if you purchase it through Amazon you get a free MP3 download… which can be re-used forever…
You need to study which Deluxe Expanded Box Set Luxury Edition you are buying sir!
You clearly considered your purchase!
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No doubt. No doubt.
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….and the maestro is also the proud owner of one of your Burns-if-he-was-in-the Velvet Underground badges. Which makes him an extra % or so even cooler.
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I haven’t bought it. I’ve picked it up a few times but until now always put it down again. That demo of Some Girls… is lovely.
I never even considered purchasing it Craig. Not once. Like yourself I loved The Smiths. From first to last and every blessed note in between. Morrissey warned us about the “extra track and a tacky badge” box-set era to come back on Strangeways. It painted a vulgar picture then and that picture’s vulgarity does not diminish. Just them teenagers get older, richer and will part with more money much, much faster. Don’t they just – eh?
As for MP3’s of obscure Smiths demos. I would much rather download a slightly lower bitrate MP3 of a Smiths demo I hadn’t heard before than pay Morrissey, Marr or RT another single penny. The total draining of Smiths fans and our undying love storage tank is now complete and must cease. Smiths fans should draw a line (if they haven’t already) and boycott any further probing of our vulnerabilities. I was sent a lovely Rubber Ring demo a few years ago on the back of a blog I did back then and a glorious treat it was too. I still love things like that happening.
Johnny, Mike, Stephen and Andy (and Craig briefly too) are forever The Smiths that they were for those five glorious years. The “era-defining complete set” was issued between May 1983 and Dec 1987. That’s it. Everything else after was “re-issue, re-package, repackage”… “Buy more and feel diseased”. Any new, latest “era-defining Box-Set” will corrode your soul, destroy your great memories and mock the Jerusalem they built from nothing but their own toiling genius. I read in 2015 ( a quarter of a Century after The Smiths split up) with real joy and a twinge of righteous jealousy of your meet with Mr Marr at Killie’s Grand Hall, so I understand the views I express here might not be quite what you might want to be associated with or even permit onto a page which Mr Marr might read.
Your thoughts are very much appreciated, Sid. And excellently put. Thanks for taking the time to word them so well.
Aye, it’s a great version.
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You are quite right Sid Law.
I’m with Sid. I love it all, especially if I haven’t heard it before, but the only people buying this stuff are the serious fans and we made them multi-millionaires already. They should be releasing this stuff through fan websites or somet similar – like Plain Or…!
And Craigy, whatever happened to The Smiths project you were working on? – it used to be on your front page but it got dropped some time ago (before the new format). I’m guessing nothing came of it? I know it’s a huge amount of work, but I did so adore Tacky Badge, and the anticipation for the next release was intoxicating! Merry Christmas kid.
The planned Shoplifting With The Smiths thing would’ve, if done properly and with respect (as it should be) turned into a massive, sprawling project – a song-by-ding dissection of it’s constituent parts and influences. With work, family and all my other commitments, I just don’t have the time to dedicate to it. I anticipated it being like a partner to the excellent Songs That Saved Upur Life book by Simon Reynolds. I’d have hated to start it then run out of steam. Perhaps in the future I’ll get back to it.
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