Somewhat Marrvellous, Somewhat Disappointing

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 SmithsSome 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 SmithsFrankly, 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.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Giant Steps For Mankind

Riding a bike at top speed and slightly out of control was the greatest thrill as a youngster, the first truly independent feeling you could experience. In 1977, the Sillars Meadow speedway was where you’d mostly find me, gripping the handlebars of my Puch Mini Sprint with white knuckles, hayfevered eyes focused on the snaking path ahead, tearing into the blind corners with carefree abandon, hoping to avoid Mrs Robertson, her Thatcher do and her yappy dog on the tightest part where the path narrowed into one ‘lane’ –  a particularly tricky bit. There was always a bit of a competition to see who could get round the speedway the fastest. Three things helped; Mrs Robertson not being there, having absolutely no fear and sticking half a fag packet into the spokes. Ratta-ratta-ratta! it went, adding at least 0.5 mph to the top speed of your bike. That ratta-ratta-ratta sound was something that would make a continual, welcome and comforting appearance throughout my life.


This June (16th, to be exact) sees the 30th (30th!!!) anniversary of The Queen Is Dead. There will no doubt be many reappraisals and celebrations for TQID nearer the time. I for one will no doubt change my Facebook profile pic to that of the LP cover signed by Johnny Marr. Did I ever tell you I met Johnny? I’m sure I mentioned it in passing somewhere. Hovering over the Salford Lads Club picture with my sharpie he tutted and said, “I never liked myself in that picture…I look better now than I did then…“, flipped the cover shut and signed across the iconic image of the horizontal Alain Delon. It looks as beautiful as the album sounds.

Anyway, on that very same day (16th June 1986) another landmark LP was released. It’s likely little fanfare will be blasted in its honour, but in my house at least, a wee portion of the day will be given over to it.


The WoodentopsGiant was, and still is, a terrific-sounding album. Played expertly with loose limbs and rubber wrists, it’s a giddy 100mph rush from start to finish, a downhill-without-the-brakes-on blur of ferociously-scrubbed acoustic guitars, proto dance rhythms and hypnotic, skittering drums. Ratta-ratta-ratta they go. Except for on the really fast ones, when  they sound like someone’s dropped a box of steel marbles across a kitchen floor. These days I cycle to the metronomic rhythms of Underworld and their ilk, soundtracking my journeys as I pedal along the highways and byways of the west of Scotland’s cycle paths, but had the technology been available in the 1970’s, I’d have been soundtracking and breaking world records on the Sillars Meadow speedway to the frantic clatter of The Woodentops.

The WoodentopsGet It On

The WoodentopsShout

The WoodentopsEverything Breaks


Loved by Morrissey, and ergo by the indie crowd, their tunes were later adopted by the Ibiza faithful, where DJs with eclectic taste would seamlessly mix them into their playlists with carefree abandon. A few short years later, every band within half a mile of a wah-wah pedal and a 2nd hand copy of James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer‘ were claiming they’d always had a dance element to their music, but for The pioneering Woodentops, there was no pretence.


Their music is marvellous stuff and none of it has aged in the slightest. Giant is an album I always come back to. Maybe not that regularly any more, but at least once a year it’ll come out and get stuck on. And while it plays I do that rarest of things. I sit and listen. I don’t get the iron out or watch a soundless telly. I don’t flick through Mojo with half an ear on the music and half an eye on the crossword. I sit in the stripey chair and listen. It’s an extremely hard thing to do. Half All the tracks are super-percussive, highly danceable and totally singalongable. If you’ve never had the pleasure of the album, or any of the rest of the band’s stellar back catalogue, it’s never too late to get on board. You can find most of it in all the usual places, I’m sure.

The Woodentops are playing a few celebratory gigs around the date to mark the occasion. Having never seen the band perform, I’m keen to get to one. If they’re near you, I urge you to go too. You can check here.