Anticipating the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, I’ve been reading the Holly biography Rave On by Philip Norman. With those glasses on, it has become so clear to me that Holly has left his imprint on the rock ‘n’ roll all around us.
Unlike the lackluster attention given to the contract-fulfilling The Best of the Smiths (both volumes), Rhino’s double-disc The Sound of the Smiths collects the singles and B-sides plus has the Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s imprimatur—Morrissey providing the title and Marr supervising the mastering.
Often said to be modeling their partnership on Lennon/McCartney, Morrissey and Marr focused on releasing singles. While albums like The Queen is Dead are truly albums—crafted, cohesive, artist works as a whole—Morrissey and Marr were always reaching for the next chart-topping single.
Despite Morrissey’s objections in “Paint a Vulgar Picture” (Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!/Re-evaluate the songs/Double-pack with a photograph/Extra Track (and a tacky badge)”), The Sound of the Smiths revisits a pattern in the Smiths catalog of albums that collect singles and B-sides: Hatful of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, and Louder Than Bombs—early throwing in something new for the fans rushing out to buy the album. However, what makes this Rhino collection a sound investment is that disc one delivers the singles in chronological order, even putting in the scheduled singles that weren’t released. It gives the disc a charm and historicity as it plays from end to end. Disc two with its B-sides and a few rarities helps completists (whose cassette singles perhaps like mine were eaten by angry tape decks).
Listening disc two’s “This Charming Man (New York Vocal),” I realized how much the Smiths owed to Buddy Holly. Beyond the Lennon/McCartney and singles comparisons, and beyond the well-known Morrissey obsessions with Elvis and James Dean, Holly remains right there as part of what the Smiths were trying to create.
This experimental, extended version of “This Charming Man” made me think of how Holly and manager/producer Norman Petty worked studio magic, trying many different sounds until it was just right. They had to get it right, because it would be a single, their bread and butter—singular singles focus like that that Morrissey and Marr had. Yet, the New York Vocal version shows that Morrissey and Marr were also going to push that envelope until they found the right new sound. The original which made it to #25 on the UK charts is a tight, light-sounding affair, but this extended version has a longer introduction, an electronic drum bridge, an echoey vocal mix on the bridge recalls the Cure more than the Smiths. And in that mix, I see Holly working the controls.
On top of that, though, it seems Morrissey also played the role of Norman Petty. Chasing away every manager, Morrissey exercised a control over the Smiths with his whims, quirks, elusiveness, and myopic vision. Petty was able to finagle royalties, writing credits, and creative control from Holly and the Crickets. Petty also enforced on the band his own beliefs against smoking and drinking much as Morrissey imposed his vegetarianism on the others. Morrissey (and Marr) kept all writing credits themselves only to be resolved much later in a suit brought by Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. When I started to see a comparison between the Smiths and Buddy Holly, it never dawned on me that I’d also find such dark, sad comparison.
The Sound of the Smiths Disc Two also returns “Money Changes Everything” to disc. The Marr-penned instrumental originally included on the cassette version of The World Won’t Listen was sliced off the CD version. Yet, in some ways better than “Oscillate Wildly,” it shows what the Smiths instrumentalists could do when left on their own.
Finally, disc two also contains a live version of “Meat is Murder,” released as a B-side of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” Recorded March 18, 1985, at the Oxford Apollo, it has a surprisingly jazzy lilt to the guitar sway as it opens. While the studio version is foreboding from the beginning, this version only truly has that dark tone when Morrissey really rips into it.