Wednesday, 12 June 2013
Top 102 Albums Minus 2. The Queen is Hollow
Top 102 Albums Minus 2.
The Queen is Dead / Hatful of Hollow - The Smiths
May 18th, 1984. Walking up the North Circular Road. All the gardens have been stripped of their blossoms. Flowers haven't been so in vogue since 1967.
I can still remember the excitement of seeing The Smiths for the first time. It was in the SFX, a basic but well loved concrete box that is no longer. It was where I also saw The Bunnymen, crucial early gigs. But there was something special about the first Smiths gig. It was the crowd as much as the band. Goths, punks, New Romantics, Indie Kids, ageing hipsters, skinheads - the inside of the grey box is awash with different colours and styles. Flowers woven into mohicans. Robert Smith lookalikes with gladioli. We smile at each other. It is like the soldiers playing football together on Christmas Day, 1914.
This Charming Man - For me, it had started six months earlier when The Smiths had shone a beacon from the top of the TOTP tower. Full of humour and pathos Morrissey came across like he was playing the lead part in a pantomime crucifixion, thumbing his nose and waggling his fingers like a naughty boy behind the teachers back before striking a pose from El Greco, all the while sweeping the air with a bunch of flowers and showing off his manly chest swathed in a rattle of necklaces. There were so many angles to the song and performance that it seemed to open up new routes for the old (tea) ceremony.
When the glorious opening bars of What Difference Does it Make? made their appearance soon after I knew it was time to practise spinning on one leg and imagining I was on the cross. (Here's a live performance from a couple of weeks before I saw them) So I was well primed to join the ranks of the flower snatchers. Some, of course, were ahead of the curve, having caught them in Trinity College the previous December but we still felt like we were midwives to something exceptional.
Which we were.
After the sparkle of This Charming Man and What Difference Does it Make? there was a small sense of anti-climax when The Smiths came out. It didn't up the ante. Some of the mixes sounded a little dull and it was built around three singles that had already come out. Strangely it was by going back to the well again that they would make what remains my favourite Smiths album. Hatful of Hollow was/is a kind of bastard compilation album, bringing together BBC sessions, the singles released since the debut album and b-sides. It seemed to have better versions of songs on the debut and highlighted what those who bought the singles knew already, their b-sides often outshone their a-sides. Indeed two of the b-sides How Soon is Now? and Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want are often near the top in lists of the best Smiths songs.
The Queen is Dead.
My favourite 'studio album' by The Smiths is their third of that ilk despite its uneven nature. That is because the highs are truly Everestian. The opening track, the six and a half minute mortar board fired into the middle of a garden party at Buckingham Palace that is The Queen is Dead seemed to wipe the board clean again, leaving The Smiths free to explore whatever territory they wanted to. It was rockier and looser than ever before and Morrissey seemed to bring swagger to his smarts.
Written in part under the influence of earlier 2nd generation Irishman Johnny Rotten's song for Elizabeth it draws on music hall, a famous break in at the palace, anger and ever doubling innuendos. Furious tribal drumming and an opening collage of sound clips lead into as close as Morrissey would get to a state of the nation address. And who is so 'very lonely', Morrissey or the Queen?
However it is followed up by Smiths by numbers, Frankly Mr Shankly which just makes you want Morrissey to take his tongue out of his cheek and put it into someone else's, and not just aspirationally.
But this album also includes Never Had No One Ever which is both lyrically and sonically one of the high points in their short but fertile career. Had this been joined by the opener, Bigmouth Strikes Again, The Boy With the Thorn in His Side and There is a Light and it Never Goes Out this would have been the greatest E.P. ever. As it is it remains an essential album.
(Just thought I'd be a little controversial so I'd get flamed by Smiths fans. Virtual masochism. )