Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. Today: The Smiths’ seminal singles collection Louder Than Bombs.
Anniversary Records: The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs
by Chad Jewett
If The Smiths weren’t necessarily a “singles band” — indeed, both The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come are essential as full album experiences – then the quartet nevertheless offered enough flawless 45s that a beginner would still be well served by starting with any one of the Manchester band’s several hits compilations. And there are indeed a whole lot of Smiths singles collections to choose from. Indeed, if you add up the likes of The World Won’t Listen, Hatful of Hollow, Singles, Best I and II and their ilk, you actually end up with more competing odds-and-ends collections than official Smiths LPs. But the best of the bunch remains 1987’s Louder Than Bombs, a 24-track opus that is just about perfect and remains the single clearest picture of the humor, drama, imagination and literary élan of the Smiths.
The album itself has a weird backstory, released as the U.S. version of The World Won’t Listen, a Rough Trade-issued 17-track compilation released earlier in 1987 but which didn’t make it across the pond from Britain. Give or take a few different mixes (a couple songs appear in alternate forms on World ) Louder Than Bombs covered the ground of its predecessor and more. It made the record a convenient catch-all for U.S. devotees who would have had a hell of a time trying to find (and afford) overseas imports of The Smiths’ many singles. In that way, Louder Than Bombs fit into a grand tradition of compact starter-kits for hep American kids who worshiped a certain kind of mod-ish English cool represented by The Buzzcocks (Singles Going Steady), The Clash (whose chopped-up U.S. cut of their debut was actually much more like an early greatest hits), and The Jam (1983’s Snap!), to name only a few.
Louder Than Bombs was sequenced in rough, reverse-chronological order, starting with the newest stuff – kicked off by the swinging rockabilly of “Is It Really Strange”, whose radiant chiming intro chords have become iconic for at least two generations of nascent stateside indie rockers – and ending with early entries like the ghostly ballad “Asleep” and the somber yet punchy “Unloveable”, which featured Morrissey digging deep into his gloomy, “post-punk Hamlet” persona, all mournful vowels stretched out for all their worth. Part of the fascination of Louder Than Bombs lies in listening to Morrissey try out different versions of the character he would play throughout his time in The Smiths, ranging from the acerbic snarl of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (a song whose tongue-in-cheek violence would be adopted by both indie-rockers like Belle & Sebastian and emo’s Brand New / Alkaline Trio generation) to the sly romantic who croons throughout “Shoplifters Of The World Unite”.
Listening to the full 72 minutes of Louder Than Bombs in a sitting is to marvel at how carefully designed Morrisey’s Smiths-era persona was: the droll bite of Oscar Wilde, the outsized emoting of Roy Orbison, the cinematic instincts of The Righteous Brothers, the intimacy and intensity of Ian Curtis. A whole lot of The Smiths’ iconic album art took photos from the pop culture of the 40s, 50s, and 60s and make it slyly subversive. As a front-man, Morrissey did the same. Thus a song like “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” – one of the The Smiths three or four best compositions – carries some of the overwrought fatalism of early rock-and-roll (“Last Kiss” or “Leader of the Pack” are examples) but frames those sentiments as the dire inner monologue of a poetic outsider. There is an added, poignant conversation being had when lines like “If a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” come immediately upon the heels of lines like “Driving in your car / Oh, please don’t drop me home / Because it’s not my home, it’s their home and I’m welcome no more.”
It wasn’t just that “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (and “Half A Person” and “Ask” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) insisted that it was okay to feel; they also telegraphed a sweeping empathy that could speak to young people feeling rejected for their sexual identity, for their gender, for their body type, for the way that they understood and interacted with the world. Morrisseys’ characters were lonely, or afraid, or angry, or bookish, or jealous, or pretentious, or clever, or cruel. But most of all they were exquisitely human, in a way that few writers have matched. Indeed, even the most astringent Smiths songs did a service by centering Morrissey as a release valve for difficult feelings, so that the sharpened fangs of “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” or “Bigmouth Strikes Again” could become pure catharsis, delivered with a wry artfulness.
Louder Than Bombs also serves as a triptych for how the quartet would find, solidify, and eventually expand their aesthetic. The collection ranges from the sharper post-punk of the band’s early days as heard on “Girl Afraid” to the more lush, tuneful material (“Shoplifters of the World Unite”, “Panic”) that would define Strangeways, Here We Come. The record is a compilation of guitarist Johnny Marr’s various approaches, from the icy and stinging to the rich and silky. The same goes for the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, who could channel power-pop (“Ask”), country-noir (“Shakespeare’s Sister”), pop-punk (“London”), and blue-eyed soul (“Unloveable”) with equal aplomb. But those sonic distinctions don’t necessarily cohere to any kind of chronology: indeed, the muscular, tense “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” was followed closely by the bouncy, effervescent “Sheila Take A Bow” and preceded by the breezy “William, It Was Really Nothing”. The stately, ornate instrumental “Oscillate Wildly” is a product of the band’s early days, as much as it sounds like it could have landed on The Queen Is Dead.
It’s also interesting to see the various ways that The Smiths would approach “the single” as a concept. For every dynamite pop song like “Ask” or “Panic” – perfect, energetic A-sides with killer melodies and indelible hooks – there are odd, idiosyncratic choices like the moody rockabilly of “Shakespeare’s Sister”, which pivots into sudden bursts of major key brightness only to make the song’s gloomier shades all the darker (1986’s The Queen Is Dead would make this light/dark approach a key to its foundation). And then there are the experiments like “Golden Lights”, a song that lands somewhere between reggae and synth-pop and is made all the more singular by the hyper-processed harmonies that deliver the chorus. One would guess that “Golden Lights” showed up near the end of The Smiths 5-year run, but the band actually had another album to release before their 1987 breakup.
Louder Than Bombs thus earns its place amongst pop music’s most legendary singles collections not simply by corralling all the stuff into one place, but by giving listeners a striking picture of just how many different ways The Smiths could deploy their witty, layered approach to indie rock. The quartet’s most acerbic songs seemingly always offered at least one dose of sugar, while the bright joys of the transcendent “Ask” are nevertheless lent nuance by Morrissey’s narrative of anxiety and melancholy. “Spending warm summer days indoors” goes one line. “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that’ll bring us together” goes another. Both are perfect snapshots of what the Smiths did so well, and what Louder Than Bombs captures so definitively.