This week, as you should by now be aware, sees the release of a very special magazine we’ve been working on about The Smiths. In it, you will find loads of genius interviews with Moz (and Marr) from the NME archive, brand new pieces about everything from the formulative years of the band to the continuing solo activities of all four, and all the sleeves analyzed in detail. Truly, it is a great read.
But anyway, enough shameless plugging. Well, sort of. Of all that is contained within its 100 pages (available here and at any newsagents worth their salt), the piece that has caused the most debate (read: uproar) in NME towers is the one that rates The Smiths’ Top 20 B-Sides. Some are “criminally low” down the list, apparently. Some are far too high. Some people are even moaning that bloody ‘Golden Lights’ didn’t make the list.
The point is that to The Smiths, a classic singles band, a band who cared about every last, tiniest aspect of their wares, B-Sides mattered. The fact that perhaps their most well known song, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ began life as a mere flip is testament to the effort that they put into every last facet of their career. Morrissey once confessed he felt that “hiding ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ away on a B-side was sinful”. But in a way, it’s brilliant that such wondrous songs were frittered away. It certainly had a huge influence on all those great Smiths-idolizing bands of the ’90s – Suede, Oasis, and others – and their attitude to extra tracks on singles.
So here, as a taster, are Numbers 20-11 in our list – the idea being from here that you can suggest your own final 10s, then have a look in The Smiths magazine and see how ours worked out.
Sound good? Right then…
20 - 'Work Is A Four Letter Word'
Birthed during final recording sessions that have been described by Johnny Marr as “utter misery”, this Cilla Black cover is included here largely for a historical reason – namely that it was a factor in The Smiths’ demise. An idea proffered endlessly by Morrissey, but detested by Marr – “I didn’t form a group to cover Cilla Black songs” he has said – it is, undeniably, a pretty straightforward version of an insubstantially jaunty ’60s pop song. It certainly doesn’t sound like much time was invested in its arrangement, Mike Joyce’s backing vocals are not great, but retrospectively it is not without merit – it’s The Smiths as a bubblegum band.
19 - 'What’s The World?'
In the ’90s, James were indie anthem crafters par excellence. In the decade prior to that, they were somewhat unfairly maligned as a second-rate Smiths – unfair when you consider that they formed a year before Johnny Marr and Morrissey even met, and Morrissey was forever singing their praises (at one point calling them “one of the best bands in the world”). Plus, years later at the height of their powers, having taken the band on tour with them, The Smiths covered one of the songs on their debut EP. A frantic folkrush that clocks in at two minutes, lovingly rasped by Morrissey, this is a worthy addition to the Smiths’ catalogue.
18 - 'Money Changes Everything'
One of three Marr instrumentals that found their way on to one of The Smiths’ singles, the others being the fabulously titled ‘Oscillate Wildly’ and ‘The Draize Train’, this was often played live, allowing Morrissey to catch his breath before the encore. Both of these are worth owning, but by virtue of some atmospheric guitar lines, this is the finest Smiths song without The Voice. Among the people captivated by it are Bryan Ferry, who wrote his own lyrics and released it as ‘The Right Stuff’, the lead single from his 1987 album ‘Bête Noire’.
17 - 'Wonderful Woman'
As underrated as Smiths songs get, largely because it doesn’t feature on any of the prominent compilations. A shame, because although it’s perhaps not The Smiths at their most remarkable, it does contain some great Morrissey lyrics – “When she calls me, I do not walk, I run” – and at points, when his voice blends effortlessly with Johnny Marr’s jangle, you can feel the magic.
16 - 'I Keep Mine Hidden'
Morrissey, speaking in 1990, said of this song: “Now when I play The Smiths – which I do a lot – that song is always the first I play. And it’s the one that makes me feel the happiest.” Also has the distinction of being the last ever Morrissey/Marr composition to be recorded, a product of the fraught final sessions in Streatham. Many have speculated this is an attempt by the singer to explain himself to his writing partner (“I’m a twenty-digit combination to unlock”) but whatever: it’s brilliant. Here’s Moz playing it live solo a couple of years ago.
15 - 'Rubber Ring'
Brilliantly prophetic lyric from a man who many years later would be accused of “writing songs that people grow out of”. The opening couplets here – “A sad fact widely known / The most impassionate song to a lonely soul / Is so easily outgrown” – could be addressed to Smiths fans in the future, former youthful miserablists now burdened with families and mortgages. It’s quite staggering to consider that Moz was barely 26 years old when he wrote it.
14 - 'Accept Yourself'
An early Smiths classic, if not musically, then certainly in establishing the lyrical bent that Morrissey would make his own. “One of the lines is ‘When will you accept your shoes?’,” he said at the time of its release, “and I find that so many people have this dilemma about shoes. If they have the wrong pair of shoes it can totally destroy their life. Similarly if people think their feet are too big, or that their nose is too big it can result in a diminished social life for totally false reasons.”
13 - 'Back To The Old House'
To be pedantic, although this lovely ode to the avoidance of rose-tinted spectacles was a B-side (to ‘What Difference Does It Make?’), that version, featuring all four Smiths, is to be avoided. Fans or band would both argue that the infinitely superior version is the acoustic Peel Session that can now be found on ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ (although there are some great unofficial live versions, too). A sparse, picked chord sequence from Johnny Marr, a yearning vocal from Morrissey, and one of his simplest yet most brilliant lyrics. An early sign of how prolific and varied the Smiths' lead pairing would become as songwriters.
12 - 'Jeane (Sandie Shaw version)'
Backed only by Johnny’s guitar and Morrissey’s backing vocal, of the three songs that Sandie Shaw covered with The Smiths, ‘Jeane’ was the finest. On ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’, she sounded as though she was covering someone else’s songs; here she makes proceedings totally her own, the way her voice cracks on the “We tried, and we failed” line in particular is a thing of beauty. The Smiths’ version is fine, but this is the one to seek out.
11 - 'Unloveable'
By the stage of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (the single on which this was featured), you get the impression that The Smiths were perhaps tucking away songs such as ‘Unloveable’ on B-sides because, had they been more prominent, they would have made easy targets for their critics. That said, although this is as archetypal as a Smiths song could be, it is still, to quote one American reviewer at the time, “a pretty little ballad”. And, of course, its existence is justified alone by the immortal line: “I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside”.
So there you go… that’s the first ten of the 20 revealed. Given that, what do you think our Top Ten is, or should have been?