The fourth long-player from The Smiths also turned out to be their last. They had already ceased to exist by the time of its release on September 28th 1987, with Johnny Marr’s departure leaked to the music press earlier in the month, despite signing a lucrative new deal with EMI.
Let’s face it, the situation was an unholy mess. Britain’s biggest indie band were suddenly no more; four incredible years of creativity, notoriety, great sleeves and memorable quotes….The Smiths had been cut off in their prime. Just as they were thought to be moving up into the big league courtesy of that EMI contract – after a lengthy and sometimes public display of unhappiness at Rough Trade’s handling of their career – the group imploded.
Their current label had a brand new album (completed several months earlier), but no band. Their future label had nothing at all (except the beginnings of a solo career from Morrissey).
We, the public, would have a rather different kind of campaign for Strangeways, Here We Come than we had become accustomed to. No more surprise non-album 45s shortly after the album came out, no new B-sides. No television appearances. And no tour.
Perhaps this is why my own relationship with the record has always been a bit off.
Is it really as disappointing as it felt to me in 1987? Can anything be changed to improve it? In true afdpj fashion, I endeavoured to revisit (and repackage) Strangeways… and SEE WHAT COULD BE DONE.
It’s a sign…
One of the key aspects/drawbacks of Strangeways… is its place in the whole scheme of Smithery shenanigans. A late September release was no doubt intended to allow Michael Jackson’s all-conquering Bad to burn itself out at #1 after a month, but much like the fudged, delayed timing of The Queen Is Dead in June 1986 (too soon after A Kind Of Magic and Invisible Touch) Rough Trade once again failed to launch the album on a week when it could realistically top the chart.
Given that it had been in the can since early Summer (if not longer), and lead single Girlfriend In A Coma appeared in the second week of August, why hang around at all? The band would have still been a going concern at that point. Or perhaps that was the reason – the label hoping for the squabbles and walk-outs to calm down if they held back for a while.
The other upshot of all this was that the surefire 45, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, had to be pulled in the aftermath of the Hungerford massacre due to the line about planning mass murder. So a group no longer active couldn’t even release the single they intended, much to Morrissey’s anguish (“Oh, I desperately wanted it to be a single“, he told an interviewer in early 1988).
So, the actually-quite-brilliant I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish was issued in its place, despite surely being the perfect finale to the Smiths’ singular adventures rather than second out of the blocks from their last album. “Typical me, typical me, typical me – I started something…and now I’m not so sure.” And then barely a month would pass before yet another track was lifted, the even-more-brilliant Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.
For all the artistic quality of these songs, neither made the UK Top 20 (peaking at #23 and #30 respectively). The lack of brand new tracks on the B-sides can’t have helped, but it seemed like Rough Trade were in a hurry to just get things over and done with. (Incredible to think now, but there would be only a matter of weeks between Last Night… bowing out of the charts, and Moz’s solo debut Suedehead gatecrashing the Top 5).
Strangeways, Here We Come is not a poor album. Far from it. Another factor (in personal terms) was the small matter of Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses coming out the very same day. So it wasn’t even the most significant new release at afdpj HQ that week.
I had also not been entirely wowed by Girlfriend In A Coma, one of those genius Morrissey titles in search of an equally genius song (or so I thought at the time). In a month when you had True Faith, Never Let Me Down Again, What Have I Done To Deserve This? and The Night You Murdered Love, it did feel somewhat lightweight.
When the full album made it into my possession, parts of it felt as though The Smiths were treading water. Unhappy Birthday was almost a parody (“and if you should die, well I may feel slightly sad but I won’t cry“), Death At One’s Elbow sounded remarkably like the harmonica-driven rumble of Shakespeare’s Sister, while I Won’t Share You had B-side written all over it. And not an especially memorable one at that.
35 years on, with a better sound system, and none of the contemporary baggage and associated intrigue that weighed it down upon release, Strangeways… does make a stronger case for itself as something other than the weakest Smiths LP in their perfectly-formed canon. Its less stellar moments remain as such, but the subtler elements of the production reveal little touches that differentiate the album from any of its predecessors.
There is more piano, a noticeable use of synthesizers, and string sections are used more often than before. On the coda to Death Of A Disco Dancer, a rare opportunity for Mike Joyce to really let loose on the drums results in a virtual Led Zeppelin-esque rhythmic blitz. The lovely acoustic guitar on closing track I Won’t Share You basically invent the style which R.E.M. would pick and run with on the gentler moments of Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People.
This is all very nice, but…cards on the table time…my preferred period of The Smiths, the era when they seemed untouchable and unstoppable, was from May 1986 through to April 1987. Bigmouth Strikes Again rebooting the b(r)and after a faltering, stealing-the-master-tapes-and-holding-Rough-Trade-to-ransom winter of 1985, then onto the majestic Queen Is Dead itself, Panic, Ask, Shoplifters Of The World and Sheila Take A Bow.
A period which, you may have noticed, was covered by The World Won’t Listen, one of those Singles, B-Sides and other bits and bobs-type compilations which the band did better than anyone. Treating it as a compilation, however, does it a disservice, as there was enough non-album stuff to constitute a “proper” studio set if they hadn’t been so prolific, so loyal to the concept of standalone singles, so intent on offering up something of worth on their flipsides, and if they hadn’t….well….been The Smiths, basically.
But I did. A lot. Albeit on cassette.
Then I had an idea (yes, I know). What if the tracks from The World Won’t Listen which don’t belong to other eras (i.e. only the ones released in 1987) were added to Strangeways Here We Come? And then use the Louder Than Bombs collection to include Sheila Take A Bow and its B-sides? The original 10-track, 36-minute album thus becomes an expanded, 17-track affair (the 7″ edit of Last Night I Dreamt… also sneaks in, courtesy of The Sound Of The Smiths).
Is it a Director’s Cut? Not quite, since nothing has been removed, and the running order of the album tracks hasn’t been altered, merely interspersed with the other material. Is it a Deluxe Edition? With so little extra content, it’s more of an Expanded Edition. Let’s call it The 35-Year Stretch.
Is it really so strange?
Strangeways… repackaged. Extra tracks…but no tacky badge.
In time honoured amazinglyfewdiscotheques style, the whole thing gets some new artwork; an uncropped version of the Richard Davalos cover shot on the front, and the band posing outside Strangeways prison (as it then still was) on the back.
Tracklisting in full:
01 A RUSH AND A PUSH AND THE LAND IS OURS
02 I STARTED SOMETHING I COULDN’T FINISH
03 SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD UNITE *
04 HALF A PERSON *
05 DEATH OF A DISCO DANCER
06 GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA
07 SWEET AND TENDER HOOLIGAN *
08 STOP ME IF YOU THINK YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE
09 LAST NIGHT I DREAMT THAT SOMEBODY LOVED ME
10 IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE? *
11 UNHAPPY BIRTHDAY
12 PAINT A VULGAR PICTURE
13 SHEILA TAKE A BOW *
14 DEATH AT ONE’S ELBOW
15 LONDON *
16 I WON’T SHARE YOU
17 LAST NIGHT I DREAMT THAT SOMEBODY LOVED ME * (SINGLE VERSION)
* BONUS TRACKS