The songs that made you cry: The Smiths and the art of the b-side

Back sleeve, “William It Was Really Nothing”, Rough Trade Records

This is the second in our series of blogs on the best ideas The Smiths had, the ones that changed pop and people’s lives forever. In the first blog, we argued that the band’s best idea of all was breaking up and staying that way. By imploding at the peak of their powers – leaving behind the magnificent “Strangeways, Here We Come” – and never returning to the scene of the crimes, they secured their legacy and made sure it remains unsullied.

In the four days since that blog was published the Internet has exploded with rumours that the band (or at least three quarters of it) may be about to – you guessed it – reform for shows at Glastonbury, presumably as part of a personal vendetta against Pop Lifer. We can only repeat our plea that they leave well alone: we would rather not go back to the old house. There’s too many memories there.

So onto blog two and the second of The Smiths’ most enduringly brilliant ideas, which was to fully exploit the power of the b-side (some younger readers may find the very concept of a b-side impossible to grasp – please see here). Put simply, no other band in all pop history filled their single releases with as many extraordinary songs as The Smiths.

This mattered for two reasons. First was the respect it showed to their fans: while most other bands filled their b-sides with off-cuts and failed experiments, The Smiths made sure that people who bought their singles got more than their money’s worth. It helped foster a loyalty which is still unmatched today. Secondly, it made every single they released an event (a trick Suede were later to pull off for the first three years of their career): when you bought a Smiths single you might have already heard the a-side on the radio, but you never knew what masterpiece would lurk in the b-side grooves.

One example is world famous. Today “How Soon Is Now?” vies with “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” for the most beloved and admired song in The Smiths canon (and the one which even pathological Morrissey-haters often like), but it was originally a mere b-side to “William It Was Really Nothing.” The reason it wasn’t overlooked even at the time was because The Smiths had already demonstrated that their b-sides could carry songs as wondrous as the sublime melancholy of “Back To The Old House” or the mesmerising “Girl Afraid”. A Smiths b-side was usually 10 times better than their rivals’ a-sides.

Nor was this solely a symptom of a band’s early energy being uncontainable, though it was partly that. Almost to the end, their b-sides were a thing of glory. It was as b-sides that Smiths fans first heard songs as graceful and witty as “Half A Person”, as furiously evocative as “London” and as frailly, tragically beautiful as “Asleep”. These b-sides, along with their singles, were good enough to forge one compilation – “Hatful Of Hollow” – which many fans would place as their favourite Smiths record of all.

In fact, if there is a number one reason to be glad The Smiths broke up when they did it is that their mastery of the b side appeared to be finally faltering, with the inclusion of career lows like the cover versions “Golden Lights” and “Work Is A Four Letter Word” on later releases. Whose to say how long it would have been before the same rot crept into the album tracks and, later, the singles? You need only listen to some of Morrissey’s later singular atrocities (“Dagenham Dave”, “Roys Keen” or “Thats How People Grow Up”) to realise how lucky The Smiths – and, we, the fans – were to escape that fate.

Of course, we now live in a world where most artists can barely be bothered to fill their albums with enough songs that are listenable, let alone bestow the love and care upon their b-sides that The Smiths did. But it was undeniably part of what made the band feel so precious and special, which made the bond between them and their fans so powerful. We’ll explore that bond further in our next Smiths blog.


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2 Responses to The songs that made you cry: The Smiths and the art of the b-side

  1. Pingback: Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? Sorting out Morrissey’s sex life | Pop Lifer

  2. Pingback: Such bloody awful poetry – the words of The Smiths | Pop Lifer

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