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33 at 33: Louder Than Bombs? The Smiths & The World Won’t Listen

It may well have been titled The World Can’t Listen, if Morrissey’s displeasure at The Smiths’ lack of airplay on Radio 1 – the Beeb’s national popular music station – was anything to go by; a typically ironic statement against mainstream radio and the record-buying masses.

Part of the reason The Smiths’ label assembled The World Won’t Listen was due to pressure from fans who were unable to purchase sold-out editions of the band’s singles. Maybe the world wasn’t listening, but Smiths die-hards were grabbing everything they could get their hands on.

Released by Rough Trade Records on February 23rd, 1987, The World Won’t Listen was the second such compilation from the Manchester morosists, with Hatful of Hollow coming in 1984 in between the band’s debut LP and Meat is Murder. The World Won’t Listen would collect the stand-alone releases that appeared in intervening years, a stop-gap LP intended to round up various odds and sods (but not, ironically, their BBC radio sessions), plus a smattering of unreleased material for the faithful.

They just hadn’t earned it yet, baby.

Morrissey, allegedly, was far from happy with the project from the get go. Paint A Vulgar Picture, one of the songs being readied for Strangeways Here We Come, the forthcoming and final Smiths studio set, included the line “reissue, reissue, repackage, repackage — extra bonus track!” – a scathing and prescient lyric that seems ever more appropriate 30 years on.

And while the singer denied that the song was targeted directly at Rough Trade, he admitted that a lot of people, Rough Trade included, might jolly well disagree with him. Shoplifters of the World Unite, right?

Issue at the height of the music industry’s attempts to popularise low-grade cassette culture, tape versions of The World Won’t Listen did indeed feature an obligatory bonus track, Johnny Marr’s atmospheric instrumental Money Changes Everything, which was essentially the backing track for the Bryan Ferry single The Right Stuff, issued later that year.

Marr is a four-letter word, see.

When push came to rush, the band’s rabid disciples were more tempted by Louder Than Bombs, an American-conceived collection which offered a considerably more expansive assortment of curios than The World Won’t Listen, adding three stunning Peel session cuts that included the stalker-styled Is It Really So Strange?, another of Mozzer’s ode to otherness that saw him losing his “bag” just up the road from me in Newport Pagnell, a nondescript motorway town where my sister was attending secondary school.

By focusing on further non-album singles such as Panic, Ask, the Corrie-covered Shakespeare’s Sister and the Bowie-quoting Sheila Take A Bow its artistic reach was irresistible. A coruscating quadrumvirate if ever there was one, their inclusion was enough to ensure LTB would be the first Smiths record I, and some chap called Brandon Flowers, would purchase. 

Indeed, inciting Sheila and her ilk to kick life’s miseries ‘in the crotch’ and throw their homework on to the fire (the latter line adapted from an identical passage in The Dame’s Hunky Dory deep cut, Kooks), as a celebratory glam rock anthem for the group’s younger audience was kinda fun and slightly subversive. It was The Smiths’ equivalent of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out.

At 24 tracks, Louder Than Bombs was “a lot of bang for your buck,” exclaimed Flowers in the Brits clip above, a fellow Pet Shop Boys fan and future frontman of The Killers who knew exactly how I felt. I was 17 years old; a skinny, bespectacled Bletchley Park college student, into wordy and worldly music, finally beginning to meet new friends that weren’t related to the lifetime of horrific school memories that had only recently ended. I could never never go back there again.

Word of mouth struck home (again) and the double LP was imported into Britain in such quantities that LTB charted at No.38 in April 1987. A full UK release would be granted three years later as part of Warner Bros’ complete overhaul of the The Smiths’ seminal catalogue.

Then, The World Won’t Listen reached a more than respectable No. 2, having been denied pole position by the original cast album of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s execrable Phantom Of The Opera.

Some mothers do have ‘em.

Steve Pafford

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