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30 Years Ago: The Smiths Collect Singles, B-Sides on ‘The World Won’t Listen’

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If you want to get a British Smiths fan upset, bring up The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs. You might hear about redundancy, money grab or incompetence. And you’ll probably find out that they bought both albums anyway.

The kerfuffle happened in the winter and spring of 1987, when the Smiths and their record label, Rough Trade, were set to release a collection of singles and b-sides for the U.K. faithful. It was the second such compilation, 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.

It’s ironic that the album was titled by frontman Morrissey, in a statement against mainstream radio and masses of record-buyers. 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.

Watch the Video for “Shoplifters of the World Unite”

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On Feb. 23, 1987, Rough Trade released the collection, featuring non-album singles (and significant works in the Smiths canon) “Panic,” “Shakespeare’s Sister” and “Shoplifters of the World Unite” as well as b-sides and a few tracks from 1986’s The Queen is Dead. England’s rock fans pushed the LP to No. 2 on the U.K. charts, and all was well in the realm of Smiths fandom. That is, until…

A month later, a different Smiths compilation was released in the United States. The band’s Stateside label, Sire, had balked at releasing Hatful of Hollow back in ’84, but had seen their popularity grow in the subsequent years. Therefore, Sire planned a more substantial collection, employing some of the Hatful tracks along with the vast majority of The World Won’t Listen material. The double-LP release, which became the Smiths best-selling American album to date, was titled Louder Than Bombs.

Indeed, the reaction might have been just that loud among U.K. Smiths fans, indignant that the Americans were being handed a more substantial collection. As the demand for import copies among completists rocketed, Rough Trade bowed to pressure and put out a British edition of Louder Than Bombs a few months later. Even with 13 shared tracks between Louder and World, the record still hit No. 38 on the British album charts. Still, many Smiths fans felt they had been duped into buying a superfluous release, although others were thrilled to hear slightly different versions of some of the shared material.

The Smiths broke up later that year, when guitarist Johnny Marr left the band after recording Strangeways, Here We Come, but the world kept listening. In the ’00s, British artist Phil Collins (not the famous drummer) created a video project also called The World Won’t Listen, in which we traveled to the far corners of the globe to record local Smiths fanatics singing karaoke versions of the album’s tunes. In 2012, the collection was finally released on CD in the U.S. No one seemed too upset about it, that time.

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