30 Years Ago: ‘Louder Than Bombs’ Becomes the Smiths’ First U.S. Compilation
Never underestimate a record label to screw up something perfectly simple. And when two different labels, from two different countries, get involved – watch out.
That’s the lesson of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the ’60s, where different U.K. and U.S. releases were created by the band’s record companies, with singles omitted to some LPs, and others were tacked on, while track listings were rearranged. It changed when and how fans heard the music, often altering what the musicians themselves would have preferred.
It’s a lesson that went unlearned a couple of decades later, as the Smiths were becoming a creative force and the band’s U.K. (Rough Trade) and U.S. (Sire) labels were deciding how to deliver the music to fans. In defense of Rough Trade, the British indie played it relatively straight – issuing albums as is, while also putting out collections of the Smiths’ other material. For instance, the company released Hatful of Hollow in 1984, compiling the band’s early singles and b-sides, along with some radio performances. Rough Trade followed it up with a similar collection of the Smiths’ most recent material, The World Won’t Listen, in 1987.
But it wasn’t so simple in America. As Rough Trade was preparing to release Hatful of Hollow in the same year as the Smiths’ debut LP, Sire wasn’t as committed to following suit. Part of that was American fans weren’t as committed to the Smiths, who were more of a cult act in the States, compared to the hitmakers they were in England. Sire passed on putting out Hatful in the U.S.
Instead of putting money and promotion into an up-and-coming band, the American label merely decided to add two of the Smiths’ more successful U.K. singles onto their finished LPs. “William, It Was Really Nothing” was pinned on 1984’s The Smiths while “How Soon Is Now?” got thrown on Meat is Murder.
Watch the Smiths Perform "William, It Was Really Nothing"
A few years later, it had become a different story. The Smiths’ Stateside fame had grown with the release of each of their three albums (to that point), with 1986’s The Queen Is Dead earning loads of positive reviews and hitting No. 70 on the Billboard album chart. Sire now considered it worthwhile to put out a Smiths compilation that would assemble a wealth of non-album material, much of it that only had been available in the U.S. on singles or imports.
At the same time, Rough Trade was readying a compilation. But Sire couldn’t simply take the Rough Trade version and re-purpose it because the U.K. label had already collected some of the early stuff. The new collection, titled The World Won’t Listen, would focus on post-Hatful singles and b-sides and come out in February 1987. Sire desired to take everything into account, and planned on an American-only collection.
And so, The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs were created roughly simultaneously, both with input from the band. Morrissey came up with both albums’ titles and covers, selecting a picture of playwright Shelagh Delaney to grace the sleeve for Louder. Delaney’s plays had inspired the Smiths frontman’s lyrics, including the words for “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” which would make the tracklist for the band’s first U.S. compilation.
Listen to "This Night Has Opened My Eyes"
“This Night” would be one of 24 recordings included on the double-LP, running the gamut of the Smiths’ career to that point and including some of Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s best material: “Sheila Take a Bow,” “Panic,” “Shakespeare’s Sister,” “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Hand in Glove.” For American Smiths fans who lacked the access or money for British imports, Louder Than Bombs was a revelation. Sire had redeemed itself. After being released on March 30, 1987, the collection became the band’s highest-charting U.S. album to date (at No. 62).
The U.S. Smiths fans were satiated, but the rabid U.K. devotees were upset. Although Louder Than Bombs shared a fair amount of material with Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen, it also contained a single and some b-sides that had yet to appear on a British album. These rarities drove prices of Louder imports so high that Rough Trade eventually acquiesced and released a U.K. edition of what was supposed to be an American exclusive. Still, many fans grumbled about having to pay twice for a lot of the same material.
As the Smiths have long been broken up (they split later in ’87) and numerous new collections have been released in the decades since, Louder Than Bombs remains special to Smiths fans on both sides of the Atlantic (and elsewhere around the world), as a single overview of the band’s non-LP greatness. It even landed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not bad for a record that was meant to rectify a problem.
Smiths Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness