For the majority of people today who tweet, swipe, like and poke their way through culture, The Smiths must be as outdated as a corded phone or a Ford Escort. It’s possible that if The Smiths were around today and had to submit themselves to the publics’ need to be instantly gratified they probably wouldn’t have lasted very long. Fortunately they existed in a time where music wasn’t saturated and artists had time and space to build a myth and cultivate a certain distant, social network-less charm. Morrissey’s infamy in music’s current climate is evidence of how culture and rolling news don’t fit.
Nevertheless, out of this early, archaic charm arrived The Smiths' greatest album, which celebrated its 30th birthday in November.
I wasn’t alive for the release of Hatful of Hollow; I wasn’t even alive for Viva Hate. The Smiths are a bit like the first hairs on your chest. They just arrive stoically, complete and without ceremony. The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow, Meat is Murder, Queen is Dead, Strangeways, Here We Come: no need to wait a year for a new release or stress over whether they will come to your small town to tour.
Before 1984’s Hatful of Hollow, The Smiths had released their debut album and had begun their irresistible ascent into indie folklore. The music press lionized them and Morrissey had already thrown his bouquet around the TOTP studio. Yet, it’s arguable that Hatful of Hollow was their true debut and represented their initial intentions. The album arrived with different versions of ‘Hand in Glove’, ‘Still Ill’, ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ and ‘What Difference Does it Make?” in addition to a proper place for their 1983 single: ‘This Charming Man’. The newer versions brought the live atmosphere to the studio as they used the BBC as their own open, personal recording space.
The versions on The Smiths sound pubescent and you can feel the growing pains as they appear alongside songs that are still very good, yet sound discordant as a package. ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’, ‘The Hand That Rocks the Crandle’ and ‘Suffer Little Children’ fetter the explosiveness of ‘Hand in Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does it Make?’. In Hatful of Hollow the latter two are able to erupt on side one. From the opener, ‘William, it Was Really Nothing’, all the way up to the diminuendo of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Know’, the album displays a vigour that brings the most unwieldy people to the dance floor.
The legacy of The Smiths is littered with singles, b-sides and compilation albums. They carried a disregard for “the album” with an almost arrogant attitude. The fact that ‘How Soon is Now?’ was initially a b-side and unattached to an album emphatically shows this. Each single came with bespoke artwork and its own, hidden gem supporting it. The singles are sort-of-vignettes unshackled by obligations to promote or shift copies. Hatful of Hollow almost had to happen as a way to collect and contain the singles as they poured out, placing itself as a de facto ‘greatest hits’.
As an album it nostalgically plays on the old fashioned idea of “album sides” and the need to actively switch a record over to experience something new. If the opening tracks of the album come out with jangling and accelerating riffs, then the closing tracks presage where the Queen is Dead would pick-up. From ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ to 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want', we are given the lugubrious, pre-MediaCity Manchester that has both stigmatized and aided the band ever since.
Many people may ignore Hatful of Hollow in the “true” Smiths canon and these same people will probably stand by The Queen is Dead as a pillar of not only their career, but also indie music in its entirety. Regardless of this, it is important to pause and reflect on an album that is a snapshot of a band in its virile infancy. How wonderful were The Smiths at that moment? They produced a torrent of arresting singles and B-sides that deserved a real home. Fortunately for fans, Hatful of Hollow was there to collect them.