18. The Smiths, Rank
Here is the sound of contractual obligation in the college rock world. By the fall of 1988, the Smiths were over as a going concern, the longtime fractious relationship between lead singer and Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr reaching an insurmountable impasse one year earlier, right around the time their last studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come saw release. According to Marr, the breaking point was the recording of a cover version of a Cilla Black, but surely it was only a matter of time anyway. The split was decisive enough that the Smiths remain one of the few shattered bands from the era who haven’t succumbed to the lucrative temptation to mount a reunion. It was a group full of people who were clearly fed up with one another. That’s even evident on Rank.
Though the band was done, they still owed a record to their label, hence the release of a live double album. Rank is culled from a 1986 concert at London’s National Ballroom. The performance wasn’t new to diehard Smiths fans, as the full show previously aired on BBC1 Radio. Morrissey did the trimming for the album, cutting such favorite songs as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?” in the process. There are plenty of potential explanations for this (led by the fact that the Smiths catalog was monumentally impressive, despite their fairly brief tenure as a band), but the overall drabness of the album can’t help but suggest that leaving out tracks plenty of fans would be excited to hear was simply another manifestation of Morrissey’s petulance in the immediate aftermath of the band he was overjoyed to leave behind. Well, as close as Morrissey ever gets to overjoyed. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the end of the band nicely fueled the self-pity and persecution complex that represent his most natural state. Formally closing out this era of his career with a lackluster recording must have just felt right to him.
Then again, I don’t know for certain that Morrissey considered the album one of the dullest possible contributions to his still-burgeoning canon. He did opt to title it with a bit of British slang for masturbation, which seems a fair clue as to his state of mind. Then again, that could be nothing more than some chipper rock star brattiness, especially since it was partially a reaction to the label rejecting his original choice for a title: The Smiths in Heat. Even though absolutely everything Morrissey does is fodder for intense speculation and explication among the fans, sometimes details like the naming of an album don’t carry all that much meaning. Morrissey’s debut solo album had arrived earlier that year to great acclaim. It’s reasonable to think any project or task connecting to finishing off the Smiths was little more than an afterthought.
Of course, that doesn’t exactly explain the mediocre live performance from a couple years earlier. The Smiths have a reputation as an excellent live band, but they sound incredibly disinterested throughout Rank. “Ask” is a typical example. It’s one of the band’s most vibrant songs, luxurious and spirited in the studio recording. On Rank, it’s perfunctory at best, sounding like the product of a band idly marking time as they await the moment they can leave the stage for the night. They were hardly global superstars at this point, but they had a strong enough fan base that they knew it didn’t necessarily take much to satisfy the faithful. Being there was almost enough, and it often sounds like being there is the totality of the goal in the concert documented on Rank. Even Morrissey’s tendency to aggressively roll his Rs begins to seem oddly mocking to the crowd, just another theatrical affectation he knows they’ll lap up. It’s not all dire, though the pleasures are isolated (I like the way the song seems to powerfully splinter apart at the end of “London”). Certainly one the best and most influential college rock bands of the eighties deserved a better final bow than this.