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Rank: Why The Smiths’ Incendiary Live Album Deserves Top Billing
In Depth

Rank: Why The Smiths’ Incendiary Live Album Deserves Top Billing

Where overdue respect is concerned, The Smiths’ lone live album, ‘Rank’, has more than earned it by now, baby.

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The good news for those discovering The Smiths’ catalogue for the first time is that virtually every title bearing the band’s name is stuffed with quality. Naturally, all four of the group’s official studio albums are essential ports of call, but the mandatory singles, rarities and radio-sessions comps Hatful Of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen are equally inspired – and even the band’s lone live album, Rank, deserves considerable respect.

Listen to ‘Rank’ here.

“The band was high on fire”

The “live album” concept has been one of rock’s more contentious issues since the late 60s. For every groundbreaking in-concert capture such as The Who’s Live At Leeds or MC5’s Kick Out The Jams there are dozens of underachievers aimed primarily at hardcore fans who will faithfully snap them up as mementos.

Rank, though, had a broader appeal and it enjoyed mainstream success when it peaked at No.2 on the UK chart en route to going gold. However, because it was issued posthumously, it drew criticism in some quarters for cashing in on a nostalgia for The Smiths which intensified after the band’s 1987 split and the subsequent success of Morrissey’s solo debut, Viva Hate.

The album became something of a sleeper, however, and it’s only in more recent years that the media have woken up to its inherent quality. In a well-observed 2010 retrospective for the BBC, Martin Aston wrote that Rank was “a fascinating, thrilling document. The band was high on fire (Morrissey’s original working title, ‘The Smiths In Heat’, says as much), the feverish audience was also given its voice in the mix, and the atmosphere was combustible.”

“The liveliest post-mortem imaginable”

He’s not wrong. Revisiting Rank these days, it’s clear just how seismic a live act The Smiths had become by the time they unleashed their masterpiece, The Queen Is Dead, during the summer of 1986. Culled from the London show (at Kilburn’s National Ballroom, on 23 October 1986) during the UK leg of the album’s supporting tour, the recording captures the band bolstered by their short-lived second guitarist, Craig Gannon, and they slash’n’burn through a career-spanning, 14-song setlist as though their lives depend on it.

Introduced by Sergei Prokofiev’s classical piece Montagues And Capulets, Morrissey and company immediately set the tone as they lay into a colossally wired version of The Queen Is Dead. It’s followed by visceral takes of Panic and the band’s then-current single, Ask, before the group tease the audience with a snatch of Elvis Presley’s (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame and then seamlessly segue into the song it directly inspired – Rusholme Ruffians from Meat Is Murder.

From thereon in, the energy levels rarely dip, with the band interspersing hits (The Boy With The Thorn In His Side) and favourite deep cuts (Vicar In A Tutu, Cemetry Gates) with supercharged versions of then-unrecorded songs such as London and Is It Really So Strange? A taut and tense take of I Know It’s Over allows a brief respite before the all-instrumental The Draize Train offers Morrissey the opportunity for a breather before he returns to slay all-comers with a heady encore of Still Ill and a tumultuous Bigmouth Strikes Again.

As the latter is enveloped by the deafening roar of the crowd, two things become apparent. Firstly, there’s the exhilaration of hearing The Smiths prove exactly why they were hailed as the most important band of their generation. But that’s followed by the stark realisation that, while they sound nigh-on invincible on Rank, they were also less than months away from playing their final ever live show, in December 1986 – so we’re fortunate this gig was captured for posterity.

“It would be hard to imagine any band that could have matched The Smiths”

In typically hands-on fashion, Morrissey himself compiled Rank, editing it down from the night’s full 21-song set to the 14 songs which eventually hit the shelves on 5 September 1988. Though two of The Smiths’ finest songs, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and How Soon Is Now?, were both performed at Kilburn, they didn’t make the final cut. Even without them, however, Rank is never less than compelling and, in Rolling Stone’s words, it “offers the liveliest post-mortem imaginable” of The Smiths’ career on the boards.

“The tour concluded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 30 October 1986,” The Smiths’ biographer Tony Fletcher later wrote of this pivotal period in the band’s history.

“Their second visit to that historically-important hometown venue was everything the band hoped for, and they were welcomed as conquering heroes. Indeed, at this particular point in the UK, it would be hard to imagine any band that could have matched The Smiths for energy or vitality – or indeed for volume.”

Buy Smiths vinyl at the Dig! store.

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