A newfound machismo makes Rank a fascinating, thrilling document.
Martin Aston 2010-12-31
It’s highly unlikely that Rank is anyone’s favourite Smiths record. Neither is it eulogised as one of rock’n’roll’s live greats. For starters, it resembled a wake more than a triumph. Released as a contractual obligation a year after the band had split, the October 1986 show at Kilburn’s National Ballroom showcased the nascent and frankly (Mr. Shankly) unrefined five-piece Smiths, with Andy Rourke’s temporary replacement, bassist Craig Gannon, shunted over to rhythm guitar. In other words, it wasn’t even The Smiths at their most adored.
But it was the band’s newfound machismo that makes Rank such a fascinating, thrilling document. Seconds after the intro tape (buried in the background) and faint drum clatters, Morrissey bellows “HAAALLLLO!!” before Johnny Marr’s wah-wah-meets-feedback smeared riff and Mike Joyce’s drum tattoo introduced The Queen Is Dead’s title-track. The album had been out four months, and the band was high on fire. (Morrissey’s original – and rejected – title The Smiths in Heat says as much). The feverish audience reaction was also given its voice in the mix, and the atmosphere was combustible.
Panic follows, as self-contained as The Queen Is Dead was sprawling, with Marr throwing in the (T. Rex’s) Metal Guru riff that inspired the single. Similarly, Rusholm Ruffians began with its original blueprint, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, made famous by Elvis; the transition between the two should still make the heart of Smiths fans beat much faster. The slow, striptease-jazzy intro to a full-pelt What She Said is another gleeful addition. Played totally straight, London is super-charged and I Know It’s Over offers a rare moment to catch breath and sway.
Seven tracks had to be hacked off the set list order to make a (14-track) single album, but why I Know It’s Over and the instrumental The Draize Train (whereby Moz gets his traditional backstage breather in preparation for the encores) survive but heart-rending versions of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out and How Soon Is Now? don’t is a mystery. Maybe Moz chose to downplay The Smith’s anthemic qualities but their absence adds to the reason why Rank isn’t the rousing full stop – in effect, a ‘Greatest Bits’ – that The Smiths deserved. Even so, encores of Still Ill and Bigmouth Strikes Again are put to the sword in an exhilarated, exhausted manner, and the crowd react wildly. With anti-Coalition fervour being stoked by students and Morrissey and Marr combined, there is no more perfect time to revisit its molten drama.