MUSIC / Underated: Frankly, Mr Shankly: The case for the last Smith's album

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At one time, no lawyer in the country could uphold a case for the Smiths being underrated. The hiccup came in September 1987, when their last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, was released to a press that teetered on Johnny Marr's every wah-wah. They turned on it. It quickly became what Morrissey had reaped a career out of being - misunderstood and unloved.

Between 1983 and 1987 five albums had bolted out of nowhere. A big-bucks switch from indie label Rough Trade to EMI was announced and jeered at. Then, suddenly, the band split and only their epitaph remained, an amorphous clutch of songs running the gamut from disposable pop ('Girlfriend in a Coma') to lilting elegy ('I Won't Share You') and brutal glam ('I Started Something I Couldn't Finish').

Who else wrote like this? Who else sounded, or sounds, this way? The bands that mopped up after the Smiths - the Sundays, the Would-Be's, Gene, Suede - pillaged their canon, but nobody cribbed from Strangeways because nothing in it is transferable, nothing fits. That's their ace.

The Smiths' biographer, Johnny Rogan, calls the album 'strangely self-questioning' but he's way off the mark. It's their most thrilling work: their bravest, too. How could a band hailed as a 'nun-eating rock monster' dare to fashion a record this low-key - from the smudged cover snap of East of Eden's Richard Davalos, to the opener 'A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours', where Morrissey's disembodied vocals, flanked by glockenspiel and pumping music-hall piano, smoke in? But don't be fooled by the fraudulent instrumentation: the Orchestrazia Ardwick is credited, but it's an invention, like the Hated Salford Ensemble were on The Queen Is Dead. It's a joke.

As much an embodiment of the Eighties as Wham], and as emancipated from it now as the Beatles were when the Sixties shrank away, the Smiths were best when they couldn't give a damn. So what if 'Paint a Vulgar Picture' found Marr appropriating those enemies of indie, Dire Straits? So what if 'Death of a Disco Dancer' beat a lolloping path through 'Dear Prudence' and 'Eight Miles High', with Morrissey hammering the ivories like Les Dawson? This is the sound of a band playing at their own behest.

Still the record's breadth and stature wait to be acknowledged. There are juicy cuts here, notably 'Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me', a Scott Walker- style epic dolled-up as a James Bond theme, but it will probably be 20 years before the work receives its due, though it will forever remain the band's square peg. Whatever their musical divergences, Morrissey and Marr are united on one thing. 'Strangeways is our masterpiece', Morrissey said recently. 'Johnny and I are in absolute accordance on that. We say it quite often. At the same time. In our sleep. But in different beds.'

(Photograph omitted)