Today marks the 30th anniversary of Gillian McKeith’s Dietary Diary Through the Medium of Song (even she eats fish). The Smiths’ second studio record, which began their plunge into the realms of political and social commentary, has one of the most provocative, straightforward and controversial titles of the ‘80s, or any decade for that matter. Meat Is Murder, to a non-fan, conjures up thoughts of dirty vegetarian radicalism and the anti-meat industry ramblings of “infamous” lead singer Morrissey, but this record is so much more. Out of the nine tracks (ten if you’re lucky enough to be from the United States or Canada) only one gives an account of the wrongdoings of the meat-eater, and it’s the very last track. Even Morrissey had the good sense not to smear the entire record with the likes of “The meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder!” More so than the pro-vegetarianism stance, the album actually revolves around extremely relevant themes of humanity; anti-corporal punishment, social values, light-heartedness, the usual emotional number and peace.
As a newly-fledged vinyl collector I purchased the 2009 remastered LP on St Stephen’s Day last year (already owning the remastered 2011 CD of course). A great buy, but only last weekend whilst in Dublin I discovered Spindizzy Records and found a heap of Smiths original LP pressings which included this for fifteen quid… fifteen. It possessed the original cover, sleeve and the “ROUGH 81” text on the LP label denoting the band’s independent music label Rough Trade Records. The 2009 polished reissue cost me over twenty. I’ve discovered on the likes of Discogs fruitcakes selling the original pressing for upwards of nearly ONE THOUSAND pounds sterling. Granted this was drummer Mike Joyce’s signed personal copy, but still… fifteen will do.
Meat Is Murder, released on the 11th February, 1985 and Valentine’s Day in the US, marks the beginning of the band’s relationship with engineer Stephen Street, a very important asset to The Smiths all the way through to their premature demise in 1987. Street was also a songwriter/musician and helped Morrissey transition into his solo career with his first two albums after The Smiths’ split. It also saw the band producing their first full album themselves which is why many see this as guitarist Johnny Marr’s baby as he took control of the instrumentation and sound of the record, incorporating a more fast-paced jangle and a rockabilly/funk feel in some tracks. The young genius only twenty-one when the album was released leaves you ponder gloriously over his undeniable talent when listening. Years later he said he was unhappy with it, however, saying it was artistically the least successful and it was too fast. Right from the off, though, before you even plug in the LP, the message and general vibe of the album is illustrated right in front of you with the cover art of the American soldier during the Vietnam War with “Meat Is Murder” on his helmet. The soldier; a symbol of violence and death but brandishing a message of peace and anti-violence (the original message on the helmet being the complete opposite – “Make War Not Love”) shows Morrissey’s vision for the album to convey peaceful means even through the most destructive and cruel of human beings. He even cropped out the gun in the album image.
Shockingly, it’s the band’s only number one UK album of their short lifetime knocking Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. off the top spot. Morrissey constantly blames Rough Trade for not keeping up with sales of the major players in the industry for their other releases, but you get what you pay for with the independent labels.
The Headmaster Ritual
The opener was the track that introduced me properly to the band nearly two years ago while in a flat in the US trawling through random music on YouTube. Little did I know what would come next; now an avid listener and follower of the band along with Morrissey’s solo endeavours, I’ve learned a lot about different bands, artists, books, playwrights, actors/actresses and life in general. “The Headmaster Ritual”, released as a single in the Netherlands only, is Morrissey’s attack on his Manchester teachers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, dishing out beatings for breathing and general existence. One year when asked to do a report on his favourite book, of course being Morrissey the chosen text was the dictionary, he was given a swift clobbering at the hands of his English enforcer. The frontman’s vocals don’t begin ‘til 45 seconds in so the first thing that grabs you is Marr’s trademark jangle which took him the best part of two years to complete as he kept toing and froing with different string arrangements and progressions. The lyrics are straightforward and simple but only Morrissey could construct them – “Belligerent ghouls/Run Manchester schools/Spineless swines/Cemented minds”. Although I never was the recipient of a beating from an educator in my life, I felt like I was in St Wilfrid’s or St Mary’s with Moz being “grabbed and devoured”. The “la-la-la” wailing halfway through and in the outro, to me conveys the child Morrissey crying and wanting to leave – “I want to go home/I don’t want to stay”. I never heard anything like it before in my life, I was hooked. An important track that could have been the catalyst for ending corporal punishment in Northern English schools completely, it was dwindling as it was, but the Manchester education system I’m sure took note. A form of peaceful protest no doubt.
The Smiths always painted a picture of Manchester. You may watch Manchester United and the glamorous cauldron of Old Trafford on the box, but the four lads always saw it for the way it was, a rough Northern town, but it was their town. This may be so but they always glamourised it and gave you the impression you lived there with them. Rusholme, an inner-city area of Manchester is the subject for “Rusholme Ruffians” which Morrissey elegantly puts – “It’s about going to a fair… and being stabbed”. The lyrics are inspired from the pen of Victoria Wood in “Fourteen Again” and revolve around a young Morrissey going to a fair and giving little anecdotes of what he sees as he looks around – “The last night of the fair/By the big wheel generator/A boy is stabbed/And his money is grabbed/And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine”. The track gives us a glimpse into the technical prowess of bassist Andy Rourke. Marr’s vibrant acoustic guitar is put to the background by Rourke’s rollicking, rockabilly bass. His skills as a bassist should never be underestimated yet they were always overshadowed by the two talents in front of him. The track also possesses Morrissey’s talent for mixing the dour with the hilarious. “The last night of the fair/From a seat on a whirling waltzer/A skirt ascends for a watching eye/It’s a hideous trait (on her mother’s side)”. What a lyric. “Scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen/This means you really love me” and “My faith in love is still devout” are favourites and tattoo inspirations for many fans, and that there’s always a place for the hopeless romantic in the world. By the way, one of Morrissey’s heroes Oscar Wilde had a saying, “Talent borrows, genius steals” *cough*.
I Want the One I Can’t Have
“On the day that your mentality/Catches up with your biology” – a nod to growing old at the wrong time and a young adult attracted to an adolescent he “can’t have”, perhaps? A Morrissey love affair with another male? – “He killed a policeman when he was thirteen/And somehow that really impressed me/It’s written all over my face”. Personally, I never went for all that “is he gay or not” lark because it never interested me and it’s nobody’s business. The ambiguity is always there, though. Even in his autobiography Morrissey tells us he was in a relationship with a man in the mid ‘90s but he also contemplated having a child with a female friend that he met when he moved to Los Angeles not long after the male relationship ended. Marr’s customary jangly hooks are back and among his most appealing. Just listen to that tiny, whirling string picking arpeggio at 1:04 in the album version video below when Moz hits one of the record’s most endearing lyrics – “A double bed/And a stalwart lover for sure/These are the riches of the poor”. It’s a song played a lot in Morrissey’s solo live sets with his guitarists failing to reproduce that Marr sparkle, but as Noel Gallagher said about his guitar craftsmanship “Not even he can play what he plays”.
What She Said
Ambiguity rife once again; many fans see this as a song Morrissey constructed thanking Marr for rescuing him from his bedroom as a depressed, literature-obsessed teenager/twenty-something-year-old, as he struggled to break into the punk and post-punk scene of Manchester in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Moz being the “she” and Marr being the boy from Birkenhead – “What she read/All heady books/She’d sit and prophesise/It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead/To really really open her eyes”. Maybe, but more likely a piece of literature Morrissey enjoyed as a “back-bedroomed casualty” called By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart which included the smoking reference, the clinging to something and people not noticing she was dead and burying her. It could conceivably be both, why not? Musically, it seems like the fastest guitar riff ever made. I don’t know if it’s a host of different layered guitars or what, but… it’s fast. It’s a track I generally skip; it’s a bit messy and clumsy, showcasing what Marr was saying years later that the album was too swift and not artistic enough, but it’s saved from complete disaster by sparkles of Morrissey’s literary genius.
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
The only official single from the album is an act of humanity and that the mockery of the suicidal, depressed, bullied, whatever, “isn’t funny anymore”. The song also sees Marr mixing the acoustic and electric guitar element together which he was fond of all during The Smiths’ stint. He saw the acoustic as a great accompaniment with the electric sound and felt it was a great way to glue all of the elements of a track together from vocals to drums. The foppish acoustic hits you from the start, and the electric guitar is like a restless animal pacing at the stalls (excuse the animal cruelty), brewing up the energy in the background and then bursts into life just before Morrissey kicks into the euphoric-like “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives/And now it’s happening in mine”, a transition from the thoughts of the sympathetic narrator to the bully now experiencing what he/she was dishing out to the recipient all along. The riff is almost some sort of melodic, high-pitched; heavy metal-esque wail which Marr said practically wrote itself. The axeman said his guitar skills were so revered while in The Smiths because he was so well able to match the sound of his instrument with the emotion of a track. Just when you think it’s complete and the haunting riff is over at 3:46, it kicks into life again. Notice how the unassuming acoustic seamlessly continues in the midst of it all. It was one of the band’s worst performing singles of their lifetime only barely breaking the top fifty at number forty-nine on the UK charts. Not single material in the public domain, but definitely perfect for the humane theme of the album.
The album’s shortest track but packed full of goodies – though “Rusholme Ruffians” has a bouncy, funk sound, “Nowhere Fast” is the first real look into the band’s rockabilly roots. Many saw The Smiths as a stereotypical white group but they were actually quite black-influenced; Marr of course heavily inspired by funk legends Chic and Nile Rodgers (he even named his son after Nile). Morrissey listened to many R&B female groups from the ’60s including The Cookies, The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes while Andy Rourke listened to a lot of local Manchester funk-inspired groups which included A Certain Ratio. The track possesses the first stab at the Royals from the enigmatic frontman which would be a recurring theme throughout his and the band’s career – “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen/Every sensible child will know what this means”. The line of “Each household appliance is like a new science in my town” is how modern society is passing Morrissey by and the world is moving on. The reference to the train passing by could be local Mancunians vacating the Northern slums as Morrissey goes “nowhere” sticking to his Northern roots. An unusual Smiths’ trait rears its beautiful head with a Johnny Marr guitar solo in the middle of the track, shock horror. The “funkabilly” jangle would bring a cheeky smile to any listener’s face and it ends met full on by one of the great lyrics of the mercurial moaner – “And when I’m lying in my bed/I think about life and I think about death/And neither one, particularly appeals to me!”, which typifies The Smiths to no end – a maudlin and morose theme mixed with humour, and above all else, hope.
Well I Wonder
Seen as one of The Smiths’ most undervalued songs, it was never performed live by the band or Morrissey in his solo sets. I have no idea why. It’s a beautiful piece; gorgeous, plucky acoustic, unassuming but beautifully constructed Rourke bass and heart-thumping but delicate drums mixed with the most morose lyrics of the album – “Well I wonder/Do you hear me when you sleep?/I hoarsely cry” ended with a creepy baby-like moan epitomising the general atmosphere – a vulnerable, lonely character yearning for his/her lover to notice him/her. The falsetto “Well I wonder/Please keep me in mind” is enough to pull at anyone’s heart strings, showing off Morrissey’s underrated vocal ability. Many see his talents in lyrical direction and delivery, but he showcases his range and hits the spot perfectly. The track ends with a quickened Marr outro and the sound of falling rain. It’s perfect respite from the rest of the relentlessly fast-paced album. In spots, you can also hear glimmers of an electric guitar, subtlety placed. Arguably the group’s most beautiful track in their rich catalogue, and a hidden gem.
Barbarism Begins At Home
The band’s most funk and black-influenced track is all Marr, Rourke and Joyce. The lyrical theme is very important, once again revolving around anti-corporal punishment and the rights of children. Morrissey sings from the point of view of the parent dishing out the physical violence, but most of the song is a “No, no, no!” drone with a strange dog-like bark in spots. Marr’s guitar is so groovy and dance-like I always pictured it as an early Bond movie theme tune, while Rourke’s base withstands, sticks with, and in flashes, outshines the mammoth guitar. “A crack on the head/Is just what you get/Why? because of who you are!” could be a line flung at many a child during the ‘60s/’70s/’80s in English homes. The track was written by the band in different forms and performed live even before the release of the album. It didn’t have a name in its early stages and live television broadcasts had the caption titling it “The Crack on the Head”. “Barbarism Begins At Home” was released as a single in Germany and Italy only, and proved the band could pull off a rock number as well as eliminating the pigeon-holed opinion of them being a white, melodic and dour group from the bleak North of England.
Meat Is Murder
Morrissey and Marr were always irritated by popular bands obtaining a great opportunity to say something thought-provoking but never using the musical platform to “raise people’s level of conscientiousness in any direction”, and how these bands just made “banal rubbish”. They took the first step into the animal rights realms with the title track – beginning with the whine of a cow, a butcher’s saw and then into the crawling, haunting guitar riff and piano melody, with lyrics of the dietary sins of the flesh eater. No statement has ever been made like this in music, or has since, and it was the modus operandi for many fans converting to giving up meat and respecting the life of animals. A vegetarian myself for nearly nine months now, it wasn’t this song or this album that made me give up meat, it made me aware absolutely no doubt about that, and without the album I wouldn’t have bothered, but this didn’t force me into vegetarianism. I’ve researched the topic further, and have watched many documentaries, the most persuading being Farm to Fridge which encouraged me to pack in meat (for now anyway) and does highlight what is being said by militant vegetarians across the world. Many say animal rights activists shouldn’t be ramming their opinions down people’s throats and if people want to eat meat this is fine, but what if Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela didn’t ram their opinions down people’s throats? I know I’m comparing human to animal rights when there’s no real comparison, obviously, but it’s the same idea and maybe we should think about these things more. This track actually stains the album for many. It doesn’t bother me, because I like the general theme of the overall album, and this is just a shift from the human element to the animal element. Also, since it’s placed as the last track, it’s easy to just have “Barbarism Begins At Home” as the finale and end it there if you so wish. Even if you don’t agree with the statement, it’s still enough to have you think a small bit at least. Funnily enough, in an interview in 1984, a few months before Meat Is Murder was released, Morrissey stated as a vegetarian he wouldn’t “stand on the table and say ‘You can’t possibly eat that piece of meat!’” and that he doesn’t “inflict what [he] feels on other people, because that’s boring” *cough*. Marr himself is actually a vegan, Joyce is still a vegetarian and Rourke was one for many years but has since gone back to eating meat as far as I know. Not a popular statement among the meat eater, or the diehard for that matter, but it’s a life changer for many, and it must be said, maybe not directly, however, for me too. On Morrissey’s part, an over-obsessive, self-righteous act no doubt, but he feels strongly about it and it’s been important for many. “Ya do win friends with salad”.
Their sophomore studio album may not be their best work but it’s important on quite a few levels. For me it gave me an introduction into the band, thus broadening my horizons in many different topics which have thought me quite a lot. Listening to this band and still listening now, no group compares lyrically or compassionately. When hearing most other bands and their lyrics, I always say “What does that mean?”, because there is a lack of direct meaning and the clichéd “It means whatever you want it to” just doesn’t register with me any longer. For better or worse? The extra US and Canadian track was the iconic “How Soon Is Now?” at number six on the tracklist. The cover had one big picture of the soldier (Marine Cpl. Michael Wynn) rather than the four-tiled picture of the UK version.
The album also shows there is a human side to Morrissey when he is held in such suspicious regard by the press. Especially nowadays with his random ramblings the public are forgetting what The Smiths was; one of the great British bands, or world bands, of the era (or any era) who were compassionate, witty, heart-felt and spokespeople for everyday life. It’s being lost slightly nowadays by Morrissey’s insular and narrow-minded views when The Smiths were the complete opposite of that. I would absolutely agree they’ve made better records but none maybe as striking as the content or theme of this one. When people ask me what’s my favourite Smiths album, I have no idea. It depends on the day and the general mood. One thing’s for certain, it’s an album that sparks discussion, positive or negative, and that means they did something right. It’s placed at number two hundred and ninety-six on the Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and proved a vital outlet for many schoolchildren and disenfranchised youths of the time and today, inspiring heaps of bands, writers and vegetable-eaters while also being compassionate and caring for the fellow man.