One of the seminal records of the 1980s celebrates thirty years in existence today. A beacon of inspiration for many fledgling rockers, The Queen Is Dead showcased Manchester’s mercurial metropolis of maudlin melancholy and misanthrope, Morrissey; and the effervescent, arpeggio-whirling axeman, Johnny Marr, in their full-force bouts of witticisms and reverential jangle-pop surrounds.
An album that challenged more than musical boundaries of its time, The Smiths rattled off a little over a half hour of virtuoso vexations aimed at the Church; the working world; the music industry; the neglected destitute of Northern England during the Thatcher regime; and obviously, Queenie herself.
Thirty years on, as relevant and as thought-provoking as ever. With the chastisement of the Church becoming ever prevalent in today’s epoch and many viewing today’s Britain as no more pertinent socially than the Thatcher days, The Queen Is Dead has aged well… Maybe too well.
The Queen Is Dead
The title track is one of the finest openers in rock – A “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” sample lays down a marker before the deluge of sardonic social salutations take shape. This aforesaid sample is Morrissey in many ways – his fascination with “kitchen sink” realism and archaic Anglo references shine through. But it also signifies the entire album – old values being missed and an element of nostalgia, for “Life is very long when you’re lonely”.
Right now, the outies of Brexit are in full swing, with their Britannia-glistening exterior and their “holier-than-EU” air. These, as AA Gill puts them, “peak Blighty” values Moz does not appear to take kindly to. Sometimes the old guard is too much. Yet even if our frontman misses the Shelagh Delaney Northern mannerisms, rain falling in the humdrum town, and scribbling on a notepad on Kings Road, I think he’ll quietly enjoy his copy of A Taste of Honey with little regret in leaving “peak Blighty” behind – “And so I checked all the registered historical facts/And I was shocked and ashamed to discover/How I’m the eighteenth Pale descendant/Of some old Queen or other”. And take his solo debut Viva Hate – “I’m just so glad to grow older/To move away from those darker years”.
Frankly, Mr. Shankly
Many dismiss this as album fodder and filler for its playful and somewhat throwaway nature is evident in its tone compared to the rest of the album’s cadence. And yes, dissing the working world is so easily concocted in records that appeal to teen-needies today. But Andy Rourke’s reggae-inspired rhythm is an unusual ingredient for the non-fan yet showcases their distinct black influence throughout their tenure.
I Know It’s Over
“I Know It’s Over” could fall perfectly into the laps of the stereotype abusers that The Smiths are the bleak miserablists that they are so often construed to be, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking of such. Or would I?
“If you’re so funny/Then why are you on your own tonight?” and “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” epitomise what these stereotype hoggers are saying, yet the link to the lonely soul is “natural and real”. Marr’s unearthly love affair with moulding electric and acoustic guitar is beautifully flitted across this track and the pained vocal outro, like getting soil in your eyes, gains gloomy exasperation in every line. It’s directed at himself but sends a chill down your spine because you feel it just as much as he does, if not more so, even if you don’t want to, or like a lot of Smiths fans, feel like you don’t have to.
Never Had No One Ever
Overkill following on from what we just heard? Perhaps. But this track feels more like Northern England. More bite from the rhythm section and another blunt expression of alienation.
“Cemetry Gates” once again pens the lyrical wit of Morrissey – “A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetry gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side/While Wilde is on mine” – letting us know of his prowess of the powerful prose. His mix of the morbid hilarity merged with respect for the heroes he so often penned himself acquiesces to many wannabes like himself who wished to emulate these great 19th- and 20th-century scribes. He’ll have to start spelling “cemetery” correctly, however.
Bigmouth Strikes Again
“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt”– sticking it the critics for being burned at the stack for any utterance of self-importance which he, and many others, feel he’s worth. Marr once again feeling the acoustic vibes; the intro he states as a proper “riff” and the whole song could easily live off that, no doubt. But the electric melodies add so much as always, almost reflecting and supporting Morrissey in his stand.
The Boy With the Thorn in His Side
A music biz song? Never. This is what this is. Many sweep this aside as a weak link but not I. The melody is one of Marr’s finest and Mike Joyce decides to keep the heavy hands at bay by following the lead guitar like he thinks he always does.
Cutting the throats of the sycophantic slags of the music industry not playing the band’s tracks on the radio like only he can, Moz lays down the literary gauntlet – “How can they see the love in our eyes/And still they don’t believe us?”
Vicar in a Tutu
The slapstick humour is almost too well thought out. A weak point yes, almost displaying their humour too much, but another stance on the absurdity of the Church or more so the love affair of the British public with religion. A bit like today.
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
The penultimate classic of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” solidifies the black comedy that anyone who’s listened hard enough over the years will get. I always have.
A glistening tragedy that Morrissey and Marr could only conjure up, the inevitable death of being smacked by that double-decker bus and ten-tonne truck is only smothered by that ending flute section. It adds what all Smiths tracks possess: a hint of hope. Always.
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
And if the finale gives you the impression that Marr was acquiescent to the leadman’s demands with that omnipotent riff mixed with the puerility factor of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than the Others”, you’d be right.
Whether or not you feel the sparkle was chewed up and spat back out by Morrissey’s throwaway big-breast sentiments, Marr’s twirly layers are to die for. His technical astuteness in the studio to compile and pile all of these majestic riffs on top of one another is badly needed as much as warranted. As many critics like to do with The Smiths – zone out and listen to the tunes when Moz goes off on one: well here’s the perfect opportunity. But even the little pinches of “As Anthony said to Cleopatra/As he opened a crate of ale/’Oh, I say’/Some girls are bigger than others” zone you back in. Admit it.
I couldn’t tell you which of their records is the best or whether this is in fact one of the great records of the 1980s. It’s seen as such but potential unfulfilled is definitely what these aloof musos should feel when it comes to this still-growing cult legacy. It tackled so many issues and could’ve tackled so many more so much better. Coulda, shoulda, woulda – that’s The Smiths. And y’know what? It’s all we have left. We’re better off that way.