• Danny Kilmartin

Album Analysis | The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead

A definitive '80s rock and roll album, The Queen Is Dead is an exercise in wit, humour, republicanism with supple musical chops to match.

In May 2019, ex-Smiths frontman Morrissey received praise from 'For Britain' leader Anne Marie Walsh for his support after he appeared wearing a badge supporting them during his New York residency and during an appearance on The Tonight Show. The party was formed after Waters left the UK Independence Party in disgrace, losing their leadership election in 2017 and labelled a Nazi and a racist by her former colleagues. Even then, Morrissey had been vocal in his support of Waters.

When taken to task over his display of support of the contentious group (and the resulting accusations of racism) he took an odd stance. In a bizarre interview with his nephew Sam Esty Rayner and posted on his own website, Morrissey dismisses the claims, opining “The word is meaningless now. Everyone ultimately prefers their own race… does this make everyone racist?”

Reactions from the music industry were mixed. Interpol, who were already booked to open for Morrissey on his North American tour turned a blind eye, frontman Paul Banks stating, “We thought it would be a good show for our fans. That’s how I’m looking at it. I don’t get too much into the other stuff.” Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg lamented the potential impact on the legacy of The Smiths. “I’m heartbroken for them because I’m a big Smiths fan, too. And I’m heartbroken for (ex-Smiths guitarist) Johnny Marr because he’s genuine, a lovely guy, and he doesn’t deserve to have his legacy dragged through the dirt.” Meanwhile, the ever-iconoclastic Nick Cave wrote an open letter in support of Morrissey’s right to free speech and to live freely and separately of his music, writing that “He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty, that will long outlast his offending political alliances.”

So, is Morrissey ruining the legacy of The Smiths? Is it okay to still like The Smiths in 2019? Or even Morrissey? The internet’s busiest music nerd may have put it best. “The Smiths happened so long ago, and also there was much more to The Smiths than simply Morrissey. Yes, people love his vocals. Yes, people love the man’s lyrics and yes, people think that back in the day, he was downright sexy. However, you’re completely ignoring the guitar work of Johnny Marr and a whole host of other things to just simply boil the band’s legacy down to whether or not Morrissey is saying something ridiculous today.”

And love it they did. By the time The Smiths started work on The Queen Is Dead, they were an established band. Their 1984 self-titled debut album reached number 2 on the UK Albums Chart and was well received by music critics. Momentum was built with the release of the compilation album Hatful of Hollow the same year, reaching number 7 on the UK Album Charts and remaining on the charts for 46 weeks.

Second album proper, Meat Is Murder (released in 1985) saw the band reach number one on the charts for the first and only time, but also some other significant developments. Firstly and perhaps most importantly was the reappraisal of the band’s constant collaboration with audio engineer Stephen Street, who they had met while recording “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and who would go on to record the rest of the band’s catalogue.

Secondly, was their newfound adventurousness, with Marr and bassist Andy Rourke incorporating influences rockabilly on “Rusholme Ruffians” and funk on “Barbarism Begins at Home” and the decision by Morrissey and Marr to effectively produce the album themselves with assistance from Street only in committing the record to tape.

Most important however was the political nature of the lyrical content, courtesy of Morrissey, who channelled his energies into writing pro-vegetarianism anthems (“Meat Is Murder”), sneering anti-monarch platitudes (“Nowhere Fast”) and anti-corporal punishment diatribes (“The Headmaster Ritual”, “Barbarism Begins at Home”). It should come as no surprise that at this point in time, Morrissey was already beginning to establish himself as the world’s premiere contrarian, attacking the Margaret Thatcher administration and the Live Aid campaign in interviews with equal volumes of ire. The album’s sole single release – and arguably their musical apex – “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, however, was a commercial failure.

The Queen Is Dead borrowed its title from a story in the Hubert Selby novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. That novel was subject to an obscenity trial in the UK but was critically heralded for its layman style prose and its uncompromising examination of underclass ‘50s New York. The story that shares its name with the Smiths’ album was about a spunky transvestite sex worker ousted from his family home and trying to get the attention of a local yob at a benzo-fuelled party. While Selby’s novel didn’t provide any kind of conceptual arc for the album, it speaks volumes about The Smiths and their constant examination of working-class interests and tendency towards the subversive that it would be at least aesthetically inspired by it.

Songs were composed by Marr during the band’s 1985 UK tour, arrangements hashed out during sound checks with help from Rourke and drummer Andy Joyce. This devil may care approach to the creative process – at least in terms of the album’s music, is reflected in the freewheeling sound of the song. As jangly as The Smiths get, Marr embellishes his layers of guitar with synthesized strings, most prominent in the song’s coda. Marr would say that the composing of the song was effortless. Lyrically, however, the song is less carefree. Morrissey’s lyrics are meta, he being the boy with the thorn in his side and the misunderstood boy’s quest for love being more reflective of Morrissey’s longing for mainstream acceptance in spite of his own inflammatory stances and statements – the song would be the backing for The Smiths’ first music video despite their previous resistance to them. During an appearance on music showcase The Tube, Morrissey was pressed about whether the song was inspired by Oscar Wilde. His response:

No, that’s not true. The thorn is the music industry and all those people who never believed anything I said, tried to get rid of me and wouldn’t play the records. So I think we’ve reached a stage where we feel: if they don’t believe me now, will they ever believe me? What more can a poor boy do?

Morrissey takes further opportunity to dig away at objects of his ire on the record. The opening title-track is a stab at media obsession with the Royal Family (“I say Charles don’t you ever crave/To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil”) over blustering guitar bursts and a driving rhythm. That it opens with a sample of an old music hall sing-song of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” from the film The L-shaped Room adds a further sense of irony, especially when followed by Moz’s decree of “I don’t bless them”. “Cemetry Gates” is a clap back at critics who had previously accused Moz of plagiarism in his lyrics. Merry and even sunny in tone thanks to Marr’s feather-touch acoustic guitar work, Morrissey seethes at the Romantic literary tradition (“Keats and Yeats are on your side”), making light of the melancholy nature of their work while being deeply soaked in his own and declares his allegiance with Oscar Wilde (“While Wilde is on mine”), no stranger to irony in his career and a man who himself was accused of plagiarism.

“Frankly Mr. Shankly” channels The Kinks in a light-hearted mood but is similarly a thinly-veiled jab at another foe; one Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade Records. Morrissey was unhappy with the band’s deal (“Still, I must speak frankly, Mr. Shankly/Oh, give us your money!”) writing a song about wishing to be somewhere else and by Travis’ own admission the “bloody awful poetry” he had written for Morrissey. As if The Smiths’ story wasn’t ironic enough, Rough Trade would delay the album’s release by about seven months.

“… Mr. Shankly” was written as part of a marathon writing session between Morrissey and Marr along with “I Know Its Over” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” – the former a layered, climbing dirge about desperation and loneliness (“If you’re so funny/Then why are you on your own tonight?/And if you’re so clever/Then why are you on your own tonight?”), the latter being arguably the band’s signature song and the pinnacle of the masterful partnership of Morrissey’s lyricism and refined yodel and Marr’s guitar playing and song arrangement. The song has carved its own place on pop culture, being referenced in countless movies and TV shows since and being covered by everyone from Noel Gallagher to Miley Cyrus. Speaking with Select in 1993, Marr opined that this was “the best song” that he had ever heard: “I didn’t realise that ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ was going to be an anthem but when we first played it I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.” Elsewhere there’s rockabilly pastiche (“Vicar in a Tutu”), minor-key death disco barnburner (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”), and irresistibly maudlin melodrama on “Never Had No One Ever”.

Alas, barely twelve months after the album’s release, the already taut relationship between The Smiths would fray and fracture. Marr’s stress and burnout from touring would see him hit the bottle with a vengeance while Rourke’s heroin habit saw him kicked out of the band (allegedly by post-it note), re-recruited and eventually left behind from a tour of the States. Drug and alcohol use and increasing tensions between the band members would come to a head when an exhausted Marr would take a break from the band only to quit the band when he erroneously thought an article in the NME titled “Smiths to Split” was planted by Morrissey. The relationship was by now irreparable in any case – Marr was frustrated by Morrissey’s insistence on covering old ‘60s pop tunes while Morrissey was irritated by Marr’s work with other artists.

The Smiths split up in July 1987. There have been no reunions.

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