The Smiths - The Queen is Dead

The Smiths - The Queen is Dead

On its middle aged birthday, The Smiths' definitive work gets the SMACK Media shrine treatment - discussion, multimedia, and contemporary fare.
The smiths in london black and white winter cardigan on Morrissey hearts
PHOTO CREDIT:

The Queen is Dead by The Smiths turns 35 today. After nearly four decades since the album’s tight ten songs have been immortalized through the stereos, walls, and shirts of misunderstood adolescents everywhere. Called “the greatest album of all time” by NME and “one of the funniest rock albums ever by Rolling Stone, Morrissey’s lyrics, Marr’s arrangements, and their synergetic partnership carved out a rare niche on the 80’s alternative rock landscape whose ripple effects are still lasting. 35 years later The Queen is Dead sounds like nothing else and its subject matter still feels revolutionary.

It was also the inception of a DIY template that bands would borrow for years to come. Rough Trade didn’t have a clue how to market The Smiths, let alone find a section for their music in a shop. It was Morrissey, in a fit of creative emergency who decided The Smiths needed a clean, simple, and romantic aesthetic to get behind. Running serial photographs of Hollywood Stars through coloured filters, The Smith’s artwork and branding fit perfectly with their swooning, melancholic art and suddenly they took off. The band provided a macabre, more refined alternative to the New Wave that was dominating both sides of the pond. With Meat is Murder famously knocking Born in the U.S.A. off the top of the UK charts, The Smiths, by every measure a unique, and somewhat strange act found themselves the biggest band in England, thereby setting the landscape for which The Queen is Dead arrived…

To break down the sadboi big bang, we’ve brought together two of our most well versed on the subject, Kayla “The President of Pop Punk” Vickers and Blake “Me-So-Emo” Haarstad. Along with choice selections from their conversation and listening session on the anniversary’s eve, we’ve also collected contemporary promos, interviews, reviews.. and of course THE FACTS. So before you stare out your window without cracking a smile, here’s our album shrine to The Queen is Dead.

Front to Back it Today.


Morrissey’s Version of Masculinity:

A complex figure, Morrissey’s polarizing reputation is matched strongly by his spectacular pen, aesthetic eye, and sophisticated self-expression, every ounce as brave as it is ambiguous. The Queen is Dead puts this on full display in the form of a pop record for the bedridden teenager. The ones who preferred John Carpenter to Hughes and likely couldn’t be bothered by MTV.

KV:  Mm hmm. Well, I think in a lot of ways, like Morrissey challenged traditional masculinity and like the 80s and especially in the Madchester scene, like one of their first shows he did was in a pair of high heels. He just thought it was a cool thing to do.

He was famously celibate for extended periods. It’s fascinating how Morrissey handles male sexuality…by virtually not handling it.

BH:  I just got a Morrissey poster to put in my room and it's great. It's got Moz smiling and kind of looking up at the camera. And then behind him there's a framed photo of James Dean shadowed and darkened and looking down. And the contrast of the two of course, James Dean having died very young, which is a traditional, romantic thing to happen in our culture. I ultimately took it down as that probably isn’t the best place to have the judgmental, celibate eyes of Moz staring at me while I sleep.

KV:  So yeah, I mean, you could put it like on your on your ceiling above your bed.

BH:  I actually don't want to speculate too much on what The Smiths’ lyrics mean in terms of sexuality and their cryptic-ness on the basis of Morrissey being so slippery. I mean he was so equivocal about his sexuality for so many years. “I'm attracted to humans is what he says.”

KV:  Is that what he actually came out as? I just assumed he left it a mystery forever because like that, in terms of somebody who wants to keep it a mystery, he obviously doesn't in this weird way for a really long time. Like you talk about it, and you're talking about being celibate. So like he is talking about sexuality.

BH:  It was revealed in his autobiography, just titled Autobiography, of course, on Penguin Classics, of course. No, not the regular penguin imprint, "you're not releasing this unless it's on penguin classes"

KV:  Morrissey will forever be a teenage boy despite being a fully developed man, soft and sensitive in an almost regressed way. And that’s pretty much the fanbase too: teenage boys, girls, non-binary people..you know basically all of the sensitive people out there.

BH:  Yeah, right, sort of like a sort of, you know, unashamed to be just eternally juvenile. Yeah. And I think, despite that period of teenage puberty and angst period that everyone goes through, you never really leave it. You're sort of a fool even to think that maybe it's all gone. And someone like Morrissey has clearly never left and he always puts it upfront. And, you know, that's why grab so many people in high school and continues to grab people after that because maybe you just don't let go of that time in your life.

Contemporary Reviews

"…like it or not, this guy's going to be around for a while."
(Mark Coleman, Rolling Stone)
"the guitars are great, some of the words are marvellous, others like scratchings on a Fifth Form desk"
-Tom Hibbert, Smash Hits
“Now, I’m not saying he’s John Lennon and I’m not saying he’s the Monkees. But you gotta admire a guy who can rhyme “rusty spanner” and “play pianner” and who can espouse the beauty of a double-decker bus collision.”
-Rich Stim, SPIN
"[The Smiths] epitomize all that is admirable and annoying about British new music… [Morrissey] has a tendency to wander away from conventional notions of pitch often mangling the band's melodies in the process"
-J.D. Considine, The Globe and Mail
“After disliking their other albums instantly, I was confused enough by my instant attraction to table this one, especially since I had no stomach for the comparisons I knew an investigation would entail. And indeed, I still can't stand the others. But here Morrissey wears his wit on his sleeve, dishing the queen like Johnny Rotten never did and kissing off a day-job boss who's no Mr. Sellack.”
-Robert Christgau, The Village Voice
“If nothing else, it demonstrates the most admirable trait about the Smiths and about Brit rock in general — the wonderful breeding and development of those two-headed songwriting units. There’s something inspiring about these U.K. teams — Lennon and McCartney, Lennox and Stewart, Jagger and Richards, Godley and Creme — these bonded mates who seem to weather thick and thin for the sake of the song.”
-Rich Stim, SPIN


Johnny Marr

Morrissey and Johnny Marr made up one of the best, if not most unique frontman-guitarist combinations of the 80’s. A jangly rhythm that was every bit as bombastic as a lead, what was lost in distortion was made up in chorus. Overlaid by a fluttery tenor, new Romantic Sinatra divided by Bryan Ferry, replace supermodels for old Hollywood and you’ve get something truly special.

BH:  Yeah, I think i think that's really like the best part of the chemistry between the two of them is Johnny Marr always writes very upbeat melodies often in major scales. Andy Rourke and Mick Joyce play with great bounce that gives a lot of energy, but then Morrissey comes on and starts singing about a breakup, you know, via all the people who've ever lived and died and how pointless it was.

But nevertheless, it inspires guitar players all over to play in a way that isn't the sort of flashy, overly phallic guitar solo kind of that you would have heard at the time from, especially from American or British “harder” rock bands. And it's weird because on one hand, he's not flashy in that way. But he's got all these weird chord voicings and lots of little riffs that pop up all over the album and it can be kind of jarring you hear the live versions of Smiths songs and realize how much production is on those albums.

KV:  Yeah, I think that's like the other lasting impact of this album, how Johnny Marr’s guitar playing really like fed into like a more melodic rock that we sort of saw everywhere in the 90’s and especially in the early 2000’s.

BH: It’s not a matter of him inventing it, it's more a matter of him just like reviving it from the 60s and, and refining and making it a lot more kind of sleek, and a lot less like blues-based, it has that pop sound of The Byrds or one of those Los Angeles folk rock bands or like those poppy Paul McCartney songs.

THE BEST VIDEO ESSAY ON THE SUBJECT


STANDOUT TRACKS

“There is A Light That Never Goes Out”

BH: It’s the definitive track of the album. It's a song that Morrissey said he wants to be remembered by and it's a great song to be remembered by because it's, it's very life affirming. Well, at the same time acknowledging you know how shitty it can be.

And 35 years later, for me and for you and for a lot of people who just connect with it, and last year when we couldn't go out, just staring out the window. And unable to go…anywhere. Anywhere? I don't care.

KV:  Yeah, well, I think he talked about that. Like before he started The Smiths. Like he literally like never left his bedroom and never left his house and you can really tell it was by someone who doesn't leave their house, doesn’t want to leave their house, and is still sad about not leaving their house.

BH:  Yeah, I mean, maybe that's to suggest that so many of the people who connect with his lyrics are just more insular.

KV: YES I do hope that Morrissey listened to that song while he was pandemic trapped wherever he was living at the time.. Mexico?

BH:  Maybe he sings it to himself. Maybe he practices

“Cemetery Gates”

KV:  Something I really like about that song is the juxtaposition of how the music sounds versus the lyrics are so bleak and like, deeply poetic. But Marr's riffs make it seem like kind of an up-tempo fun song like you just want to go to the “Cemetery Gates” for fun time. It's gonna be great. Let's go man.

BH:  Yeah, there's, I mean that’s the one that a lot of critics love to write about. It's part of what gave him the reputation of being so literary, you know by merely mentioning Keats and Yeats, and Oscar Wilde notable poets, but also witty and funny.

And, you know, the whole thing is kind of a riff on "Elegy in a country churchyard", too, which is another English poem about walking through a graveyard and looking at all the people who've ever died and thinking of them and thinking to yourself, like, what's the point of living man?

KV:  Yeah. What's that lyric? Like? "If you must write prose and poems, the words should be your own. Don't plagiarize." And Morrissey quoted poets directly. He's sort of like throwing shade at the old guard who have called him out on that. It's on purpose, you Philistines.

“Big Mouth Strikes Again”

KV:  So it’s the story of Joan of Arc retold told in a weird whimsical way.

BH:  Yeah, it's um, it's, it's a weird way to reference Joan of Arc in this Big Mouth kind of story. And and he also has the line is it on that song where he says, Now I know how Joan of Arc fell? Yeah, yeah. That's the song. And it's, I mean, so the single album cover for that, I believe was that was James Dean as well, on a motorcycle.

Yeah. It's I mean, it's a song about gossip really and about saying things that you shouldn't say. But it just comes out. And I think on one hand, he's talking about other people, but he's also talking about himself. But there's a sense that the character in the song stuck inside themselves. It's ironic that they make a villain of someone who talks too much.

That great driving guitar intro that's just fast and sped up. And Morrissey's voice is sped up, and you've got all these weird production elements all coming together that also kind of throw you off a bit from the regular melody that you would have been used to hearing right because that's the first track on Side B. The last track on Side A would have been "I Know It's Over" so you get this weird discombobulating "Big Mouth Strikes Again" which swiftly follows.

“Frankly Mr. Shankly”

BH:  I love that one, That might be my favorite one actually

KV:  It's so good. It really is, anytime you hate working somewhere.

Yeah. And he is just like, he like he's like, Listen, I'm not gonna work here anymore. I'm going to go join The Smiths, right? We're going to get super rich and famous. You're gonna hear about me, my name is Morrissey. Goodbye. And he like mic drops and leaves.

BH:  I mean, it's really sarcastic, it’s biting. But then at the end, he's like, what I really want is for you to just give me money.

KV:  Check please!


THE FACTS

  • The album was a smash success for iconic indie label Rough Trade, spending 22 weeks on the charts and peaking at No. 2.
  • The Smiths were already well established by the time The Queen dropped; “How Soon is Now” had already shaken up British radio just a year before, while Meat is Murder notably knocked Born in the U.S.A. off the UK charts.
  • The album was listed with the working title of Margaret on the Guillotine for sessions. The title would later show up on Morrissey’s debut Viva Hate.
  • “Talent borrows, genius steals,” an Oscar Wilde quote was etched into the runout grooves of first single, the classic “Big Mouth Strikes Again.”
  • Johnny Marr and Morrissey, who produced the album called the sessions “relaxing.”
  • Morrissey’s voice was run through a harmoniser, the machine made famous by Brian Eno on David Bowie’s Low, which provided multi-tracked vocals on a number of songs. He credits the backing vocals on the album’s liner notes as Ann Coates.
  • "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" was, according to Marr, "an effortless piece of music", and was written on tour in the spring of 1985. Morrissey has called it his favourite Smiths song.
  • Wings member Linda McCartney was asked to play piano on “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” but declined.
  • Pop singer Kirst MacColl lended backing vocals to “Big Mouth” which were cut with Marr calling them “too weird.”
  • Though NME rejected Morrissey when he applied there as a writer, kicking off a long and contemptuous relationship between critic and creator, they later would call The Queen is Dead the greatest album of all time.
  • While many at Rough Trade pushed The Smiths to release “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” as a first single, however Marr wanted something more explosive in the vein of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as a return single and went for “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” It peaked at No. 26.


Why do people hate on The Smiths? There’s all but one answer.

Since greatly shifting the alternative landscape beyond the pond, the public acts of Morrissey have seemed to do everything in their power to tarnish the legacy of one of the most important bands in modern times. Morrissey’s antics have been everything between hilarious and confusing to downright offensive and provocative.

BH:  I’m a big Smiths fan; I'm not the longest of the Smith's fans. I think most of them were made in high school. I think the first time I ever heard about The Smiths, and this is funny. It was on the Brand New song “Mix Tape.”

KV:  Yes - Me too!

BH: And there's that line “I hate the way you criticize The Smiths and Morrissey”. And I was like, Who are they? And why do they deserve criticism? If at all?

KV:  Yeah. Well, I mean, and I think becoming a Smith fan is learning about why somebody would criticize The Smiths but also why somebody would be offended that you would criticize The Smiths. So it really is a double edged sword.

BH:  The devotion that they inspire from their fans especially. And well, not even just Morrissey, people love Johnny Marr too. Realize though, Marr does not have the tendency to incite people and piss them off in the same way that Morrissey does.

KV:  I don't know if The Smiths would be as notarized as they are without Morrissey's big mouth. Like would as many people know about them and know who they are? It’s been alleged by Smiths fans that one of the things Morrissey did when singles were underperforming (as often was the case), he'd go through the press and just be like, “Yeah, I hate the monarchy.”

BH:  Yeah, he talked, he ripped the monarchy. He ripped people's dietary choices.

KV:  He won't come to Canada due to our seal clubbing policies, not even for a visit let alone a show.

BH:  But again, that's part of what makes him an interesting person. The things he says in his music that people actually connect and relate with, his asinine opinions almost come with the territory.


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