The Smiths – The Queen is Dead: 20 years on

Eeeep! I was reminded recently that this, one of my all-time favourite albums, will be twenty years old this year. This really doesn’t seem possible. That would mean that I’m getting old or something. :uhoh: I remember, back in 1986, when The Queen is Dead was released, there was a lot of fuss over the 20th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. At the time, that seemed like ancient history to me. And now another twenty years have passed, and it seems like a good time to look back…

The Smiths were the definitive indie band of the early/mid 1980s. Led by Morrissey on vocals and Johnny Marr on guitar, they were my favourite band at the time. Morrissey’s superficially depressing lyrics[1] were counterpointed by Johnny’s chiming and inventive guitar work and arrangements.

This was their third studio album after The Smiths and Meat is Murder, not including the collection of radio performances and b-sides Hatfull of Hollow, and includes some of their finest work:

The Queen is dead

Pounding drum work from Mike Joyce, and some nice silliness in the lyrics:

So I broke into the palace
with a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said, “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”
I said, “That’s nothing – you should hear me play piano”

Johnny’s guitar makes wonderful noises, and Morrissey ends with

Life is very long when you’re lonely

Frankly, Mr Shankly

The music bounces along nicely, quite cheerfully, but the words are about being crushed by a dead-end job and having dreams of fame:

Frankly, Mr Shankly, this position I’ve held
It pays my way, but it corrodes my soul
I want to leave, you will not miss me
I want to go down in musical history

I know it’s over

For once, the mood of the music and the vocals are exactly in agreement. A genuinely sad song about dejection and rejection

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
and as I climb into an empty bed
Oh well. Enough said.

I know it’s over
and it never really began
but in my heart it was so real
and you even spoke to me and said
“If you’re so funny
then why are you on your own tonight>

If you’re so terribly good-looking
then why do you sleep alone tonight?
because tonight is just like any other night

The only upside to the desperation is this sign that he isn’t quite crushed:

It’s so easy to laugh
It’s so easy to hate
It takes guts to be gentle and kind

Never had no one ever

More of the same, really.

I had a really bad dream
It lasted 20 years, 7 months and 27 days

It’s the precision that lifts it from being merely maudlin. That and the guitar work…

Cemetry Gates

(That’s how it’s spelt on the CD!)

A more cheerful little number about meeting in the cemetery on a “dreaded sunny day” and reading the gravestones, and wondering about

all those people all those lives
where are they now?

Bigmouth strikes again

Comedy. Really.

Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking
when I said by rights you should be
bludgeoned in your bed
and now I know how Joan of Arc felt
when the flames rose to her Roman nose
and her Walkman started to melt

Well, it made me laugh, anyway.

The boy with the thorn in his side

Back to the sadder side.

The boy with the thorn in his side
behind the hatred there lies
a plundering desire for love
how can they see the love in our eyes
and still they don’t believe us

and when you want to live
how do you start?
where do you go?
who do you need to know?

Vicar in a tutu

As silly as you might expect

There is a light that never goes out

One of my two favourite Smiths song, along with How Soon is Now?. Lush string arrangements, a swooningly romantic song with a characteristically dark undercurrent.

Take me out tonight
Because I want to see people
And I want to see lights
Driving in your car
Oh please don’t drop me home
Because it’s not my home it’s their home
and I’m welcome no more
and if a double-decker bus crashes into us
to die by your side such a heavenly way to die
and if a ten ton truck kills the both of us
to die by your side the pleasure and the privilege is mine

Some girls are bigger than others

A closing piece of silliness. Rather breaks the mood created by There is a light…, which is probably why it’s there.

So there it is. Twenty years on, and I still love it. The band made one more album before splitting. Morrissey has had a solo career with ups and downs, Johnny has played with numerous bands (Electronic, The The, The Pretenders, etc) and more recently has formed his own band – the Healers. Neither has really come close to the quality of work they produced together. If this was the kind of site that used words like that, I’d mumble something about “synergy” at this point. A Smiths reunion is on the “most unlikely” list. And that’s probably for the best…

[1] There was a lot of black humour there, which sailed several kilometres above the heads of people who didn’t like the band.

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