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Precious Things Aren't Always Perfect: Why The Queen Is Dead Is No Classic
Ben Hewitt , July 21st, 2011 07:14

The Queen Is Dead is 25 years old, and the eulogies have been non-stop. But Ben Hewitt reckons it's not the masterpiece people would have you believe...

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One month on from the 25th anniversary of The Queen Is Dead, and the rhapsodising has finally started to subside. For even without the added boon of that quarter-of-a-century milestone, we're told that the LP is The Smiths' magnum-opus; their most divine creation; their definitive album; nay, the definitive indie album of the last two-and-a-half decades, bar none. With snaps of Morrissey, Marr et al outside the Salfords Lads' Club adorning nearly every music mag and enraptured editorial gushing forth from blogs and broadsheets alike, trying to ignore The Queen Is Dead last month was akin to pretending that there wasn't some shindig or other taking place at Worthy Farm. No matter how fussy and obstinate Morrissey has become – whether it's unleashing his personal pack of hounds to sniff out burgers and sausages lest their meaty whiff infiltrates his nostrils, or offending another sect of society with some questionable comment- The Queen Is Dead is his, and The Smiths', undisputed masterpiece. And in the past 30 days, I've heard these words said a hundred times – maybe less, but probably more.

Yet even as a fully-fledged, gladioli-swinging Smiths devotee, I find myself at odds with the eulogising, because it seems to be coloured by some bizarre form of nostalgia – one that's born not out of fond recollections of carefree youth, but a perverse hankering for those oh-so-complicated teenage years of misery and isolation. The Independent's Andy Gill, for instance, sung its praises for being "an almost perfect soundtrack to teenage angst" and bringing back memories of "the sweet pain of adolescence". Now, why anyone would want to relive their youth if it was genuinely so unpleasant is another matter, but it seems as if the clamour for The Queen Is Dead isn't as such for the record itself, but for the circumstances in which it was devoured: sitting alone in the dark of the bedroom, perhaps, finding succour in the bleakness of 'Never Had No One Ever' or some strain of hope in 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out'. A flashback to a time in which life seemed hopelessly unfair, and only Morrissey knew exactly how you felt, and how to make it better. But sentiment doth not make for masterpieces, and The Queen Is Dead is far from perfect. It's not the greatest album of the last 25 years. It's probably not even the best album by The Smiths.

For how can we reconcile the 'greatest album of the last 25 years' shtick with the mirthless 'Frankly, Mr Shankly'? Does anyone really take pleasure in Morrissey the bard tossing off glib rhymes like "Sometimes I'd feel more fulfilled / Making Christmas cards with the mentally ill", or trade base insults such as "Since you ask / You are a flatulent pain in the arse?". The same can be said, too, for his boggle-eyed bewilderment on 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', or the Carry On escapades of 'Vicar In A Tutu'. The buck doesn't stop with the lyrics, either; 'Frankly…' is The Smiths' obsession with vaudeville and music hall at its most stodgy, while the pastiche rockabilly of 'Vicar In A Tutu' sounds lightweight and tacky compared to, say, 'Shakespeare's Sister'.

As untouchable as the finest moments of The Queen Is Dead are – and make no mistake, the title track, 'I Know It's Over' and 'Never Had No One Ever' in particular should all be included in any pantheon of great Smiths songs – it can't not be marred as a whole by those aforementioned and considerable blunders. And at risk of being lynched by ardent Morrissey fanatics, I'm not convinced that 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', for all its glory, should be held aloft as the ultimate Smiths anthem, either. It's the cornerstone of the LP; the swansong of an album that, according to Andy Gill, "best summarises their qualities in their most skilfully wrought form".

But at their finest, The Smiths' signature quality was playing on loneliness and isolation, without any hope on the horizon – and there is hope with 'There Is A Light', because despite the doomed romanticism and morbid yearning for a car crash, there's the prospect of desires being fulfilled: flesh and metal being fused together, twisted into one permanent pact, a love and light that can't be extinguished. It's too hopeful; it's too 'lighters-aloft'; it's too 'throw your arm around your best mate and down a can of Stella'.[it also make an excellent euphoric night closer at ever Trash - ED] Just as Alex Denney described the lack of nuances in Jeff Buckley's cover of 'Hallelujah' as "a kind of upper-middlebrow 'Angels'", 'There Is A Light…' is the most famous Smiths song. It's The Smiths' song for people who don't actually like The Smiths that much. It's brilliant, and beautiful, but a perfect encapsulation of The Smiths' mission statement? For my money, the unremitting bleakness of 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' and 'How Soon Is Now' are more worthy of the accolade, to name but two.

It's not just The Queen Is Dead that's hampered by the odd clanger, though: for all their majesty, The Smiths never quite nailed that 'perfect' album. Strangeways, Here We Come is my personal favourite – boasting not just the exquisite aforementioned 'Last Night I Dreamt…', but also the criminally unheralded 'Death Of A Disco Dancer' – but it's hard to declare anything a masterpiece when it features the God-awful 'Girlfriend In A Coma'. The Smiths has the run of killer singles, but it's been dated by that muddy, murky production.

Meat Is Murder is freer of the oft-recurring flaws than the others, but most purists would plump for the compilation Hatful Of Hollow as a superior choice – and therein, perhaps, lies the appeal of The Smiths: much like their lead singer, they were flawed and never without reproach, capable of producing something utterly majestic one minute and irksomely mundane the next. If The Smiths found favour and resonance with outcasts and misfits, then it's fitting that their pristine collection is a compilation, in which the magic is distilled and the ugly bits are chopped and left on the cutting room floor. For them, being 'perfect' was never really an option.

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Jul 21, 2011 11:20am

I couldn't agree more with this article had I penned it myself. The Smiths, like REM perhaps, certainly didn't quite make that 'Perfect 10/Classic/Masterpiece' of an album. Excellent article.

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Jul 21, 2011 11:31am

I much prefer The Queen Is Dead to Strangeways...(Death At One's Elbow is horrific). Neither compare to Meat is Murder which is my own personal favourite.

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Jul 21, 2011 11:36am

I disagree on Frankly Mr Shankly and Some Girls are Bigger than Others, it's the removal of the weightiness and the over seriousness of a lot of the other tracks that makes the album, not quite able to take it self seriously it avoids being overly dour and teenage angsty. The memory of this is flawed but with those and Bigmouth Strikes Again it is that combination that makes it great, though maybe taken too seriously these days.

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Jul 21, 2011 11:47am

Great article - the bit about 'There is a light...' being the song 'for people who don't actually like the Smiths that much', that is spot on. Both 'Strangeways, Here We Come' and 'Meat is Murder' are better albums, no? 'Strangeways..' is probably best, after all it has another 'criminally unheralded' song, 'A Rush and A Push and the Land is Ours'.

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Jul 21, 2011 11:55am

In reply to Tiresias:

Yea, I like 'Frankly Mr Shankly', it really isn't as bad as it's made out in the article...

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Jul 21, 2011 12:39pm

Thoroughly enjoyed this article - reasoned, well argued without being preachy and all valid points.

I count The Smiths among my top 3 bands of all time and would, head-to-head, plump for Meat is Murder over The Queen is Dead, mainly for the incredible run from The Headmaster's Ritual to How Soon is Now?

However, like Sgt Pepper's being The Beatles' "masterpiece" (it's clearly Abbey Road), I suspect received Smithslore wisdom will remain the same on TQID.

I'd agree with the voices saying sticking up for Frankly Mr Shankly, I like that behind its jaunty appearance the lyrics are really (in my opinion) unrestrained contempt. And I like Some Girls... although it could have been stronger lyrically. And by that time the key of C# is getting annoying.

Importantly though, this is a great piece that doesn't detract away from the band's standing as one of the most vital British acts in popular music.

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Jul 21, 2011 12:43pm

Their best album for me has always been Meat Is Murder. Even more so after Warners stuck How Soon Is Now? on the CD.

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Tim Russell
Jul 21, 2011 1:11pm

Great article. I LOVE the Smiths, they're the closest thing I've ever had to a religion, yet they never made a truly great, cohesive album. In fact their best album - the Troy Tate version of their debut - never even got officially released.

TQID has some truly stellar moments - the title track, I Know It's Over (their greatest song in my opinion), Marr's dizzying guitarwork on Boy With the Thorn In His Side and Cemetry Gates, and of course There Is a Light - but as you correctly state it's deprived of its place in the Great Albums pantheon by Morrissey's increasingly annoying penchant for music-hall whimsy, allegedly one of the reasons Marr eventually quit.

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Jul 21, 2011 1:29pm

I would agree that Meat is Murder is probably the best Smiths record - and if you make sure to stop it before the title track plays, it almost reaches that "perfect album" level.

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Jul 21, 2011 1:43pm

Another vote for Meat Is Murder as the best of a flawed bunch. I've always thought That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore is their best song, far better than the mawkish and whimsical There Is A Light...

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Jul 21, 2011 1:44pm

Louder Than Bombs
The Queen Is Dead
Hatful Of Hollow
Strangeways Here We Come
The Smiths
Meat Is Murder

I agree with the sentiment of the article, in the sense that they never nailed a perfect album. But the analysis of There Is A Light is serious over thinking.

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Jul 21, 2011 2:03pm

The release of The Queen Is Dead was the point at which Morrissey's lyrics--with "I Know It's Over," "Never Had No One Ever" and even "The Boy with the Thorn... being exceptions--went from maudlin and ironic to silly and childish. It's still baffling to me that someone who wrote lyrics like those once wrote the words for "This Night Has Opened My Eyes." Baffling.

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Matthew Connaughton
Jul 21, 2011 2:21pm

Wow. I don't know how someone can dissect such a masterful piece of work, however "flawed", and still lay claim to possessing a soul - something which the subject of discussion has in abundance.

Using the very grown up "argument" that, in all practicality, says "why would anyone what to reminisce about their childhood?" to support it is also, truly astounding.


Council Estate Scum,

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Jul 21, 2011 5:00pm

In reply to Matthew Connaughton:


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Jul 21, 2011 5:19pm

Johnny Marr aside, The Smiths have always been the Emperor's new clothes. Morrissey really needs to stop believing his own press and I had a right laugh when I learned not too long ago that folks are actually paying for concert tickets just to lob sausage at him.

Maybe he can do a re-write for PETA, ''The More You Ignore Me, The Kielbasa I Get.''

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Johnny Nothing
Jul 21, 2011 6:20pm

For me the real deal is "Hatful Of Hollow" closely followed by the debut proper. "Meat Is Murder" always seemed like just a collection of tracks and half finished at that. By the time of "The Queen Is Dead" they had become self parody. Although a live rendition of "Vicar In A Tutu" on (I think) Whistle Test just before the album hit was, frankly, blistering.

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marquis cha cha
Jul 21, 2011 6:41pm

It's not a perfect album, none of The Smiths studio albums are. I always wondered why they didn't replace the shocking Shankley and Vicar with two brilliant songs from the same period that were thrown away on b-sides - Asleep and Unlovable. That would have been a truly wonderful album.

In my view Hatful of Hollow is a perfect, peerless record - if they'd ever made a studio album like that it would have been the best of the last thirty years.

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Jul 21, 2011 9:06pm

Louder than Bombs compilation I would hold up as the best Smiths record to own, so many brilliant singles, yes of course not cohesive, but still amazing

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Jul 22, 2011 5:44am

Clearly this stuff is really subjective. Still, "The Queen Is Dead" is obviously great enough that any Smith fan could, at the very least, UNDERSTAND why and if another Smith fan might rank it as their favorite. Condemning such an album due to fairly rash generalizations of what other people, fans or critics say and/or think about it - instead of judging it based only on the album's music, seems odd to me. Then, when you DO get around to the music, you mention how poor a song like "Vicar In A Tutu" is and then go on to say that "Strangeways" is YOUR favorite, even though that albums contains "Death At One's Elbow," which to me seems like an much, much worse rockabilly throwaway. Not to mention (and I LOVE "Strangeways", too) the lyrically interesting, but completely flat and tuneless "Paint a Vulgar Picture" or the very lightweight "I Won't Share You" (and I like "Girlfriend In A Coma," YOU don't). I just disagree with many of these comments that your argument seemed "reasoned, well argued without being preachy and all valid points," but as I said at the top: all of this stuff is really subjective. As for me, my favorite Smiths album changes depending on my mood or "where I'm at" in life at any given moment. There's something to really love about ALL their albums. I guess The Smiths, in general, are just one of my favorite bands and I love the majority of what they did and just press "next" on songs I don't like as much or aren't in the mood for in the moment. Isn't that kinda true for all Smiths fans in some respect? I suppose, in the end, I believe there simply isn't ANY good argument for or against any Smiths album because, seriously, why argue?

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Jul 22, 2011 11:16am

Was I the only one that created his own Smiths albums? In my opinion all of the Smiths albums contained songs that seemed to be considerably weaker than the rest of the album, which is why i used to record them to tape and replace the unliked tracks with B sides from the singles. I therefore consider my version of Meat is.... to be their strongest album

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Jul 22, 2011 12:36pm

In reply to Hexisle:

Did you really just abbreviate that?

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Jul 22, 2011 3:33pm

Great article - one of the reasons I keep coming back to your website.

Here's a vote for 'I Want the One I Can't Have' as the Smiths' mission statement (great fookin' song). And as many have said, Meat is Murder is probably better than the Queen is Dead, but I'm not entirely sure it's the best in the Smiths lexicon.

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Ruprecht the Monkey Boy
Jul 23, 2011 5:13pm

Good article. I'll go one further if you like.

The Smiths were shit.

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Tim Russell
Jul 25, 2011 8:00am

For me they never bettered the original Troy Tate sessions (which can be freely downloaded as far as I'm aware). Features most of songs off their debut, only without John Porter's emasculating over-production, and of course before Morrissey started trying too hard to be funny. The band are on fire, the sound is rough & ready & bursting with "this is our moment" energy, and Morrissey never sounded more impassioned.

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Michael Engelbrecht
Jul 25, 2011 11:34am

In reply to Tim Russell:

Sincerely, i only loved their first album.

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Jul 25, 2011 12:35pm

Couldn't agree more. A fine album but not their best. Hatful gets the nod from me; if compilation-ish issues don't count, then I'll take Meat Is Murder. Shankly and Vicar are indeed blots on their copybook. Although I did and still do think that the Gannon experiment was a success on Bigmouth and Queen is Dead songs...but my favourite single is Stop Me, a fine way to exit stage left.

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Jul 25, 2011 12:37pm

In reply to Ruprecht the Monkey Boy:

yer a dick.

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Aug 7, 2011 8:14am

It's by no means a perfect album, but it does have some truly incredible moments on it.

"The Queen Is Dead" is one of my all time favourite album openers, and contains some of the best lyrics I've ever heard, as does "I know it's over." "Never had no one ever" is another amazing track. I also love "Frankly, Mr Shankly." It may not be their best lyrically, but it's a more- than- decent two- minute pop song. Johnny Marr's guitar playing on "Bigmouth Strikes again" is simplistic but phenomenal, and "The boy with the thorn in his side" is one of the best guitar- pop songs ever recorded.

I agree with you though that "There is a light..." is the most overrated song on the album, and probably the most overrated Smiths song ever. Lyrically it's very fertile and well- written, but as a song it's not THAT good. It certainly doesn't deserve to be their defining anthem. And again I agree with you about "vicar in a tut", which is non- sensical bile. Sure enough, in "Some girls..." the lyrics don't make sense, but that's part of the charm of it for me. Also Johnny Marr's guitar playing more than makes up for it.

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Aug 8, 2011 9:25pm

Nobody ever made a perfect 10 album.

Nobody. Ever.

And caring what other people think is very un-Smiths and irrelevant to anyone worth a god damn.

The perfect record is a dumb rock critic thing to even look for. And yes, I do believe in objectively good art. But even I can tell that when you're discussing artists operating at this level, nobody really cares what your opinion is--everyone will have different faves.

Actually, that's not even the real problem with this article. The problem is that none of the Smiths albums are bad. They're all good. So it becomes one of the most OVERWHELMINGLY pointless questions. They're the only great band that it's not even necessary to curate. What the Hell could possibly be the point? To help people watch out before they accidentally listen to 'Golden Lights'?

It's ironic to even seek a perfect record, considering it's obvious Hatful of Hollow is the best musical document the Smiths left, and it isn't even a proper album.

It's the Smiths. Who on Earth needs help with them?

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Understated Andy R
Aug 9, 2011 8:03pm

Incredible album from a band that dared to be different. In a decade of 'Rio' and 'Tropicana', The Smiths 'painted' poetry of growing up. Are you sure you're a "gladioli swinging" fan??

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Aug 10, 2011 3:55am

You're being contrary just for the sake of being so.

I hear Blonde on Blonde and Exile on Main Street suck too.

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Jim Craig
Aug 10, 2011 12:07pm

Nothing against your comments on 'The Queen is Dead' but can't help grinding my teeth when people say 'Strangeways here we come' is their favourite Smiths' album. Its not without charm but was clearly shoved together half-baked in the midst of the band collapsing and the comment always has me suspecting that people who make are just trying to say "I like the overlooked album me, cos I'm a true fan". Its got its moments but doesn't stand up musically or lyrically to the earlier stuff.

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transoniq johnny
Aug 13, 2011 6:48pm

What is NOT to love? Bullocks to the nattering nannies of negativism...tripe like "Wonderwall" by that stupid, insipid waste of shite "Oasis" band followed later and what stands? Fookin' "THE QUEEN ID DEAD" mates!!!

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Aug 17, 2011 8:57am

Frankly Mr Shankly, Vicar and Cemetery Gates are filler, I Know It's Over is a bit of a dirge and I never liked The Boy with the Thorn, the rest is excellent, especially the underated Never Had No One Ever and SGABTO. This and Meat is Murder are their best by far. None of their albums are as good as the first Chameleons album though!
Best Smiths songs? Panic and That Joke.

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Aug 17, 2011 12:03pm

the battle of entirely subjective opinions continues to rage!!

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Aug 19, 2011 1:26pm

In reply to Eric:

I tend to agree about TQID missing a little something. The first side is near perfect. I love Frankly - a nice leavening of the mood between TQID and I know its over. Side two suffers from having three poppy songs in a row that is all. Bigmounth is genius, Boy with the Thorn is brilliant, and Vicar... was a perfectly decent b-side for the single Panic. I just can't see what suitable contemporaneous song would have fit in its place? Asleep, Rubber Ring, Unloveable?

I never understood why MiM only had 9 tracks as it was an otherwise perfect album. Shapekspeare's Sister could easily have opened side two. HSIN, while great, does not belong there.

MIM and TQID are the Smiths in Flame, IMO.

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Aug 23, 2011 8:30pm

''There Is A Light…' is the most famous Smiths song. It's The Smiths' song for people who don't actually like The Smiths that much. It's brilliant, and beautiful, but a perfect encapsulation of The Smiths' mission statement?'

Oh dear. This smacks more than a little of an editorial meeting/ ideas session that ran smack-bang into a brick wall; the quoted lines neatly illustrate the innate problem of a fan of a band trying to crowbar enough distance between himself and that band to attempt subjective criticism. So 'There Is A Light' is both brilliant and beautiful... and STILL not good enough?

And please don't ever, EVER again use deathly business jargon such as 'mission statement' in a piece about to a band that so poetically rocked.

And, frankly, they had me at 'Take me back to Dear Old Blighty...'

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Aug 23, 2011 8:35pm

In reply to DC:

Forgive me - I'm so far into a bottle of red that I typed 'subjective' instead of 'objective'. I blame the vintners...

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Jul 6, 2014 10:13am

In reply to A:

'The Hounds of Love' by Kate Bush is a perfect album.

As is 'Live After Death' by Iron Maiden.

Just sayin'.

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