I Know It's Overrated: The Queen Is Dead Turns Thirty
, June 13th, 2016 06:10
In the three decades since its release, The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead has repeatedly been hailed as the band's crowning achievement, and regularly features in lists of the greatest albums ever made. Lifelong Smiths fan Simon Price, however, is not so sure
Let's pick up the mallet and the chisel right now, and carve this in white marble right at the very top: THE SMITHS ARE THE GREATEST ROCK & ROLL BAND WHO EVER LIVED.
I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it until the day the breath leaves my body. It's a core belief which has not been shaken by three decades of subsequent events: if it's survived 'Alma Matters', 'Roy's Keen' and 'Dagenham Dave' - not to mention what we'll diplomatically call Morrissey's bracingly traditional statements on matters of ethnicity and immigration in later years - it will survive anything.
When it's challenged by others, they often take a literalist tack, questioning whether The Smiths even were a rock & roll band. That one's easy: they were, in that they were a band who often played rock & roll. (For evidence, listen to 'Shakespeare's Sister', listen to 'Rusholme Ruffians', listen to 'Nowhere Fast'.) But that isn't what I mean.
By the early 1980s, alternative rock bands were all but indistinguishable from the decadent dinosaurs they were supposed to have overthrown. 'Rock & roll', as a rebel stance, was a busted flush. All leather trousers ripped at the knees, but not a single new idea rattling pea-like around inside its spiky-haired cranium. The music press' indie darlings were just as corrupted as the worst 1970s monsters: groupie-fuckers and drug-takers. Reading articles about, say, Ian McCulloch or Julian Cope dropping acid and listening to Syd Barrett records was utterly unrelatable for a smalltown kid who had barely drunk a can of Woodpecker but craved an escape route from the repressive Thatcherite orthodoxies suffocating Britain. (And, when you heard the half-arsed, back-of-an-envelope lyrics those artists invariably produced, their mindset didn't even feel like a destination worth striving to reach.)
Put simply, all bands were sluts. The Smiths were – or, crucially, they were as far as anyone knew – PURE. Their point-blank rejection of traditional rock & roll concepts of masculinity (the rampaging rapist-and-pillager, the survivalist hunter-gatherer), their rejection of acquisitive Eighties values (the imperative to SUCCEED), their rejection of sex itself (at least in interviews where the 'c' word – celibacy – was invoked, if not in their lyrics, which were often nakedly lustful), all amounted to an incredibly attractive form of dual rebellion. The Smiths were the ultimate heretics: refusing society's norms while also refusing to conform to well-trodden rebel cliches. Being the least rock & roll band in the world, paradoxically, made them the most.
As I wrote in Melody Maker almost a decade later, “At this moment, The Smiths were the most important band in the world. The Smiths played truant from the Pop Party, and thrived on the dual glamour of self-denial (celibacy, vegetarianism, temperance) and the occasional teasing flash of self-objectification (the hand through the quiff, the nipple bared through sequins). This was Male Lib: liberation from the prevailing Americanised idea of thrusting, healthy, socially-competent masculinity. The Smiths brought adolescence back into fashion: fetishised failure, romanticised weakness.”
The Smiths weren't the first band to matter to me, in that impossibly intense way that bands do matter when you're young. Dexys Midnight Runners had validated my solitude. Culture Club had offered me a different way of being a man. The Style Council had sharpened and radicalised my politics. But as the second half of my teens approached, the stakes were raised: rather than imagining what sort of person I might become or what sort of life I might live, it was time to actually live it. Rehearsals were over.
There was a vacancy for a band to guide me through. I didn't fall head-over-heels with The Smiths straight away. Their introductory interview in Smash Hits had somehow rubbed me up the wrong way, and my initial reaction upon seeing them on Top Of The Pops for the first time was half loathing, half confusion. But for them to be able to provoke such a visceral reaction meant that they had something. Suddenly, in the summer of 1984, it clicked, and I got it. Taking my week's wages from selling seafood to holidaymakers at Barry Island Butlin's, I walked into the hallowed Spillers Records in Cardiff and bought every Smiths record released to date: their self-titled debut LP, which had come out in February, the singles 'Hand In Glove', 'This Charming Man', 'What Difference Does It Make', 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', and their brand new one, 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. Most importantly of all, I bought a ticket to the gig The Smiths were playing in Cardiff University Students' Union on 25th September, my seventeenth birthday.
Despite the ravages of time and alcohol on my memory, that concert still comes to me in vivid flashes. Arriving at Cathays Station, carrying no flowers because I couldn't afford any, but stealing some from the plant pots on the platform. The venue's floor a centimetre deep in spilled lager, and seeing petals floating on top. The Smiths raging into 'William, It Was Really Nothing', and some Neanderthal hurling a can of Heineken which arced through the air and caught Morrissey full on the forehead, a spurt of foam dousing his hair as it struck. The singer reacting not by flouncing off, but by defiantly slicking the beer through his quiff and carrying on with the first verse. It was love.
I'd started writing about music for the local paper, and proclaimed The Smiths to be more important than The Beatles (an exhilarating act of sacred cow slaughtering, a taste for which has never left me), prompting furious readers' letters. I shopped for vintage clothes at Jacob's Market and got a flat-top to copy The Smiths' neo-Fifties look, and developed fascinations with Morrissey's own obsessions (James Dean, Oscar Wilde). I turned vegetarian, which was not easy in Eighties South Wales. I hung on Morrissey's every word, and believed he was communicating via a direct hotline to my soul. I was that Smiths fan: the one who thinks only he understands Morrissey, and that only Morrissey understands him.
At teenage house parties, my Smiths fandom justified my own social ineptitude, allowing me to pretend that it was deliberate. Rather than peel myself off the wall and participate, I considered myself superior to the well-adjusted kids who paired off in darkened corners to snog to the sound of 'We Don't Need Another Hero' by Tina Turner or 'Careless Whisper' by George Michael. Walking home alone under the orange sodium street lights, I would feel somehow righteous about my failure, because The Smiths had made chasteness and abstinence into virtues (to this day, the worst crime pop culture has inflicted upon my entire generation, or at least a subset of it).
In the sixth form common room, I hogged the ghetto blaster, and converted several friends to the cause. And it really was a cause: Us, The Smiths fans, against Them, the U2/Queen/Dire Straits fans. By the time of their second (and greatest, but we'll come to that shortly) studio album Meat Is Murder, there were enough of us to travel mob-handed by coach to Chippenham Golddiggers for my second (and, though I didn't know it at the time, final) Smiths gig. At one point I stood completely still in the middle of the moshpit, staring up at him in frozen awe while a maelstrom of bodies whirled around me, which was a suitably unusual sight to cause Morrissey to tilt his head and raise a bushy eyebrow at me with a puzzled “Are you alright?” expression. I wasn't alright. I was alright.
The Smiths, then, were my band. But The Queen Is Dead was not my album. Literally (I couldn't afford it, so I had to borrow someone else's and home-tape it), but also in the sense that those U2/Queen/Dire Straits lads had finally caught up, and grudgingly accepted that although that Morrissey bloke was “a bit of a poof”, Johnny Marr was “a really good guitarist”. It was The Smiths' moment of mainstream acceptance. And if there's one thing The Smiths should never have been, it was acceptable.
There's a whole book, blog or radio series to be written about the phenomenon of the album directly before the iconic, canonical one being a better record (see also His 'N' Hers vs Different Class, for example). The way in which TQID has become a fixture in Top 100s of Greatest Albums Of All Time (indeed, in 2013 NME named it THE greatest album ever made) is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese belatedly winning an Oscar for The Departed when Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas went unrewarded. If there's one factor which rendered The Queen Is Dead palatable, besides time (The Smiths had now been around long enough for doubters, heel-draggers and johnny-come-latelies to climb aboard), it's the very thing that weakens its claim to greatness: a sense of humour.
When the media mocked The Smiths for their miserablism (Radio 1's Steve Wright In The Afternoon, for example, ran regular woe-is-me pisstake parodies), the fan's instinctive reaction was to leap to their defence, mentally assembling a stack of evidence of Morrissey's dark wit and droll wordplay. But in retrospect, that was the wrong response. Which only became clear to me a year after they split when Simon Reynolds, a year after they'd split, wrote the following passage in a Morrissey feature in Melody Maker:
“Why were The Smiths important? Because of their misery. Never forget it. Around Meat Is Murder the critics suddenly discovered Morrissey's humour: George Formby was trundled out as a reference point. If you ask me, The Smiths could have afforded to be more humourless. The Smiths' finest moments – 'Hand In Glove', 'How Soon Is Now', 'Still Ill', 'I Know It's Over' – were moments of reproachful, avenging misery, naked desperation, unbearable reverence – free of the 'saving grace' of quips and camp self-consciousness. If there was laughter it was black, scornful, scathing.”
Reynolds was absolutely right. The Smiths' unrepentant seriousness was their greatest strength. The Smiths who once began a song with the couplet “In a river the colour of lead/Immerse the baby's head” were the band worth rallying behind, not The Smiths who would eventually release the dismal 'Girlfriend In A Coma' as a single or include the equally atrocious 'Unhappy Birthday' on their final album. Morrissey's penchant for feeble comedy is the primary reason that The Queen Is Dead cannot truly stand as a great album, given that no fewer than three of its ten tracks are throwaway novelty ditties. But when did this tendency begin? Surprisingly early, is the answer. The arch, reflexive, self-mocking 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' was already tipping a nod and a wink to the fanbase that he was aware of his own media perception.
The band's first two albums were mercifully devoid of that stuff. Debut album The Smiths, despite its flat production, and the flawless Meat Is Murder, the band's true masterpiece, are both measurably more satisfying as records. Each contains moments of mordant, biting wit, but they're always there to drive the point home, never just to raise cheap titters.
But this regrettable strand would continue through songs like 'Ask', with its “buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg”. Through 'Is It Really So Strange?', with the line “I lost my bag in Newport Pagnell” predicated on the Victoria Wood-like assumption that the words 'Newport Pagnell' are somehow inherently hilarious. And through the Carry On campery of “Do you have a vacancy for a back-scrubber?” in 'Half A Person'. And who's responsible? We fucking are. Ultimately it's our own fault for encouraging him, for praising the approval-whore every time he did it. It's why a good 80% of his solo catalogue is unlistenable: surrounded by yes-men, without anyone to rein him in, and with a slavishly adoring audience unwilling to hear any criticisms (still less to make any of their own), his pitiful LOL-seeking and his endless self-regarding in-jokes have multiplied unchecked. And it's why The Queen Is Dead is such an aggravatingly inconsistent listening experience.
The making of the album, at Jacob Studios in Farnham, was by all accounts a troubled time. It had been delayed by unforeseen factors which included bassist Andy Rourke's heroin addiction and a legal dispute with the band's label Rough Trade.
Nevertheless, it starts phenomenally well. 'The Queen Is Dead', well over six minutes long (though the original unedited take was seven or eight), carries the sense of a State Of The Nation address, but it evokes William Blake's nation of dark satanic mills rather than some Wordsworthian daffodil idyll. A snatch of Cicely Courtneidge's recording of First World War music hall number 'Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty' from Bryan Forbes' 1962 film The L-Shaped Room conjures a reverie of nostalgic patriotism before a squeal of feedback from Johnny Marr's guitar and Mike Joyce's you're-gonna-get-your-fucking-head-kicked-in drums, sampled, looped and pushed high in the mix by Stephen Street, pummel us screaming into the dystopian present.
The name of the album – actually taken from Hubert Selby Jr's much-banned novel Last Exit To Brooklyn, where it is used in the effeminate homosexual sense, but employed with deliberate ambiguity here - had already incurred the wrath of The Sun, who branded Morrissey a sicko. (He originally considered Margaret On The Guillotine, but ended up saving that for a track on his first solo album.) And that was before anyone had heard him advocating regicide in the first verse of the title track: “Her Very Lowness with her head in a sling/ I'm truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing...” A staunch Republican who had already expressed a wish to “drop my trousers to the Queen” on the previous album's 'Nowhere Fast', he was raising his game by daydreaming of having her executed.
Morrissey's lyric is scattershot, unfocussed and rambling, but burning with rage as he contemplates vignettes of contemporary life such as “some nine-year-old tough who peddles drugs, I swear to god, I swear I never even knew what drugs were!” (his voice breaking into an adolescent yodel on the word 'were'). But the dominant narrative consists of imagined conversations with the monarch, echoing the recent break-in to Buckingham Palace by Michael Fagin, and with her heir, cajoling him to publicly out himself as a transvestite. Meanwhile, Marr channels the more fucked-up end of the Sixties (MC5, VU), his wah-wah guitars conjuring the psychedelia not of flowers and trees but of black smoke and city grime (and matched perfectly by Derek Jarman's accompanying film). “Life is very long when you're lonely”, Morrissey repeats as Rourke's bass comes to the fore in its closing conflagrations. It was the heaviest, most physical piece of music The Smiths – often wrongly derided as effete weaklings - had recorded ('How Soon Is Now' included), and one which, even with 30 years' familiarity, still has the power to stun you in your tracks.
I've taken this album out of its gatefold sleeve, depicting Alain Delon's death scene in L'Insoumis, and listened to it six times in a row in the writing of this piece, and each time, I laugh aghast with horror at what comes next. Following 'The Queen Is Dead' with 'Frankly Mr Shankly' is like releasing Citizen Kane on a double bill with Sex Lives Of The Potato Men. 'Frankly Mr Shankly', with its jocular rum-ti-tum melody and oompah bassline, is so outlandishly appalling that it deserves to be the subject of a public enquiry. The lyric depicts a quasi-Billy Liar scenario in which Morrissey dreams of quitting an unfulfilling job to pursue fame and fortune, with Leonard Rossiter's Mr Shadrack replaced by the eponymous Mr Shankly (supposedly a dig at Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis), and the backing track sounds like the Play School house band rather the work of Britain's finest. It's The Smiths' worst-ever song.
Imagine a counterfactual universe in which 'The Queen Is Dead' was followed directly by 'I Know It's Over'. You'd be reeling from an overload of greatness. An elegiac epic in waltz time, it begins with the word “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”, a line which is repeated in ever greater ecstasies of desperation as the song ends, defying the misery-mockers to scoff at this. The life-or-death vocal performance is a reminder that, like Bowie on 'Wild Is The Wind' or "Heroes", Morrissey's abilities as a singer are unjustly overshadowed by other aspects of his persona. (On a more minor level, there's also something pleasingly defiant about the flat Northern vowel sound with which he pronounces the word 'guts'.) The song's key moment, however, is the mid section in which, via the medium of a second-person interlocutor, he asks “If you're so funny”, and clever, and entertaining, and good-looking, “then why are you on your own tonight?” It's directed at himself, but it was an icy dagger down the spine of the listener, who suddenly felt a lot less smart, smug and superior on those long, orange-lit walks home.
If you were reeling already from that, then you'd be floored by what came next. 'Never Had No-One Ever', again in waltz time, is one of Morrissey's bluntest and best expressions of alienation, beginning with the direct “When you walk without ease on these streets where you were raised...” (Tellingly, the run-out grooves on Side 1 and Side 2 of the vinyl carry the inscriptions, respectively, 'Fear Of Manchester' and 'Them Was Rotten Days'.) As a stand-alone track it's inferior to 'I Know It's Over', but continues its mood magnificently.
For the closing track of Side 1, Marr switches to 'This Charming Man' mode with the breezy, high-pollen-count pulchritude of 'Cemetry Gates' (sic). The lyric, a petulant retort to critics who have accused him of plagiarism, has its levity levels set just the right side of tolerable. It's notable that he pronounces 'plagiarise' with a hard 'g' - a tell-tale mark of the authentic working class autodidact is someone who knows fancy words, but doesn't necessarily know how to say them.
The sleeve of The Queen Is Dead bore a pink and green sticker, reading 'INCLUDES THE SINGLES BIGMOUTH STRIKES AGAIN AND THE BOY WITH THE THORN IN HIS SIDE'. And this is another reason why, to the devoted fan who lived through all this in real-time (as opposed to the casual punter, or born-too-late catcher-upper), TQID felt like a mild let-down: we already owned two of the songs.
Of course, taken on its own merits, 'Bigmouth' is a fine way to start Side 2 of any record. Johnny Marr said it was The Smiths' 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', and he's not wrong: it has that same drama and attack (although a debt to Nile Rodgers of Chic is also apparent in the middle eight). And Morrissey's lyric of melodramatised remorse is strong enough to survive his own attempt to scupper it with those look-at-me lines about Joan Of Arc's Walkman/hearing aid starting to melt.
'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' is one of The Smiths' lightest, most flyaway moments, but a real beauty of a pop song with an irresistibly infectious easy charm. The boy of its title is, once again, a third person who is actually a poorly disguised first person: it is Morrissey himself who, despite his hatefulness, harbours “a murderous desire for love”. A feeling of social exclusion is a common thread throughout Morrissey's lyrics, but on this occasion he keenly wishes to be involved: “And when you want to live, how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know?”
Things were going so well, with just that 'Shankly' monstrosity to skip over, when another howler heaves into view. An otherwise perfectly acceptable, if somewhat slight, rockabilly number 'Vicar In A Tutu' is, as the title makes plain, a flimsy tale of clergical cross-dressing in which Morrissey expects the listener to chuckle indulgently to the alliteration 'monkish monsignor' and the rhyming of 'canister' with 'banister'.
The album redeems itself with one of The Smiths' deathless moments of transcendent genius. After a strummed three-chord intro from Marr (and anyone who claims they always knew it was lifted from The Rolling Stones' cover of Marvin Gaye's “Hitch Hike” via The Velvet Underground's “There She Goes Again”, before he admitted it in a Nineties interview, is having you on), the album's strings-driven showpiece 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' is a heartbreakingly romantic statement of devotion. Every romance needs a death, and in 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', Morrissey dreams of martyring himself and his loved one in a suicide pact in front of a double-decker bus or ten-ton truck. But it isn't the wish to die which makes the song so powerful. It's the urge to live. Once again, his real desire isn't to stand apart but to participate, nose pressed up against the window of the real world where, through the glass, he can see the people, the lights, the young and the alive.
And then it all goes tits-up. Literally. One can only imagine Johnny Marr's face when he first heard the finished 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others'. At this time, The Smiths' modus operandi was that the musicians in the band would create a piece of music 'blind', unaware of Morrissey's planned lyrical theme until he entered the vocal booth and sang it. Taken as an instrumental, the Some Girls' backing track had the potential to lend itself to lyrical profundity. Instead, Morrissey chose to use it as a vehicle for some half-arsed snarking about lads' obsession with big breasts, the culture of Page 3 and the celebrity of Samantha Fox and Linda Lusardi (although neither is named). It's like taking one of Francis Bacon's screaming popes and 'improving' it with the addition of a Comic Relief furry red nose. No wonder Marr is said to have spent two weeks after the album's completion locked in a room, sat immobile and depressed in the same chair, eating very little and suffering vomiting fits.
Ultimately, a ten-track album of which two had already been released and three were utter cack has no place in any all-time greats list. (Had it been condensed down to a five-track 12 inch EP featuring 'The Queen Is Dead', 'I Know It's Over', 'Never Had No-One Ever', 'Cemetry Gates', 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', it could have been devastating.) And it could have been so much better. It isn't as if The Smiths didn't have better songs knocking around at the time: in the same year, the astonishing 'Asleep' and 'Rubber Ring' were tossed away as B-sides.
As another variable instalment of Smiths music, which offered up a handful of their most extraordinary works alongside a number of more negligible efforts, it did its job in 1986 as well as the band's equally patchy farewell Strangeways Here We Come the following year. But as a carved-in-stone canon-worthy classic, The Queen is dead in the water.