An Anniversary Tribute to the Ultimate Smiths Album, 'The Queen Is Dead'

An Anniversary Tribute to the Ultimate Smiths Album, 'The Queen Is Dead'
Lisa Haun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image

Happy twenty-fifth anniversary to The Queen Is Dead, released on June 16, 1986. Everybody agrees this is the Smiths' best album, except, bizarrely, the Smiths, all four of whom seem to prefer Strangeways, Here We Come. Morrissey has always been insistent on this point. "The Queen Is Dead is not our masterpiece," he said in 1995. "I should know. I was there. I supplied the sandwiches." 

Tasty as those sandwiches must have been, he's wrong. The Queen Is Dead is not merely the Smiths' best album, but it is one of those timeless, perfect, inexhaustible artifacts that could only have been made by a gang of sullen, sun-deprived rock & roll boys fighting off adulthood tooth and nail. The songs get more surprising over time, with musical and lyrical and vocal riddles that don't fade the way you expect them to. In fact, the Internet was invented just to figure out all the hidden meanings on this album. (Which means the Internet is a failure, because nobody has explained "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.")

Every time you listen, another song smacks you in the face and demands to be your favorite, but today, that song happens to be "Cemetry Gates." Two friendless fools decide to spend a dreaded sunny day at the cemetery because nobody else will put up with them, and they make a pretty cool afternoon of it despite themselves, even though they just have a bard-off quoting Keats and Yeats and Wilde. And Richard III . And Ann Sheridan in The Man Who Came to Dinner. And the rummest pun in lyrical history – "we gravely read the stones." Anything at all, just to keep the conversation going and build a shared language for a few minutes.

And those guitars. Johnny Marr's guitar and Morrissey's voice goad each other to heights that neither could have reached alone. Morrissey always claimed that his lyrics were just a response to the sadness already there in Marr's melodies. But for all the melancholia, it's the wit and verve that sets The Queen Is Dead apart – the brash guitar of the title track, the moans at the end of "Bigmouth Strikes Again," the strings in "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." None of the other Smiths records sound much like it, and neither do records by anyone else.

It's also an album no solo artist could have made – as Marr once said about "Bigmouth Strikes Again," it was "one of those moments where listening to it afterwards I thought, 'This is why I'm in a band.'" Brilliant though both songwriters remain (Morrissey just debuted three new songs on the BBC) it's that sense of a shared language, a shared moment, that makes The Queen Is Dead perfect.

Also, the Queen? Still alive! Way to hang in there, Your Very Lowness. It's tempting to think she's stayed on the throne merely to spite Smiths fans – which in itself would be a fitting tribute.

Related: The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (The Queen Is Dead, No. 216)

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Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he writes about music, TV and pop culture. He is the author of two books, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

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