The Eighties were a banner decade for British music, with one perma-classic after another – New Order’s Technique, the Stone Roses’ debut, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain – but the bellwether may have been the Smiths‘ The Queen is Dead, now marking its 30th anniversary.
The Smiths, known for singer Morrissey’s flights of lyrical wonder and Johnny Marr’s guitar orchestrations, never rocked harder during their five-year career. Their musical muscle was immediately evident on the opening title track, with Marr channeling his inner Hendrix.
“I went in there with all the lads watching,” the guitarist said in Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, “did the take and they just went, ‘Wow.’ I came out and I was shaking. When I suggested, ‘I’ll do it again’, they just said, ‘No way! No way!'”
No wonder. Morrissey’s lyrics unfurl like something out of a cross between the description of Scottish moors in a Conan Doyle story and a Lewis Carroll trip, while Marr’s wah-wah pedal takes the band as close as they’d get to Deep Purple territory. Call it Deep Purple lite, but full-on Smiths.
“Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is the band’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” moment, with Geoff Travis, the boss of the band’s label, Rough Trade, being mocked at one point for a poem he’d written and shared with Morrissey.
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“Well, it’s not a particularly charming thought, is it?” Travis remembered. “There’s a huge amount of humour in the song and I’m not really upset by it. Camp spite? I think there’s a lot of that there, but I don’t take it too seriously. Morrissey likes to have fun and that’s what rock & roll is all about.”
The Smiths, of course, even when flirting with their particular brand of Mancunian hard rock – albeit a form of hard rock that still managed to be springy and jangly – could also bring the whinge rock, big time.
As the record settles in, proceedings come around to “I Know It’s Over,” emotional dystopia at the level of a single individual. Few songs are bleaker or more beautiful, a formula Spiritualized would spend the better portion of a career trying to master.
“I never enjoyed life in my twenties,” Morrissey told Q, “not one minute of it. It was a test of endurance that I’m surprised I survived. Professionally, of course, I was doing very well but personally it couldn’t have been worse or more difficult for me if I’d been living in a mud hut in Leeds.”
“I Know It’s Over” certainly sounds like it. The vocal has a Billie Holiday-like timbre of utter desperation, which peters out into acceptance in the form of melismas clotted with Morrissey’s trademark gasps of breath, like Buddy Holly’s hiccup technique blended with pop opera.
“I’ll never forget when he did it,” Marr says in Alliance. “It’s one of the highlights of my life. It was that good, that strong. Every line he was hinting at where he was going to go. I kept thinking, ‘Is he going to go there. Yes, he is!’ It was just brilliant.”
The Smiths were masters at a kind of Brit rockabilly, which played to Marr’s strengths as an ebullient guitarist, and Morrissey’s way with a phase befitting Oscar Wilde.
“Cemetry Gates” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” have legit swing to them. The latter was so on the nose in its various Wilde-isms that Morrissey sometimes had defended himself from filching anything from the Irish wit.
“No, that’s not true,” he told NME. “The thorn is the music industry and all of those people who never believed anything I said.” As a doleful practitioner of the sort of humor that makes one wryly smile rather than double over in belly laughter, he added, “What more can a poor boy do?” a wink to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” from a man who was always aware of his place in rock history.
The musical tempest that was The Queen is Dead would inspire some of the band’s best ever live shows. Were a bootleg like Thank Your Lucky Stars – from an L.A. gig in late August of ’86 – ever to gain official release, there’d be an album to queue up next to the likes of the Who’s Live at Leeds and James Brown’s first Apollo record.
If The Queen is Dead has a signature moment, that would be “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out” – which might as well as double for a tag line for this beacon of an album. The song was everything the Smiths did best, done at its best.
Marr’s guitar riffs and overdubs are downright Wagnerian without seeming excessive. Morrissey reaches back into a place only Morrissey ever reached from to sing this minor-key melody and somehow make it sound triumphant. The underrated rhythm section of Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums provide the link to the corporeal, as Morrissey and Marr shoot skyward.
“There was perfect musical unity between myself, Mike and Andy,” Marr notes in Alliance. “I had something playing with Mike and Andy that I won’t have playing with any other people.”
The lyric is high-toned melodrama: “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die.” It’s like a 1950s teenage car-crash song blown up large to serve as a treatise on friendship – even, perhaps, the musical accord shared by bandmates.
“Vicar in a Tutu” had lightened the mood earlier on the album, and the mega-droll “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” closes it after the emotional fanfare of “There Is a Light.”
Marr liked “Some Girls,” and wasn’t a huge fan of the lyrics. Sung by anyone else, they might be slight; sung by Morrissey, the otherwise ridiculous refrain – which is less about corpulence and more about the ways in which people impact each other – sounds pleasingly aphoristic.
This is the Smiths’ version of something like “Her Majesty” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, but better, and better by a lot. Marr’s slide work is awesome, a reminder that an album this good couldn’t possibly possess a single throwaway number.
The Smiths wouldn’t come close to so lofty a peak again. They had but one more studio record in them – 1987’s underrated, though far from legendary Strangeways, Here We Come – but in The Queen Is Dead they’d already made perhaps the best Brit-rock platter of the past three decades. May the queen long be exhumed.