The Bloody Classics - The Smiths
The Smiths, The Queen is Dead 1986, Rough Trade
The Queen is Dead
Frankly, Mr Shankly
I Know it’s Over
Never Had No One Ever
Bigmouth Strikes Again
The Boy With the Thorn in His Side
Vicar in a Tutu
There is a Light That Never Goes Out
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
Manchester’s most maudlin sons, The Smiths formed in 1982 with Morrissey as lead vocalist, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums. They deliberately placed themselves as the antithesis of the mid-1980s pop scene, looking back instead to the rock bands of the 1960s for inspiration.They chose to call themselves The Smiths because the name seemed so generic and ordinary and they wanted to appeal to ordinary people and show that you didn’t need to be stylish and polished to make good music. Their image was deliberately understated everymen in reaction to other far more stylised artists of the period. Their trademark was angst with a light touch, deftly woven guitars and beautiful vocals with lyrics that in a single verse could turn from witty to deeply depressing.
The Smiths have always been controversial, accused of supporting paedophillia with two of the songs on their first album and glamourising serial murder on an early single and with Morrissey speaking out against the government, monarchy and Band Aid in early interviews. As a solo artist Morrissey continues to court controversy both for his lyrics and his public statements regarding his own politics.
While I will freely admit that I am a pretty big fan of The Smiths and that obviously colours this article, It’s not an exaggeration to say that they were the most important band of the 1980s. I have chosen to write about this, their third album partly because it’s my favourite, partly because it’s cooler to like its predecesser Meat is Murder the most and partly because in 2013, NME called it the best album of all time. So get ready to have a listen with me and to be slightly less depressed than you thought you were going to be.
Title track The Queen is Dead starts the album off with heavy, industrial sounding beats and lyrics that bemoan the media’s fascination with the royal family. There is a definite punk sensibility here. Fan favourite Frankly, Mr Shankly has a music hall style beat and more than a nod towards The Kinks, while it would be a stretch to call it joyous since it is a song entirely about pettiness, it’s certainly the band at their more lighthearted. The deeply depressing I Know it’s Over a song about loneliness however, is exactly what The Smiths are famous for. Gentle guitars and drums with Morrissey’s lyrics as the focus. The guitars soar as the darkness continues to close in on Never Had No One Ever. Cemetry Gates, despite upsetting my spellcheck has a great jaunty beat. Did you know you can actually dance to The Smiths? Well here they are with a jolly little number about walking through a graveyard to get your toes tapping. Bigmouth Strikes Again was apparently supposed to be The Smiths’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the up tempo beat is just as relentless as the Stones. The rhythm section really prove their importance here. It’s a fun introspective song where Morrisey tells us that, controversial though he often is, he’ll never change. The high pitched vocals you hear on this are just his voice sped up. The Boy With the Thorn in His Side with it’s fun, jangly guitar is Morrissey looking back on all the music industry professionals who thought the band would fail and who, even after three albums still didn’t seem to “get” the band (they initially struggled to get a record deal before signing with independent label Rough Trade). There is almost a spanish guitar sound on this and it’s lovely. It is apparently Morrissey’s favourite Smiths song.The mischievous Vicar in a Tutu manages to criticise the establishment of the Catholic church in a gentle way and in a style that seems bouncy (a word not usually associated with The Smiths) Classic There is a Light That Never Goes Out is the perfect blend of Morrissey’s lyrics and Johnny Marr’s guitar. The anthem of every morose teenager everywhere. It’s no wonder it is one of their most well known and well loved songs. This brief album ends far too soon with Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others and it’s very cool twangy fading in and out intro (I absolutely love this). This is a very simple song, it’s literally about women’s breasts, but the melody is just intoxicating. It shouldn’t work so well, but it’s probably my favourite song on the album, I could just listen to it on repeat. There is a school of thought that Johnny Marr’s amazing composition is wasted on Morrissey’s throw away lyrics, but for me this song represents exactly what I love about this band, brilliant and irreverent at the same time.
Meat is Murder may get higher praise from aficionados but for me, this is The Smiths at their best. The juxtaposition of the classically morose tracks with the more jaunty, lighthearted numbers works brilliantly and both Johnny Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s lyrics and vocals are perfection throughout. It’s so short (just 37 minutes in total) it leaves you wanting more. This is the band at the peak of their power and it shows the importance of both Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, who were as pivotal to The Smiths as the far more well remunerated and remembered Johnny Marr and Morrissey.
Although The Queen is Dead was successful both retrospectively and on release, reaching number 2 in the chart, the recording and release of this album signalled the beginning of the end of the band, with drink, drugs, arguments between both the band themselves and the band and Rough Trade and a punishing tour schedule taking its toll on them. They had broken up before the release of their final album, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come. They were then involved in lengthy court proceedings due to a dispute over royalties between the members of the band which were not resolved until the late 1990s.
In retrospect we see The Smiths as being pivotal, without question the most important British band of the 1980s (I know I’ve said that twice, I just really, really like The Smiths), and I by virtue of my age, am a retrospective Smith’s fan, but at the time of this album’s release their singles were only bothering the lower end of the chart and though their albums reached the higher echelons of the chart, they didn’t stay there for long. Morrissey blamed this on a conspiracy of both radio and record store against the band as well as poor promotion from Rough Trade. Frankly, Mr Shankly says this on the album with tongue in cheek The Boy With the Thorn in His Side continues the theme, but on Panic, one of their most famous songs, released as a single just a month after this album, they made their feelings clear in no uncertain terms. Essentially it’s an album that is anti-everything around it. The Smiths look at the 1980s music scene and simply want nothing to do with their contemporaries preferring to hark back to the bands of 20 years before.
I want to call the album self-referential, but it’s 2019 now, so I’m sure I’m supposed to say meta even though it makes me feel a bit hipsterish. It’s music for people who feel they don’t belong anywhere, made for the kind of fan who loves the minutiae of their band, and loves to empathise with the downtrodden lead singer, the man who should be a king but is thwarted by a world conspiring against him. The juxtaposition between the witty and the smutty, deep poignancy and bouncy lightness shows Morrissey, for all his faults as a truly brilliant songwriter, Self perceptive and slightly self mocking.
Since the breakup of The Smiths Morrissey continues as a successful solo artist as well as a courter of controversy. Johnny Marr has worked extensively with other bands and both Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have worked as session musicians. The band continue to turn down multi million pound offers for reunion concerts from promoters.
Their influence lives on though in pretty much every British rock band that came after them, most notably the Stone Roses, Oasis, The Libertines, Suede, Blur (Blur’s early albums in particular had some witty, biting lyrics a la Morrissey), Shakespere’s Sister and Pretty Girls Make Graves. Plenty of American bands cite them as an influence too, The Killers being the prime example.
I’ve gone on too long though, this article might seem longer than the album it’s about and it’s time for me to stop waving my little Smiths flag and get back to business. If you’ve always written The Smiths off as just far too depressing to bother with though, I hope I have encouraged you to give them a try. Although, since this band have released more compilation albums than actual studio albums, you might prefer to focus your attention on an album full of all their best known songs. If that’s the case I’d suggest my go to Smiths compilation Louder Than Bombs which includes many of their non album singles and some great B-sides. Oh yes, the anti-corporate Smiths do love to re-package their work and sell it to you all over again, but I’ll always forgive them for it and I’ll keep on handing over my money.