Ten Favourite albums 5: The Smiths The Queen Is Dead

download (1)Released in 1986, this was the album I had most trouble with though its place in the top 10 was never in doubt. The rest of the list is in order when the albums made their biggest impact on me and perhaps because the Queen is not yet dead 32 years later, I’m not sure when that was. So here it is, blandly in the middle of the list. In their short five year life The Smiths put out some great material and I enjoyed their music from when I first heard them in 1984. Yet at the time I felt their later albums were too similar to their earlier stuff and it took a while to appreciate this classic for what it was. The Queen is Dead is peak Smiths.

I always found The Smiths hard to categorise and I’m not alone. When John Peel first heard the band he said “I was impressed because unlike most bands… you couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to”. I did not have Peel’s musical knowledge but I got what he was on about – the Smiths weren’t like other bands of the era. The Mancunian melding of Morrisey’s campy lyrical style and Johnny Marr’s jangling guitars were a creative match made in heaven (neither proved much good subsequently without the other). I picked up their debut album The Smiths (1984) which I loved and even though I was disappointed some songs were re-released for Hatful of Hollow (1984) it still had some great new material, none better that How Soon is Now.

I was left a bit cold by Meat is Murder (1985) so I wasn’t immediately inspired to pick up The Queen is Dead when it was released a year later. I heard the album’s first single on the radio The Boy With the Thorn in His Side and might have dismissed it as Morrisey’s gay ramblings but I did like the second single Bigmouth Strikes Again. As usual Morrisey’s lyrics were memorably ludicrous “I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be / Bludgeoned in your bed” – well thank god for that, but it was a rattling good song for all that. Yet despite all the good things I was reading and the various lists it topped for 1986 and indeed the 1980s I was not convinced to invest deeply in the album or in Strangeways Here We Come which followed a year later.

The Queen remained a sleeper in my musical consciousness until at least ten years later, when I was browsing a Melbourne musical store and stumbled on a compilation album called The Smiths Is Dead. A bunch of Britpop bands I was listening to at the time like Supergrass, The Boo Radleys, Placebo plus an unlikely contribution from Billy Bragg came together to do their take on The Queen Is Dead. Though the compilation by French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of the originally was widely derided, it was an original take and I liked it. I played it so often I forgot what the original sounded like and until curiosity dragged me back. What I was thinking, it was clear after a few listens the remake was a pale imitation of the original.

Now it only takes me the transition from the war tune “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” to the title track The Queen is Dead to get me back into the serious Smiths swing. It was Morrisey in full camp mode but I loved it. “No one talks about castration,” well yes, there’s a reason for that. It sounded silly but also witty and allied to Marr’s pounding music it appeared fresh in a way it didn’t seem two decades earlier. “Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?” Probably both, but it’s a crackerjack song that sets the bar high from the beginning.

Frankly Mr Shankly, I could take or leave but I Know It’s Over spoke to me directly “If you’re so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight?” It was harder to believe even the morose Morrisey Never Had No One Ever but it was still another cracking song. Cemetry Gates with its childish mispelling could have come straight off the debut album but then there was the “blistering sight” of a Vicar in a Tutu.

Morrisey’s morbidity returns in There is a Light That Never Goes Out with its heavenly ways to die, but there is that airy music in the background undermining the grimness. The contrast is there again in the final track Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. The Carry On wink-nudge nonsense of  “As Anthony said to Cleopatra / As he opened a crate of ale” is almost sacrilegiously superimposed on one of Marr’s most alluring guitar melodies, as Simon Goddard wrote.

In a 2017 review of the album Pitchfork said what endured was the peal of exile in Morrissey’s voice, “a timeless plaint of longing and not-belonging”. He brought the “tart wit and strange mind” to the partnership while Marr brought the beauty of serene, synthesized strings and guitarist golden cascades. “It was a great musical tragedy that barely a year after releasing The Queen Is Dead, this odd couple went their separate ways, for reasons that still feel not fully explained, Pitchfork wrote. “These boys were made for each other—and surely deep down they still know it.”  They would also know they were never better together than on this album.

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