Words About Music
The Smiths “The Queen is Dead”
For five years in the 1980s, one band ruled alternative rock in Great Britain before they all starting paying hundreds of pounds for Stone Roses rip-offs. That band is the legendary quartet known as The Smiths. They put out four studio albums in their short time together, the best of the bunch being 1986’s “The Queen is Dead,” on which lead singer Morrissey sings about loneliness, social classes, love, the music industry, the Royal Family, and his own big mouth. But Morrissey’s vocal performances and his lyrics aren’t the only great parts of this great album. Guitarist Johnny Marr performs some of the most iconic guitar leads in music history, using complex arpeggios and guitar slides that add mystique to the overall Smiths sound. The less-than-simple bass lines and syncopated drums also help to make The Smiths more than your average alt rock group.
“The Queen is Dead” kicks off with a true bang with the eponymous track. On this song Morrissey openly criticizes the Royal Family and the Queen herself, referring to her as Her Lowness. This tendency for Morrissey to mouth off at certain high profile figures would continue for many years to come. The instrumentation itself is high in energy, familiarizing the listener with their tendency to sometimes get aggressive in certain cases. After criticizing media fascination with the Royal Family, Morrissey takes to criticizing the music industry with “Frankly Mr. Shankly.” Fed up with the lack of money him and his band are receiving from their label, Morrissey penned a track aimed at the head of the record company the band was signed to. He not only tears down the entire institution of fame and record labels, but attacks “Mr. Shankly” personally by criticizing (perhaps playfully) his “bloody awful poetry” that he wrote before he went into the music business. “You are a flatulent pain in the arse,” he says. I can only hope he meant it in a friendly way.
Next comes the perfect song to listen to after having your heart broken if you’re looking to cry forever. “I Know It’s Over” is sort of a new spin on heartbreak in which not only is the narrator hurt by being dumped, but he also has his ego bruised tremendously. “If you’re so funny then why are you on your own tonight?” asks the heartbreaker. When you have a high opinion of yourself it can hurt that much more when that opinion is challenged by someone else, and “I Know It’s Over” tackles that perfectly. He’s on his own tonight because tonight’s just like any other night. The sad feelings continue with “Never Had No One Ever,” a song about feeling out of place in your own town (sounds similar to Dismemberment Plan’s “The City”, no?) He watches things happen from a distance but can get himself to approach anything or anyone. “The Queen is Dead” is nothing if it’s not an increasingly lonely album. Morrissey knows his faults and his charms and he knows they don’t balance out very well so he tries to compensate, and what results is this. Brutal sad loneliness mixed with dark humor.
In “Cemetry Gates,” we get a faster-paced song than what we’ve gotten before. Morrissey sings about poetry and plagiarism, mostly criticizing (again) both of them. He name checks Keats and Yeats, quotes Shakespeare, and has trouble believing that anyone would plagiarize a seemingly gibberish line like “Ere long done do does did.” The sarcasm that lines nearly every Smiths song is very evident here even in the smallest of ways. That sarcasm is also very evident in the next track “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” a song about, you guessed it, Morrissey himself. This one isn’t played as quickly as the previous but it’s still a more fast-paced track with a very memorable chorus. Like I said, Morrissey is known for mouthing off at certain celebrities and he’s always been known for this, making him something of a “bigmouth.” He always gets called out on it though, and these flames burn him much like the flames burned Joan of Arc (whom he compares himself to in the song). Maybe he’s not so humble, but he’s definitely self-aware if anything.
The music industry is attacked again in “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,” the thorn being the aforementioned industry. For some reason, I guess a lot of people didn’t take The Smiths seriously when they were making music (perhaps because their lyrics were lined with so much humor). This made Morrissey upset so he wrote a song asking why people don’t believe him when he has said countless times that he is serious about the music he makes. He sure showed them. The next victim of his words though is the Catholic Church in “Vicar in a Tutu,” and this was before the infamous controversy. Here he talks mostly about the Catholic Church’s tendency to collect money from people and Morrissey implies—well actually he outright says it—that the Church is more concerned with money than they are with converting people. And well, I can’t disagree entirely with him.
In case you were worried there wouldn’t be any more sad songs on here, you’re in luck! The penultimate track on the penultimate album is the now-worshipped semi-love song “There Is A Light That Will Never Go Out.” A lot of artists say they’d die for their love, but none of them really care to elaborate exactly how gruesome a death they’d be willing to take. Morrissey spares us none of that. “If a double decker bus crashes into us; to die by your side, such a heavenly way to die.” This is, of course, less of a “we love each other” love song and more of a “I’m scared to tell you I love you but please don’t leave me” love song. The ever-memorable drum syncopation keeps it catchy as Johnny Marr plays whatever it is he’s playing. That man seriously had a way of making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar.
The final song on here is quite a funny one, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.” And what could he be talking about but breasts? Obviously, Morrissey isn’t just going to end this album with a song that is literally about his love for breasts. He’s mostly criticizing (there’s that word again) people’s open obsession with something that shallow. He ends the song, however, by shifting the focus from breasts to actual love, suggesting that this sad record may have a happy ending. “The Queen is Dead” is a quintessential rock album and also one of the smartest social critiques ever written. It’s amazing this band was together only five years because it takes most bands 10 years to create an album this good, this smart, this funny, and this sad all at the same time. These ten tracks are legendary, and not only for the lyrics. The guitar parts are great and complicated without being flashy. The bass is aggressive and loud without being in the way. The drums almost sound like they’re played by a machine considering how perfect every hit sounds. Don’t let Morrissey’s bigmouth sway you, he was a gifted man once and this album is immortal proof.