The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Last month, Morrissey finally made up with the NME after years of refusing access, following the paper’s infamous article questioning whether or not dear old Moz was a racist. The former Smiths frontman fled to Los Angeles to live in the home Clark Gable built for Carole Lombard, and refused to comment on his hatred of reggae, his song from 1992 solo album Your Arsenal, “The National Front Disco”, or indeed his performance supporting Madness at London’s Finsbury Park, draped in the Union Flag against a backdrop of skinhead imagery. But of course.
This reconciliation rather conveniently marked the release of Morrissey’s “quite good” (source: everyone I know who’s heard it) new album, You Are The Quarry. Also recently, “I Know It’s Over” from the record in question here topped BBC 6Music’s Songs That Saved Your Life poll—surely one of the most perverse poll results of all time (maybe we should have a vote). So it’s probably safe to say there’s a buzz around Morrissey and the legacy of his former band right now—and the crowning glory must surely be this, a crackpot website offering something entitled “The Morrissey-Diana Connection” (or how Morrissey foretold the tragic death of Princess Diana in his music, cover art and interviews, specifically in the 1986 Smiths album The Queen Is Dead).
Yes the year was 1986, and the Queen was alive, well and 60 years young. It seems incomprehensible that the visceral monarchical critique of the title track (the title track!) attracts little attention by mass media retrospectives in the vein of I © The 1980s, as the Sex Pistols’ self-confessed “love song” to dear old Liz forever overshadows Salford’s anarchic representative. After all, the empty, redundant claim of a “fascist regime” seems no match for the treasonable “her very Lowness with her head in a sling/I’m truly sorry—but it sounds like a wonderful thing”. Noel Gallagher admittedly “pissed himself” on hearing the song (and possibly the album’s) lyrical highlight on this track, an unforgettable exchange between Morrissey and his beloved Head of State: “she said: Eh, I know you and you cannot sing/I said: that’s nothing—you should hear me play piano”.
This rousing call-to-arms for the disaffected certainly sets the tone for the rest of the record: a very British sense of humour, a very British hatred, and (oddly) Johnny Marr’s increasingly American guitars. Of course, The Queen Is Dead is about the love-hate relationship one has with one’s homeland, from “cheerless marsh” to “darkened underpass”—but this is more than mere geography. It’s angst—it’s fear, loneliness and death—wrapped up in an adolescence that Morrissey may never have shaken off, but perhaps actively maintained because his adolescence was The Smiths.
The Smiths were always, and will always be sold to that group of kids, the gaggle who sit in the corner and frown, satisfied only by their pretensions and the books they only actually pretend to understand, or in most cases pretend to have read. We’re ugly, we’re dull, but we’re fine with that because we’re still better than you. “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” captures that defiance and sighs its foppish jangle-pop sigh until it grasps that resistance is futile, and furthermore, wallowing in self-pity induced far more feelings of superiority anyway.
Which is perhaps where woozy death ballad “I Know It’s Over” and all-time classic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” gain their strength from. The former delights with both its desperate refrain: “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” and it’s life-affirming chorus: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate / It takes guts to be gentle and kind”, whilst the latter again uses the time-honoured Smiths formula of fruity bass, uplifting melody jarring with some of the darkest pop lyrics around, and of course a closing mantra to hammer it all home. Never has this formula been so powerful, so beautiful—and it’s testament to the song’s greatness that even today Morrissey still uses it to close his live set.
Plagiarism and bookishness are covered in the tongue-twisting “Cemetry Gates”, as predictably enough, Morrissey exchanges Keats, Yeats and “some dizzy whore” (Jane Austen perhaps?) in favour of Oscar Wilde. And so here we are met with another of the album’s major preoccupations: literary camp. The major “Carry On…” aspect of the record comes in its finale, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, in which Morrissey camps up arguably one of Marr’s finest musical compositions. Whilst many saw Morrissey’s lyrics on the song as a butchering—and it was certainly a major cause of friction between the pair that eventually led to the group’s split in 1987—the song does soften the blow of it’s macabre predecessor, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, and completes the set perfectly.
The wry, sarcastic and occasionally spiteful tone of The Queen Is Dead is in fact perhaps the record’s greatest asset. “Frankly Mr. Shankly” utilises offbeat guitars and offbeat insults (“you are a flatulent pain in the arse”), whilst “Big Mouth Strikes Again” is a knowing assault on the band’s—and specifically Morrissey’s critics, and with the aid of backing vocalist Ann Coates (who is actually Moz again, running at double speed—the card) reaches new levels of pomp, this time comparing his plight to that of Joan Of Arc.
The Queen Is Dead appears to have retained a status obscure enough to call it a “cult” record, despite it’s frequent appearance in the top end of most “best album ever” lists in British music magazines. So why hasn’t a wider public yet appreciated this album’s unique and original qualities? Because for all their positive attributes, the British public are largely stupid. Morrissey already knew this: his hero, Oscar Wilde, had famously said: “To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments of spiritual doubts”.
Fact is that the commercial success the band (Moz included) so obviously strived for could never have been accepted by the deliberately obtuse stage persona of their frontman. And so, a band and an album destined to remain hopelessly on the fringes, forever. How absolutely, positively vile.
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-06-30