Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#694 in the series) is The Smiths, The Queen is Dead.
By the time this album was released The Smiths were slap bang in the middle of one of the greatest creative rolls that any band or artist has EVER managed , four studio albums and nine stand alone singles in little over four years . And yes, you did read that correctly , they released nine singles in this time period that weren’t on any album! And, just for good measure, the majority of those singles contained brand new , and for the most part ,superb, tracks on the flipside. Can you imagine anyone even coming close to that sort of output these days? Even if they did, the quality would surely dip eventually. Well, not with these boys. Everything they released is quality and this particular album, The Queen Is Dead, was the crowning glory, no pun intended.
OK, I can’t deny it, I’m completely biased. The Smiths mean a lot to me, they were MY band, all the way. I heard their debut single “Hand In Glove” soon after release, courtesy of my old pal Eddie Docherty, and I was on board straight away. When the next one, “This Charming Man” (still my favourite single of all time) came out I was first in the queue and I bought everything else they put out on the week of release. Sad but true!
And , naturally enough, it’s not just because of the music that I love them so much, I have special memories of good times, friendships, relationships etc , all tied up with the band’s 5-year lifespan. When they started I was 17, when they ended I was 22. I also happened to meet my wife during that time and we’ve been together ever since so it’s really impossible for me to be objective about this band, we have history!
The album’s genesis seems to have been kickstarted by guitarist Johnny Marr. In the preceding year or so the band had all individually drifted down to live in London and he felt that the music was suffering as a consequence. There were too many distractions and not enough “off tour” time was being spent on creativity. He moved back north to a place near Manchester and urged the others to follow suit which they eventually did, renting properties nearby.
Throughout the summer of 1985 Morrissey and Marr really got to work, crafting early drafts of what were to become some of their finest ever songs.
It starts with title track “The Queen Is Dead,” a lyrical and musical tour-de-force which can be taken on (at least) three different levels. The first, and obvious one would be an attack on “her very Lowness” herself and the Monarchy as a whole, in Morrissey’s opinion an outdated and irrelevant institution, out of touch with the lives of ordinary Britons. Secondly, we can take “The Queen” of the title to mean Britain itself. He’s bemoaning the fact that the country is now (mid-80’s) no longer the place it used to be, broken, impoverished, a generation condemned to the dole queue by Thatcher and her “no such thing as society” mantra. Then again, the title could refer to Morrissey himself, he once said that it meant “the death of a panto queen……..yes, it’s autobiographical.” Musically it was inspired by the MC5 apparently, a loud (for Marr anyway) guitar blast and a fine band performance.
Next up is “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” a deliciously comic music hall stomp, acoustic guitar lending a fine contrast to the preceding track. Lyrically it’s partly an attack on their record label (and it’s owner) at the time, Rough Trade. The band had become increasingly at odds with them, and were planning a move to greener pastures.
One of the main reasons that this album is held in such high esteem is that it contains two of the greatest tracks The Smiths ever recorded and track 3 is one of them : “I Know It’s Over.” A heartbreaking, beautiful lament, loaded with emotion and sung with epic passion, it’s a song which became a major set piece in the live show and indeed remains so to this day, Morrissey still sings it regularly. And no wonder, it has lyrics to relish, one of his most wondrous efforts.
“It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate / it takes guts to be gentle and kind”
I’m finding it hard to believe that we’re only three tracks in to be honest. So many riches.
“Cemetry Gates”, I love it more every time I hear it, a caustic riposte to allegations of plagiarism (which he’d never denied, calling it “inspiration”) and a lovely, jaunty tune to close the side with a bit of humour thrown in.
Side Two begins with two utterly wonderful singles, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “The Boy With The Thorn in His Side”, there’s no dropping in quality on this album folks, indeed it’s only getting better. Finally, near the end, the penultimate track and what could well be the ultimate Smiths song: “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” which is simply outstanding. Critic and author Simon Goddard has dubbed it “The national anthem of Smithdom…….an equivalent “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” No way could I argue with that and it should give some clue as to how highly it’s regarded among the bands diehard fan base, many have the title tattooed for posterity!
Who it’s about will seemingly remain a mystery but what it’s about is clear: a joyous celebration of being hopelessly in love. Morrissey typically manages to throw in some mordant humour amidst the euphoria though:
“And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us / to die by your side, such a heavenly way to die / and if a ten ton truck, kills the both of us / to die by your side, the pleasure and the privilege is mine”
Wonderful stuff indeed, it really would have made one of the greatest singles of all time but Marr apparently vetoed its release at the time, he’s a big albums fan and reckoned there should always be a gem on there, a surprise to be discovered and enjoyed by the listener. And I’m not going to argue with that either!
And I cannot possibly leave without mentioning the iconic photograph which adorns the album’s inner gatefold sleeve. It’s a classic shot which saw our heroes snapped outside Salford Lads Club in Manchester and which has been reproduced on any piece of memorabilia you could name. I only hope the photographer, Stephen Wright, retained the rights to it! As a consequence, the Salford Lads Club has literally become a place of pilgrimage for Smiths fans who still flock there from all around the world, these days it embraces the connection and has become a famous landmark in the city. It can also be seen in the video for “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” which did, eventually and somewhat inevitably, become a single, released in the early 90’s to promote a “Best Of” collection. I’m pretty certain it will feature in the selection of videos below.
So there we have it, the best album by the band that defined the genre they sprang from, if Indie/Alternative is even a genre, defined their times, and gave us one of the greatest songwriting partnerships there’s EVER been. Not many can even come close to even one of those achievements but it barely scratches the surface of this band.
—Stephen Dalrymple, Glasgow, Scotland
–For Ann Coates – with Love and Squalor.
All songs written and composed by Morrissey/Marr, except “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightywritten by A.J. Mills, Fred Godfrey and Bennett Scott.
- “The Queen Is Dead” 6:24
- “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” 2:17
- “I Know It’s Over” 5:58
- “Never Had No One Ever” 3:36
- “Cemetry Gates” 2:39
- “Bigmouth Strikes Again” 3:12
- “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” 3:15
- “Vicar in a Tutu” 2:21
- “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” 4:02
- “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” 3:14
- Morrissey — vocals
- Johnny Marr — guitars, harmonium, synthesized string instruments and flute arrangements
- Andy Rourke — bass
- Mike Joyce — drums
- Ann Coates – Backing Vocals
Check out all these cool 80s album we’ve featured