The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986): Review

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Produced by Morrissey and Marr
Label – Rough Trade

From the drab streets of Salford to the worshipped Latino communities of Los Angeles, The Smiths, and particularly Morrissey, still retain a huge following that’s borne out by not only scintillating singles, but a collection of top class studio albums. Choosing a definitive recording is a cause for continual debate, and there’s validity in any one of The Smiths four from their self titled debut to “Strangeways Here We Come”. For this reviewer, “The Queen Is Dead” is their greatest achievement. The musically compositional genius of Johnny Marr, the fluid rhythms from Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, the tireless input from engineer Stephen Street, and the blend of Morrissey’s range of emotional outpourings make for some of the most sublime moments in modern popular music. From laughter to tears, darkness to light, there’s rarely a moment that isn’t an examination in the complexity of the human soul.

1 – The Queen Is Dead (10)
Mike Joyce’s relentless tom tom loop underpins a squall of wah wah guitar as Morrissey berates the Royal Family and declares himself a Republican. With a sense of ironic humour that pervades many moments from the album, the snatch of “Take me back to good old Blighty” from the early 60s Brian Forbes directed movie “The L Shaped Room” seems deliberately at odds with the singer’s ire at the staid and suffocating predicament for many Britons. Johnny Marr’s explorations into harder delivery, with multiple layering that was inspired by the primal echoes and feedback from The Velvet Underground and MC5 makes for a thrilling opener that is as vital as The Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” from a decade before.

2 – Frankly, Mr Shankly (9)
The disguised open letter to Rough Trade records owner Geoff Travis sees Morrissey poking snide remarks with a degree of comedic melodrama that harked back to the Lancastrian music halls and cabaret spots of decades before. The singer combines the blunt Northern sarcasm with heroes George Formby and Billy Liar for a frivolous attack, full of extravagant quips.

3 – I Know It’s Over (10)
One of the bleakest songs The Smiths ever committed to vinyl, and yet musically it’s also one of the most lush, gentle and musically delicate performances. Morrissey’s alienation, particularly his emotional distrust in loving relationships shows little salvation, highlighted by a single ambiguous line. “It takes strength to be gentle and kind”, which could be an admittance of his own shortcomings, or a salute to his mother, who forms the direction for his desperate lines.

4 – Never Had No One Ever (9)
Almost a literary refrain of the previous song, the singer dwells briefly in his own position as malcontented loner. Marr, Rourke and Joyce provide an instrumental accompaniment for a lullaby that should be soothing, only to be countered by Morrissey’s “I had a really bad dream”.

5 – Cemetry Gates (10)
The mood is oddly lifted by one of the most jaunty pop songs with one of their darkest titles. Marr’s superbly crafted open chord guitar riff is matched by Morrissey’s equivalent of a “top trumps” game, comparing famous literary icons, with the singer holding the trump card in his hero, Oscar Wilde. A true classic, and one of the band’s most underrated songs.

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6 – Bigmouth Strikes Again (10)
Morrissey, who was by this time continually hounded by the music press, delivers a warning to the outspoken (the words feel self referential) to quell the constant barrage of headline grabbing noise. Johnny Marr takes the opportunity to develop an instrumental backing that owes much to The Rolling Stones. He still states that this is the Mancunian’s answer to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and furthermore insisted that the song be the opening single from the album.

7 – The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (10)
Morrissey’s bitter experiences with the music industry, particularly BBC Radio 1, who had ceased playing Smiths singles during daytime shows led to this superb single. He would confirm in interview that “The thorn is the music industry and all those people who never believed anything I said, tried to get rid of me and wouldn’t play the records. So I think we’ve reached a stage where we feel, “if they don’t believe me now, will they ever believe me? “”

8 – Vicar In A Tutu (8)
Marr always admired Elvis Presley’s collaborator Scotty Moore, whose rockabilly style inspired this rare character based story featuring the Vicar, the Monkish Monsignor, Rose, and the petty thief. The romping “carry on” styled comedy of the lyric provides respite from the darkness that surrounds it, but as a standalone song is one of their least affectionately remembered recordings.

9 – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (10)
Hopelessly romantic, tragically optimistic and thoroughly original lyrics are supported by Johnny Marr’s ascending chords and melancholic string and flute synths. On hearing it Marr thought it was the best song they’d ever written. The thought that the lovers demise comes side by side, leaving neither one to shoulder the possibility of a lonely life, even through such macabre methods seems so beautifully bittersweet.

10 – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (10)
One of Johnny Marr’s truly outstanding guitar melodies, this closer again returns to a light hearted conclusion, with words so succinct they perfectly emphasise the blissful backing.

“The Queen Is Dead” epitomises how Indie music could radically re-activate the blandness of the pop charts. It destroys the dichotomy between the depth of intelligent writing that lasts for generations and the instant thrill that’s required to appeal to the masses. Few records will ever achieve this and that’s why it remains a stunning achievement.

10/10

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2 responses to “The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986): Review

  1. I’m glad I wasn’t the Geoff on the receiving end of Frankly Mr Shankly!
    Yes 1000 times here, an absolutely exemplary record. The rankings would match mine closely across the board – I used to think the running order was imperfect (how do you not close with There is a Light?) but in recent years, I’ve started to see the value of wrapping things up with Some girls.
    Brilliant post!

    • That’s a great call on the running order Geoff. I too, would have swapped tracks 9 & 10. Also, I would have swapped tracks 4 & 7. They’re minor reservations on one of my all time favourite albums.

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