The Smiths - The Queen is Dead (1986)
Strap on your legwarmers, pop on your shoulder pads and set your hair dryer to stun as we take a retrospective look at our favourite 80s pop records and their influence on current styles.
I put on The Queen is Dead when I’m scrolling through my iPod with glazed eyes and nothing grabs me. I know I need something good to perk me up, something black as midnight on a moonless night, with a bit of wit and sweetness stirred in for taste. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious desire or a conscious awareness of wasting time on such a simple task that finds my thumb spinning that circle towards “S”. And when I click the centre button on that title track, I’m certain both aspects of my mind are satiated.
There’s something visceral about The Smiths' third album, especially the rolling drums of the opening (and title) track, “The Queen Is Dead”, that hit after the sublimely British “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” sample. They pound and pound and carry you into the music with a sharp and energizing snare roll that allows Johnny Marr’s twanging guitar to burst onto the scene, along with the bendy bass line of Andy Rourke. During that tom roll you hear Marr’s guitar feeding back, hear him hit a random chord - as if they’re preparing for the show, checking the sound works, making sure you’re ready to hear your very own private Smiths concert.
Then there’s moments like the tender and gorgeous “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, with its lilting melody of an imagined car crash made beautiful by a lover’s presence. The combination of the gentle music and the motoric beat consummately fits the lyrical subject, and creates an ideal ode to the ephemeral and tragic love only the youthful experience (cf. Romeo and Juliet). “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” is a superb pop song, but when all these aspects fit together in your mind as you listen they lift it above being just a “good” song, and it’s this dual appeal to heart and to mind that keeps me coming back.
In fact The Queen is Dead is often included in those pompous and never agreeable Greatest Albums of All Time lists (it topped NME’s most recent one), so it’s not just me that thinks it appeals to both the head and the gut. Upon listening with this duality in mind, you notice it’s common to every song on the album. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” has that stomping folk bop which immediately draws you in, then Morrissey’s hilarious address to the then head of Rough Trade, Geoff Travis, puts a smile on your lips, or a stifled laugh in your hand. Then there’s the tragedy of “I Know It’s Over”, Morrissey’s calling for mother as he is metaphorically buried alive by a depressing life. We hear vignettes of other tragic lives, buried by their mundane and quashing existences. The whole song is so sad, and every aspect of it is delivered perfectly by each member of the band. Its slow crescendo from 3:00 on feels angry, defying the falling soil of the opening. “I Know It’s Over” hits you in the heart and the head at the same time.
The album lifts in spirits with “Cemetery Gates”, a light and energetic romp through the last resting place of John Keats, W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde, among other great British literary figures. This song, despite its fluffy appearance, actually takes some listening to to gather what Morrissey is saying. It’s a lesson on using words as your own when you know they’re borrowed from some great writer of yesteryear. Apparently critics had called out Morrissey for using phrases stolen from famous novels, to which he replied with Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Talent borrows, genius steals”. To push his point even further, Morrissey quotes Richard III and Keats in the verses, accusing his (fictional) friend of quoting them without citation. On an even lighter note is “Vicar in a Tutu”, a story-song of a cross dressing vicar who’s “not strange, he just wants to live his life this way”. The song works as a short story, a small glimpse of a surreal little town in Northern England and the shuffling music that accompanies the story-driven lyrics in a folkish, tale-telling way is reminiscent of skiffle music’s shambling rhythm.
These specimens of the head/heart duality are achieved by the band working in such great sync with one another; the rhythm compliments a line of lyric; the music swells at just the right lyrical moment; the bopping musicality of a song folds perfectly into the light-hearted and quirky lyrics to birth a real nugget of pop song genius. The Queen is Dead is obviously made by a band at the peak of their songwriting skills. Every aspect is heightened by Marr’s attention to musical detail, Morrissey’s engaging, humorous, and often thought provoking lyrics, and the sometimes driving, sometimes lilting, but always fitting, bass and drum lines of Rourke and Joyce. It’s the music, and the way it’s delivered, that hits you bodily: whether it’s Morrissey’s heart wrenching wails on “I Know It’s Over”, or the bopping, joyful beat of “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” you can’t help but be affected in some way whilst listening to this album. It moves you, to dance, or to sit and listen intently, which is where the head comes in. Morrissey’s lyrics, and the way they’re often reflected or enhanced by the music, requires you to think, nay, demands you to engage your mind in actively listening to what you’re hearing. And it’s when they combine so sublimely, as in “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, that it’s obvious how good The Smiths were.
The Queen is Dead is what I put on when there’s nothing I want to listen to. I do this because no matter what mood I’m in, it has something for me.