The Queen is Dead – The Smiths (review)

Britain was a country divided at the time when The Queen Is Dead was released in 1986. The end of the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85 had left much of the north of the country battered, bruised and on the poverty line while the south was still in shock at the strong-arm tactics of Margaret Thatcher’s government. The Smiths, ensconced in Manchester writing the follow-up to 1985′s Meat is Murder, couldn’t help but feel the anger and resentment of the North and instead of making blunt musical statements like some generational mouthpieces had chosen to do, they channeled that anger into a collection of songs laced with the band’s barely concealed acidic distaste for the ruling classes.

From the opening sound bite, a snippet of the World War I song “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” taken from the 1962 British film The L-Shaped Room, The Queen Is Dead sets an atmosphere primed for attack after acerbic attack on the hereditary power structure and class system in Britain, albeit assaults sheathed in lilting, heart-rending ballads and pithy, witty pop gems. It’s an album barely concealing its loathing of the concept of privilege in a time of oppressive Conservative rule. Morrissey and Marr both say that the album that followed in 1987, Strangeways Here We Come, was the band’s peak but in comparison to The Queen Is Dead, it’s too over-produced and the cutting edge has been blunted in both the delivery and lyrical content. On The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths managed to retain the frantic, low-fi approach of their eponymously titled debut and the bleakness of sophomore album Meat is Murder, but delivered a rounder, more confident collection of songs.

They present some of the best pop songs from their repertoire here and while more commercial in feel, they have lost none of their early bite. The Queen Is Dead set the bar impossibly high for bands wanting to create politically agitated, socially aware, and emotionally fraught pop songs. Even The Smiths couldn’t reach those heights again. It was such a product of its time and the perfect storm of genius, circumstance and zeitgeist that it has the feeling of being created in seconds; an alchemy forged in fleeting moments of magic. Johnny Marr famously has problems playing his own riffs from this album these days. It’s as if something beyond the power of all the players involved took hold during this album’s recording, forever sealing the impossibly brilliant into 37 minutes, never to be replicated.


The Smiths have a reputation for being doom-mongers and while many of their lyrics explore the darker side of human nature and society, their greatest strength was always the combination of the bleak with the uplifting. The best examples are on The Queen Is Dead.  “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” for example, has the sweetest chorus about complete devotion but is delivered in the most morbid and twisted choice of words possible: “And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die…And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well…the pleasure and the privilege is mine.” Then there’s “Vicar in a Tutu,” a story of a deviant priest told over a jaunty rockabilly soundtrack, sounding like a show tune from a perverted Elvis film from a parallel dimension. It’s unabashed in its transvestism and carefree in its sexual ambiguity while rocking along in a macho musical style. It’s weird, funny and massively inspired.

“Cemetry Gates,” one of the best songs not only on this album but in their entire collection, is a marvel; the perfect combination of pace and swagger, of Morrissey’s intellect and delivery melded with Marr’s skittish guitar. And what comes next? The unassailable, incomparable “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Johnny Marr wanted an explosive, searing single to announce the band’s return and insisted on this instead of “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” He was spot on. This tears out of the gate and sprints away on the guitarist’s choppy chords while Morrissey basically speed-yodels his way through the song.

Listen closely to The Queen Is Dead and you will be treated to some of the best lyrics ever: “And in the darkened underpass I thought ‘oh god’ my chance had come at last but a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask” from “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” There are countless highlights. There have been very few British artists who have come close to matching The Smiths for lyricism in the years since this release.

The music behind the lyrics is sublimely paradoxical as it seems so clearly rooted in the mid-80′s yet is also contemporary. This is probably because of the huge influence Johnny Marr has had on all those who grew up watching him strangle unearthly noises from his cherry red Gibson ES-335. Marr rehabilitated the guitar for the generation of British bands who emerged listening to this album. His jittery, complicated runs lay down a blueprint for the acid jangle strings favored by bands like Happy Mondays which would fuse dance and rock in the tail end years of the 80s while his choppy chord changes and chugging rhythms would be replicated throughout the Britpop period a decade after The Queen Is Dead was released. His take on rockabilly and garage can be heard today as an influence in bands like The Vaccines and Howler. All in all, this album still inspires and challenges in every way to this very day.

Next Steps

The Smiths released Strangeways Here We Come a year after The Queen Is Dead and it’s remarkable to see the change that 12 months made; Strangeways… has some luminous moments but with the band coming apart at the seams it would be their last and that tension can be felt throughout.  Seen by many – Morrissey and Marr included – as their best work, Strangeways… seems a huge step from The Queen Is Dead but it’s progress is purely in terms of production quality. It is certainly a more textured record but, in this writer’s opinion, these layers smothered them. Morrissey would go on to have a successful solo career while Marr would retain his legendary status as the enigmatic guitarist with stints in The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, as well as his own band Johnny Marr and the Healers. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce would spend a lot of time suing Morrissey and Marr in a long-running royalties dispute before resuming their careers as session players and for-hire touring musicians. The continuing acrimony of the band’s split means that their much-hoped for reunion remains as unlikely as ever. But they also said that about the Stone Roses…

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