It's hard to explain the musical phenomenon that was the Smiths at the height of their glory to anyone who wasn't lost in their fandom at the time.
No matter if you were there or not, you probably would agree that the band's 1986 effort The Queen Is Dead is their best album. Last week was the 30th anniversary in their native United Kingdom, and this week celebrates the release of The Queen Is Dead stateside. It was The Queen Is Dead that would be their first album to crack the Billboard Top 100.
In their homeland, their fervent, frantic, ecstatic young fans regarded them as the best thing to happen to England since the Beatles. They were, in retrospect, largely a singles band, so much so that during their active years, they had nearly as many compilation albums as they did studio albums. And it's easy to forget that they only had four studio albums proper. Their first self-titled album was muddied by poor production, but still went to number two on the British charts, fueled by three powerful singles that preceded it, two of which were Top 40 hits. Before they could even finish their second album, the band's record label, Rough Trade, released a compilation of singles, b-sides and stray tracks, Hatful of Hollow. The record shot into the top 10 as well and featured three more top 40 singles.
Its success all but assured that the group's proper second album, Meat Is Murder, would head straight to the number-one slot upon its release. The album contained "How Soon is Now?," which was the first single to make its way into the U.S. dance charts. The Queen Is Dead would come out the following year, 1986.
Fast forward after five more singles, and endless touring, and a year and a half later The Queen Is Dead made its debut. By this time, devoted youths throughout England were styling their hair, clothing, and even their eyeglasses to look like lead singer Morrissey. Sexually ambivalent kids were walking around with bouquets of daffodils in their back pockets, wearing oversized band shirts and reading up on Oscar Wilde at Morrissey's behest. You couldn't throw a rock in England or on college campuses in America without hitting someone wearing a Smiths shirt.
Looking back, this notoriety peaked with The Queen Is Dead, though the fans didn't know it at the time. This would be the last album the Smiths toured for, and by the time their fourth and final studio album, Strangeways Here We Come, was released, the Smiths had ceased to exist. Still, it was The Queen Is Dead that allowed Morrissey, guitar genius Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce to rule the regular music world in England and the alternative airwaves everywhere else.
The Smiths emerged at the same time as goth's first wave — the Damned, Bauhaus, the Cure, the Cult and others. The emergence of the Smiths and other bands like Echo & The Bunnymen was like a breath of fresh air coming out of a claustrophobic closet. Suddenly there was this ringing sound of a jangling guitar and Morrissey's romantic, anguished voice cutting through the darkness. The Smiths were still miserabilists, akin to their peers, but they were doing it in a completely different fashion — no one else was drawing on the 12-string guitar sound of Roger McGuinn or singing with such dramatic histrionics. It was a bit of revelatory dawn that spoke to a lot of disaffected, intellectually astute, and emotionally sensitive teens wherever their records were released.
The album itself is a bewildering mix of sounds and styles that all play off one another, each song good enough to be a single. Starting as British as it could possibly be, the opening track samples Cicely Courtneidge singing "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" from The L-Shaped Room (1962). Then a guitar rings, and Mike Joyce's pounding drums immediately raise your blood pressure. A bass line from hell appears and Morrissey waxes on hilariously with an indictment on both the media and the royal family. If nothing else the lyrics, 30 years later, make the listener realized that everything sucked in the '80s too, when it came to matters of the world. Morrissey's trademark wit and melodramatic hyperbole are on point right from the start.
Everything switches gears, almost psychotically so, to the pure comedic pop of "Frankly, Mr. Shankly," where the Smiths approach the Kinks' late-'60s hits. Musically light to say the very least, the song was carried by an infectious pop hook and Morrissey's over-the-top clever lyrics as he attacks his own record company and viciously bites the hand that feeds him.
Only the Smiths would dare to follow a romp like that with what is arguably the most depressing couplet of back-to-back songs on the same side of a record. Still, Marr's beautiful guitar work showers over "I Know It's Over" while Morrissey despairs over loneliness, longing, and lost love, suggesting suicide, followed by the lush paean to virginal celibacy in "Never Had No One Ever." Not to get too deep into hypnotic melancholy, the forlorn atmosphere dissipates quickly with the jaunty, literature-entrenched "Cemetry Gates," saving the first side at the end from drowning in misery. It's a tale mocking plagiarism and thumbing his nose at critics, which is more amusing since Morrissey liberally borrowed lines from his literary heroes throughout his musical career.
"Bigmouth Strikes Again" does exactly for side two what the title track did for the first. It's a stunning piece of pop with Marr's guitar on fire and Morrissey at his most vicious ("Sweetness I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head," most acerbic, and his most overdramatic ("Now I know how Joan of Arc felt"). It's one of the finest moments of guitar rock in their short career. The pre-album single was "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side," a metaphor about how they felt like black sheep in the music scene. It's a lush pop number where Morrissey puts in a beautiful melodic vocal but plays second fiddle to Marr's chiming guitar. "Vicar In A Tutu" is side two's equivalent to "Frankly, Mr. Shankly," featuring a rockabilly roll while Morrissey recounts the image of a crossdressing vicar. The fact that this is followed by what NME declared one of the greatest songs of all time, shows just how much guts the Smiths had with such a bold move.
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If there was ever a song about the height of exaggerated romanticism of a teenager possessed by love, if there was ever an anthem for the awkward and obsessive confusion of youth, a summary of both the angst and distress of sexual awakening, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is it. The entire band is perfectly in balance for every second and creates a forlorn tale of yearning hearts. Morrisey's lyrics could appeal to anyone, but many feel the song addresses the isolation of being gay in the mid-1980s.
After that, what is perhaps Morrissey's only ode to the female form turns the still-lingering mood on its heel. The false guitar fade in at the start is a brilliant transition to this dream-like song, which contains a near-Freudian obsession about breasts. Some find this ending to the album odd at the very least, but after the homosexual undercurrent of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," this somehow just seemed to make a lyrical counterpoint to underscore the anguish of sexual confusion and musically serve as nearly a coda to the masterpiece we had just experienced. It's a weird album, taken side by side or as a whole. And every single step of it is brilliant.
If the Smiths had imploded after Meat Is Murder, they would still have had a place in music history, but more as an odd, art rock band that blended punk attitude and glam affections with classic rock tropes. It was The Queen Is Dead that sealed their place as one of the most vital bands of the 1980s and arguably one of the most influential. The album is a masterpiece that perfectly captures the era in which it was created; it paints a picture with music that will be studied and wondered at for ages. There is a raw aggressiveness to it countered by its humor, wit, melancholy, and lush textures. It is possibly one of the most balanced records of all time, at times painfully morbid and melodramatic, at others laughable and cartoonishly silly, and at others violent and obsessive. It's a wild mix, but 30 years on it's easy to see why The Queen Is Dead ensured that the Smiths will be remembered. As long as there are confused kids who read Victorian poetry, enjoy old British movies, the Smiths will be there to guide them through the minefields of their insecurities.