Red-letter week for Smiths fandom. Morrissey’s autobiography – amusingly on the "Penguin Classics" label – is released 7 days ago (but not in the US – I had to order my copy on import), Morrissey finally clears up his sexuality (sort of), and – no real surprise here – NME ranks The Queen is Dead the best album of all time.
Meanwhile, since I can’t read my copy until it arrives (and it’s probably a work of fiction anyway), I discovered instead that Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance is available on Kindle as of about a year ago. It’s the best book about the Smiths I’ve never read … so now I’m reading it, and so far it’s excellent.
The Queen is Dead isn’t my favorite Smiths’ album (and I like Morrissey solo better anyway), but it’s the one you would pick, isn’t it, if you had to pull one out for the masses? But I’m glad it isn’t the first one I’d heard. I got introduced to the Smiths in The Record Exchange (link goes to a commercial announcing their opening on YouTube! Man that’s nostalgic!) while trying to buy Kill Uncle. I was told by the attendants that I wasn’t allowed to listen to Morrissey solo until I’d been through the Smiths, and then they spent the next 20min. arguing about which Smiths’ album I had to start with. As I recall, it was down to The Queen is Dead and Louder than Bombs – and they settled on Louder than Bombs, which was the right choice. I didn’t really expect to end up being a fan – mostly I was looking for a more singles-oriented group after all the ponderous stuff I’d been listening to from junior high – but I listened to basically nothing else through the rest of my junior year.
It’s really strange to wake up more than 20 years later and find Morrissey going stronger than ever.
But as for The Queen is Dead, it’s a damn fine album, and while time sort of sharpens your senses about things (in the sense that you come to realize which bits of something you really like and which bits are dispensible), and while there are parts of it that I don’t like at all anymore (Frankly, Mr. Shankley and Vicar in a Tutu – I’m truly sorry about the first of those), and parts that I have decidedly mixed feelngs about (There is a Light and it Never Goes Out), the parts that I still like I like better than ever.
The Queen is Dead, in particular, is just a brilliant, brilliant song. To start with, it’s a fantastic album opener (not, of course, as good at A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours from the Smiths’ arguably superior final album – which is the best album opener that will ever be written) – with a tinny old nostalgic WWII tune fading into driving drums, disorienting reverbs and that then than fantastic wall of guitar sound. As usual, though, the lyrics are the best part. It would take pages to talk about how excellent they are – so let me just say that what really makes it for me is the fade into the person at the end. If you’ve got to write a song denouncing the staid old monarchy – and it is a worthy cause – THIS is the way to do it. Don’t just shout your barely articulate anger, like the Sex Pistols did in 1978. You should actually explore the issue a bit. The Smiths do, and it pays off. For one thing, Morrissey’s right that the monarchy is basically toothless at this point – it’s passe. The Sex Pistols’ rage just seems out of place. For another, it’s a lot more honest and perceptive to realize that there are going to be mixed feelings about this, and that those feelings aren’t rational. "When you’re tied to your mother’s apron, no one talks about castration." Finally, the playful bits are exactly the right balance between honest wit and dancing on a grave. It’s a very, very bleak song in many ways – but that’s what works about it: we’re dancing on the ashes, but at least we’re dancing – because there’s nothing else to do.
Cemetry Gates has always been a personal favorite of mine. Of course it will annoy the people that Morrissey annoys more than most of his output, because it seems to feature all of his annoying tics in one neat bundle – but listen again: they’re not meant as seriously as you think they are. In particular, "All those people all those lives/where are they now?/With loves and hates and passions just like mine/They were born and then they lived and then they died/Seems so unfair, I want to cry." It’s easy to misread that as some seriously adolescent angst – but that only works if you equate the narrator with Morrissey. There’s a case for that – this song was evidently based on actual trips to the cemetary on actual sunny days with his friend Linder where they really did "gravely read the stones," so take it literally if you must. But come now, "gravely read the stones?" "Weird lover Wilde is on mine?" The narrator isn’t Morrissey – it’s a parody of Morrissey and existential angst. The line about being born and living and dying is the kind of thing that a callow youth who is trying to impress people comes up with, and the music is too upbeat for that sort of thing. To me, it sounds more like someone talking who feels the need to say such things – because circumstances demand it – but they’re not heartfelt. The real purpose of thetrip is just hanging out with friends. It’s a rather complex mix of nostalgia and that distance you get from your past self when you realize that you’ve outgrown him a bit.
Bigmouth Strikes Again is another one I like more with time. It takes a back seat to these other three, but the music is solid, and "Now I know how Joan of Arc felt as the flames rose to her roman nose and her walkman started to melt" is one of those first-rate lines that Morrissey manages now and then. Can’t tell you entirely what it means, but it grabs you.
And of course there’s Some Girls are Bigger than Others, which is fucking fantastic. It hits one of those places where the expression is the meaning – there’s nothing to say about it over and above just playing the song.
I read in Johnny Rogan’s book that there’s a final line that never made the album but was included in the only time the Smiths ever actually performed it on stage:
On the shopfloor there’s a calendar
as obvious as snow
as if we didn’t know
…which I think is better than the Anthony and Cleopatra line that ends the song proper on the album, really. I wish it had been included.
As I said, not my favorite Smiths album, but those four highlights are possibly their best moments. The Queen is Dead deserves its place at the top of the NME poll.