Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Queen Is Dead - The Smiths

Attacking the British monarchy through vinyl was nothing new when The Smiths released their third studio album in 1986. Less than a decade previously an Irish immigrant's son had sarcastically snarled “God Save The Queen” as part of the Sex Pistols' assault on British culture. Yet even Johnny Rotten's most daring barbs at the House of Windsor fell short in shock value to Morrissey's tale of breaking in to the palace and confronting the Queen “with a sponge and a rusty spanner”.

The Queen Is Dead captures The Smiths at their creative best. Morrissey and Marr are documented as saying they believe Strangeways Here We Come is their best work, while there's also a good argument to be made for the Hatful Of Hollow compilation, but for me the band at no other time achieved the kind of consistency throughout a group of songs as the ten offerings on The Queen Is Dead.

Beginning with a segment from a bawdy sing-a-long of “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” taken from the 1962 film The L-Shaped room – a film which influenced much of Morrissey's work – the boozy nostalgia gives way to piercing feedback, a shudder of wah, and a menacing tribal beat; a cymbal swell, and disorientating spectral voices before The Smiths launch into the most aggressive track in their canon. Andy Rourke's bass propulses with relentless gnawing tension while Johnny Marr slashes agitated rhythms deep in to the track. Morrissey's lyrics launch pointed blows on the monarchy, and cultural bastions beyond, deriding “the pubs that wreck your body and the church all they want is your money”.

A theme of isolation threads the album as Morrissey mourns his status as a misfit in a culture he feels no connection to. “Life is so lonely on a limb”, “Life is very long when you're lonely” he declares in the opening track.

Frankly, Mr.Shankly is an unexpected change of direction after such a bracing opener. It would be a relatively flimsy effort were it not for the redemption of Morrissey's lyrical wit. The rich sense of humour which characterizes his writing is often overlooked by critics of the band, but if you're not tickled by a line such as “I'd like to catch something that I might be ashamed of” then The Smiths are never going to float your boat.

The Smiths are no strangers to litigation and the release of this album was delayed by six months due to contractual wrangles between the band and their record label, Rough Trade. They had been unhappy with Rough Trade for a while, and it has been reported that Frankly, Mr Shankly is a dig at label boss Geoff Travis.

Musically there is a template in the rhythm of the Frankly, Mr Shankly verses which Johnny Marr returned to for the opening of Girlfriend In A Coma on the Strangeways Here We Come album.

Track three on the album is one of the band's career high points. There is no irony, innuendo or playfulness in the lyrics of I Know Its Over. This is a song of bald fear, suffering and ardour - again at being the outcast. Wit, charm and beauty are more burden than gift without a stage to showcase them. The despair of this circumstance leaves Morrissey helplessly calling for his mother as the accompaniment builds from a sparse rim shot arrangement to a crescendo of drum fills and melodies rich in empathy.

The Smiths general writing arrangement was that Johnny Marr wrote the music and made instrumental recordings for Morrissey. The singer would then set to work on words, melody and phrasing. A consequence of this arrangement was that neither Marr, the rest of the band, nor engineer Stephen Street knew what to expect once Morrissey stepped in to the recording booth. With the red button pressed to record, only Morrissey knew what was to come with I Know Its Over. It's a moment that both Marr and Street have fondly remembered in a number of interviews. Marr was feeling under pressure at the time to deliver a brilliant album, and with Morrissey's performance on this track he knew they were a lot closer to their goal.

Never Had No One Ever presents Morrissey at his most self pitying. He has stated in interviews that the song is rooted in him growing up in Manchester as the son of an immigrant and feeling no connection to his surroundings or peers. The bass line plods weary tentative steps, looking apprehensively over your shoulder on dark sinister streets. The spectral voices heard in the album's opening track return here and add to the ominous atmosphere of alienation and menace.

Marr's lead guitar tone over each refrain is a deep rockabilly twang evoking the tension of spaghetti western stand-offs. This versatile guitar sound has amusingly also helped make hit records with songs as diametrically opposed to this as Ricky Martin's 'La Vida Loca' and Britney Spears' 'Toxic'.

Sobs and wails colour a hopelessly unsettling fade to the track. The effect is uncannily reminiscent of the fade out on Suffer Little Children from The Smiths first album; though here the chilling laughter of child murderers is replaced by the acheing groans of depressive solitude.

Cemetry Gates and Vicar In A Tutu both find Morrissey in a playful mood and cast some slivers of light between the prevailing mood of darkness. Perhaps only in The Smiths catalogue could a song with a title like Cemetry Gates be considered a light number. Morrissey was frequently criticized by the music press for borrowing too deeply from his pool of influences - the works of playwright Shelagh Delaney had coloured many of his lyrics, with the "I dream't about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice" line in Reel Around The Fountain a direct lift from her play "A Taste Of Honey". As Morrissey points out: "There's always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows" so his advice now is "don't plaguerize or take on loan" while he plays a game of literary Top Trumps between the cemetry headstones. Morrissey wins the game on account of Oscar Wilde being on his side - seemingly the trump to trump them all.

Some of the money that we were told the church was keen to separate us from in The Queen Is Dead has made its way in to the cannister of parish do-gooder Rose. All seems normal in this parochial scene until a transvestite vicar shocks all gathered by sliding down the bannister wearing a tutu. Morrissey finds a kindred spirit in the vicar, excusing his improbable behaviour on the grounds that "the fabric of a tutu, any man could get used to, and I am a living sign".

Marr works off some of his favourite rockabilly riffs in this track, there's a Beatles For Sale era George Harrison tone to much of the playing. The guitars on songs such as I Don't Want To Spoil The Party and Honey Don't can be heard as an influence here, while Words Of Love the Buddy Holly song on the same Beatles album is an obvious precursor to the jangly style which Marr is most associated with.

The tracks from the album released as singles were Big Mouth Strikes Again and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Both are excellent efforts. There is a vibrant and energtic quality to Big Mouth that the band seldom matched. Johnny Marr has spoken of his idea that this song should carry some of the attitude of The Rolling Stones' Jumping Jack Flash, and he certainly achieved in delivering that type of feel. The guitar riff built around a three chord sequence is a deal more complicated than a generic Stones lick but it is every bit as memorable and effective.

The strange voices which are interspersed across the album are most prominent on Big Mouth Strikes Again, where a helium backing vocal is very noticeable in the mix. Credited in the sleeve notes as backing vocals by "Ann Coates", this is Morrissey's voice played through an AMS harmoniser with a pitch shift which Stephen Street was enamoured with at the time. It's not an effect that has dated terribly well, but the song is much too good to be spoiled by this over-egging. The Ann Coates reference is a bit of wordplay on Ancoats, an area of Manchester. 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is one of the most popular songs The Smiths ever recorded. It topped John Peel's songs of the year list in 1986 and has endured a multitude of cover versions. However it was only released as a single in 1992, some five years after the band split up. The song is ultimately one of hope though I always connect the song to my father shouting ''turn that depressing bastard off'' whenever the ''10 tonne truck'' part was sung. Morrissey's acceptance of death is casual, bordering on comical. 

The song's account of being gripped by a "strange fear" when presented with a long yearned for opportunity is probably the most evocative line Morrissey has ever written.
Short of budget and not keen on having non-Smiths in the studio, Marr used an emulator for the string section in the song and credited them as "The Hated Salford Ensemble" - perhaps joking at the band photo taken outside the Salford Lads Club inside the gatefold LP, or perhaps acknowledging the fact that Morrissey wasn't keen on the idea.

The album concludes with Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, amidst a wash of sparkly hypnotic arpeggios that conjures an unlikely comparison to Jon and Vangelis syrupy hit of 1981 “I'll Find My Way Home”.

The spacious chiming arrangement of guitars infuses the track with a mystical quality and Marr considered it a standout effort - instrumentally. There are stories of the guitarist being less than pleased with the frivolous lyric delivered by Morrissey to complete the number. At play is an element of the Carry On films much loved by Morrissey with their hallmark of mucky double entendre. Whatever meaning the listener confers upon the lyrics is merely a reflection of their own thoughts, and so the Carry On team gloriously evaded the snip of the censor everytime, and Morrissey repeats the trick here. The Cleopatra reference is the giveaway to the Carry On homage, while the ''ooohh I say!” line could have been delivered by Kenneth Williams himself.

One minor gripe with what is one of the strongest musical arrangements the band accomplished, is the song's double fade in. It must have seemed a very good idea at the time for the music to fade in, then out, and then back in once more in a matter of 15 seconds but it sounds ill-judged and clunky now. Apparently the idea was that it would sound like listening to the song in different rooms – the first fade is saturated in a reverb that is absent when the song returns. Perhaps its a case of Marr and Stephen Street being a little too clever; or maybe they were just reminding us that they were but men, not gods.

All of The Smiths albums have something special to offer. Their relatively thin output of four studio albums plus a few compilations counts against them in the all time rankings of great bands, but if the quantity was lacking, the quality certainly wasn't. If you haven't found your way in to The Smiths yet, then The Queen Is Dead is probably the best place to start.
Derek Jarman made a short film including two of the tracks from this album, below is The Queen Is Dead section...enjoy:

Track Listing:
1. The Queen Is Dead
2. Frankly, Mr Shankly
3. I Know Its Over
4. Never Had No One Ever
5. Cemetry Gates
6. Big Mouth Strikes Again
7. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
8. Vicar In A Tutu
9. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
10. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others

The Smiths are:
Andy Rourke: The Bass Guitar
Morrissey: Voice
Johnny Marr: Guitars
Mike Joyce: The Drums

All words by Morrissey
All music by Johnny Marr

Produced by Morrissey and Marr
Engineered by Stephen Street

Recorded in England, Winter 1985

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