The Queen is Dead (1986)


Title: It’s been 10,675 days since this album was released. And she’s still going.

Cover: An image of actor Alain Delon, taken from 1964 film L’Insoumis. It’s been tinted green to give it a vaguely Victorian-death-chic look.

Best song: It’s impossible to pick just one.

* The title track, which starts the album, is very possibly the band’s greatest achievement. It begins with a cold open: a short clip cribbed from a 1962 film called The L-Shaped Room in which a character sings an old music-hall standard. We’re in the past – the world is black-and-white, there’s Blitz spirit and kitchen-sink drama. Then the switch to Mike Joyce’s tribal-drum patterns is a time-travelling jolt, thrusting us into the *here and fucking now*. Based on an idea Johnny Marr had been working on for years, the music has a ‘garage band’ intensity. There’s feedback, there’s a grungy bass riff, there are wah-wah guitar washes. In the family tree of Manchester indie bands, here’s the link between the dark, hypnotic mood of Joy Division and the sparkling, dance-influenced groove of the Stone Roses. It’s incredibly powerful music that demands to be played loud. And then Morrissey provides probably his strongest ever lyric: an arch mish-mash of monarchy-bashing, secrets in your heritage and disillusionment with society.

* I Know It’s Over is the heartbeat of this album. The Smiths have often been the target of ridicule because of a perceived obsessed with depression, suicide, self-pity and other ‘angsty’ topics. But to paraphrase a character in The West Wing when talking about the use of the word ‘liberal’ as a negative, if you throw these terms at the band’s feet, they’ll pick them up and proudly wear them as a badge. After the song’s backing track had been finished without his input, Morrissey walked into the studios and recorded his vocal. His band mates had no idea what he was going to do, and that day in autumn 1985 they were shocked by his stunning vocal performance. The rest of us still are. This is a *heartbreakingly* tender confession of loneliness and helplessness, which would only fail to move a misanthropic dullard. But it’s far from one-dimensional. There’s a clever switch to a second character’s voice (“And you even spoke to me and said…”), while the lyric also contains some touching altruistic advice to those who *are* happy (“Handsome groom, give her room…”). If anything the song is even more impressive musically. The pulse of the bass guitar, the chiming guitar flourishes, the subtle string effects… It’s a gorgeous, grown-up, complex arrangement that builds in intensity across six minutes. It’s literally perfect.

Honourable mentions:

* Frankly, Mr Shankly starts with comically lumbering bass notes, then we get a lyric about being fame-hungry. It’s said to be a coded dig at the band’s record-label boss, Geoff Travis, specifically in its reference to “bloody awful poetry”.

* Cemetry Gates (the spelling error was made at the time) is a lyrical gymnastics routine. Morrissey uses a day spent gravestone-spotting as a witty metaphor for his own habit of stealing lyrics from other people. He and a friend trade quotations – Keats, Yeats and Wilde are name-checked, Shakespeare alluded to – each claiming poets to be on their team. Morrissey then places his tongue firmly in his cheek and sings, “Don’t plagiarise or take on loan/There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows and who trips you up and laughs when you fall.” And the punchline comes when he claims Oscar Wilde is on his side. Wilde, after all, once said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Wanting to challenge himself, Johnny Marr set out to write something special for the music. He soon stumbled on a chord change (B minor to G) that, the other way round, had famously excited John Lennon while co-writing I Want To Hold Your Hand. Marr’s resulting melody is upbeat, busy and effortlessly charming, while Andy Rouke’s bass plays a big role in the urgency of the track.

* Bigmouth Strikes Again was Marr consciously trying to ape the Rolling Stones classic Jumpin’ Jack Flash (he wanted “something that was a rush all the way through”). It’s a big song, mixed for a 3D effect. The only flaw is some ill-advised high-pitched backing vocals. Obviously, the title refers to Morrissey himself – specifically, one assumes, the way people often take him too literally. A 7” single in May 1986, this song was the band’s first material released in eight months due to legal problems. The last single before the hiatus had been…

* The Boy With The Thorn in His Side was the first track recorded for the album, based on a musical idea Marr had been busking during recent sound checks. Morrissey’s lyrics are about the music press not appreciating him and the band. He once said it was his favourite Smiths song. It’s absolutely delightful.

* There is a Light That Never Goes Out has an attention-grabbing opening that tells you something important is about to happen. One of the Smiths’ most famous and popular tracks (rightly so), the idea that this should be a single was astonishingly rejected in favour of Bigmouth Strikes Again. This song is actually built on the same chord sequence as Bigmouth, but they’re a world apart tonally. This has an emotive string part and a flute melody, which add extra beauty and sentimentality to Morrissey’s wonderful lyrics. Seemingly about suicide, the words actually have an underlying optimism: the character only wants death because he knows life will never be this good again – he wants to preserve a moment of happiness. Stirring, crafted and catchy, this is a stadium-rock anthem in disguise. The one time I’ve seen Morrissey live, in Manchester on 11 July 2004, he performed this song. There were tens of thousands of us singing along with him:

Worst song: Vicar in a Tutu is slightly irritating filler. It also goes out of time.

Review: A glorious kaleidoscope of styles, tones, emotions, musical invention and dazzling wordplay. The Smiths’ masterpiece, and a strong contender for the best album of the 1980s.

Ten dreaded sunny days out of 10.

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