The Smiths didn’t last long enough to have a career low, but if there is one, their 1985 album Meat Is Murder is relatively lackluster. The sharp melodies on the first singles is mostly zapped and the pure thrill ride of “How Soon Is Now?” seemingly had no carry-over effect. The opener “The Headmaster Ritual” is pretty good, but their best material just seemed to fall all around this album. That reads harsh, but just look at what came next — an album that Melody Maker and NME have both called the greatest of all time. The Brits love this shit, but do Americans agree? Short answer: yeah, pretty much — unity across the Atlantic on this one.
As you can assume from the title and just knowing about The Smiths, in general, The Queen Is Dead is a very British album. The title track opener specifically references Prince Charles and mocks how degraded the monarchy has become. Morrissey lashes into the ever-corrupt Church of England and how all the pubs make the citizens too listless to care about how the worthless monarchy taints the country. It’s certainly a more pointed, clever take on the aimless power at the top of Great Britain, once the center of the universe, than the Sex Pistols were ever capable of. The new form of British punk came with melodrama and insistent prodding rather than a punch to the face. By this point, the strong political takes were already not a shock coming from Morrissey. There was always the vegetarianism, but he was not a fan of Thatcher and even attacked humanitarians efforts like Band Aid because, in his words, some of that work could be done back at home.
The regional divide in Great Britain during the Thatcher era is important to know for the album. The Smiths came from Manchester which always voted against Thatcher, while London in the South carried her to victory. High unemployment, the mineworkers strike, and Conservative ideas on government spending hit Manchester much harder than London, so the Labour party had stronger support there. When Thatcher survived an assassination attempt, Morrissey said, “The only sorrow…is that Thatcher escaped unscathed.” It’s not a surprise that the original title of the album was Margaret on the Guillotine; that would have certainly ramped up the Conservative investigations on the band.
All of the lyrical and interview attacks from the Smiths focused on the old traditions embraced by leaders like Thatcher that were seen as dead in the eyes of younger generations. That “voice of the people” radicalism could be lost on today’s listeners as Morrissey’s blatantly racist stances makes him seem like he was always unbearably out of touch. The jangle pop sound in their records also sounds a bit dated even despite Johnny Marr’s always-brilliant guitar playing. Throw in the unquestioned praise of the band from NME to Conservative former Prime Minister David Cameron, and it all adds up to assuming The Smiths were never really living on the edge. Quite the contrary, they sung with a pride for the regular people of England (particularly Manchester) and dragged any powerful entity keeping them down.
All of that wouldn’t mean a damn if this wasn’t one of the best post-Beatles collections of British rock out there. The afore-mentioned album opener features some of Mike Joyce’s greatest drumming and Marr’s trance-worthy guitars make it very easy to see how the Smiths inspired the Manchester rave sound later in the decade. Maybe the biggest issue with the other Smiths’ albums is rectified here: each track aims to have its own identity. Especially with Meat Is Murder, the songs run together in their stereotypical good-yet-safe sound. The variation on the first three songs on The Queen Is Dead might be the widest across all their work — a rave-esque political anthem to short jangly pop to a lengthy sincere ballad on loneliness. They’re all classics in their own right and represent what The Smiths were capable of at their peak.
“Never Had No One Ever” doesn’t specifically reference Manchester, but its descriptions of not being able to walk around your home in peace speaks to a hopeless societal despair that many were feeling at the time. With Thatcher at home and Reagan overseas, it felt like a global collaboration to abandon the urban everyday struggles of each country’s labor force. The pride in the homeland is zapped and it turns into a depression over the powerless. To close out Side A is “Cemetry Gates” with its relatively-exuberant tone and confusingly-hopeful subject matter that act as a bit of respite. The cemetery being referred to the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, the second largest in Europe. Morrissey sings of idols pitted against each other through a lecture on plagiarism with his friend. Maybe he’s saying there are old British idols to model yourself after and of course, they’re the beloved poets and playwrights.
How do you top Side A? You can start by including three of your greatest songs on Side B: “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “The Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Marr & Morrissey are absolutely flawless in these classics — every guitar riff, every la-da-da, every emotional high and low. It’s not a surprise that these were the choices for the singles. “There Is a Light…” has become the band’s most beloved song with its excessively morbid romanticism, but just listen closely to the brilliant instrumentals happening underneath the second verse to know why this song has truly stood the test of time. It’s a youthful anthem and for a few minutes, we can all revel in the potential of going out in the blades of glory because love has completely enveloped you.
Without The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths would not have held up as well and still be at the center of all “best indie bands of all time” debate. The endearing mix of personal and political struggles from Morrissey was never sharper. Johnny Marr’s guitars had a personality all the way through here that would only pop up on a few tracks each album. The critical consensus around the album will never be called into question, but the British press’ unquestioned adoration has certainly raised doubts in America about how great the album actually is. To that I say, it’s still up there as a flawless document of English rock.