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A Soundtrack For Generations To Come: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead

A thesis: “The Queen Is Dead” is possibly the worst song The Smiths ever recorded. The conveniently named title track of the album “The Queen Is Dead” is perfectly displaying all of Johnny Marr’s and Morrissey’s most lovable and unique skills, yet it is the worst song on the whole album.

Okay, hear me out: The song “The Queen Is Dead” features Marr’s play-, skill-, and guitar pedal-ful guitar-play, paired with Morrissey’s howling, yet somehow soft voice and funny lyrics (“She said: ‘Eh, I know you and you cannot sing”/I said: ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano”), without failing to critique societies’ failings (“Pass the pub that wrecks your body/And the church, all they want is your money”).

Its intro is both a reminder of the outdatedness of war, as of the present (1986) right-wing political views: A medley of “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty”, a 1916’ world war one tune about three homesick soldiers. You could argue that all of this sounds glorious, and you’d be right. Yet somehow, Morrissey’s irony-ridden words and Marr’s melodious riffs never quite find a common rhythm that works in their favour – eventhough Mike Joyce’s drum-play is flawless.

“The Queen Is Dead” is The Smiths’ third album, and possibly their most famous: Critiques at the time, mid-eighties, were overall begrudgingly favourable, ranging from comments as “like it or not, this guy’s [Morrissey] going to be around for a while” in a review by Rolling Stone Magazine (which we now know was very accurate) to “the guitars are great, some of the words are marvellous […]” in a review by british pop magazine Smash Hits. As is the fate of many creatives all around the world, real praise should only come much later: Nowadays, “The Queen Is Dead” is on “top album”-lists in nearly all of major rock- and alternative- music media, it is beloved both by fans and the general public as one of the greatest pop albums of its time.

And rightly so: After the weird kind-of-dissonance of the title track, “The Queen Is Dead” really gets going with the short, cheerful “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, possibly addressed to record label “Rough Trade Records”-founder Geoff Travis, pulling his leg about british music industry. This hearable playfulness later concludes in “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, the albums closing track, and one that Johnny Marr is said to have stated about he would “prefer the music to the lyrics” – funnily enough, since the song followed The Smiths’ usual process of song-writing with Marr providing the sound, while Morrissey wrote the words.

And then, of course, there are the numerous songs of love, longing and heart-break that have defined The Smiths as “the best break-up-band ever” (as stated by Emma Watson’s character in “the perks of being a wallflower”, and, well, let’s say, probably many of us), among them “I Know It’s Over”, “Never Had No One Ever” and of course the classic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. The latter was considered to become the albums lead single, but had to step down for the a little less gloomy “Bigmouth Strikes Again”.

“When we first played it I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.”

Johnny Marr

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” has become an instant classic, if there ever was such a thing. Johnny Marr is said to have stated about it that he “thought it was the best song he ever heard” when the band first rehearsed it. And that even though the song is rather simple, yet beautifully composed, with lyrics that gave The Smiths their iconic image of being the perfect soundtrack for the depressed and unluckily in love. “There Is A Light” had a short, yet powerful revival amongst pop culture by being sung in an elevator by Zooey Deschanel to a hopelessly romantic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who then instantly fell in love with her. The movie is of course the 2009’ indie-movie (500) days of summer, which had thousands of hipsters wish for that special someone that would know The Smiths’ lyrics by heart just the way they did.

But back to the album, on which every song has so many notable facts you could probably fill a few books with it, for instance: The backing vocals were sung by “Ann Coates” alias Morrissey himself. The band apparently thought everyone else’s voice just sounded funky with Morrissey’s unique range of sounds, and decided only the master himself could compliment his own voice sufficiently. The pseudonym “Ann Coates” is a reference to “Ancoats”, a neighbourhood in Manchester, the city The Smiths formed in.

As said before, we could easily go on to talk about the genius of “The Queen Is Dead” for many more pages – but maybe we’d just have to stop at one point to listen to all the other beautiful songs The Smiths wrote both before and after their iconic third album. We shall close – for now – with Morrisseys clever innuendo to the claims he would “borrow” (because “steal” is such a strong word) material for his lyrics wherever he pleased (which – yes – he definitely did) by stating that many artists – including the poet Oscar Wilde – did the same:  “So I meet you at the cemetry gates Keats and Yeats are on your side.”

The Smiths

The Queen Is Dead

Rough Trade | 1986