Morrissey chose the name The Smiths to represent average folk, to herald the everyday heroes of the world.
He chose it “because it was the most ordinary name,” he explained in an interview. But the 1986 release ofT he Queen is Dead marked a pivotal moment in eighties musical development. Having already released two albums, The Smiths were regarded as guitar-pop innovators before The Queen is Deadeven came out.
With what is considered their most popular album, The Smiths secured their position as one of the most exciting and influential bands of the eighties. A short year later, they would release yet another chart-topper, Strangeways, Here We Come,which would prove to be more experimental for the group.
Unlike The Smiths’ previous two albums, their self-titled debut and Meat is Murder, the group shifts into a new gear with The Queen is Dead. From the album’s opening track, also titled “The Queen is Dead,” listeners know they are in for a performance of which The Smiths always seemed capable but had yet to execute.
The track was later turned into a music video, in which the opening music hall sample figures prominently.
At the opening of the track we hear a woman singing “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty,” a sound byte extracted from the progressive sixties-era British movie, The L-Shaped Room. In this context it expresses a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for Britain’s simpler days. Morrissey’s lyrics reflect cynicism about the British political and social climate at the time (Thatcher was into her second term). The music, written by guitarist Johnny Marr, is a deviation from what is usually very organized and contained emotion.
This may have something to do with the fact that Marr was struggling the fill the roll of band manager at the time. The percussion is allowed to stretch its legs and provide an appropriate introduction to an album that is more honest than any of The Smiths’ previous work. The Queen is Dead breathes better.
As is typical of The Smiths’ music, lyrics are the driving force behind The Queen is Dead. Morrissey can be scathing, sinister and hilarious – often all at once. The music seemed to be a vehicle for him to air his personal grievances. The second track, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” was directed at the Rough Trades director at the time, Geoff Davis. Morrissey sings “I didn’t realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry,” a reference to a poem Davis had shown Morrissey, and then in the closing verse, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly, since you asked / you are a flatulent pain in the ass.”
The expression of frustration constitutes a big part of the band’s staying power. Who hasn’t secretly wanted to publicly renounce their boss as an ass? In “Bigmouth Strikes Again” Morrissey somehow pulls off an excuse to a sinister lover’s quarrel, singing “Sweetness, I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed.”
Morrissey articulates insults the rest of us aren’t eloquent enough to pull off, and we love him for it. Morrissey not only gives rein to these emotions, but also exorcises school-day demons. In an interview he says, “Lots of the words I write are about school and about the hard times I had and in a strange way, it’s like revenge against those horrible teachers that made my life miserable for me.” The poppy tunes, light guitar rhythms, and melodiousness of Morrissey’s voice give an ironic twist to The Queen is Dead that will continue to appeal to the annoyed, vengeful element in listeners for a while to come.
A shorter album, clocking in around forty minutes, The Queen is Dead finds much of its strength in its overall coherence. It feels complete. It does slow down for tracks three and four, but nobody is complaining about the pacing. Especially because the delicate, swinging heartbreak anthem “I Know It’s Over” is the reason.
From this we move through to “Cemetry Gates” (sic), in which Morrissey turns book-snobbery and artistic entitlement into a catchy pop number. It is a wordy track, though perhaps appropriately so.
Finally, the soaring “The Boy with the Thorn in his Side” and unforgettable “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” round out an album that seems greedy in its ambition to produce standalone hits and retain overall synthesis.
But The Queen is Dead succeeds. No track needs to be discarded; no track is too similar to another. In an age of singles and mp3s, this album stands out as one that demands to be listened to from start to finish in one sitting.