In the penultimate scene of the classic Manchester post-punk film, 24 Hour Party People, the character of Factory Records founder and Joy Division discoverer Tony Wilson (played by comedian Steve Coogan) smokes a spliff and has a chat with God. Among the Almighty’s pronouncements: “’Tis a pity you didn’t sign the Smiths.” (The group released their music on rival label, Rough Trade.) God was right! The Smiths were brilliant.
Yet the Smiths he most likely admired were not so much the miserablists that created the self-titled 1984 debut, nor the in-fighting lot who broke a career-long winning streak with 1987’s occasionally massive Strangeways Here We Come before disbanding. No, the period of collective music-making by icon/voice Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, that most likely received God’s admiration were the months around their third proper (i.e. non-compilation) album, The Queen Is Dead, which just happens to have been released 25 years ago today.
This group of songs marked the point at which the Smiths’ romantic darkness was finally levied with a guitar-pop sound that expanded its nimble touch to blue-eyed soul, psychedelic rock and show tunes. Morrissey’s continuously proclaimed misery also strove beyond an introverted artist’s diary-like pennings into a more nuanced self-awareness, filled with cultural and literary history, socio-political commentary on the sorry physique of ‘80s England, as well as buckets of gallows humor. And from the title down, the state of rigor mortis (in all its sad, funny, and metaphoric occurrences) was central to the work. So to commemorate the album’s anniversary and evergreen historical life, we salute the dead and the dying people on the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead. They’re all with God now!
1. The Queen in “The Queen is Dead”
The rocker! Morrissey’s queen is not really Queen Elizabeth, though over the course of the jam driven by Marr and Joyce, the narrator does break into “the palace” with some kitchen utensils. It is, in Morrissey’s own words later an “attack on the monarchy,” and the death-knell of the British Empire state of mind, the pub and the church. [Watch here.]
2. The Narrator in “I Know It’s Over”
The Anthem. A long whine about the prematurely buried, this epic ballad exhibited major Morrissey/Smiths stereotypes with a sad high schooler’s penmanship. The “soil falling over [the narrator’s] head” is the kind of metaphoric melodrama that either made people devotees or haters. [Watch here.]
3. The Buried in “Cemetery Gates”
The existentialist lark. On “a dreaded sunny day” Morrissey literally goes skipping through the graveyard, alongside a real or imagined friend and the ghostly spectrals of some England’s most famous writers (“Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose, because Wilde is on mine”). A bouncy bass and acoustic guitar leads him through a realization of mortality, and the finite aspects of words. The dead serve as a Greek chorus. [Watch here.]
4. Sweetness and Narrator in “Bigmouth Strikes Again”
The hit! Between believing that his “sweetness” “should be bludgeoned in [his/her] bed” and identifying with Joan of Arc burning at the stake (“as her Walkman started to melt”), this is the charming side of Morrissey’s melodrama. Literary allusions, self-absorption mixing with self-parody (the “Bigmouth” of the title is assuredly the singer, as this was the group’s ‘comeback’ single after a few months away), and an unlikely guitar-pop both fey and full of fire. [Watch here.]
5. Narrator and Lover in “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”
The standard. Modern proclamations of love have rarely been as well versed as “if a double-decker bus crashes into us … to die by your side, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”Again, the sentiment is nothing if not the deftly exaggerated thought of a romantic teenager – hence the Smiths’ ever-lasting power – but combined with Morrissey’s emotional delivery, Marr’s faded sunset of a melody and the strings, this lovely death is the kind you could hear Sinatra singing about. [Watch here.]