The Joup Friday Album: The Smiths – The Queen is Dead

The-Queen-is-Dead-cover

We come to the final member of the Holy Trinity, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, which along with The Cure’s The Head on the Door and New Order’s Brotherhood, were the three albums I was given for Christmas when I was 13 that went on to influence my musical taste for the rest of my life. The Queen is Dead probably got the least play out of the three back then, but has proven to have the most staying power despite my ever-growing weariness with Morrissey and his… Morrisseyness. The simple truth is that I love the Smiths despite Morrissey, not because of him. Johnny Marr has been my lifelong guitar god and if I have to listen to an obnoxious narcissist bloviate over the top of him, it’s worth it to get those sweetass riffs and jangles.

The Queen is Dead kicks off with a sample of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty,” a World War I era vaudeville-style singalong from the point of view of British soldiers on the Western Front longing for home. In the context of the album’s title track and its blistering take on the modern monarchy, the “Blighty” sample seems to evoke a longing for an earlier era of Britishness and that’s where one of my problems with Morrissey begins. Those who are highly critical of contemporary times and long for the “good old days” almost always overlook the many injustices of those bygone eras. Morrissey has found himself in hot water on occasion for anti-immigration sentiments that sound an awful lot like racism, so it’s not surprising that he’s prone to good-old-daysism.

But when I tune ol’ Moz out, the song is just amazing. As the sample fades out, Mike Joyce’s drums kick in, setting a desperate backdrop for Marr’s riffery and Morrissey’s caterwauling. When a band is fronted by a singer as (I’ll graciously call it) charismatic as Morrissey and guitarist as just damn good as Marr, the rhythm section gets short shrift, but they shouldn’t. The Smiths simply wouldn’t be as good without Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke.

As much as I like to beat up on Morrissey (and man, do I!), I do have to concede that his voice is a wonderful instrument that he wields masterfully for the most part, barring the occasional flight of falsetto fancy. And he can turn a clever or poignant phrase here and there, whether it’s ”I know it’s over, And it never really began, But in my heart it was so real” from “I Know It’s Over” or Cemetry Gates’ “gravely read the stones.”

But let’s face it, lyrically Morrissey mostly treads the morose ground that sullen teens eat up with a spoon. “I Know It’s Over,” “Never Had No One Ever” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” were right in the wheelhouse of a gloomy, gothy 13-year-old me. But it was also ground he’d thoroughly covered in “How Soon Is Now?” We get it, you’re unhappy. We all are – that’s why there’s booze.

The Queen is Dead really hits its stride at the end of side one/beginning of side two, starting with “Cemetry Gates” with Johnny Marr at full jingle jangle and Morrissey surprisingly lighthearted. I shamefully admit that this song filled my teenage head with silly notions of a future courtship that

On “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” Morrissey seems to somewhat concede that he knows how obnoxious he can be, but still can’t help but be a martyr about it. Every line is delivered with a “jk, not really” undertone, proving that Moz was a fantastic troll 10 years before we all got on the internet. Meanwhile, Johnny Marr keeps delivering those terrific Rickenbacker jingle jangles and a rifftastic bridge.

The jangle continues with “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” my favorite song on the album. The guitars on this song are simply euphoric. Many an hour was spent in my room playing air guitar to this song and emulating Johnny’s planted-feet guitar swing.

“Vicar in a Tutu,” “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” come across as jokes I’m not British enough to understand. The latter, though, would make a fantastic name for an all-female Smiths cover band. Just saying.

I think the staying power of The Queen is Dead over the other members of the Holy Trinity can be attributed entirely to the lack of keyboards and synthesizers. Those 80s synth sounds are making a major comeback in current indie music, but when you were there for them the first time around, you just can’t help but hear them as incredibly dated. The Queen is Dead began my lifelong long of guitar-based indie rock, and man, I can’t wait for it to really, truly come back into fashion.

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One Response to The Joup Friday Album: The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
  1. Shawn C. Baker Reply

    I love “hearing” You talk about this one. I got into the Smiths waaay late – I bought this circa 02 but it didn’t HIT me until 2009. When it did, holy cow. Hearing a long time fan, a great friend who was shaped by this record, it’s a great perspective. Since my investment was delayed I don’t have the same pains with Moz You do – I’ve never known much about him or his political bellyaching so I just love his voice and his lyrics, but as You say, not as a superhero fronting 3 subs but as 1/4 of an Amazing whole.
    That bridge riff in Bigmouth is just about my favorite guitar in the world. The fact that it only occurs once is even more amazing.
    Great write-up Amy, as usual.

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