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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

24. The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead

Quite simply, 1986's The Queen Is Dead is the finest album from one of the most influential British bands of the 80s, The Smiths. It provides us with the best of Morrissey's wry wit, morbid sense of humor, and scathing contempt of popular British culture. Couple Morrissey's lyrical prowess with guitarist Johnny Marr's ability to consistently write perfectly killer pop songs and you have one of the most incredible albums of its time.

Opening with a slight introduction (World War I song "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty") and then BAM! An all-out assault by drummer Mike Joyce. His rolling beat is reminiscent of The Cure's Lol Tolhurst on "The Hanging Garden" from 1982...the relentless pounding without pause similar to The Damned's Rat Scabies (on 1989's "Anything"). Can you imagine an American band attempting to release an aggressive, driving song titled "The President Is Dead"? The Smiths were open in their arrogance and and were not shy with words.

As the title track concludes like a tornado's sudden halt, it gives way to the contrasting, somewhat silly sounds of "Frankly, Mr. Shankly". From there, the album matures...the two songs I liked the least upon its original release in 1986 were "I Know It's Over" and "Never Had No One Ever". I was into upbeat, aggressive alternative pop songs at the time ("Inbetween Days", "She Sells Sanctuary", "World Destruction"...). Musically, I had not matured enough to appreciate these two...brilliant songs that they are. Covered respectively by two of my favorites, Jeff Buckley and Billy Bragg, they are now near the top of my list. 

The catchiness of "Cemetry Gates [sic]" is undeniable and is meant as a message from Morrissey to his detractors who cried foul at his use of texts written by some of his favorite authors. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" showcases the morbid sense of humor of our protagonist..."Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head/Sweetness, I was only joking when I said, by rights, you should be bludgeoned in your bed." It was the first single from the album and is as aggressive as the title track...a level unmatched by any Smiths song heretofore, making The Queen Is Dead the hardest rocking Smiths album.

Lost in the overall magnificence of the album is "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", a Johnny Marr creation which Morrissey has stated is his favorite Smiths song. "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is another example of how Morrissey can make you smile while pondering the romanticism of being killed by a double-decker bus together. And "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others"...easily recognizable, heavenly Smiths melody under lyrics that close the album exactly how you might predict...with Morrissey's biting humor. "From the ice age to the dole-age there is but one concern/I have just discovered/Some girls are bigger than others...some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers". It has an interesting introduction as well. It starts, fades away, then if a door is opened, closed on your face, then opened again with a "just kidding!"

A tremendous album, The Queen Is Dead is for anyone...Smiths aficionado or not (it's a great intro to the best music of the 1980s). The first video shows The Smiths live on the Old Grey Whistle Test in May of 1986 (just a month before the album's release...making June, 2011 the 25th anniversary of The Queen Is Dead) performing "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Vicar In A Tutu" (apologies for the choppy intro to "Vicar").  The second is a live performance just two months later at Salford University showing just how close to punk The Smiths were in attitude. 

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