Happy 30th Anniversary to The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, originally released June 16, 1986. [Stream album and watch videos below]
It's hard to fathom that The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead turns 30 years old this week. Prior to its June 1986 release, the Manchester-bred band was primarily viewed by many as moping, brooding and depressing. Their one-named frontman delighted in making himself a mystery. Their United States record label, Sire Records, did them no favors either. When push invariably came to shove, diehard Smiths fans could figure out ways to get their hands on import singles that were released in England but not available domestically. The release schedule in America was vastly different from the one overseas, so the feeling about Smiths records here in the states was "oh, I’ve heard that already."
The Queen Is Dead was a game changer on many levels. The Smiths finally delivered an album that preserved their penchant for gloom, but also embedded humor, wit, and political commentary into the mix, with their diatribes directed toward life in the UK under Margaret Thatcher's thumb, Queen Elizabeth, religion, and record executives, among other phenomena. The band waste no time in going on the attack, as the opening title track is a warning to fasten your seat belts as they take sharp aim at religion and gleefully imagine Prince Charles in drag.
"Frankly, Mr. Shankly" is Morrissey at his contradictory best. He decries the pitfalls of fame, yet he also speaks of craving the limelight. Of course, he manages to pull it off. After all, this is the same man who defended wearing leather shoes after The Smiths released their album Meat Is Murder, the 1985 precursor to The Queen Is Dead.
The next track "I Know It's Over" is The Smiths at their tragic and heartbreaking best. When I heard it for the first time, I was dating a girl who was a big Smiths fan, as was I. This was our favorite album at the time and I should have known better to get deeper into this relationship. This song was telling me to run, but I didn't know any better.
"Never Had No One Ever" and "Cemetery Gates" round out side one. While they are strong songs, they pale in comparison to the heftier material that surrounds them.
There is no doubt that “Bigmouth Strikes Again" is Morrissey's self-deprecating nod to himself. You are immediately drawn in from the opening guitar riff, and among the many wonderful layers contained therein, the wonderful playing by guitarist Johnny Marr convincingly vies for top billing. Morrissey's lyrics and Marr’s music combine to make for a timeless classic still in heavy rotation on my musical carousel today. How many artists do you know that can write the lyric “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt / As the flames rose to her Roman nose and her Walkman started to melt." You must have a disproportionately large ego to write such a sentiment about yourself.
But let's be honest. We don't begrudge Morrissey at all. This song epitomizes who he was at the time. A very cool thing I discovered about this song was that the great Kirsty McColl originally did the backing vocals on the song, but Marr felt it sounded strange. Instead, they used a sped-up version of Morrissey doing the backing vocals. As much as I love McColl, I think the song works better with the version we are most familiar with.
"The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" brilliantly captures the fear and insecurity of adolescence. At one point or another we have all been the boy, or the girl for that matter, with the thorn in his (or her) side. If a Martian came down to earth and asked me to explain what it was like to be a tween or teenager, I would simply play this song and watch for signs of comprehension.
As a product of Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade, I take great pleasure when someone pokes a sharp stick in the so-called sanctity of religion. Nobody does this better than Morrissey. The rockabilly sound that propels “Vicar in a Tutu" takes a little bit of the sting out of the song’s biting lyrics, but it’s still compelling fare nevertheless.
With unforgettable lines like “And if a ten ton truck kills the both of us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die,” "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" pretty much captures what made The Smiths this otherworldly comet that we all shared for short time. This is my favorite Smiths song by far. It's a song that grabs you by the collar and forces you to stare right in its face. It is dramatic, lush, beautiful and has aged very well.
"Some Girls are Bigger Than Others" would not be my choice to end this album, but it gently leads you back into your somewhat normal life after being on this intense roller coaster of an aural ride. Frankly, if they had ended the affair with the aforementioned “There Is a Light,” I would've supported their decision. So think of The Queen Is Dead as a brisk run in the park. You have this intense workout and you really need a cool down period. This song serves that purpose.
The Smiths would never be quite the same after this or reach such great musical heights. This was their watershed moment. Think about the albums you listened to in 1986. This one holds up big time. It's a shame that they parted after an ephemeral five years and four studio albums, but totally understandable. The Smiths weren't everyone's cup of tea, but you know what? That's OK, because they will forever belong to the community of outsiders, misfits, and those of us who wanted to feel something through music that pushes our minds and pierces our hearts. There’s a reason why The Queen Is Dead still resonates three decades later.