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The Queen is Dead

An album by The Smiths

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A, if not the, exemplar of the darker 1980s music

  • Jan 2, 2008
  • by
Pros: Lyrics and music

Cons: A couple of nonsense songs

The Bottom Line: If depressing lyrics are not what you seek, then avoid this. If these types of songs have a place for you, this is great.

I suppose today I would be called an “emo.” At the time The Smiths’s The Queen Is Dead was released (1986), emo didn’t exist. Mope rock was a vague noun, but it never caught on and we weren’t called mopers. Freak was the only common word given to a broad range of the misfits at the time. We were emotional before emo; we wore “black on the outside because black is what I feel on the inside” clothing and avoided the sun, so we were gothic before goth was an adjective. On a purely vain note, this sun avoidance thing has left my crew of folks near 40 looking no older than 30.

Each of us had our alternative bands we preferred that were different from but not exclusive to our mates (most of these names are part of the mainstream now, but they were not so at the time). Several favored REM and the Athens sound; then there was the dark energy of The Cure and its ilk; then the U2 people; and the Everything But the Girl people. Of course there was lots of intermixing, but nearly all of us had The Smiths as a foundation.

I was already very familiar with this Manchester band before the penultimate release The Queen Is Dead. To be blunt even if it sounds trite, this album—and one song in particular—stopped me from suicide. Not all of the songs are haunting (3 in particular are funny), but Morrissey’s (lead singer) style meant that his emotional croon still hints at darker emotions.

The eponymous song is a political song. This is pretty rare for this band. There are a couple of quasi-political songs on Meat Is Murder and Morrissey on his own wrote a few obviously political songs, but “The Queen Is Dead” is an unabashed attack on the unnamed queen and the named Prince of Wales. I’ve never cared for the lyrics, but the music is the thing here. The Smiths was primarily 2 people with 2 others who were just sort of there. Morrissey was responsible for the lyrics and Johnny Marr for the music. I am not an expert in guitar, but those whose opinion I trust insist that Mr. Marr was an instrumental co-equal to Morrissey’s lyric ability.

“Frankly Mr. Shankly” is one of the funny songs. The beat is similar to reggae and more acoustic than not—the interludes include electric guitar, but the backing for the lyrics is acoustic In short, the 2 minute song is a lyrical resignation letter from a “position I’ve held . . . [that] corrodes my soul.” Instead of saying that I am leaving to pursue other avenues the employee says that he either wants to be a rock star or a movie idol. These lines seem a little out of place, but they are among my favorites: “Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain; still I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy.” I say odd because for what is in essence a resignation letter, it assumes something to be well begun before the first step is actually taken.

“I Know It’s Over” is one of the songs that marks The Smiths as the pinnacle of dark emotions (not dark music, The Cure, Japan, David Sylvan, and Bauhaus et. al. were doing the dark music before and during The Smiths’s 6 year span). “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head. See the sea wants take me, the knife wants to slit me, do you think you can help me,” is one of those lyrics that stand out for those who hate The Smiths as being the height of emotional overindulgence. I can’t totally disagree, but just as a song, the sparse music and intimate voice create a specific mood very well—a form of apathy that is a few steps above deep depression. As far as this sort of motif goes, the song is one of about half a dozen that marks this ability. “I Know It’s over” also contains a form of quiet but still vicious accusation that removes even more energy, strengthening the apathy: “If you’re so funny, then why are you on your own tonight? And if you’re so clever, then why are you on your own tonight? If you’re so clever . . .” Why listen to this sort of thing? You may ask. I will cover that when I wrap this up.

“Never Had No One Ever” is also depressing. In this case, though, the music vs lyrics are a reverse of “I Know It’s Over.” This song has sparse lyrics and significant music. Again this music is used to create a mood similar to the one preceding it. “It’s been 20 years, 7 months and 27 days and never had no one ever” is the lyric that controls the song. Thematically and temporally, this song really should have become before “I Know It’ Over.” I say this because “Never Had No One Ever” is about being totally alone but still half hanging rather than being buried half alive in “Over.” Either way, though, if you haven’t picked up the razor blade yet, the next couple of songs will make you rethink the whole razorblade meet wrist paradigm.

“Cemetry Gates” is one of the few anthems of my group of misfits. It starts with an upbeat lead in with an acoustic guitar and electric bass; this mood remains throughout and makes the lyrics half-ironic (meaning if the lyrics are supposed to create a depressive emotion it is ironic, if they are tongue in cheek—my interpretation—then the lyrics are not ironic). “A dreaded sunny day, so let’s go where we’re happy and I meet you at the cemetry gates . . . A dreaded sunny day, so let’s go where we’re wanted and I meet you at the cemetry gates.” This is a natural anthem for those night-seekers whose happy days were overcast.

I’ve never understood “Bigmouth Strikes Again” except to say it is violent. I cannot recall a song where violence against others is mentioned (suicidal moments, of course, but not violence towards another). This music vs lyrics is ironic. The music is still a quick and upbeat acoustic guitar, but these lyrics begin the song: “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to mash every tooth in your head. Sweetness, I was only joking when I said you should be bludgeoned in your bed.” Even if it is a joke, which, by tone I doubt, it shows a unique side. It also becomes very strange when an eerie high pitched and edited voice begins singing harmony. This is one of the few songs from this band that I not only find odd, but one that I cannot interpret at all—it seems to be all over the place.

“The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” is the song that kept the razorblade at bay and the hose to run from tailpipe into the car safely unused. It immediately became my personal anthem. I knew my situation with regards to how my sexuality was perceived by others was not unique, but it still felt like it. I wasn’t safe at home or at school, so only the relative safety of night explains part of the attraction of The Smiths and sort of comparable bands. “The boy with the thorn in his side behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire for love. How can they look into my eyes and still they don’t believe me? . . . The boy with the thorn in his side there lies a blundering desire for love. How can they look into our eyes and still they don’t believe us?” These lyrics are nearly all of the words in this three minute song. The music is similar to “Cemetry Gates,” more acoustic than not, and just a bit more somber than the lighter emotion in “Gates.” While I can describe the general facts, I am too emotionally attached to the song to give any decent analysis.

“Vicar in a Tutu” is a nonsense song. It is silly and light like “Mr. Shankly” and is a counterbalance to the heavy lyrics of “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” and song after “Vicar” which is also one of the songs that people who hate The Smiths point to as overdone. While fun to sing, the song is just a toss away.

“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is an emotional analog to “Thorn.” The biggest difference is that the music isn’t ironic. This is a passive suicide song. First the listener is told that the character in the song doesn’t belong: “Please don’t drop me home because it’s not my home . . . and I’m welcome no more.” The passive suicide comes in these lyrics: “And if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die, and if a ten ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” This is the bit that can easily be interpreted as a musical version of chewing the boards. Even if it is chewing the boards, I still love the song.

The last song is “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is related to “Never Had No One Ever” in that the lyrics are sparser than other songs. It’s a song meant to focus on the music than the lyrics. To me, it is a song I can’t interpret lyrically. Morrissey could be singing nonsense syllables and a listener would get the same effect—the voice here is secondary to the music. The music also adds a lighter note to the heaver one that begins the recording. It is sort of a Smiths version of ending on a high note.

If you know the album already . . . well DUH. If you don’t, this recording will help sum up the darker corners of alternative music of the 1980s. You need to be prepared for depressing lyrics and sometimes depressing music, but if you sometimes like that, this is a great place to start.

The review is over, what follows is an explanation for why emotional and misfitting middle and upper middle class kids would listen to music like this.

Class doesn’t matter here ultimately. Adults who give their children “everything they could want” and people who have to struggle look on my crew of misfits (and those today who fit into splinter groups) often as bratty kids who have no right to moan. This misses the point. Emotions are not something you can just change overnight. “Anything we could want” is only in the eyes of the parent. Having a house, no concern with regards to food and other essentials, and having a means of transportation are material items. Emotions do not fit nicely into the “anything/everything” concept. Angst is a near universal emotion for the teen years. Many get past it with little problems; some of us get stuck there, sometimes for a long while.

I got stuck there. Having to fight the sexuality battle everywhere except my group of evening and late night friends left me physically and emotionally exhausted. Upper middle class or no, there is no denying the effects of alienation on someone ill equipped to handle a situation like that. Alcoholism, binge-like drinking, some experiment with the less hardcore drugs were part of the scene. Sex was, too, for some of us, but never within the group. The unwritten and unspoken rule was that the chaos this would cause was not worth the inevitable massive fallout.

Generations since the 1920s have been partly, if not nearly totally defined by the popular music of the day. As the idea of popular started to broaden different groups of people came to be recognized as different from their peers as much by musical choice as clothes. Given the angst, anger, hatred, distrust, and general non-conformity in my group, the music was “alternative” at a time when it was truly an “alternative” to 1980s pop: misfit music for misfits.

Given the information above, when you are down there is a binary option. You can listen to energetic dance type music or happy pop hoping it will pull you up. Or you can listen to something lower key that will contain darker lyrics than the energetic counterpart. In the 1980s alternative scene, there was no such thing as “happy” fatuous songs. It isn’t like we didn’t have a choice; but it was a validation and an inclusion. The darker music validated our emotions (in a positive way despite what it appears to be); it also meant that our general angst and non-conformity and misfitness gave us an indication that we were not alone.

I suppose adults then and now dismiss our emotional state at the time and the emotional states of our angst driven/riddled progeny of today. Dismiss away, but it is shortsighted and only serves to make the teens in this situation more alienated. I am still too much of a misfit to be ticked off at most of these kids. My heart will always side with them first until/unless I get information to conclude otherwise.

Thanks for the indulgence.


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Paul Savage ()
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The Queen Is Dead is the third studio album by the English rock band The Smiths. It was released on 16 June 1986 in the United Kingdom by Rough Trade Records. Sire Records released the album in the United States on 23 June 1986. The album reached number two on the UK charts and number 70 on the Billboard 200 and was certified Gold by the RIAA in late 1990.

Track listing

All songs written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, except "Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty" (used as an intro to "The Queen Is Dead"), written by A.J. Mills, Fred Godfrey and Bennett Scott.

   1. "The Queen Is Dead" – 6:24
   2. "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" – 2:17
   3. "I Know It's Over" – 5:48
   4. "Never Had No One Ever" – 3:36
   5. "Cemetry Gates" – 2:39
   6. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" – 3:12
   7. "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" – 3:15
   8. "Vicar in a Tutu" – 2:21
   9. "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" – 4:02
  10. "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" – 3:14
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Label: Warner Bros , Wea
Artist: The Smiths
Release Date: October 25, 1990

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