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Classic Reviews: The Smiths, ‘The Queen Is Dead’

the smiths, the queen is dead

This review was originally published in the August 1986 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, we’ve republished this piece here.

How about those Smiths, huh? Their last album, Meat Is Murder, debuted at Numero Uno on the British charts and guess who they bumped? Boss Springsteen! What, some skinny British vegetarian taking on Max Weinberg’s snare drum? You’ve got to be kidding me.

But Meat, with its Celtic guitars, skiffle rhythms, Anglicized rockabilly, and music hall bellowing was straight “Born in the U.K.” material. The songwriting was everything you liked about the British Empire — Mungo Jerry, Gilbert and Sullivan, Tommy Steele, and Poly Styrene — all layered under the gab and whine of a Manchester eccentric. Then, after Meat conquered the Isles, the Smittys crossed the ocean for an uneventful American tour during which lead singer Morrissey railed against the insufferability of both the human condition and various record executives. 

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Now, the Smiths are back with a new LP, The Queen Is Dead, and the group has a few more quid to spread around the studio. As a result, Johnny Marr’s musical contribution is beautifully documented. The guitar-synth arrangements are thematic (“Never Had No One”), subtly shaded (“The Boy With the Thorn in His Side”), and often exciting (“The Queen Is Dead” and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”).

No doubt for some the enjoyment stops with Marr. Morrissey’s operetta-style delivery and polemic lyrics have lost a few listeners. But before you snap on the vocal eliminator, let’s give the guy a chance. The sound of his chosen vocabulary sits well atop the concoctions. His word-play is excessive, but that’s what they’re into over there in England. If you sift through the early writings of Oscar Wilde, you end up with a few gems at best. Ditto for Morrissey on Queen: “As I climb into an empty bed / Oh well, enough said” (“I Know It’s Over”); “I never had no one, never” (“Never Had No One”); “And now I know how Joan of Arc felt / As the flames rose to her Roman nose / And her Walkman started to melt” (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”).

Now, I’m not saying he’s John Lennon and I’m not saying he’s the Monkees. But you gotta admire a guy who can rhyme “rusty spanner” and “play pianner” and who can espouse the beauty of a double-decker bus collision. The only place where the big M falters is his deathbed recollection on “I Know It’s Over.” This kind of testimonial is best left in the more experienced hands of Alan Vega.

But Queen is a successful outing. It’s memorable in a minor-league way and if nothing else it demonstrates the most admirable trait about the Smiths and about Brit rock in general — the wonderful breeding and development of those two-headed songwriting units. There’s something inspiring about these U.K. teams — Lennon and McCartney, Lennox and Stewart, Jagger and Richards, Godley and Creme — these bonded mates who seem to weather thick and thin for the sake of the song. That’s why even the breakup of Wham! had its sad side. Over here in the U.S.A., it’s more like every man for himself. So if the Smiths put you uptight, loosen up and give ’em a little room to breath. Remember they’re different over there in England.