I was too young to ‘get’ The Smiths at the time. I have a dim memory of being sat in the living room, watching Top of the Pops or some similar such programme, and getting the impression from the presenters that they were meant to be really special, and just finding them baffling. But then The Smiths were not really aiming to impress nine year olds…
Moving forward nearly ten years, a friend recorded me a C90 with The Queen is Dead and Meat Is Murder. Though The Queen is Dead was only ten years old (if that) at the time, I thought of it as a relic from another time. The most famous album by a band whom it appeared were regarded as legendary but some of the older hacks writing for the weekly music press that I read at the time. But a historical curiosity – something I knew was meant to be ‘significant’ but not really of the time. Which is strange, because so much of the Britpop of the time was ripping off elements of the Smiths – whether it be Gene’s vocalist or pretty much everything about Pulp.
Anyway, the sheer familiarity of this record when I played it this week suggests I must have listened to it quite a bit at the time. And yet, I can’t say that it was ever one of my favourite records. I know that a lot of 17 year olds are supposed to have felt like The Smiths and Morrissey were speaking to them personally, that they were a kind of voice of a generation. But I was not one of those 17 year olds. Maybe it was just that I was a grimfaced humourless bastard of a teenager, but I think its mostly because I just didn’t identify with Morrissey.
Talking of which… It’s hard to write about The Smiths without expressing a view, one way or the other, on their outspoken singer. If you were to draw a line between Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mole, there’s no doubt that Morrissey would sit somewhere on it. But quite where, I guess, depends on your personal prejudices. I resisted the temptation to write that line as ‘he clearly thought of himself as a latter-day Oscar Wilde. He was more a re-imagining of Adrian Mole as a pop star’ because while it was a tempting way to start the piece, I don’t think it’s quite true. It’s to miss the edge of comedy running through the Smiths. That Morrissey the miserablist is a joke that you’re invited in on:
So I broke into the palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner/
She said “Eh, I know you and you cannot sing”/
I said “That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano”.
But over time, after the Smiths, it seems that the Adrian Mole in him came to dominate. Maybe its just that his is an act he’s found harder to pull off the older he’s got, though. It’s hard to listen to The Queen is Dead or Frankly, Mr Shankly and imagine someone so devoid of perspective, so self-important, as latter-day Morrissey. The man who speaks highly of Nigel Farage and suggests that meat farming is worse than the holocaust. Who insists that Penguin publish his autobiography under their Penguin Classic imprint. Did he play the role too long, become his own caricature? To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
But to become too obssessed with the Morrissey question is to overlook the fact that its the songs that make this album. If Johnny Marr and Morrissey had never met, would he be anything more than a minor footnote in musical history? A singer who could give a good quote for the weekly music press, backed by four anonymous Sleeperblokes. If Marr had not been in The Smiths, would Morrissey ever have been any more than a precursor to Louise Wener? Actually, that’s being a little unfair on the rhythm section. There’s more going on here than there was on that Sleeper album I can’t remember the name of and can’t quite be bothered looking up. For the most part, they’re just unobtrusive and making sure they don’t get in the way of Morrissey and Marr, but the drums at the beginning of The Queen is Dead are great.
Actually, one of the things that struck me going back to the record is how much I lost listening to it on a rather poorly recorded cassette. Quite possibly it was a copy of a copy of a copy. Or maybe it’s more to the credit of whoever did the re-mastering of the version that is available on Spotify. But any which way, I just don’t remember it sounding this good. The guitar jam in the last minute or so of The Queen is Dead that appears to anticipate that other big Manchester band of the period, The Stone Roses, the fade out an in of album closing Some girls are bigger than others. Come to that, Steven Patrick’s vocals on Frankly, Mr Shankly, which just ooze disdain:
“Frankly, Mr Shankly, since you ask/
You are a flatulent pain is the ass”
And the coda to The Boy With a Thorn In His Side is beautiful, and there’s something about the weird childlike backing vocals on Bigmouth that I don’t think I’d really heard before.
What stops this being a great, rather than merely a good album, in my books, is that it is just not consistently good. There is filler. I could happily live without I Know Its Over and Never Had No One Ever just sounds dreary. Where Morrissey’s miserablist act just becomes, well, a bit miserable. I think I’d probably rather listen to a Best Of compilation. Well, I don’t care how many ‘best album’ polls it might have topped but it’s not in my top ten.
Highlights: The Queen is Dead, Frankly Mr Shankly, Bigmouth