This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of The Queen is Dead, the third studio album The Smiths released during its earth-shattering five-year existence. It arrived just a few months after 1985’s inward-looking Meat is Murder but felt eons ahead, capturing the cardigan clad Manchester quartet at its very peak –- the moment its songs jangled the hardest, its frontman howled the loudest, and its melodies rang the clearest. It was the record that brought The Smiths international attention and all but ensured the group’s self-destruction, as singer Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce went into battle with the music industry and each other, walking away with scars that would never quite heal (don’t expect that reunion anytime soon) and an album that stands as a classic. Here are seven regal reasons to celebrate The Queen is Dead.
1. “The Queen Is Dead,” the pummeling title track and album opener serves as a call to arms, casting off The Smiths’ reputation as anemic students with its high volume barrage of feverish wah-wah guitars, crashing drums and Morrissey’s unadulterated rancor. In the singer’s hands, the song served both as an indictment of the British monarchy and an anthem for alienation in the British suburbs. “Life is very long when you’re lonely,” Morrissey sings, belting out what could very possibly be the definitive line from the the definitive album by the definitive band of the 1980s.
2. Recorded under the working title of Margaret on the Guillotine, The Queen is Dead was made under less than ideal circumstances. With the group parting ways with its manager, guitarist Johnny Marr took charge and paid the toll with his mental and physical health. Bassist Andy Rourke was struggling with a heroin habit that often caused delays in the recording. And the band was at war with its label Rough Trade, which ultimately caused a further six-month delay in the record’s release. Its very existence is a minor miracle.
3. The Queen is Dead is hardly perfect. Pairing heart wrenching ballads like “I Know It’s Over” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” with throwaway vaudeville knockoffs like “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others” and “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” with its cringe-worthy line, “Sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled/Making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.” But like The Beatles’ “White Album” and Patti Smith’s Horses its flaws manage to somehow make the whole even greater.
4.The band’s influences at the time were impeccable. The album title was lifted from “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” the 1964 novel by author Hubert Selby, Jr. that explores the underbelly of life in the American city in unsparing detail. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” was inspired musically by The Rolling Stones’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Hitch Hike” and lyrically by “Lonely Planet Boy” by the New York Dolls. The album’s cover art, designed by Morrissey, featured a still image of French cinema icon Alain Delon from the 1964 film L’Insoumis. And on the vinyl copies of the “Bigmouth Strikes Again” single, a quote from Oscar Wilde appears in the run-out groove: “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Ahem.
5. “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” which Morrissey once claimed was his favorite song by the Smiths, is another tune that does double-duty. While it echoes the album’s overall theme of disaffection, the lyrics more specifically address Morrissey’s issues with the music industry. Ironically, it became the band’s first single to be accompanied by a music video –- a straight performance clip the band famously detested. The song also became one of The Smiths’ most covered tunes, taken on by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Belle & Sebastian and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis.
6. The album is full of Easter Eggs. The backing vocals on “Bigmouth Strikes Again” are credited to one Ann Coates, but that’s actually Morrissey’s pitch-shifted voice. According to the credits, the strings on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” are played by the Hated Salford Ensemble, the alias for Marr’s Emulator sampler. And the odd fade in the intro to “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is no accident. Album producer Stephen Street wanted to recreate the sound of walking through a door into a dancehall.
7. The Smiths changed everything. In just five years and four albums, the British quartet with the ordinary name offered an extraordinary alternative to the feathered and leathered crop of acts that ruled the charts during the first half of the 1980s. In the 10 songs here, Morrissey balanced sadness and humor while providing a picture of cultural estrangement. The band made the world safe for bookish, brilliant songwriters with sharp wit and even sharper melodies. And to that we can only say, long live the Queen!