On 16th June 1986, The Smiths would release their near faultless third album, The Queen Is Dead, which, for Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, would confirm themselves as being the most important voices of a generation. Now, 35 years later, the album still pulses with the same power and the stories behind the songs all the more important.
The album is widely considered to be The Smiths finest work out of the four records that they made during their time together and encapsulates everything that was great about them. Morrissey’s dark lyricism was juxtaposed alongside Johnny Marr’s sunny guitars, allowing the duality of modern living to come to the fore. The record would become the perfect soundtrack to the 1980s.
Following the release of the album the band took part in a track-by-track guide to the record in NME which provides a candid look at each track on the record, that is worth revisiting some 35 years on from when the masterpiece descended down from the Gods and helped change what alternative music should be forever.
See the breakdown in full, below.
‘The Queen Is Dead Medley’
The album opens with ‘The Queen Is Dead Medley’ — which is a brave choice to open the record and is not an atypical Smiths number. Johnny Marr opened up on some of the inspiration behind the unique opener: “I had an idea to do a song that had the aggression of the Detroit garage bands, ‘cos I’m such a Stooges fan. And it’s influenced by the Velvets too — it’s The Smiths does The Stooges does The Velvet Underground.”
He continued: “‘VU’ [compilation of Velvet Underground outtakes, released in 1985] had just been released, so there’s a little not to ‘I Can’t Stand It’ in there. We chopped a couple of minutes off the song in the end. The long version felt more like us running a marathon, then doing a lap of honour!”
Morrissey also shed some light on the controversial topic of the song and what made him want to write about it: “I didn’t want to attack the monarchy in a sort of beer monster way. But I found, as time goes by, this happiness we had slowly slips away and is replaced by something that is wholly grey and wholly saddening. The very idea of the monarchy and the Queen of England is being reinforced and made to seem more useful than it really is.”
‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’
This track is reportedly written about Geoff Travis, the head of the Smiths’ record label Rough Trade. Travis acknowledged in an interview with Mojo in April 2011 that a line in the song about “bloody awful poetry” was a reference to a poem he had written for Morrissey that had not gone down well with the Smiths man.
Johnny Marr revealed how the band tried to recruit an extraordinary guest on this track who ignored Morrissey’s handwritten request: “Part of being in the band is that we all watched ‘60’s ‘kitchen sink’ movies every night. You were only just able to buy them on VHS — that was a novel thing then. Being in The Smiths was half being a rock’n’roll band and half being a ‘60’s movie. We completely drenched ourselves in those influences, and this song really has that atmosphere to it. Not many people know this, but Morrissey wrote a postcard to Linda McCartney asking her to play the piano on it. She said no, she couldn’t do it, but we would have loved for her to do so because we were big fans of hers.”
Morrissey added: “I was reaching for the rubber, but I thought, ‘Well no, I do want to complain, I do want to moan.’ Complaining is so unmanly, which is why I do it so well!”
‘I Know It’s Over’
The third track on this album is the lengthy ‘I Know It’s Over’, often referred to as The Smiths at their bleak best. The track is written from the perspective of a dying man reflecting on his life that he feels has been well and truly wasted.
Johnny Marr explained how the song was the perfect example of the simplicity of how The Smiths would create their art during this period: “I’d been working on the songs all the time, and then Morrissey and I would get together, and I’d be sitting with a Walkman between my knees. We’d be literally a foot away from each other’s faces. I’d just go, ‘I’ve got this one,’ and I’d play it from start to finish and then we’d both hold our breath ‘til it was finished, and then we’d breathe out, and I’d go ‘I’ve got this one’, and I’d hit the record button, and we’d both breathe in! Morrissey would come up with the lyrics in a couple of days.”
Producer Stephen Street revealed he tried to add a trumpet player on the track, which was never greenlit from Morrissey; he said: “I thought it was pretty cool, but I think Morrissey felt uncomfortable at the time, having someone on the record who wasn’t in The Smiths. I liked it – the trumpet sounded quite sad.”
‘Never Had No One Ever’
On this track, Morrissey writes from the heart about always having that nagging feeling of feeling like an outsider his whole childhood in Manchester and the troubles that come with that which had bled into young adulthood.
The controversial vocalist stated: “It was about the frustration that I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn’t feel easy walking around the streets on which I’d been born, where all my family had lived — they’re originally from Ireland but had been there since the ‘50s. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt, ‘This is my patch.’ I could never walk easily.”
Johnny Marr divulged which New York outfit had inspired him on this track: “I was trying to do something that had the atmosphere of being in the bedroom of my parents’ house when I was 16, listening to Raw Power by the Stooges. The thing I liked about Raw Power was it was beautiful and dark at the same time, which is what we were trying to get on ‘The Queen Is Dead’.”
This is The Smiths in full flow at their unadulterated best, which sees them revisit the theme of mortality as the narrator of the song wanders through a cemetery and is saddened by all the people as well as their potential stories. The track’s title was an unintentional misspelling of ‘cemetery’, which Morrissey would admit later that he always had problems with.
The track is the perfect example of what Morrissey and Marr could achieve together. Marr disclosed: “I did this in my kitchen with Morrissey. When I played it I wasn’t sure about it — but that’s one example of how a partnership works. Because Morrissey loved it, and it came so effortlessly and easy. I was just about to bin it.”
Stephen Street also waxed lyrical about this track: “It’s all the best elements of The Smiths. And what a wonderful vocal and lyric. It’s a nice bit of blessed relief. It’s delicate, but it’s still got power.”
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’
The title alone showcases Morrissey at his provocative best, and the whole theme of the track captures the former frontman of The Smiths at his poetic best as he takes a perfectly timed stinging jab at the music industry that he had suddenly found himself the talk of.
Johnny Marr said this on the timeless track: “It’s a great song to play live. It’s as close as getting to the sound of my heroes as we came; the early Rolling Stones. There’s no other single like it it’s a good example of our quirkiness.”
‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’
This track follows on from the same theme as ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ with Morrissey unleashing his frustrations at the music industry again in this track, with the business becoming ‘the thorn’ in his side.
Johnny Marr revealed that as soon as they recorded the track, he knew instantly that they were on to something good: “When we did it, I was elated. We did this in a little 16-track demo studio in Manchester, which proves the point you don’t need a lot of technology to do something pretty good. It’s the song and the emotion inside it that matters.”
Stephen Street added: “Morrissey’s yodelling on this is superb; it’s beautiful. And it’s all him. We did extra work back in London — the single version is different. The album’s got strings; extra guitar. The single was the original mix. And there’s a bit of marimba on it, on the verses.”
‘Vicar In A Tutu’
This track is perhaps not the high watermark of the record or will ever be deemed as The Smiths’ finest hour. However, it’s an enjoyable, fun track where we get to see Morrissey’s more light-hearted side somewhat more than on any other track on the record. It pokes fun at religion—which Morrissey has always been an enemy of—as well as celebrating individuality in the face of religious conformities.
Marr noted this on ‘Vicar In A Tutu’: “We had so many big songs, we thought it would be OK to come up with a couple of things that were a little more throwaway. It’s not one of my favourites but it was a laugh. It made a change from trying to change the fucking world.”
‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’
This is not only the most iconic track on The Queen Is Dead, but it might perhaps be the ultimate Smiths song. It captures the spirit of the most important band of the decade within four minutes of music; it’s a rare song about love rather than loss because of its fragrant simplicity.
Johnny Marr made this revelation about the track: “The intro’s nicked from The Rolling Stones covering Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitchhike’ [from ‘Out Of Our Heads LP’]. Bit of a convoluted in-joke. The writing and recording poured out. We only played it a few times, no one had much to say — there’s serenity after you’ve done something like that. We knew we’d done something pretty special.”
Stephen Street was full of praise for the band on this one: “It was a great arrangement by Johnny. He really knew that Morrissey had delivered so he pulled out all the stops. Up ‘til then he had been wary of using keyboards, but we wanted something different.”
‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’
This isn’t the big epic, grandiose finale that most bands of The Smiths stature would have opted for, but that was never the kind of band they wanted to be. Instead, The Smiths chose to end their album with a tongue-in-cheek fashion with this humorous number. The song shouldn’t work on this album at all but somehow it does.
Marr is obviously still immensely proud of this track as he stated that: “It’s the only guitar part I still play on the guitar. Don’t play my old tunes around my house, but if I’m trying out guitars I’ll play it.”
Meanwhile, Morrissey had this to say about the song’s rather peculiar subject: “’Some Girls…’ is just taking it down to the basic absurdity of recognising the contours of one’s body.”