It’s become quite difficult to separate art from artists in relation to Morrissey these days. So when the opportunity to reflect on some of his and The Smiths’ most influential work, as Meat Is Murder turns 35.
To celebrate we thought we’d give ourselves the unenviable task of rating the nine tracks that make up The Smiths’ second record from best to worst. The album represents the moment The Smiths emerged as the powerhouses of indie their legacy would suggest.
Released on this day in 1985, The Smiths influence can rightly be traced back to their very beginnings but it was on their sophomore album that Johnny Marr and Stephen Morrissey really clicked. Though their self-titled debut record had all the intense spark of the sub-cultures of the past, it was on Meat Is Murder that their vision finally came to fruition.
Much of that was down to Rough Trade having the good sense to let Marr and Morrissey sit behind the mixing desk alongside engineer extraordinaire, Stephen Street and enact that vision. It was also notable as the moment that Morrissey found his feet in the public eye and, perhaps more importantly, found his voice.
A distinct political statement, Morrissey doesn’t back down lyrically and challenges the society that surrounds him on almost every number. Equally, with the confidence that comes with a debut record like The Smiths Marr was also buoyed to perform at his highest ability and brought together his trademark rockabilly picking, which somehow managed to render the airwaves the colour of ‘Britain’.
So while we can almost guarantee that this will divide many of you as fans, let’s all join together and take a look back at The Smiths’ brilliant Meat Is Murder as we rank the songs from best to worst. Or favourite to least favourite, if you will.
Not one to ever shy away from delivering a killer first line, Morrissey opens up our favourite song on the record with an image so vivid it is only surpassed by the beginning of the next verse. “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen / Every sensible child will know what this means / The poor and the needy / Are selfish and greedy on her terms”.
A bubbling crucible of visions and depictions of societal pitfalls, Morrissey’s morose vocal is pumped up by the charging rhythm. Easily one of The Smiths best ever songs as the perfect cocktail of Moz’s outspoken yet poetic lyrics and Marr’s unstoppable ear.
‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’
The track is often cited as Johnny Marr’s favourite The Smiths song and has often been pointed to as the ultimate vision of the band at the height of their pomp. Many have suggested that the ballad is actually Morrissey’s most open-hearted set of lyrics.
In Dave Simpson’s 1998 deep-dive into Morrissey as a figure of music suggested the song is in reference to an ‘intimate friendship with a journalist’ and sees Moz bear his heart and soul unlike any time before and likely since.
‘Meat Is Murder’
Soapbox time. The most explicitly political Morrissey had ever been, come at the final moments of its eponymous album as ‘Meat Is Murder’ details, warts and all, Morrissey’s desperate plea for vegetarianism. Though it may seem a touch trivial today, in 1985 this statement was big news.
The even bigger news was the unabashed way in which Morrissey and the band approached the subject. Candidly beginning the song with abattoir noises, with a handy sloganised title and without a speck of fear, they point the bloodied finger.
‘The Headmaster Ritual’
In Simon Goddard’s brilliant book Songs That Saved Your Life, he notes that Marr had been working on the song since 1983, “The first time I came up with the chords I was sitting around when we were working with Troy Tate. I had it for that long but it was always looking for a home. I thought if you could play those on acoustic then i could see shades of Joni Mitchell in them. But what use would sounding like Joni Mitchell have been to me at that time?”
Luckily, Marr began remodelling the song in 1984 after moving to London and one of the band’s most adored songs began to take shape as Morrissey again painted a sense of society in disarray beginning at a very early age.
‘Barbarism Begins at Home’
While in the above track, Morrissey reflected the intense scrutiny Marr had put into its conception on ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ the track was a lot more spontaneous. The song was written on the day the band’s first ever producer was due to meet them, Marr hurriedly finding the riff in order to impress him.
Yet lyrically it is some of Morrissey’s most poignant work as he highlights the domestic tribalism and violence that continued to surge through the communities in Britain. The eighties, after all, were eat or be eaten. At 6 minutes long it is the longest song the band ever put on vinyl and offers Rourke the chance to enjoy himself on the bass.
In fact, in most cases, Marr and Moz would take a break during the song to have a dance and it’s bloody hilarious.
‘I Want the One I Can’t Have’
One of the few tracks to come out of the Meat Is Murder jam sessions, the song is one of the most deeply meta Smiths songs ever written. Not just because of the archetypal riff that Marr lends the track but the deliberate self-referential lyrics Morrissey uses.
In the track, he nods to ‘These Things Take Time’ as well as sharpening the character who would appear in ‘The Queen Is Dead’ and ‘Sweet And Tender Hooligan’.
‘What She Said’
One of the quicker songs on the album ‘What She Said’ offers a hint back to the band’s furious beginnings. As much of the album looks towards the future of the band—a stringent ideology refined and reflective—this track is a nod to where they had come from. Fast, furious and deeply connective.
The track was an improvisation based around ‘His Latest Flame’ a song written by Doc Pomus in 1961 for none other than Elvis Presley. The track is actually deeply rooted in work from others.
As well as Marr admitting that the riff was similar to Bo Diddley’s work, Morrissey was later suggested to have adapted the lyrics from a song by the late great comedian, Victoria Wood called ‘Fourteen Again’.
‘Well I Wonder’
Well there we have it, our least favourite song on Meat Is Murder would probably still make our greatest Smiths songs of all time playlist. The track is a gentle and delicate refrain as a pre-cursor to the final two songs on the record. A gentle moment of reflection that still holds up today, 35 years on.