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Music

The Smiths song that explores Morrissey's obsession with death

English indie legends The Smiths weren’t exactly known for their joyous songs. The band who penned classics such as ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and ‘The Queen Is Dead’ had a penchant for the bleak, the morbid and the darker side of the human psyche. 

There are many factors that influenced this artistic standpoint, ranging from the miserable backdrop of post-war Manchester, the authoritarian reign of Magaret Thatcher, and the fact that as Northerners, the quartet had a natural inclination for black comedy. 

Unsurprisingly, one of their best-loved cuts, ‘Cemetry Gates’ from 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, came to fruition through frontman Morrissey’s fascination with death. The song was written by Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, and in it, they explore the concept of mortality, as the narrator walks through the titular cemetery. The narrator is saddened, and he discusses all the people who have died in the past, including some famous faces. 

“It seems so unfair, I want to cry,” Morrissey famously sings. Interestingly, the song is semi-autobiographical as Morrissey used to walk the Southern Cemetery in Manchester as a youth. Notably, the spelling of ‘Cemetry’ is wrong in the title, as the frontman unintentionally misspelt it as ‘Cemetery’, he later admitted that he’d always had trouble with the word. It’s a shocking revelation for someone who has long been hailed as one of the last great wordsmiths, albeit in a reputation that is slowly being tarnished today.

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Marr remembered writing the track in a 1997 interview with Guitar Magazine. He said: “When we signed with Rough Trade we were being hailed as ‘The great new songwriters’, and I was on the train coming back thinking, ‘Right, if you’re so great – first thing in the morning, sit down and write a great song.'”

Of his obsession with death, and fascination with tragic heroes, Morrissey explained that it was a lifelong preoccupation. At points, he’s hailed the late actor James Dean who died in a car accident aged just 24, and the legendary author Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for his homosexuality and died a broken man aged 46. 

In the track, Morrissey references Wilde and another tragic master of prose, John Keats, who died at 25 of tuberculosis. He even cites Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who was famous for his poem Death, which points out: “Man has created death.” 

Morrissey told Spin in 1988: “I have a dramatic, unswayable, unavoidable obsession with death. If there was a magical, beautiful pill that would retire you from this world, I think I would take it.” How very Morrissey. 

A stellar ode to all things death, ‘Cemetry Gates’ remains one of the best moments in The Smiths’ celebrated back catalogue.

Listen to the track below. 

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