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Smiths album cover. (Credit: Rough Trade)

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The Cover Uncovered: The story behind The Smiths' iconic 'The Queen is Dead'

Released in June 1986, The Queen is Dead is the third studio album by seminal British indie rockers the Smiths. Having spent 22 weeks on the UK Albums Chart, peaking at number two, the record has frequently been mentioned as the best indie album of all time, and it is not hard to see why.

In classic Smiths style, the album took its name from literature, specifically Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn. The album was written, for the most part, by guitarist Johnny Marr, who wrote the music for several of the songs while the Smiths toured Britain in early 1985. Marr would work the songs out with frontman Morrissey, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce during soundchecks.

The album was produced by both Morrissey and Marr, who teamed up yet again with iconic British engineer Stephen Street. This has proven to be a now-legendary partnership, and Street had worked on the band’s 1985 classic Meat Is Murder, amongst many other of their earlier releases. Street later recalled: “Morrissey, Johnny and I had a really good working relationship – we were all roughly the same age and into the same kind of things, so everyone felt quite relaxed in the studio.”

The album, it has to be said, was also marred by an ongoing dispute with the band’s label, Rough Trade. In fact, ‘Frankly, Mr. Shankly’ is rumoured to have been addressed to Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade. Travis has since accepted it as “a funny lyric”, outlining “Morrissey’s desire to be somewhere else”.

Furthermore, the line in the song about “bloody awful poetry” was a reference to a poem he had written for Morrissey. They also call Travis “a flatulent pain in the ass”, which together, seems a little rude. Travis must have really pissed Morrissey off with his prose.

Regardless, The Queen is Dead is classic Smiths. It features many of their most iconic songs including the likes of ‘I Know It’s Over’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘Cemetry Gates’, ‘The Boy with the Thorn in His Side’, ‘There is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’.

Apart from the music, The Queen Is Dead has become iconic for another reason; the album cover. The art features French actor turned businessman, Alain Delon, in the 1964 noir film L’Insoumis (The Unvanquished). Delon had written to the Smiths and gave them the approval to use his image. However, the offer came with one condition, as he revealed in his autobiography: “I told them my parents were upset that anyone would call an album The Queen is Dead.”

In classic Smiths fashion, having already disparaged their label head, this request was clearly ignored. It was also typical of the Smiths to use actors and elements of popular culture for their sleeves. The sleeve for ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’ pays homage to the actor James Dean, depicting him riding a motorbike, and for ‘Panic’, actor Richard Bradford appears in a scene from his cult television series Man in a Suitcase.

It is this convergence of the Smiths and images from pop culture that adds to the band’s iconic stature. Every Smiths single and album cover has its own interesting backstory. A classic example of this comes with 1984’s release, ‘What Difference Does It Make?’. The band had initially intended to use an image of actor Terrence Stamp from the set of the 1965 film The Collector. The image that they wanted wasn’t actually used in the film, but remains a classic still. It shows Stamp smiling in an unhinged manner, holding a chloroform pad. Due to the violent composition of the image he initially declined to be used, so the Smiths had to find an alternative.

This alternative version, which is featured on some pressings, depicts Morrissey in the re-enacted scene. However, instead of the chloroform pad, Morrissey is holding a glass of milk, the complete opposite to the original. Eventually, though, Stamp changed his mind, killing the production of the covers featuring Morrissey, making them very rare and collectable.

This shows that the Smiths took as much of their inspiration from pop culture as anywhere else, revealing The Queen Is Dead‘s album cover to be the band going through the motions as they had done countless times before, and would do with their future releases. However, what makes this album cover truly stand out is the effect that the convergence between the music and cover art has had. For both reasons, it is a standout moment in the band’s back catalogue.

In 2003, Gavin Edwards summed it up succinctly. He called The Queen Is Dead “one of the funniest rock albums ever”, noting that Morrissey had “learned to express his self-loathing through mockery”. Furthermore, he notes how Johnny Marr came into his own by matching Morrissey’s “verbal excess with witty, supple music”.

No line describing the album and artwork is more fitting than Edwards’ conclusion: “If the queen’s reaction to Morrissey was ‘We are not amused,’ then she was the only one.”

(Credit: The Smiths)

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