The Smiths are one of those seminal British bands of the 80s that even if you do not like, you must respect. The band was founded on the song writing relationship between Johnny Maher (aka, Marr, guitars) and Steven Morrissey (vocalist). Rounded out with Mike Joyce on drums and Andy Rourke on bass, the Smiths would take the world by surprise with their 1984 self-titled debut and a bit of controversy – they were accused of glorifying pedophilia and death (on all counts incorrect and a misreading of lyrics). But the next three albums would solidify a place in history for the Smiths – “Meat Is Murder” (1985), “The Queen Is Dead” (1986), and “Strangeways, Here We Come” (1987). Typical of many 80s acts, the prolific need to compose and record and but out records was there, as they released four albums in four years, and then came the end in October 1987. Solo careers, old band members suing each other, and a refusal to reunite, the Smiths have continued to be relevant to music today. Just look at the list of who they have influenced: Blur, Coldplay, the Cranberries, the Kooks, the Libertines, Oasis, the Stone Roses, and Suede. And though I could have done the cliché and gone right for “The Queen Is Dead,” I have been stuck on “Meat Is Murder” again, a personal favorite, but it is also an important album. No sophomore slump here, the album would deflate any prior criticism of the band, while paving the way for them to becoming one of Britain’s most influential bands. Even if the Smiths had stopped here, they would have left their mark on musical history.
Opening with “The Headmaster Ritual,” you are blasted with that Johnny Marr classical guitar style of playing – somewhere between “tight” punk rock and rockabilly – and Morrissey’s sarcasm: “Mid-week on the playing fields, Sir thwacks you on the knees, knees you in the groin, elbow in the face, bruises bigger than dinner plates.” Again, as in the self-titled debut, Morrissey is quick to humorously write about abuses, but this time sustained as a child at the hands of an educator. But isn’t this just a factor of growing up and coming to age? Don’t we all look back at our harrowing experiences and learn to laugh at some of them? Okay, I may still have occasional nightmares about nuns pulling my hair, but I can relate. And I think that is what the Smiths often relied on: the ability of their audience to laugh off past experiences. It opens the possibility to write a song that could revolt people lyrically, but still leaves the door open to be danceable.
The album then leads into one of favorite Smiths songs of all time, “Rusholme Ruffians.” There is a certain 60s quality to this song, even taking place at a fair: “The last night of the fair, from a seat on a whirling waltzer, her skirt ascends for a watching eye, it’s a hideous trait on her mother’s side.” Again, Morrissey is pointing out of absurdities and realities of everyday life, while Marr is sucking you into the narrative with semi-acoustic, fast-paced arrangements. Ever flirt with anyone when mom was around? It can be fun until she slaps you in the back of the head – game killer, really. The 80s started that sort of revolt against neo-Victorianism, the façade of being pure and chase. The Smiths join the bandwagon and take a smack at the notion, but with a tongue-in-the-cheek air.
And though Morrissey has dismissed some of the gloomiest musicians out there, he is able to get as gloomy and dreary as the best of them. In the classic, “What She Said,” Morrissey sings, “What she, “I smoke cause I’m hoping for an early death and I need to cling to something.”” This is nowhere near a happy go lucky song, but is a standout on the album and in the entire Smiths’ catalogue. As captured on the “Rank” (1988), this song has the potential of becoming a slam fest. More so than the other songs on the album, this song is the closest to their punk rock influences. Then one of the dreariest songs ever (second dreariest in the Smith’s cannon, the first being “I Know It’s Over” on the “Queen Is Dead” album), “The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” is a depression fest, especially when there is discomfort knowing that you may die with a smile on your face. But what makes this a great song? Ambiguity. What is the joke? Who are you in the car with” (“Park the car at the side of the road, you should know…”) With music that is neither standard rock, or pop, or post-punk, or new wave, but rather universal enough to appeal to a wide range of people, the song’s ambiguity makes it easy for any one to listen and relate.
As much as I am tempted to talk about each and every song, I am going to hold back the urge. But there are two more I want to mention. Many TV affectionados may know the songs “How Soon Is Now?” The song was covered by Love Spits Love (Richard Butler’s, of the Psychedelic Furs, side band) and used as the opening theme song of “Charmed” for the first seven of eight seasons. A bleak song for television or a mantra, though it does sound kickass, Morrissey sings, “There’s a club, if you’d like to go. You could meet somebody who really loves you. So you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home, and you cry, and you want to die.” The story of so many people’s lives! It is that endless quest of looking for love, but always coming home alone. Sonically, this is not one of those songs that sound like the Smiths. With an oscillating guitar sound dominating the background, the song does not move with the same fluidity as most Smith’s songs. The lead guitar never pops out either, as if it is as shy as the shyness that Morrissey sings about.
The album closes with “Meat Is Murder,” which should be adopted by the vegetarian movement: “And the flesh you so fancifully fry is not succulent, tasty, or kind. It’s death for no reason, and death for no reason is murder.” I remember listening to this song as a kid, going to the kitchen table, then getting smacked by my mom (yeah, quite a bit of smacks growing up) for not wanting to eat my steak: “I’ll give you murder if you don’t eat your food.” And though you may laugh at the content of the song, it shows that the Smiths had conviction. It was not lip service like many other musicians. They stood up and sung about what they believed, and the 80s were not a time that being a vegetarian was cool.
This album has the ability to endure, both musically and lyrically. This is the album that solidifies the marriage of Marr’s craftsmanship and guitar skills and Morrissey’s lyrical wit and voice. (Not to take away from the other two members of the band, but it is well understood that only Marr and Morrissey wrote the songs.) There is not a single song on the album that is filler material. There is not a single song that does not demonstrate conscientious songwriting ability. From the big picture to the small details, “Meat Is Murder” is as perfect as an album as perfect can be. Listening to it again the other day did not only make me wish for a Smiths reunion, but gave me back that desire for a new Smiths album. The Smiths easily had the potential to endure and weather time along side the Cure or Depeche Mode, and it is amazing how with just four albums, they are almost, if not as, influential as they are. And that is a testament to great music. The only way to close this out is by quoting Morrissey from “Well I Wonder”: “Gasping, but somehow still alive, this is the fierce last stand of all I am… please keep me in mind.”
Check out the covers. Internationally, the first (above) was the cover, but in the USA (below) the cover with the four copies was released. Perhaps making the line “Meat Is Murder” more apparent. (Originally, the line read “Make War Not Love” and was a still taken by Emile de Antonio.)
1. The Headmaster Ritual
2. Rusholme Ruffians
3. I Want the One I Can’t Have
4. What She Said
5. The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
6. How Soon Is Now? – Originally not on the UK or European releases,
as it was released as a nonalbum single
7. Nowhere Fast
8. Well I Wonder
9. Barbarism Begins at Home
10. Meat Is Murder
Here is the link for the video “How Soon Is Now?” from the BVMemoTV YouTube Channel.