Counterbalance No. 28: The Smiths’ 'The Queen Is Dead'
Some Smiths records are bigger than others -- The Queen Is Dead, for example, comes in at No. 28 on the Acclaimed Music list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. Bigmouths Klinger and Mendelsohn strike again with another edition of Counterbalance.
Klinger: Well, Mendelsohn, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that of all the discs we’ve covered thus far, The Queen Is Dead is the most British—so British that it might actually be daunting to Yankee ears. What say you, old bean?
Mendelsohn: I think that's an unfair characterization, Guv'nr. Yes, they are British, but are they any more British than the Beatles? Or the Sex Pistols? David Bowie? The Rolling Stones? Sure, the Stones wanted to be American bluesmen, but that's neither here nor there.
I think the issue at hand, the reason it sounds "daunting" to your Yankee ears, and to mine, is that fact that this album was released in 1986, which, musically speaking, was the Dark Ages of the last century. That can be the only reason a record this terrible gets a ranking of No. 28 on the Great List—directly ahead of the Beatles' Rubber Soul and the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet. What sacrilege!
Klinger: Strong words, Mendelsohn—words that are sure to keep you from ever being elected to the House of Commons. I meant that Morrissey’s lyrics make little effort to translate transatlantically. They’re more frequently compared to Ray Davies’ mid-’60s pastoral ruminations of old Albion, and I’d argue that they take that whole concept even further. As soon as the “Dear Old Blighty” intro kicks in, it’s pretty clear that no one’s going to paying homage to Muddy Waters any time soon.
Still, I’ve known several Yanks for whom this record means a great deal, and I’ve tried hard over the years to get into it. For Counterbalance, I’ve made my most concerted effort to date—even more so than when I tried to woo certain trenchcoat-clad Anglophile women of the Reagan era. And while this weeks-long The Queen Is Dead binge likely marks the end of my relationship with the album, I think I’ve cracked the code as to why this album is so very well-regarded.
Mendelsohn: Do tell, my dear old chap. But please, don't say it was Morrissey’s witty, oft-wry, and humorous lyrics. If that's all it took to get an album universally loved, Dave Barry would be giving Bob Dylan a run for his money.
Klinger: I’d say there are several reasons that go beyond Morrissey’s lyrics, and I’ll let you take them down point by point as we go. But Morrissey’s lyrics are inevitably going to be a factor, so I’ll start there.
As I revisited this album for Counterbalance, I had a horrifying epiphany: at 42, I am far closer in age and standing to Mr. Shankly than I am to the 1986 Morrissey. I don’t write poetry, and if I did it would be bloody awful, but I certainly don’t need some poncy fop telling me I’m a flatulent pain in the arse. And once my hackles were sufficiently raised, I was all set to rip Moz—and this album—a new one. After I had calmed down a bit (thanks, root beer schnapps!), I realized that the character study in that song was a little more finely observed than I had realized, and it became pretty clear to me that there’s a level of self-awareness in there that might not jump out at first listen. After that breakthrough, I started hearing more of it throughout the album.
That sense of self-awareness, to me, is the point of entry into The Queen Is Dead. It’s one thing to imagine yourself the next Oscar Wilde, and it’s quite another to recognize just how pretentious that idea is. Then again, it’s quite another yet still to imagine yourself the next Oscar Wilde, recognize how pretentious that idea is, and then still do it anyway. When he’s at his best on this album, Morrissey is able to do all that and still sell it. That earns him some degree-of-difficulty points right there.
I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t really do irony (The Simpsons and Randy Newman notwithstanding), so there may well have been countless young people who wanted desperately to believe that Morrissey was speaking for their moussed-up cardigan-wearing generation. And while that gave them a measure of comfort, there’s an undercurrent of dark humo(u)r there that’s sure to wear well with your criticky types.
Mendelsohn: No one should be allowed to write poetry. Not you, not me, and apparently not Mr. Shankly. But what makes Morrissey uniquely qualified to not only write poems of his own but also critique the poetry of others? Just because he can name drop John Keats, William Yeats, and Oscar Wilde doesn't make him qualified. Oh, I'm sorry—I forgot that he was young and disaffected. Never mind that I have a degree in English literature from a semi-respectable public college. It took me eight and a half years to earn that undergraduate degree but apparently all you really need is an English lit anthology reader (1700-Present) and nasty case of the frowny-downies and suddenly you're a poet extraordinaire.
It's all subjective, but I'm not buying it. You can read into the lyrics as far as you want. Some people may be able to find beauty in a pile of dog poo but if you ask me, something is rotten in Denmark.
See what I did there? I'll tell you what I did. I quoted me some William Shakespeare. Yeah. Didn't see that coming, did you?
Klinger: Yeah, nice one.
All right, you’re not buying the lyrical argument. How about this one—The Queen Is Dead is something of a pivotal point in ’80s pop, marking a point in which the more synth-driven New Wave and New Romantic sounds are once and for all supplanted by a more organic guitar-based sound that was de rigeur by the decade’s end. A similar shift happened Stateside with the likes of R.E.M., who in the mid-’80s were at the forefront of what I recall was referred to as “college rock.” There’s quite a bit of quality jangling going on here, from the sweet and sunny sounding “Cemetry Gates” to “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” to the much ballyhooed “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”.
The Smiths in general, and The Queen Is Dead in particular, set the stage for a lot of the indie rock that’s been tweeing it up for the last decade or so. Whether that’s a positive or a negative is up to the individual, but the overall influence can’t be denied.
Mendelsohn: I will begrudgingly concede to your very valid point. The whole jangly guitar phenomenon is the Middle East crude to all of the gas-guzzling indie rock engines that no one wants to replace with quieter, more efficient hybrids. I also recall that former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr joined indie rock stalwarts Modest Mouse a couple of years ago. Which, I think, was wrong because it reminded me of that scene in Back to the Future where Caroline in the City tries to mack on her Teen Wolf son. It was kind of gross but also grossly entertaining.
Klinger: Begrudging concessions are my favorite! And since I’m on such a roll, I’d like to use your reference to Mr. Marr to point out another theory regarding The Queen Is Dead’s acclaim. The Marr/Morrissey dichotomy is part of a long and venerable tradition of two distinct types of visionaries—fire and ice, if you will.
Ideally, one must be a tad fussy, a wee bit artsy, while the other one is the grounded one, the one who wants to stay true, to keep it real. So for every Jagger, the must be Richards. A McCartney needs a Lennon, a Stipe needs a Buck,
and a Frey needs a Henley. The Smiths, whether they were aware of it or not (and I strongly suspect that they were), were carrying on that noble tradition. Marr and Morrissey’s relationship, which remains fractious today, was a sort of dog-whistle to critics, who picked up on the archetype. Meanwhile Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce did an admirable job in their capacity as lukewarm water.
Mendelsohn: I can't argue with that. The Smiths, either wittingly or unwittingly, stumbled upon the magic formula for music immortality by playing directly to the music critics. No matter how awful the record is all you have to do is offer a marked changed from what is currently popular, help create the basis for a wide-ranging music genre, and have at least two songwriters who work well together when they aren't poking each other in the eye.
Remind me again why we haven't recorded the next great album in the canon? We have this figured out, it should be easy. Go get your guitar, I'll be in my room sulking, writing in my journal and occasionally burning myself with a cigarette just to make sure I'm still alive.