Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Few albums in the history of popular music luxuriate in despair with the same kind of palpable realism as The Smiths’ masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. You can walk into a record store or log onto a streaming service and pore through a never-ending stream of records that convey hurt, resentment and isolation. What sets The Queen Is Dead apart from all those many break-up testimonials and lonely, midnight monologues is the way in which it embodies the very essence of sadness itself. This isn’t a suite of songs about having your heart broken. Across ten songs, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke bring those emotions to life in a way that defies logic or reason. The empathy is enormous. You can practically feel the soil falling over your head as the mournful melodies float out of the speakers.
Of course, for Morrissey, that was always the goal. “I like to feel that whatever assessments people make of the Smiths, the Smiths speak absolutely for now, singing about the way people live as opposed to the way people don’t live, which seems to be the cast-iron mode of songwriting these days,” he told Rolling Stone back in 1986. “We live in a world which is unlike the way Top Forty records convey it.”
For seemingly no other reason than to affirm its greatness, Warner Bros., recently decided to give The Queen Is Dead the deluxe reissue treatment it so richly deserves. The album itself has been re-mastered, giving it a new, crystalline sheen, that doesn’t make it sound entirely new, but does breathe a new sense of life into the familiar and beloved recordings. However, it’s the bonus material that will cause the greatest amount of sensation amongst The Smiths most ardent acolytes. A whole disc chock full of demos, alternate takes, and rudimentary sketches of each and every song on the official record, as well as four single B-sides released during the era when the album debuted. There’s also a full concert recording from a show that the band performed in Boston on August 5, 1986.
The most interesting thing gleaned from listening to the bonus material is how true the finished product remained to the initial ideas from which they were born. Outside of “Never Had No One Ever,” which is slathered with some delightful, honking trumpet lines where a glistening keyboard solo would eventually reside, the instrumentation, and vocal deliveries all pretty much remain the same as they appear on the finished record, right down to so many of Morrissey seemingly extemporaneous, wounded wailings. Though the demos don’t sound nearly as lush as the songs ultimately became — especially in the drums — you get the sense that the band knew, exactly what they hoped to achieve from the outset.