Music

Listen To This Eddie: The Smiths’ ‘The Queen Is Dead’ Reissue Sheds New Light On A Masterpiece Of Despair


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.

Like so many others, I discovered The Queen Is Dead during a particularly isolated period of my life. At 19, I was out on my own for the first time and living in a place I had never even visited before. Everyone I really cared about was a thousand miles away and more. On weekends, in hours intended for recreation and socialization, I’d walk through the local outdoor shopping mall on a “dreaded sunny day,” with Morrissey crooning in my ears, surrounding myself with strangers just to keep up the illusion that I wasn’t utterly and completely alone.

In those moments at least, there was relief in the feeling that at least someone else “got me,” even if that someone else was decades in the past and an entire ocean away. Especially on a song like “I Know It’s Over,” where the sense of ostracization is palpable to the point of actual physical pain. Morrissey states his duress, his self-loathing, and pity in such a desperate, naked way that, you can’t help but wince as you look in the mirror at yourself. All delusions of self-grandeur are instantly washed away at the sight of an empty bed.

“If you’re so funny / Then why are you on your own tonight? / And if you’re so clever / Then why are you on your own tonight? / If you’re so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight? / If you’re so very good-looking / Why do you sleep alone tonight? / I know… / Cause tonight is just like any other night / That’s why you’re on your own tonight.”

The bleakness gets ratcheted up several notches on the next track, “Never Had No One Ever,” a song not even about heartbreak, but about the basic inability to connect with another human being in the first place. “Now I’m outside your house / I’m alone / And I’m outside your house / I hate to intrude / Oh, Alone, I’m Alone, I’m Alone, I’m Alone, I’m Alone, I’m Alone.” It’s a song in which his entire life, which at the time Morrissey recorded the song “lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days,” was nothing more than a bad dream.

Even the most bracing song on the record, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” is wrapped up in the mortifying reality of someone who can’t seem to get out of their own way, who always says the wrong thing, to the right person, at the worst times. It’s on the penultimate track, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” which for many stands as the Smiths’ artistic peak, where everything comes together. Over Marr’s jangling guitars, Morrissey is a man rapturous over the mere opportunity to “go anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” Because, after all, even if it were all to end, even if you were to be consumed by flames in a fiery crash with a double-decker bus, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” If you have to go, at least in that moment, as gruesome as it may be, you won’t be by yourself.

“Why should we sit around and talk about our innermost feelings?” Morrissey asked interviewer David Fricke just after The Queen Is Dead hit the shelves. “Those little things bring people together. They allow people to open and blossom, to learn things about themselves. That’s what the Smiths aim to achieve.” While it could certainly be said that the Smiths notched their share of hits and misses throughout their all-too-short lifetime, with The Queen Is Dead, you can’t deny that the band scored an aching, powerful and altogether legendary bullseye.

Bootleg Bin

Roughly four years ago, on October 27, 2013, the music world lost one of its guiding lights when Lou Reed died after a long-fought battle with liver disease. To commemorate his life and memory, I thought it only appropriate to highlight his earliest and most impactful work with the Velvet Underground. Though the Velvets became hardened road warriors during their short life in the latter portion of the late-1960s and early ’70s, the pickings are slim when it comes to live recordings. Among the most-compelling documents we have of their onstage acumen comes from this performance at a venue called The Gymnasium in New York City on April 30, 1967.

The highlight of the abbreviated, seven-song set, as it ever was, was the sprawling, twisted rendition of their immortal “Sister Ray.” Manic performances of “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Run, Run, Run,” are eye-popping in their own right, but it’s only on “Sister Ray” that you get the full sense of what the Velvets were capable of and the envelopes they were only too willing to push. For almost 20 minutes, Reed and company test the limits of what a “song” even is, as the music devolves further and further from a structure propped up by drawling verses into a gigantic, cacophony of depraved sound. If you wanna check out the entire concert, a recording was included as part of the band’s re-issued, deluxe version of White Light/White Heat.

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