Last Friday saw the reissue of the fantastic 1986 album by the Smiths, The Queen Is Dead. The expanded package includes a lovely remaster of the album itself, with the addition of numerous demos from that era, single b-sides, and a live performance at Great Woods in Mansfield MA (of course mislabeled as “Boston”, as is normal for that venue). The cd package also includes a dvd of the Derek Jarman mini-film, as well as a hi-fidelity remaster of the album.
The Queen Is Dead became my favorite Smiths album soon after I picked it up, which, if I recall, was not that long after I ordered their final album from Columbia House. It’s their most solid and consistent album that’s not a singles compilation, in my opinion. While some love the brutalism of Meat Is Murder or the doom of the debut (or the poppiness of Strangeways, Here We Come, for that matter), the consensus is usually that TQID is their best moment. The songs are tight, exciting, and playful. Johnny Marr’s guitar work here is top notch, and Morrissey is clearly having fun being the smartass intellectual lyricist.
I almost always gravitate to this album over their others. While I love nearly all their work, this one is the most positive and uplifting, the most fun to listen to, even with the one-two punch downers of “I Know It’s Over” (mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head…) and “Never Had No One Ever” (I had a really bad dream / It lasted twenty years, seven months, and twenty seven days…). They’re balanced by the silliness of “Frankly Mr Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu”. The lead title track is an amazing kick-ass jam and is one of their hardest, loudest tracks they ever committed to tape. [The reissue offers a ‘full version’ that goes on for nearly a minute longer.]
If you’re a passing fan of the band, I do suggest picking up this reissue; its remaster provides the album with a much fuller, warmer sound (the original mix suffered from too much treble and loudness, at least in how I’ve heard it). I’m also happy that they provided us with the original twelve-inch crossfade of the two b-sides “Rubber Ring” and “Asleep”, which makes the two songs connect in a very Abbey Road medley sort of way.
It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date. When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.
But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.
First, we had a newbie: Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.
We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…
I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.
Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.
“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.
And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.
The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast. Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives. Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart. Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.
Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important. They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.
The ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ single, released 24 Aug 1984. British pop perfection.
One of the most common things I hear from many British bands in interviews is how surprised they often are when they’re told of their success in America. I mean, as a writer, I get it; once your art is out there, you only see the response of those who actually connect with you, but you have no idea of the bigger picture. Quite often, the musicians will respond with a bit of embarrassed surprise that they had no idea how inspiring or influential they are or were. They’ve only seen it from their point of view as a working, touring musician. They see the audience and maybe the sales numbers, but that’s about it.
I’m going to be seeing a conversation with Johnny Marr (guitarist extraordinaire of the Smiths and solo, natch) at the Jewish Community Center here in town tonight, and of course I’m trying to think of a good question to ask if there’s a Q & A at the end of the talk. My first thought, of course, was ‘How does it feel to have written one of the most recognized, beloved, and imitated riffs of the 80s?’ but that seems a bit silly. On the other side of the spectrum I could go full-on Matt Pinfield and ask about The Smiths being an insanely influential band on US college radio in the 80s. Or I could just ask him how he tunes his guitars because I can’t figure out how the hell he plays half his licks.
I paid a little extra for my ticket so I get his new autobiography, Set the Boy Free, as well. And perhaps I may get it signed if he’s going to be doing so.
Last time I did this was a few years back when I saw Peter Hook (bassist of Joy Division and New Order) at the same place. I ended up not asking any dorky questions, but I did get to tell him his playing style was deeply influential in my own over the years. [He followed that up with a big smile and asked if I was currently in a band! Come to find out he’s just as big a music geek as I am and loves meeting other musicians of all levels.]