You might be able to recite every lyric off by heart, but how well do you really know ‘The Queen is Dead’? Did you know, for example, that the Stones, The Stooges and spliffs all helped shape its sound? Or that Linda McCartney and a bald trumpeter nearly joined the group? The Smiths themselves talk us through their masterpiece…
The Queen is Dead
Searing, six-minute opener that splits venom at the monarchy.
Johnny Marr (guitar): “I had an idea to do a song that had the aggression of the Detroit garage bands, ‘cos I’m such a Stooges fan. And it’s influenced by the Velvets too- it’s The Smiths does The Stooges does The Velvet Underground. ‘VU’ [compilation of Velvet Underground outtakes, released in 1985] had just been released, so there’s a little not to ‘I Can’t Stand It’ in there. We chopped a couple of minutes off the song in the end. The long version felt more like us running a marathon, then doing a lap of honour!”
Andy Rourke (bass): “Me, Mike and Johnny were jamming on this heavy riff – we played it solidly for about 20 minutes, looking at each other thinking, ‘We’ve really got something here.’ Johnny made me feel good about it; said it was one of the best basslines he’d ever heard, so my head was kind of swelling through the roof. Then, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Morrissey comes and puts his lyrics over the top.”
Stephen Street (engineer): “It was obvious they were special, and they were a really hard-working band. I know there were rumours at the time flying around about Andy and his drug addiction, but to be honest, in the studio I never saw any of that. And his bass playing on the album is really fine, especially on this track.”
Morrissey: “I didn’t want to attack the monarchy in a sort of beer monster way. But I found, as time goes by, this happiness we had slowly slips away and is replaced by something that is wholly grey and wholly saddening. The very idea of the monarchy and the Queen of England is being reinforced and made to seem more useful than it really is.”
‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’
Side-splitting music hall, allegedly about Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis.
Andy: “It’s a bit oom-pah! But Moz’s performance made it gel and make sense. It’s humorous. I heard the poetry bit was about Geoff Travis, and it was like taking the piss out of the headmaster. Moz put his hand in the fire.”
Morrissey: “I was reaching for the rubber, but I thought, ‘Well no, I do want to complain, I do want to moan.’ Complaining is so unmanly, which is why I do it so well!”
Mike: “It was easy to record and play. The thing is, we’d play anything: any type of music. Our minds were always open – there’s even a bootleg of us doing ‘Purple Haze’ at a soundcheck.”
Johnny: “Part of being in the band is that we all watched ‘60’s ‘kitchen sink’ movies every night. You were only just able to buy them on VHS – that was a novel thing then. Being in The Smiths was half being a rock’n’roll band, and half being a ‘60’s movie. We completely drenched ourselves in those influences, and this song really has that atmosphere to it. Not many people know this, but Morrissey wrote a postcard to Linda McCartney asking her to play piano on it. She said no, she couldn’t do it, but we would have loved for her to do so because we were big fans of hers.”
‘I Know It’s Over’
Morrissey’s lyric about being cast aside for a “loutish lover” melted hearts.
Johnny: “I’d been working on the songs all the time, and then Morrissey and I would get together and I’d be sitting with a Walkman between my knees. We’d be literally a foot away from each other’s faces. I’d just go, ‘I’ve got this one,’ and I’d play it from start to finish and then we’d both hold our breath ‘til it was finished, and then we’d breathe out and I’d go ‘I’ve got this one’ and I’d hit the record button and we’d both breathe in! Morrissey would come up with the lyrics in a couple of days.”
Andy: “Dark and deep – we did it with the lights turned down low, everybody getting into it. There was beer and whatever else – lots of spliff going down!”
Stephen: “We tried a trumpet player on this, on the refrain at the end. I thought it was pretty cool, but I think Morrissey felt uncomfortable at the time, having someone on the record who wasn’t in The Smiths. I liked it – the trumpet sounded quite sad. I have a cassette – you never know, one day it might be on a box set.”
Mike: “The trumpet player started floating some ideas around – he did a Shirley Bassey kind of flourish at the end. It was hilarious: one of the funniest things ever. Moz was just pissing himself. He was bald, had haif on either side – just missing the tie that spins round. Lovely fella.”
‘Never Had No One Ever’
Murky guitars provide the backing to Moz at his most miserable.
Johnny: “I was trying to do something that had the atmosphere of being in the bedroom of my parents’ house when I was 16, listening to ‘Raw Power’ by the Stooges. The thing I liked about ‘Raw Power’ was it was beautiful and dark at the same time, which is what we were trying to get on ‘The Queen Is Dead’.”
Andy: “Morrissey did the lyrics late at night. He usually did them in the morning. There’s a bit where you hear him laughing at the end. I think he’d had a couple of shandies!”
Moz: “It was about the frustration that I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn’t feel easy walking around the streets on which I’d been born, where all my family had lived – they’re originally from Ireland but had been there since the ‘50s. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt, ‘This is my patch.’ I could never walk easily.”
Plagiarists receive the sharp lash of the Morrissey tongue, over a deceptively jaunty pop backing.
Johnny: “I did this in my kitchen with Morrissey. When I played it I wasn’t sure about it – but that’s one example of how a partnership works. Because Morrissey loved it, and it came so effortlessly and easy. I was just about to bin it.”
Stephen: “It’s all the best elements of The Smiths. And what a wonderful vocal and lyric. It’s a nice bit of blessed relief. It’s delicate, but it’s still got power.”
Mike: “The mis-spelling? I have the same problem with sincerely!”
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’
Joan of Arc and her melting Walkman star in the record’s lead single.
Mike: “What a fantastic title – one of Mozzer’s better ones. And with this song, you can see why he made journalists cream their pants. Listen to the lyrical content. He was a one-off.”
Johnny: “It’s a great song to play live. It’s as close as getting to the sound of my heroes as we came; the early Rolling Stones. There’s no other single like it it’s a good example of our quirkiness.”
‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’
Rarely has Moz sounded more poetic, crooning about young love for another classic Smiths single.
Johnny: “When we did it I was elated. We did this in a little 16-track demo studio in Manchester, which proves the point you don’t need a lot of technology to do something pretty good. It’s the song and the emotion inside it that matters.”
Stephen: “Morrissey’s yodelling on this is superb, it’s beautiful. And it’s all him. We did extra work back in London – the single version is different. The album’s got strings; extra guitar. The single was the original mix. And there’s a bit of marimba on it, on the verses.”
‘Vicar In A Tutu’
More nods to music hall, this time about a cross-dressing clergyman.
Johnny: “We had so many big songs, we thought it would be OK to come up with a couple of things that were a little more throwaway. It’s not one of my favourites but it was a laugh. It made a change from trying to change the fucking world.”
Andy: “Two oom-pahs on one album! If anyone else was playing it, they’d get laughed off stage, but we made it sound great. You can’t imagine Duran Duran playing something like that, can you?”
Stephen: “It gave the album depth, a comic character song. It shows Morrissey’s sense of humour.”
‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’
The masterpiece. Made the idea of getting flattened by a double-decker seem terribly romantic.
Johnny: “The intro’s nicked from the The Rolling Stones covering Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitchhike’ [from ‘Out Of Our Heads LP’]. Bit of a convoluted in-joke. The writing and recording poured out. We only played it a few times, no-one had much to say – there’s serenity after you’ve done something like that. We knew we’d done something pretty special.”
Mike: “When we recorded it, I thought it was beautiful, but it’s so perfect it kind of washed over me for a while. The time, sound, middle-eight can’t be bettered.”
Stephen: “It’s very emotive, a stunning performance. It was a great arrangement by Johnny. He really knew that Morrissey had delivered so he pulled out all the stops. Up ‘til then he had been wary of using keyboards, but we wanted something different. He tried all these string ideas, then the cello line, and the flute thing. It sounded a little dry and uninspiring so he put a delay on it to make it float – the result is sublime.”
‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’
Throwaway finale, designed solely to generate a smirk.
Andy: “I think this has a great atmosphere. I think the fading intro’s a little nod to ‘Hand In Glove.’”
Stephen: “It was just one of those tracks that came in and it didn’t feel like it was that interesting – I had this idea to make it sound distant and ambient: far and near. We did it on the mix and the guys liked it, so it stayed. It starts wet, fades away, and then comes back in again dry.”
Moz: “’Some Girls…’ is just taking it down to the basic absurdity of recognising the contours of one’s body.”
Johnny: “It’s the only guitar part I still play on the guitar. Don’t play my old tunes round my house, but if I’m trying out guitars I’ll play it.”