Twelfth grade was a time when, after I'd come across and finished obsessing over most classic rock bands, I was starting to feel a little exasperated, having been used to discovering a new band every half hour. Too familiar with the 60s and 70s, irritated by the 80s zeitgeists, and worn out by the 90s and 2000s, I suddenly came across a small brand of awkward stalwarts from Britain - the 80s alternative bands. While Jesus And Mary Chain, The Cure, and R.E.M hit me pretty hard, it was The Smiths that led the cultural mob awakening in my head.
The first album I heard was Queen Is Dead, and three years and more than fifty band obsessions later, it’s still one of my most treasured indie albums. It released in 1986, a year after the famous Live Aid Concert, a concert so highly popular and radio friendly, that everyone had all but forgotten that music can also have functions in dissent - quite a thing too, since this was also the birthplace of The Sex Pistols. As Jon Savage put it, in his reflections on those times, in an article for The Guardian:
“Acid house was still underground, while the Live Aid effect had smeared middle-brow values all over rock music. There was surprisingly little dissidence expressed in popular culture, as the onset of CD software inaugurated a wave of retro marketing.”
The album sets off with the title track, a snarky protest against monarchy, and an amused account of the rift between the Queen and her subjects. It’s also a perfect introduction to the album - a song that’s as political as can be, but also interspersed with subtle personal reflections. The Smiths had already made a reputation for being anti-monarchy, and left wing sympathizers, and in Queen Is Dead, they’re at their graceful best, skipping the blunt, ferocious road that Sex Pistols took in their famous rant God Save The Queen, but not hitting any less hard. The song features a sample of ‘Take Me Back To Blighty - an old popular song from 1926 that laments about homesickness and a longing to return to Britain - and soon interrupts it with feedback and loud drum beats, and mocking lyrics. As Morrissey snarkily sings with his heavy baritone:
"..Past the pub who saps your body
And the church who'll snatch your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it's so lonely on a limb
Past the pub that wrecks your body
And the church, all they want is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it's so lonely on a limb"
"Fame, fame, fatal fame
It can play hideous tricks on the brain
But still I'd rather be famous
Than righteous or holy, any day
Any day, any day
But sometimes I'd feel more fulfilled
Making Christmas cards with the mentally ill
I want to live and I want to love
I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of"
After two draining emotional breakdowns, Morrissey decides that a change in atmosphere is much needed, as he starts ‘Cemetry Gates’ by singing, “A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetry gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side/While Wilde is on mine,” poking fun at his almost constant melancholic moods, by calling a day full of sun ‘dreaded.’ The wordplay in the next few lines is evident, and is also an innovative way of providing a setting for the two people in question: Morrissey, being the obvious cynic, is more inclined to Oscar Wilde, and the other, romantic and more optimistic about life, on the side of late Romantic poets Keats and Yeats. The song also provides an interesting message on plagiarism. In the second verse, Morrissey sings:
"You say : “Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn
And you claim these words as your own
But I've read well, and I've heard them said
A hundred times (maybe less, maybe more)
If you must write prose/poem
The words you use should be your own
Don't plagiarise or take "on loan"
The irony of this is, in the chorus, Morrissey himself borrows lines from the 1942 film “The Man Who Came To Dinner,’ when he sings:
"All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves, and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived
And then they died
It seems so unfair
I want to cry"
And now for one of my favorite The Smiths tracks, ‘ The Boy With The Thorn In His Side.’ Morrissey’s been targeted by the media for a long time, because of his confused sexuality (The Smiths have songs that are mostly gender neutral, and are known to prefer homoerotic themes), his comments, and lyrics. In ‘Boy With The Thorn In His Side,’ he softly addresses that, claiming that his critics will find a ‘murderous’ desire for love, if they look beyond the hatred that they always seem to find reflected on his face. Though Morrissey sings, “How can they look into my eyes and still they don’t believe us,” earlier in the song, he changes the ‘my’ and ‘me’ to ‘our’ and ‘us,' singing in plural - he knows he’s not the only one suffering. It’s a song about having problems; being misunderstood, having something to say or desire, and having it read off of your face, without being allowed the chance to say it yourself. The soft vocals, along with the arrangement is perfect, and The Smiths once again prove their maestro status using minor chords.
The seventh track of the album, 'Vicar In A Tutu,’ is an underrated track that’s only fault was to be included in an album of instant musical classics. It tells a tale of a thief, who while stealing from the church, notices the vicar wearing a tutu. He finds the sight ‘blistering,’ the irony of which is amusing: he was stealing and committing a crime as he made this observation on another person. As Morrissey sings, “He's not strange/He just wants to live his life this way,” the message is clear: this is a celebration of all things different. It’s one of those songs that need to be out there, celebrating sexual liberation, and freedom to do, wear and say whatever you feel like, regardless of your gender. The slow drum-led rockabilly chords, and the under-produced mixing of the song makes it a raw three minute escape for the listener. The fact that it’s a vicar, is a below the belt hit at the church - we all know of its opinion on homosexuality and its horror - and Morrissey doesn’t just stop there; he takes a suggestive hit at the church’s money making schemes when he sings, “As Rose collects the money in a canister/Who comes sliding down the bannister ?” - a theme we’ve seen before in this album, when Morrissey sang “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who'll snatch your money,” in the title track.
And we’re here.
We’ve arrived at probably the most popular Smiths song ever, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.’ Almost everyone’s heard this song somewhere(Courtesy: 500 Days Of Summer, usually). It’s THE Smiths anthem, and one of the most powerful celebrations of the fearlessness that the youth can display, in spite of heavy alienation. It’s a shoutout to all those who sit in their homes, overcome with social anxiety, but still venture out; maybe once or twice, surprising even themselves with this constant source of hope and wonder that keeps them going. And who better to sing of this than Morrissey? After everything he’s sung about in this album, political scander, depression, liberation, it all culminates to this - a celebration of life. As he sings, “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die,” you can tell that this is much more than just a wish to die beside one’s muse: It’s the welcoming of whatever may happen, because in the end, we’re all in an adventure here. What they don’t tell you is that an adventure can be anything, you can sit at home for fifty years, and then maybe venture out to water your plants one day, and there you have it. That’s your adventure. And we all have our own. There is a light that never goes out.
If I ever have my own ‘Perks Of Being A Wallflower’ moment, this is the song that I’d want to bellow at the top of my lungs, standing on a moving car with my arms spread out. Because this feeling of hope, and the light it bears, is indeed, infinite.
This album will always be one of my favorites no matter how old I may be.
Some bands are just bigger than others.
(YES I WENT THERE.)