I was absolutely convinced that Rob had brought another Smiths album at some point (specifically, I thought, Strangeways Here We Come), but as soon as I pulled this out of my little knapsack I was informed that I was wrong, and that in fact it was Graham, who had played their eponymous debut. Serves me right for not researching.
But whatever; it still meant that I was OK to play The Queen Is Dead, which is my favourite Smiths record, if only by virtue of the fact that it was the first one I heard. Too young to be into them at the time (I’d just turned 7 when it came out, and was far more interested in Lego, I imagine, than Mancunian miserablism), I didn’t own a copy of this until I was 19 or 20 and at university.
One of the things that first struck me about The Queen Is Dead, and by extension The Smiths, given that I’d only heard a handful of tunes by them beforehand, was how funny they were. In the 90s when I was getting into music for the first time they were talked about as being impossibly dour and miserable, and despite the fact that I was probably at the height of my own personal miserablism during university, it was the theatricality and wit of Morrissey’s lyrics and delivery, rather than their angst-soaked pain, that appealed most.
Actually it was the melodrama that got me first, and I guess melodrama is the interface of angst and wit. The opening lines of “I Know It’s Over” – “oh mother I can feel the soil falling over my head” – so overwrought and adolescent and reaching, signified a self-awareness that I was only just becoming able to deal with, but which felt profound in its mocking of profundity, if that makes sense. There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an over-earnest young man convinced of the import of his own, solipsistic emotional turmoil, and Morrissey at his best managed to both acknowledge and express that emotional turmoil and the ridiculousness at the same time. Did he know he was doing this? The answer, of course, doesn’t actually matter, but I doubt it was an accident. (Of course, as I became more familiar with The Smiths, I realised that this sense of humour had always been a key part of their genome, and that the people who’d claimed they were nothing but miserable were missing the point entirely.)
There’s a great story about how Johnny Marr, in the studio during the day with Joyce and Rourke, wrote and recorded what he considered to be one of his most beautiful tunes – a graceful, weaving, floating melody with the lightest of touches – and that he returned to the studio the next day to find that overnight Morrissey had written the lyrics, recorded the vocal, and called it, in an act of near blasphemy, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, royally pissing Marr off in the process.
The thing is, of course, that the reason The Smiths are so good, is precisely because of that awkward dynamic between Morrissey and Marr; the awkwardness, the cool, the humour, the miserablism all jumbled up together in a confusing but logical mix.
Graham listened: As we are at round 78, its getting difficult to remember why we brought some albums years ago. As I recall I was tasked with bringing something from 1984, which is why I brought the debut. But there is no debate in my mind about which is the better album. Though I’ve not played this for years I was reaching for my black polo neck and daffodils within seconds. Every lyric and riff came flooding back, as to me this will always be the ‘sound’ of The Smiths.
Rob listened: I was that miserable Mancunian and although I found them plenty funny, it was the mordant self-pity that got to me first. I found that completely over-powered and, to a great extent, I inhaled it, internalised it and built a sense of identity around it. Lots of us did. Due to age-constraints, The Queen Is Dead is the first Smiths album I heard (I was 15 when it came out and Andrew Nuttall, the class Cramps fan, lent me the record so I could tape it. Come to think of it, this might have been the first time anyone ever lent me a record…). And so, for me, it’s still the heartbeat of this most precious band. I love the luscious sound of ‘Meat Is Murder’, and that’s a record that arguably changed my life more than this one. I adore the spartan energy and somehow modern vintage sound of ‘Hatful of Hollow’, the urgent sound of four men inventing and inhabiting a world before your eyes. The beautiful shriek of ‘The Smiths’ will never lose it’s lustre and, although I never brought it to Record Club, ‘Strangeways…’ is a fine, fine record too. But this one, this is the bomb that started the war.
Tom listened: I can’t recall the circumstances now but I do remember buying The Queen Is Dead for my wife, Karen, thinking that she was a big fan. Having handed it over excitedly, she immediately took the wind out my sails by informing me that it didn’t have any of The Smiths songs she liked on it. As I was far from being a fan myself, it sat in a glove compartment for a number of years unlistened to and unloved.
That was until Graham played us The Smiths at record club and I realised that maybe, having hung on for 20 odd years, my aversion to Morrissey and co was cutting off my nose to spite my face. So I dug out The Queen Is Dead, dusted it off, and actually played the thing. And, of course, it is pretty magnificent. What’s more, now even Karen admits that, perhaps, the songs included on it are just as good, if not better, as the ones she cherishes so much from the group’s first flush of success. The icing on the cake is the fact that both the children love it, Tess for the stately majesty and doomed romanticism of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out…and Kit because it has the line ‘flatulent pain in the arse’ included.