It’s there, on the title track, that you can hear The Smiths reach a peak of brilliance that only a very select handful of artists ever even catch a glimpse of, let alone attain. Marr channels Lou Reed and Ron Asheton, Joyce and Rourke hammer the living shit out of their instruments, and Morrissey delivers the lyrical and vocal performance of a lifetime. “Past the pub that saps your body, and the church who’ll snatch your money/The queen is dead boys…” When later on the album he sings “And if they don’t believe us NOW, will they ever believe us?” it’s not self doubt; he’s bragging. Listen, he’s saying, look what we’ve fucking pulled off here. If you don’t get it, it’s your problem.
Yes, at its best, The Smiths’ third album aims for rock & roll greatness, and frequently hits the bullseye. It’s not the best album in the world ever – pound for pound it’s not even the best Smiths album – but its best bits are better than anyone else’s best bits. The problem, the thing that just keeps it from perfection, is its worst bits. Because listening to TQID is the rare, almost unique experience of hearing a band simultaneously reach their peak and then begin their decline in the space of the same album.
The creative tension that later destroyed the band kicks in here. On those early recordings it’s the Morrissey Show – the sexually ambiguous lyrics, the gladioli, the specs, all that flair. On Meat is Murder, Marr grows in confidence and starts competing, and on the likes of ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ he matches Moz punch for punch. He’s an arranger now, he’s not just a guitarist, and on TQID he wants his band to be up there not with Lloyd Cole and the Bunnymen, but the Stones, the Clash, the Pistols.
And those moments that genuinely aim for posterity achieve it with room to spare. The aforementioned title track for example. The jaw-dropping ‘I Know It’s Over’. The summery tale of literary one-upmanship that is ‘Cemetry Gates’. The urgent, prescient ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. The near-perfect ‘The Boy With the Thorn in His Side’. The actually perfect ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Noone hit these heights in the 80s, noone has hit them since, and you’ve got Marr to thank for that.
Virtuoso but rarely showy, everything he does is in the service of the song. Suggesting the Velvets’ ‘What Goes On’ in the title track’s epic coda (also present here in its full 7-minute glory). That beautiful guitar hook at the climax of ‘I Know It’s Over’. Every single fucking note of ‘The Boy With the Thorn in His Side’, and the way he gives as much rein as circumstances allow to his Chic obsession in the outro. And, most subtly of all, his work on ‘There Is a Light’ – as a guitarist he’s barely there, an occasional strum all that is required, but his synthesized strings take the song to heaven and leave it there.
Morrissey though, he’s not quite up to it this time round and as the album goes on it becomes clear that he has little left to say, and the creative tension between Marr wanting to be a legend and Morrissey just pulling back becomes apparent. That bathetic “You should hear me play piano” in the title track; the petty kitchen sink spitefulness of ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’ (few things are more boring than musicians moaning about the music industry); the risible ‘Vicar in a Tutu’; and, in a nutshell, ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’. One of Marr’s finest moments – honestly, it’s up there with ‘Headmaster Ritual’, ‘Boy With the Thorn’ and ‘Wonderful Woman’ as his best work – and Morrissey turns it into a Carry On sketch. “As Anthony said to Cleopatra, as he opened a crate of ale/Oooohhhhh I say!” Marr was apparently furious with Morrissey’s lyrics and understandably so. He’s shooting for the moon while Moz is watching Coronation Street, and you can almost literally hear the band start to unravel in the 40 or so minutes it takes to get from the title track to that damp squib of an ending.
Rhino’s lovely Deluxe Edition gives this fascinating document a nice crisp, punchy remastering, and comes with the original album demos which are worth the price of admission themselves for those bits that didn’t quite make it onto the final recording, such as a squawking trumpet bringing out the innate bluesiness of ‘Never Had Noone Ever’, and the false start of ‘Some Girls’ (the demo of which sounds Hatful of Hollow-era; a pity the lyrics don’t follow suit). The demo of ‘There Is a Light’ is, if such a thing is possible, even better than the album version and you really wonder why they bothered doing it again.
There are also some contemporaneous B-sides, the pick of which being the beautiful piano ballad ‘Asleep’ and the very telling ‘Rubber Ring’, a song dripping with Moz’s trademark paranoia – even at the height of his band’s success he’s imagining a time when they’ll be forgotten: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life/Yes, you’re older now and you’re a clever swine, but they were the only ones that ever stood by you.” It’s classic depression of course, that voice of doubt in your ear when you’re doing just fine, telling you that soon you’ll be the nobody you were before all this happened; and it explains why the band ceased to exist within a year.
The accompanying Live in Boston recording is not one of the band’s most essential bootlegs to be fair; Smiths diehards will have hard drives full of better live material than this. But anyone who thinks the band were fey or jangly should have a listen to the version of ‘The Queen is Dead’, which is snarling, feral, angry punk rock, or the last track, ‘I Know It’s Over’, which sounds absolutely huge, stadium-sized, begging for Freddie Mercury to cover it.
But what the hell. You already know The Queen is Dead, you’ve lived with it for years and you know it like you know your mum or your left knee. What I say isn’t going to change your mind. But listening to this lovely reminder of its frequent brilliance is both exhilarating, that music could ever be this damn special, and saddening, for the briefness of its flowering. There are those who’ll tell you that Johnny Marr has wasted his time working as a sideman since leaving The Smiths, to which I say, bollocks. He wrote and arranged the music on The Queen is Dead at the age of 23. 23!!! It’s a miracle he ever bothered doing anything else.