Time is deceptive when you’re young. It’s counted incorrectly by mischievous clocks, so that a 10-minute wait for a henna-haired girl outside a cinema turns into months, and a summer job in a windowless stockroom lasts a decade. The hiatus preceding the 1986 release of The Smiths’ third studio album, The Queen Is Dead, was hardly Godot-esque, but it was not without anxiety. The ever-prolific group seemed to vanish from the map at the halfway point of 1985 – later to resurface on a nine-day tour of Scotland – giving their gigography, in hindsight, the look of a geographical conjuring trick. June 29: Irvine, California. September 22: Irvine again, this time in Ayrshire.
From reading Johnny Rogan’s The Severed Alliance and Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life, we know that The Queen Is Dead was born in a period of intense creativity and self-challenge, but that outside pressures were never far away. Mistrustful of Rough Trade, and with no manager to advise or insulate them, Morrissey and Johnny Marr, even as songs like “Frankly, Mr Shankly” and “I Know It’s Over” were being recorded, had to attend to The Smiths’ day-to-day business affairs, whether that meant holding preliminary talks about a move to EMI or – as Marr exasperatedly recalled in Set The Boy Free – fielding angry phone calls from Salford Van Hire when an invoice wasn’t paid.
Small wonder that, in amongst its loin-girding noise and withering attacks on the royals, the album’s title track can be interpreted as a long, desperate plea for peace and quiet. It’s not easy being Morrissey on The Queen Is Dead: just about every building he enters seeks to deplete him in some way. The vivid journey that follows, from the graveyard to the church pulpit to the “darkened underpass” where the heart seems to accelerate and suddenly freeze, is anything but serene. In its own way, it’s an odyssey as tragicomic and as emotional as Johnny Fletcher’s footslog around London in Naked. But the angst (and at times desolation) in Morrissey’s language was offset, as always, by the warmth of his voice and the heavenly guitars of Marr. The Queen Is Dead – despite threats of a Rough Trade injunction to scupper its release – had an urgent desire to live, not die. The force of it was undeniable. At the end of ’86, it was voted Album Of The Year. Today, it’s often to be found in the Top 5, if not higher, when magazines compile their Greatest Albums Of All Time.
Promised as long ago as 2006, a deluxe reissue of The Queen Is Dead has become almost as much of a palaver as the original release was in the first place. It emerges finally in a 3CD/1DVD format, remastered and repackaged, four months after its 31st anniversary. Included are 13 demos and B-sides, together with a 13-song concert (with Craig Gannon on second guitar) from the ensuing American tour. As the number 13 seems to be a recurring pattern in the reissue, the DVD contains The Queen Is Dead: A Film By Derek Jarman – a 13-minute collection of impressionistic videos in which The Smiths don’t appear once. Perhaps the most impartial thing you could say about Jarman’s film, apart from the fact that it’s familiar to every Smiths fan in the world by now, is that it serves as an eternal reminder that Morrissey’s way of dealing with mid-’80s MTV culture was not to deal with it. But when those 13 minutes are up, there’s no further video, TV footage or live performance on the DVD. Unlucky for some.
A tidal wave of sound and fury, the title track began with the actress Cicely Courtneidge bellowing an old music hall song, “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty”, in Bryan Forbes’ 1962 film The L-Shaped Room. It’s often forgotten that The Queen Is Dead, while hailed in certain quarters as the quintessential indie album, starts not with jangling guitars but with two samples – an imprint of Courtneidge’s voice and a loop of Mike Joyce hammering out a fierce tattoo on his tom-toms. The lead-off track on the second disc – which attempts a recreation of The Queen Is Dead in demo form – is a thunderous, seven-minute pre-edit of the title track with Courtneidge removed (or not yet inserted) and is a remarkable onslaught indeed.
The demo-as-alternative-album concept falters after a while, omitting “Vicar In A Tutu” and tinkering with the sequence to end on an early take of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Rather randomly, there’s a demo of “Never Had No One Ever” featuring the bizarre addition of a BBC trumpet player, but there’s no room for the trumpet version of “Frankly, Mr Shankly” that was recorded the same day. Not as generous with its outtakes as a leaked CD-R suggested Rhino’s 20th-anniversary edition in 2006 would have been (it was mysteriously cancelled), the inevitable round-up of B-sides does at least – and this is a big plus – reunite “Rubber Ring” and “Asleep” in an unbroken segue, exactly as they appeared on the 12-inch single of “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”. As Marr has noted, that segue – a delicate composite of a howling wind, a piano chord and a woman’s voice delivering a message from the dead – is quite spectacular.
Remastered in Los Angeles by Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot, a post-production duo who work with Morrissey on his solo albums, The Queen Is Dead now moves to Mansfield, a town in Massachusetts, for the 64 minutes of live Smiths that comprise Disc Three. The August 1986 concert, one of many on the US tour to be recorded by sound engineer Grant Showbiz, has been available to hear in the past (on the bootlegs So This Is America and Live In The USA) but the sound quality here easily overrides those. The Smiths open with a powerful, statement-of-intent version of “How Soon Is Now?”, a difficult song to duplicate live, and sound at once energised by its gremlin-free success. They give an airing to a new song, “Is It Really So Strange?”, which they wouldn’t release for another eight months (as the B-side of “Sheila Take A Bow”). The Mansfield gig is a worthwhile addition to the official catalogue, though collectors will notice that six of the 19 songs played that night are not included.
Los Angeles? Massachusetts? If we think for a moment about the place The Queen Is Dead occupies in 20th-century British culture, to say nothing of its importance to the north of England in the second term of Thatcherism – all that Salford iconography; all those “dole age” problems – a slight sense of dismay might be felt as the beloved album begins to slip over the horizon. In her new guise, this Queen is very much a transatlantic project, a reissue with a dual-nationality passport. She left the streets of Manchester a long, long time ago. Such is progress; she sprouts and gleams like a regenerated part of Salford.
Morrissey never did break into the Palace. It seems unlikely he’ll be back for a knighthood. The Queen remains stubbornly alive, expecting another great-grandchild, and Blighty gets ready to hang out the bunting again. The songs on The Queen Is Dead now, shockingly, speak to us from a time that’s closer to Cicely Courtneidge in The L-Shaped Room than it is to us.
The December 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Robert Plant on the cover. Plant and his band have also compiled our free CD, which includes tracks by Bert Jansch, Daniel Lanois, Patty Griffin, Thee Oh Sees and more. Elsewhere in the issue, we remember Tom Petty and there are new interviews with REM, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bootsy Collins, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Ronnie Spector. We review Morrissey, Sharon Jones, Mavis Staples, Hüsker Dü, Tim Buckley and Talk Talk and much more.