If you take a look at the lineage of rock music in the UK, there is a clear cut series of actions and re-actions that intertwine seamlessly with what was going on across the pond (the other direction, of course.) Remember, the British Invasion only exists from the American perspective; the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Dave Clark Five were the response to the groundwork laid out by blues legends (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson) and rock and roll’s forefathers (Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly.) The ante was instantly upped as this sort of ping pong match emerged between the British Invasion acts and artists such as Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and the crew at Motown in the USA. Fast forward through the 60s and into the 70s and you can see rock getting heavier (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath,) more progressive (Genesis, Pink Floyd,) and more glamorous (David Bowie, Queen,) while America always seemed to have some sort of answer to everything. It really wasn’t until after punk music declared “Anarchy In The UK” that the idiomatic pond began to actually feel like an ocean. In America (specifically New York,) you had the Ramones and Television, while in the UK (specifically London,) you had the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The music was like a bomb dropped on rock music, and the aftermath was what really ended up mattering.
“New Wave” and “Post-Punk” are far more descriptions of eras than they are actual genres themselves. There are an infinite number of artists and bands I could rattle off right now that would exemplify the diversity in the movement, as well as the geographic distinctions, but to put it quite simply, everything became fair game across the board. It’s not that punk music died (clearly it is still thriving today,) but it had obliterated so much of the “norm” in rock that when musicians came to pick up the pieces, the possibilities were endless. While I could never belittle the countless American acts to have triumphed post-punk, I think it’s a fair statement that the UK really owned the new wave era and all of its many subsets. Quite frankly, the British managed to capture and utilize the lightning bolt that was punk while it managed to fall by the wayside in America. UK-based indie labels such as Factory and Rough Trade allowed their acts (at least enough) artistic freedom to really experiment and flourish, and the output was astonishing. While some of the music (The Police, Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure) was able to penetrate the American charts, a bulk of the British post-punk era remained on home turf, leaving only American critics and pre-hipsters to bask in its glory. This led to a proper divide going forward when grunge and hip hop dominated in America and the UK responded with Britpop (Blur, Oasis, Pulp) and a lineup of rock that was so exclusively and pridefully British. Outside of a few bands, like Coldplay, things have never really been the same.
Every now and then a band comes along that is so cosmically timed that it’s almost hard to imagine their existence actually being real. The Smiths are one such band. The group was comprised of four lads from Manchester, [Steven Patrick] Morrissey (vocals,) Johnny Marr (guitar,) Andy Rourke (bass,) and Mike Joyce (drums,) whom in their tenure of about half a decade released four studio albums, 3 might-as-well-have-been-albums compilations, and 18 singles (excluding re-issues and post-breakup releases.) Despite their short time together, the Smiths are considered one of the most influential indie bands, not just of the 80s and not just from the UK, but ever. The group emerged at a time when things were on the cusp of changing. Synthpop was already simultaneously becoming an art form and a joke, Michael Jackson was unleashing Thriller on the world, Madonna was making her debut, U2 was growing at a rapid pace, and hip hop was becoming more and more prominent in the mainstream. The Smiths had nothing to do with any of that, but were instead crafting a concurrent shift on an indie level. Critics the world over will agree that the band was just impossible to ignore. Not only were Joyce and Rourke one of the tightest and most talented rhythm sections rock has ever seen, but Marr’s guitar sound was unique and exciting, and Morrissey’s unsettling vocals acted as a vessel for his audacious poetic genius. There was a boldness and arrogance heard in them right from the beginning, but single after single proved they could put their money where their mouth was. It’s not that the group were unknowns, either. They built up a massive legion of faithful followers that became known for their devout affection and concert antics like bum-rushing the stage.
It’s impossible for me to discuss the Smiths’ career in any way other than hindsight as I was not even alive during their time together, but looking back, I can only imagine what kind of expectations were looming over them by the time they released their third studio album in 1986, The Queen Is Dead. Their eponymous debut and sophomoric Meat Is Murder are absolute masterpieces that had already earned them “hero status” to music aficionados. Between ’84 and ’87, the group released an album a year, each one capturing their distinctive sound, elaborating on it, and creating a new context for it. Any song of theirs you pick out of thin air is easy to identify as “Smiths,” but equally as easy to identify which album or era it came from. Despite how impeccable their first two and last (Strangeways, Here We Come) are, The Queen Is Dead is on a plateau all on its own. While most critics can agree that on an average list of “The Greatest Albums Of All Time,” at least any accurate one, there are destined to be at least 2-3 appearances from the Smiths, every one is going to show Queen as their best. However, the question isn’t so much about why the album is their best, but why the album is the best. As far as British albums go, there is no question in my mind that The Queen Is Dead is the greatest to ever exist.
Now, the context of “British Album” is a little more complex than just being made by a band from Great Britain. I wouldn’t ever call Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a British album, per say. Yes, the Beatles were British, but that album is owned by the world. Outside of a few geographic references, it relates no more to someone sitting on a bench in Hyde Park than it does for someone sitting on a bench in Central Park. I would make the same argument for the universality of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, while I would easily consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run to be a distinctly “American Album.” The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead is through to the core a British album. It isn’t that someone from outside of the country can’t understand it or enjoy it (take me, for example,) or even that every song discusses life in England, because it doesn’t, but there is a sense of ownership to the record. The Smiths own that they are indeed British, and the country, in turn, owns the album. Only passionate music fans throughout the rest of the world got it at the time, where as it was embraced in the UK. Time and technology have created the opportunity for it to gain more international notoriety; the Smiths are far bigger now in the US than they were in the ’80s. However, simply being a distinctive British album doesn’t justify it being the greatest ever. It all comes down to the music.
The Queen Is Dead is an intricate collection of masterpieces. At the time, it only yielded two singles, “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” (“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” wasn’t released until five years after the group’s split,) but every single track is a standout. The band has an audible confidence about them that doesn’t read as arrogant as much as it does poised and eager. The fact that all of the members are rooted in punk music comes shining through in a big way, especially on the title track. Johnny Marr’s searing guitar drives even the simplest of songs (“Cemetry Gates,” “Never Has No One Ever,”) while Morrissey hits a new stride as a lyricist, toying with emotions and beliefs while boldly wearing his heart on his sleeve. From the deepest and most desolate melancholy (“I Know It’s Over”) to the satirical and down-right funny (“Vicar In A Tutu,”) there is such a range of emotion and depth that very few bands manage to capture so effortlessly and consistently. The slightest nuances, such as the false intro on the closer “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” or vocal effects on “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” have the biggest impact to the overall effect of the album. Not to mention, the songs are deliriously catchy, despite so few of them actually following a verse-chorus structure, yet it, from starts to finish, feels like a triumphant indie record. There has never been another British band on the planet that has gathered up such a large, passionate following while still making music that critics could all agree is superb, and the general public was unable to fully latch on to.
There just simply isn’t another British album that has embodied the momentousness and timelessness of The Queen Is Dead. Musicians today will cite it as a major influence, yet no one has ever really managed to outdo it. If you dissect a song like “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” it’s easy to see that there is so much more there than an anthem, there’s genius. The structure of it, the progression, the lyrics, the production… it’s all just magical. The album refused to settle into what post punk was settling into at the time; it was becoming far too accessible and contrived. The group were pioneers of the new era, but they were one of the few to see it through. It’s not that international commerciality is a bad thing, and hey, the Smiths still had top-20 singles in the UK, but there was a relentlessness and willingness to just make fantastic music and say what was on their minds that makes them so incredible. No other British album, not even The Stone Roses’ self-titled, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe or Blur’s Parklife, could truly claim to simply be better than The Queen Is Dead. In the context of what was happening with music at the time, it’s astonishing that this record even exists. It is, far and away, the Greatest British Album of All Time.
If you’ve never heard it before, please do yourself a favor and give it a listen. I promise it will change your life.