Song of the Day #363: ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’ – The Smiths

queendead1986 saw the release of The Smiths’ third studio album, and their bona fide masterpiece, The Queen is Dead. Not only is this my favorite Smiths album but it’s a contender for my list of top ten favorite albums.

But my first memory of The Queen is Dead has nothing to do with the music. Rather, it’s of a girl in my tenth grade biology class who often wore a white shirt with this album cover on it. K___ was one of those quiet, pretty, smart girls who didn’t get much attention in high school but probably went on to fame and fortune. (Actually, I friended her on Facebook and she now works at the Library of Congress.)

I always wondered about the music that an intriguing girl like K___ would celebrate on a shirt but it wasn’t until a few years later that I finally heard The Queen is Dead. By then I had a preconceived notion of The Smiths — namely, that they were a morose and depressing band who wrote about misery and probably sounded miserable in the process.

But I was in for a surprise. The music was energetic, the lyrics surprisingly witty. This band didn’t sound miserable, they sounded brilliantly alive. I kicked myself even harder for not trying to get to know K___ better.

The album kicks off with a pub singalong of an old Irish ditty, ‘Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty,’ before a whistle sounds and Mike Joyce jumps into the frantic drum solo that opens the title song. Then comes Johnny Marr’s guitar and finally Morrissey, who rips through a blisteringly funny attack on the British monarchy (and throws in a few jabs at himself):

Her very Lowness with her head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

I say Charles don’t you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?

So I broke into the Palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said: “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”
I said: “that’s nothing – you should hear me play piano”

Epic, brilliant, even danceable… and that’s just the first song. The rest of the album is just as strong, featuring such gems as literary bon mot ‘Cemetry Gates,’ the rockabilly tribute to non-conformity ‘Vicar in a Tutu’ and teen angst anthem ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out.’

And yes, there is misery, but such beautifully executed misery. ‘I Know it’s Over,’ perhaps my favorite Smiths song, is an epic of heartbreak that culminates with the young, forlorn narrator crying out for release, feeling buried alive by his sorrow and reaching out to, who else?, his mom. “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head…”

For today’s song, I’ve chosen something much lighter. ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’ is a ditty tucked between the album’s two epics (‘The Queen is Dead’ and ‘I Know it’s Over’), a light-hearted attack aimed at a boss who keeps the dreaming narrator down. The song was apparently written about a record studio head early in the band’s career, but it could apply just as well to any field.

Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held
It pays my way, and it corrodes my soul
I want to leave, you will not miss me
I want to go down in musical history

Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I’m a sickening wreck
I’ve got the 21st century breathing down my neck
I must move fast, you understand me
I want to go down in celluloid history, Mr. Shankly

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

Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held
It pays my way and it corrodes my soul
Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry
I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly

Frankly, Mr. Shankly, since you ask
You are a flatulent pain in the arse
I do not mean to be so rude
Still, I must speak frankly, Mr. Shankly

7 thoughts on “Song of the Day #363: ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’ – The Smiths

  1. Dana says:

    Okay, first off, BON MOT???? Did you put that in there just to try to make my head explode? I didn’t want to have to do it, but I went ahead and called the pretentious linguistic authorities. You may expect a call or issuance of legal summons at any time.

    Okay, now on to the song….As much as I would love to continue bashing the Smiths, I kinda dig this song. Reminds me a bit of something XTC might have done. Still don’t care for Morrisey’s voice, but it seems more in check here–perhaps aided by the snappy, upbeat nature of the song.

  2. Alex says:

    I’ve gotta agree with Dana on bon mot. Really? Really. Come on. The song is ok, but I intensely dislike the narrator/singer. He’s seems cowardly and a jerk. It’s his own fault he’s miserable. So leave the job already. You have to insult the guy and call him an ass? Not funny. Just mean.

  3. Clay says:

    Leave the job? In this economy?! Sure, go ahead and stick up for The Man!

  4. Kerrie says:

    I knew Dana would be up in arms over the use of Bon Mot. I was almost excited to see what he would say. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It is a pretty upbeat song and it’s catchy in a toe-tapping way. I agree with Alex, though, that the narrator sounds like he’s perpetuating his own misery by staying there. It makes me think of a Christmas Carol somehow with Mr. Shankly as Scrooge. Not my favorite Smiths song, but not bad.

  5. Amy says:

    Well, since I went to sleep at a reasonable hour last night :), Alex has already said exactly what I was thinking as I was reading these lyrics. What an ass this guy (the narrator, I’ll assume, rather than the singer – but perhaps both?) is! If anything, I’d like to know Mr. Shankly better after reading/hearing the song. He works hard to make a living but writes poetry on the side (poetry dismissed as awful by this jerk who just wants to be famous). Mr. Shankly is clearly the hero – intended or not – of this song. But it sure is catchy ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Amy says:

    Oh, and Alex and Dana are both right to call you on “bot mot,” mister. Consider yourself on notice ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Clay says:

    It’s funny, I never really thought about feeling sympathy for Mr. Shankly (I didn’t give it much thought at all, to be honest) but I can definitely understand that reading. I’ve always been amused by the details, like wanting to “catch something that I might be ashamed of.”

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