1986 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):
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.
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