(#311: 23 February 1985, 1 week)
Track listing: The Headmaster Ritual/Rusholme Ruffians/I Want The One I Can’t Have/What She Said/That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore/Nowhere Fast/Well I Wonder/Barbarism Begins At Home/Meat Is Murder
The only connection with Born In The U.S.A. is the Vietnam one, the cover photograph being a still from Emile de Antonio’s polemical 1968 documentary In The Year Of The Pig, the slogan on Marine Cpl Wynn’s helmet having been altered from “MAKE WAR NOT LOVE.” But where Springsteen’s music is dry, cracked and reserved, that of The Smiths is fluid, focused and explosive (the big difference is Springsteen and Morrissey’s respective attitudes to trains, as “I’m On Fire” and “Nowhere Fast” demonstrate; the freight train running through Springsteen’s head is urgent and painful, whereas Morrissey simply hears a distant train and finds it “sad”).
Meat Is Murder was the only one of The Smiths’ four studio albums, not counting compilations, to make number one in the group’s lifetime. The other three all peaked at number two, suggesting that Rough Trade did not have the resources or the will to push the records further. Discounting the Hollies’ Greatest compilation, this was also the first number one album achieved by any act from Manchester. It took that long?
The Smiths’ second album was not alone among 1985 number ones in standing in pronounced opposition to the overall trend, but its oppositional stance was by some distance the most violent and confrontational. It was largely recorded in what Morrissey describes in his Autobiography as being “a predictably cheap studio in Liverpool” (Amazon Studios) and produced by the group themselves, clearly relieved to be free of John Porter’s classroom, although the young Stephen Street was also present as engineer.
The record has remained somewhat undervalued, but the group wanted it to be far more representative than their debut of what they were able to achieve onstage, and as far as achievements – or records – go, Meat Is Murder might be their most remarkable one. Actually, it’s more than that; about midway through “What She Said,” even almost three decades on from when it was made, it becomes unavoidably evident that this is one of the great British rock ‘n’ roll albums, up there with The Sound Of Fury and A Hard Day’s Night, with a febrility not seen in this tale since Stupidity.
Nothing that has come before, not even the Pistols, is really anything like what The Smiths achieve here. I do not propose a detailed analysis of Morrissey’s lyrics, since there are more than enough of these to be found elsewhere, and, like Eminem, one has to be wary of paraphrasing entire sets of words. As a band, however, this album presents the performance of a group of musicians at their absolute and most confident peak. In “What She Said,” Johnny Marr and Mike Joyce in particular hang on to the rollercoaster with a singeing intensity, perhaps meaning to drag British rock back to 1963 and start again, but absorbing the lessons of everything that came after 1963. The drive and propulsion are terrifying and predicate Foo Fighters far more than they do Oasis.
All that really needs to be said is that the album’s principal, and very darkly expressed, themes are those of violence and death. Despite Morrissey’s use of words hardly glimpsed in pop discourse such as “ghouls” and “devout,” he is most emotionally direct when he uses no words at all; the extended yarragh on “Headmaster Ritual” (never forget The Smiths’ irreducible Anglo-Irishness), the wordless/indecipherable high voice alter ego that we glimpse on “That Joke” and “Well I Wonder,” the barks and yelps in “Barbarism” (which in itself puts me in mind of Rob Gretton at the end of “Everything’s Gone Green”). Although the “same old suit since 1962” jibe in “Headmaster Ritual” is smart – the implication being that the headmaster behaves as though the Beatles had never happened – much of the album sounds like pre-Beatles pop funnelled through a New York Dolls filter. “Well I Wonder,” for instance, could almost be Michael Cox (“Please keep me in mind” is a very pre-Beatles pop sentiment), although the accompanying music is far more reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.
Likewise, “Rusholme Ruffians” is only half “His Latest Flame”; Marr’s descending half-tone sequences turn the song into something else. The more subtle nod to Elvis is the false fadeout of “That Joke” which puts me in mind of “Suspicious Minds”; the same endless, hellish cycle. “Barbarism Begins At Home” is a sort of missing link between Spandau Ballet (it’s in the same key as “Paint Me Down” and Marr’s chordalities are as inventive as Gary Kemp’s) and Graham Coxon’s Blur (see #316 for the precursor to Damon Albarn’s Blur). Andy Rourke’s bass is tirelessly creative throughout; note how the rockabilly jaunt of “Rusholme” is underscored by a funk bassline that could have come from Larry Graham.
But the home and school violence, the guilty second-hand fascination with violence or worse being done to others, all culminate in the grimly funereal procession of the closing title song (see Joy Division’s “The Eternal” for an unlikely comparison point). No real reason or logic can be attributed to statements like “Death for no reason is murder” – but you could say the same about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (perhaps the other end of this particular telescope); both are polemical statements designed to affect the gut and help change things, and there is no telling how many young Smash Hits readers set about altering their lives after reading Morrissey’s patient explanation of why he was a vegetarian. It is meant to be an unsettling coda in a year where “aid” was already being turned into an aesthetic and political blindfold, a huge monochrome NO to the primary-coloured YES which dominated its year. If things had been different, the next and much apter TPL entry would have been Songs From The Big Chair (the therapist responding to the patient). But that was kept off number one by entry #312, which demonstrated that the music business preferred to pretend that The Smiths hadn’t happened.