Alternative Version, Get This!, Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions

Murderous Thoughts

Let’s call it here and now: Meat Is Murder is The Smiths best album.

It’s certainly not the debut, the band’s unsatisfactory attempt to chase a sound worthy of the songs. Compared to the Brasso-bright, spit ‘n polish, ring-a-ding-ding of those early Peel versions, the debut album weighs heavy; lumpen, and one-dimensional. The drums sound leaden and lifeless. The guitars – it’s always about the guitars with The Smiths – sound as if someone has taken a fat thumb to their edges and rubbed the sparkle clean off. Flat and uninspiring, the production doesn’t do those fabulous riffs any justice at all. Unique, extraordinary songs, but assembled badly.

Don’t even consider The Queen Is Dead. Those songs…man, great, great songs…but whoever signed off the running order needs their head examined. The title track aside, every other song is misplaced. Side one collapses from the music hall titter of Frankly, Mr Shankly into the death doublet of I Know It’s Over/Never Had No One Ever – undeniably serious mood music pieces, yes, but totally misplaced. Stick I Know It’s Over at the end of side 1 instead and you’ve got a great closing track. Never Had No One Ever? That’s totally ripe for the graveyard slot of second last track on side 2. Pick any ten records from your collection and look at the running order and then tell me that the second-to-last track isn’t the weakest on the album. It’s certainly not where There Is A Light That Never Goes Out should be hiding. That should be sitting up front with Bigmouth… and the big boys, or maybe even afforded the honour of being the big statement closing track. Good as Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is – and it’s one of their very best – go out on a romantic, swaying high, Smiths. Don’t relegate your best songs to the twilight zone.

Yeah, and the smart money (even Johnny’s, they say) might be on Strangeways Here We Come, but for every crashing gothic masterpiece (Last Night I Dreamt...) there’s The Smiths-by-numbers (Stop Me If You Think…), for every barely-disguised love letter from singer to guitarist (I Won’t Share You) there’s the instantly skippable Death At One’s Elbow. It’s a good album, Strangeways, probably even great, but it isn’t their greatest. That honour goes to Meat Is Murder. Here are half a dozen reasons why.

Reason 1. Little elfin Johnny, in his blown-up Keith Richards hair-do and diamante clutter, is on fire across every bit of Meat Is Murder. He runs the whole gamut of his nimble-fingered arsenal; alternative tuning on the title track…alternative tuning and Nashville tuning on the cosmic and zinging Headmaster Ritual…that fine, layered coating of acoustic liquid mercury across Well I Wonder…the Stooges Metallic KO of What She Said, the rockabilly knee-tremble of Rusholme Ruffians…the proud Chic-isms that give way to those great, ringing discordant jazz chords near the end of Barbarism Begins At Home…the clattering chatter he conjures up across Nowhere Fast‘s multiple overlapping tracks and kaleidoscope of chords…

Johnny came up with them all. On Meat Is Murder he is barely 22 and he’s not yet reached a peak that his peers, never mind his guitar-strangling lessers in bedrooms up and down the country, can only dream of.

Reason 2. Morrissey. Separating the art of the 26 year-old singer from the 63 year-old artist is necessary here. Look, not at what he’s become, but at what he was once capable of. With every lyric on the album, he’s extremely funny and articulate and political and opinionated and principled and, above all else, loveable. ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen,’ ‘heifer whines could be human cries,’ ‘belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools, spineless bastards all,’ ‘What she read, all heady books, she’d sit and prophesise, it took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes.’

Even if he pinched large chunks of Rusholme Ruffians from Victoria Wood, no one was crowbarring lyrics like this into pop songs in 1985. Arguably, no one has crowbarred stuff as unique and searing and insightful and right-on since.

Reason 3. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is one of The Smiths’ finest torch songs. From its bright-as-brass-buttons opening to its layered and textured false ending, it’s a beauty. It’s the perfect marriage of Morrissey’s moping introspection and Marr’s guitarchestra, the singer identifying with those who are kicked when they are down, the guitarist going to town with studio effects and multi-layered riffs.

The SmithsThat Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Those little echoing triplets that fall from his fingers to create rippling pools on still pond water still tingle the back of my neck when they come in (around the minute mark at first, then forever after) – an ear-opening epiphany in 1985 when I realised that guitar players enhanced their electric sound with gizmos and wizardry to create the sounds they imagined in their heads. The haunting (and haunted) backwards effects he weaves through the ‘happening in mine‘ section before the fade out are ace.

Johnny has since said (OK, he told me, right?) that The Smiths never quite managed to do it justice live, but with the technology available today, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore would have undoubtedly been the centrepeice of The Smiths live experience. We’ll never know.

Reason 4. The Smiths changed lives. Saved lives, even. Like, literally. The title track is responsible for a whole swathe of impressionable teenagers – and at least two Smiths besides Morrissey – to forego eating meat and adopt vegatariansim as a way of life.

“As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian,” Mike Joyce told me in 2017. “Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it. ‘Meat Is Murder’ is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

Accompanying the lyric, all sorts of magic is going on. Suitably doomy and disconcerting for the words being sung, Johnny plays around on an open D riff, cyclical and repetitive, hynpotic and ethereal.

The Smiths Meat Is Murder

It’s matched by a jangling piano – not noticeable on first listen, buried as it is underneath the abattoir grinding and cattle cries, but it’s there, tinkling along like springtime Manchester rain while studio-treated guitars echo and scrape and scratch their way through the murk, Andy’s bass as elastic and stretchy as tendons.

Reason 5. Ah. Andy’s bass. The unsung hero of the band, the thinking man’s favourite Smith, Andy Rourke can play the fuck out of that thing. While Johnny gets all the spotlight, Andy quietly goes about creating tunes within tunes, fret-surfing melodic runs that could easily stand on their own two feet (or four strings).

The SmithsNowhere Fast (Peel Session, 1984)

The trampolining rubber bandisms that carry the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians…the counterparts he plays to Johnny’s guitar in The Headmaster Ritual…the driving force in Nowhere Fast that allows Johnny to fly off-piste and back again…Andy is a key ingredient here.

The rather-too obvious track to highlight is the extreme funkability of Barbarism Begins At Home, all slap ‘n thunk, an old tune of his and Johnny’s from pre-Smiths days that wouldn’t have worked on that debut album, but here, on Meat Is Murder‘s inclusive, catholic patina, it shines brightly.

Reason 6. 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.

Perfectly sequenced, perfectly pitched, it is, rare for the era, an album of few single releases; Headmaster and Barbarism in foreign countries only, That Joke in the UK (a chart-busting number 49 with a bullet). The Americans couldn’t handle an album with no hit singles though, so they crassly wedged How Soon Is Now? right before Nowhere Fast at the start of side 2. They have form for spoiling perfectly perfect albums, the Americans – look at what they did to some of The Beatles’ catalogue for proof – and while How Soon Is Now? is an undoubted Smiths classic, it should remain standing alone as the greatest 3-track Smiths single ever. But that’s an argument for another time.

I welcome your misguided outrage in the comments…


14 thoughts on “Murderous Thoughts”

  1. An excellent post, as ever, and a well argued case. There are probably people willing to make a case for any of the albums being their best (someone, somewhere may even try to argue for the debut, though I’m not sure how) but it’s hard to disagree with anything you’ve said here.

    I’ll get in first and hopefully save you from the pedants though. I think it should be “heifer whines…” in your Reason 2 paragraph, not heifer cries.

  2. Really enjoyable article Craig, thanks for sharing it. I’ve long been of the view that, even if Meat Is Murder isn’t the best Smiths album, it’s certainly my favourite. You’ve articulated far better than I could why The Queen Is Dead’s track listing does no favours to a great collection of songs: an act of self-sabotage as inexplicable as the choice of the run of three singles between William It Was Really Nothing and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. (In fact, The Smiths singles choices are probably worthy of an article in itself).
    You’re also bang on with the second to last track rule. Was there ever a better example of this than my least favourite Smiths track appearing second to last on Strangeways?

  3. I used to think Meat is Murder was their best, then I swithered to Queen and Strangeways and then back again and now I think you’re probably right (we’re not including Hatful of Hollow are we?). The sheer range of songs and styles but all seeming as a cohesive whole is stunning. And yes, Morrissey’s become a right dick but his lyrics on MIM are unsurpassed.

    Think I disagree with you about the running order of Queen though, I think its almost what makes the album so good is the unexpected running order, strange coupling of songs- the back to back doomfest of IKIO and NHNOE then blasting into the whimsey of Cemetery Gates works for me. And I love the way the album builds to an almost crescendo of There Is A Light… and then follows it with Some Girls (a song incidentally with one of Johnny Marr’s greatest chord sequences/ riffs coupled with some Carry On humour). It shows they weren’t thinking like any other band would have when they sequenced it- because they were no ordinary rock band.

  4. All fair points re the QID, Adam. When you stop and look at it, they were quite the prolific band over that handful of years. And so young. Remarkable records for all sorts of reasons.

  5. Great. I stopped at Reason 2 to analyse better. This one needs serious analysis and better arguments, hopefully someday we will see that. How can anyone think that someone asking the guillotine for Maggie could become in something different now. Would you imagine someone asking the guillotine for Ricki or whatever his name is today? It is us who changed. Very big indeed.
    I’ll continue my reading. Thanks

  6. Brilliant Mista Callsta. Wee bit different response to the last time you wrote about Stephen Patrick.

  7. Try and leave your hatred for Morrissey out of it and people will read it. I think their first album was their best……. Lets face it the Smiths had 4 albums…. The rest are compilations….. Morrissey has 4 decades of solo material…. There’s room to love it all. There is def something to love on all 4 Smiths albums, but Morrissey himself made more music I enjoy.

  8. Well I have never met him or conversed with him so I have no idea what hes become or what he ever was. I enjoy his music and his humor and his good looks. And his ability to speak his mind without giving a F*** what others think of him.

  9. I’ve never met him either. I’m assuming from your spelling of the word ‘humor’ that you’re not from the UK. If you were, you’d appreciate that Morrissey has become increasingly right wing and outspoken on issues such as race. He’s demonstrated an intolerance for the marginalised in society – the very people who identified with the ethos of The Smiths and all that they stood for. He’s become a bit of a twit, to put it kindly.

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