Sunday, April 19, 2015
Track of the Week: The Smiths "The Queen Is Dead"
I'm putting together some new lessons for my American history classes on the 1980s and the rise of neoliberalism, and I am getting some rather intense flashbacks to that period of time, which now is actually starting to feel rather distant to me. We have been awash in 80s nostalgia for quite some time, and it seems to be reaching fever pitch, from TV shows like The Goldbergs to the rebooted Ghostbusters franchise. Putting my classes together is reminding me just how awful that time could be, and how the reality of the time for so many people is lost in the nostalgia. My farm belt hometown has never recovered, and neither has Rust Belt and inner city America, but we still think of it as a fun time of crimped hair and rubics cubes.
By the mid-1980s, resistance was futile, and in those pre-Internet days getting ahold of challenging music, films, and books could be extremely difficult. In terms of popular culture, at least, I tend to see 1986 as the year that the 80s mentality finally vanquished what few traces of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s were left in mainstream American life. Neoliberalism had become the new norm, rather than an insurgent philosophy, family sitcoms like The Cosby Show ruled the airwaves and Top Gun packed people into the theater to witness a massive ode to the military industrial complex.
I wasn't hip enough yet to know, but in 1986 the great band The Smiths (who I would discover in the early 1990s) captured the dread and ennui of that time perfectly on record. Although Morrissey is crooning about the British royal family and the effects of Thatcherism, the spirit of it applies quite well to America at the time. It starts with a rough recording of "Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty" before pounding drums come bashing in and Johnny Marr announces his presence with a kind of mangled feedback rarely heard on Smiths recordings. Strange voices echo and a paranoid-sounding bass thrums up high in the mix, driving things forward at an insistent pace. In many respects this song is the anti- "Where The Streets Have No Name," in that it uses guitar effects and tight drumnbass rhythms in a much less anthemic fashion. Morrissey is at his sinister best here, joking about breaking into the royal palace to have the Queen tell him he can't sing, and for him to cheekily reply "you should hear me play piano!" It isn't just an attack on the royal family, but on a society failing to offer its youth anything real or meaningful. Morrissey decries "the pub that wrecks your body/ and the Church that steals your money," and repeats the line later in case you missed it. Unlike Johnny Rotten in the previous decade, he combines his vitriol with a heaping dose of wit, like a man telling jokes while his hands are clenched in fists of rage.
It is a long song by Smiths standards, and the later part of it doesn't contain any lyrics, just the same propulsive sound with a little echoey piano thrown on top of it. I had (sadly) first heard the Smiths through compilations, so when I finally picked up The Queen Is Dead I was blown away at first listen by the title track, which was too long and too political and too divergent from usual Smiths songs to be included in a compilation. If anything, its proof that compilations are bollocks. That and how the 80s managed to produce some trenchant reactions to the neoliberal onslaught if you know where to look for them.