I’ve written briefly before about my admiration for the music produced in 1985, to me, a watershed year for ‘alternative’ music. New Order told us about that “Perfect Kiss” in their release, Low Life. The Cure sang “In Between Days” on The Head on the Door. R.E.M. constructed songs of travel and expansion on their Fables of the Reconstruction (or vice versa). A couple of great bands collected their best in Depeche Mode’s Catching Up With Depeche Mode and Echo & the Bunnymen’s Songs to Learn and Sing. But 1985 also saw the release of the exquisitely crafted single, “How Soon is Now?” by the Smiths. The song became the warning shot for the magnificent upcoming album, Meat is Murder.
Let’s flash forward five years to my senior year in high school, in my honors English class, where we were given an assignment to present a report on a British person. It could be any person, a comedian, singer, writer, poet, playwright, Prime Minister, etc. We could either do a report on our own, or in groups. Two friends of mine chose to do a presentation on Monty Python. I chose to do my presentation on Morrissey, which meant, as it should, that I was presenting solo. (There’s just no other way, is there?) I had a few books on the Mozzer and of course, all of his albums, which was beneficial as the most autobiographical material I found was within the album, Meat is Murder. I made a home movie, focusing on Morrissey posters and photos, and narrating his life story with the images.
Listening to the album now brings back a myriad of memories, the first having to do with listening to “The Headmaster Ritual” in class as an example of Morrissey’s youth in an abusive classroom. Another memory involves the fact that the first copy of the album that I ‘owned’ wasn’t really mine. You see, it was my brother’s. As we had to try to spend our allowance money wisely, we had to carefully select what music purchases we would make every week (at that age, what other purchases were there? Okay, I admit it, comic books). I don’t remember what cassette I picked over Meat is Murder. It could have easily been one of the great albums listed above, or it could have been something that didn’t stand the test of time as well. Even though pretty much all music in the house was ‘community property’ and anybody could and would play them whenever they wanted, I was and still am irked by the fact that it wasn’t `mine.’
My last memory occurs much later, when, in trying to replace all of my cassettes with CD’s, to also replace albums lost, and to attain music that I loved and never truly `owned’, I found a copy of Meat is Murder in the used bin. I was at the great Aron’s records in Hollywood and not only did I find a copy of a great album that I couldn’t believe someone would give up, but it was a British edition! It was Rough Trade, not Sire! It had one photo of the infamous soldier, not the Warholized four! As the Anglophile that I was and would continue to be, I was on cloud nine. At that point, much to most fans’ wonder and dismay, I was even proud of the fact that my copy didn’t have “How Soon is Now?” as it was only on the US, Australian, and Japanese copies of the album. This did not mean that I didn’t love “How Soon Is Now?”; it only meant that I had become a Smiths purist. I wanted to hear the album the way that the Brits heard it, the way that the Smiths meant for it to be released. “How Soon Is Now?” was a single release and was never meant to be included on Meat is Murder. In fact, as I listen to the album while writing this, Windows Media Player thinks that the song is on there and has dropped the title track from the end of the playlist. Cheeky bastards.
In discussing the actual songs on the album, and yes, for purposes of this review, I’ll include the aforementioned song; I am not going to start at the beginning. I’ll instead start with “What She Said”. But before I even get into that, I must say that looking back on all of the band’s albums, Meat is Murder, in my opinion, is definitely the darkest of the lot. Yes, there are sadder albums, songs that are a little more emotional or sappy, but song for song, MIM is dark, dark, dark.
Anyway, back to “What She Said”. This song struck me like a thunderbolt the first time I heard it. It has, first of all, a much faster pace than any of their other songs, taking Johnny Marr’s jangly, tinny guitar sound and cranking it up to punk rock speed, and then unleashing Mike Joyce on the drums like Animal. Fading in as opposed to a traditional opening leads one to believe that the song could actually be a longer piece and we have just joined it at an appropriate spot. It actually sounds like we are entering the song at the bridge, a Johnny Marr solo between Morrissey verses. And what verses they are! Moz embodies his ever present sadness in the `she’.
What she said was sad / but then all the rejection she’s had / to pretend to be happy / could only be idiocy
Whereas Morrissey is a fan of dark poetry, nihilism, and has a philosophical viewpoint supporting his loneliness, his fans, including me, were sad and lonely for different reasons. We were teenagers. As Bart Simpson said, “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” If there is one similarity, it is this: like Morrissey, most of the teenagers who listened to him wanted to be alone. I craved solitude, lived in my own head, and colored the world accordingly. Morrissey seemed to really understand the mind of the depressed teenager. He understood those suicidal thoughts, whether serious or for dramatic purposes.
What she said: / “I smoke `cos I’m hoping for an early death / AND I NEED TO CLING TO SOMETHING.
Musically, “What She Said” is more of a bridge between the Brit-pop straightforward style of the self-title first album, and the more complex and mature sounds of The Queen is Dead. What was striking to me, when I finally realized it, was that Marr is really a rhythm guitarist, not a lead. He’s not going to take a huge, bombastic solo. Nor is he going to overpower a song with single notes. His unique style is more difficult than he makes it seem. Upon a cursory listen, the music seems effortless. Take another listen. I had quite an epiphany upon watching the film Ferris Beuller’s Day Off when Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane visit the art museum and Cameron stares deeply into the Suerat painting while some hauntingly beautiful instrumental music plays. Well, it turns out that a band called The Dream Academy did a strings rendition of the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”. The song made me want to listen to all of the Smiths’ songs over again without any lyrics.
Take the keening guitar sounds he creates in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”. Not only is there the prerequisite tinny rhythm guitar, but there is also that evocative sound over it which could almost take the place of lyrics. But seemingly every time Marr steps up to the plate with something incredibly poignant, so does Morrissey. His repeated Kick ’em when they fall down brings us to another level of melancholy. Then the song takes on, depending on how you interpret it, either a sense of resignation or of hope.
I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives / and now it’s happening in mine
That sense is heightened by the fact that the song ends and then quietly comes back into shape, simply to end again.
A vastly underrated track appears with “Well I Wonder”. As “What She Said” is a bridge to some of the faster paced songs on The Queen is Dead such as the title track and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “Well I Wonder” is a precursor to the great songs “I Know It’s Over” and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”. It can almost be compared to a jazz standard in that it is primarily Joyce and Rourke who provide the foundation for the song while Marr riffs and layers over it like Miles Davis would with his trumpet or Coltrane with his tenor sax. Plus, it’s one of the few songs in which Morrissey goes falsetto. It also becomes the rare occasion that they use a natural sound, in this case the sound of rain falling at the close of the song. It’s a beautiful composition and deserves more attention.
“Barbarism Begins at Home” is equally underappreciated. Again, the song has dark lyrics, but set to an almost funky, danceable rhythm. The song speaks of child abuse and how it is often unavoidable and a deplorable reality.
A crack on the head / is what you get for not asking / and a crack on the head / is what you get for asking
Even more sinister is the actual sharp whip-crack sound that is placed in the song after the first A crack on the head. Morrissey also yelps uncharacteristically like Ian McCulloch. One wonders if they liked or even listened to each others’ work.
In “Meat is Murder”, the Smiths again sample natural sounds, but instead of rain falling, this time we get the absolutely horrifying and creepy sound of cows mooing and slaughterhouse machinery. Morrissey very obviously makes his point as to why he is vegetarian and why he thinks everyone should be, and as expected, makes it an extremely emotional plea. I’m sure that if I were to see a slaughterhouse firsthand I might think twice about my carnivorous ways, but to this day I remain unconverted. This is one of those songs for which I wonder if no vocals at all would have helped it. The song is eerie enough on its own, especially with the sound effects, and might have made for a more subtle and convincing point. Otherwise it borders on preachy which I’ve never responded to. We want you to be gloomy and witty Morrissey, not pushy!
Finally, US editions will feature the legendary “How Soon Is Now?” The song also appears on Hatful of Hollow, being a collection of Peel Sessions and singles. The song became somewhat of an icon, a paean to our youth, and a classic in its own time. Every year, San Diego station 91X counted down the top 91 songs of the past year. In 1985, while the song never hit the Billboard sales charts, “How Soon is Now?” charted at number three on 91X’s countdown. At various anniversaries of the radio station, they would do a ‘best songs of all time’ list, the first instance of which the song charted on the top spot. The most recent anniversary list counted the song at number four, behind only Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Bob Marley’s “Jammin'” (?), and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge”. The song originally appeared not as a single, but as a b-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing”. Various European countries released it as an a-side with “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” (wow! What a pairing!). Finally, it was released everywhere as a single, and then took on a life of its own.
I won’t go into breaking it down. I’ll merely say that it is a glorious anthem of a song, deserving all of the credit it gets, and despite the fact that it is now the theme song for a television show about witches, is still worthy. Purist or not, the song doesn’t seem to fit with the others on Meat is Murder. Then again, it doesn’t seem to fit in with any album they’ve released. But with the song or without, Meat is Murder is a milestone album of melancholy pop and should be counted among the Truly Great.
Similar albums/albums influenced:
Pernice Brothers- Yours, Mine & Ours
Death Cab for Cutie- Something About Airplanes
Elliott Smith- X/O