Monday, 3 January 2011
39 Meat Is Murder - The Smiths
Tracks : 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
This one was no doubt a fairly predictable choice as the first purchase of the new year. I was one of those who helped it to become the band's only number one album. Despite that it doesn't seem to be anyone's favourite ; the critics all favour its successor. Disappointed with the production compromises on their debut the band produced this one themselves though this effectively meant Johnny Marr with help from Stephen Street as engineer. Sonically it's a huge step forwards with Marr greatly expanding his range of guitar sounds and the rhythm section much more assured. Morrissey's vocals are also much improved.
Lyrically the album is much less introspective with Morrissey picking more external targets and introducing a political edge to the band perhaps fired up by the Band Aid project he had scathingly dismissed. There's also a sense of threat running through the album with many of the songs dwelling on violence whether at school, home, the fairground or the abbatoir . Morrissey's first target was his old secondary school in "The Headmaster Ritual". Many years later I discovered that my father had taught in the girls' school that had been hived off from Morrissey's alma mater St Mary's and he concurred with Johnny Rogan's description ( in Morrissey & Marr The Severed Alliance ) of the headmaster Vince Morgan as a martinet. Though the events described occurred at least a decade earlier the song bristles with anger at the institutionalised sadism ; the world of bullying Brian Glover not Roger Waters' hpocritical bleatings or Suggs's classroom gangsters. The song's yodelling coda has Morrissey echoing down the empty corridors like a vengeful fury. The musical attack is in the fiercely strummed acoustic guitars and Joyce's emphatic drumming with the electric arpeggios vaguely reminiscent of Don't Fear The Reaper prodding Morrissey to catharsis.
The following song switches the focus to the fairground in a riot of plaigiarism with the music a clear lift from Elvis Presley's His Latest Flame (the first clear nod to 50s rockabilly in Mozza's career) and much of the lyrical imagery cribbed from a poem by the execrable Victoria Wood though the added violence is all Morrissey. Latterly better known for student digs and its Curry Mile the Rusholme of the seventies supplied the hooligans who disrupted the fairs of Morrissey's childhood and it's his juxtaposition of this memory with the teenage romances for which he's relying on Wood - "then someone falls in love then someone's beaten up " that makes the song compelling although Rourke's bass playing is also worthy of note.
"I Want The One I Can't Have" returns to more personal concerns. Lyrically it seems a cut-and-paste job with verses about the mind/body dichotomy previously explored on "Still Ill" , working class sex and a teenage delinquent bundled around the title line achingly delivered by Morrissey amid lashings of rock guitar at times recalling the Jam's Private Hell.
"What She Said" is possibly the most aggressive Smiths song of all with Marr's fast- fingered guitar work seemingly locked into a race to the finish with Joyce's dense drumming. Above the din Morrissey arily sings of a female kindred spirit a bookish recluse who's rough sexual encounter with "A tattooed boy from Birkenhead" has only reinforced her view that life isn't worth living.
After the storm comes the calmer "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" which was released months later as a single and became the only one apart from "Hand In Glove" to miss the Top 40 (after which they were obliged to make promotional videos) . It's the most musically ambitious track, in waltz time (with Joyce's crashes in unusual places) with backwards guitar and a false ending where the band return without Morrissey as if they've sneaked back in when he wasn't looking. The lyric chastises Morrissey's critics although exactly what was the joke is never quite clear. It climaxes with a repeated incantation of a Katherine Hepburn line from her 1935 film Alice Adams "I've seen it happen in other people's lives and now it's happening in mine" Marr's guitar swooping around the multi-tracked vocal.
"Nowhere Fast" the opening track on side two always strikes a personal chord with me for the line "And when a train goes by it's such a sad sound" because I lived near a railway for my first thirty-three years and the heavy goods trains going by did indeed become a comfort sound. Over another rockabilly rhythm Morrissey seamlessly blends the personal and political with his wish to moon the queen in the second verse while he bemoans his emotionless stasis elsewhere in the song. Joyce's rimshots in the middle eight are recorded to sound like gunshots (pre-dating Stone Roses' s Elizabeth My Dear ) but it's the choking melancholy in Morrissey's voice and sympathetic sadness in the guitar after each line that make the track a classic.
"Well I Wonder " lets Andy Rourke's bass take a more prominent role with Marr sticking mainly to acoustic while Morrissey delivers , latterly in falsetto, a sparse lyric about wanting to figure in someone's consciousness when he dies, their first explicit death song. He fades out early in the coda which eventually dissolves into affecting Mancunian rain falling . It's good but does seem out of sequence, an obvious closing track placed too early.
Then we have "Barbarism Begins At Home" a popular live track extended in the studio and for me the only misfire on the LP. It's also controversial for the lack of a writing credit for Rourke whose funk bassline is the rock of the song. Certainly Morrissey's contribution is relatively spartan, effectively just one verse bemoaning arbitrary parental violence, repeated then its lines ad libbed and yodelled up to the 5 minute mark before Rourke and Marr are allowed to play at being Chic for a couple of minutes. It's not bad at all but it would have been better suited to being on a 12 inch single ; here it seems like an odd, flabby indulgence on an otherwise very lean and tight LP.
Thankfully the album ends on a real high with the title track. You don't need to support the cause to appreciate Morrissey's passion about his vegetarianism and the fabulous musical setting provided by Marr. Beginning in a Floydian fashion with cattle lowing and chainsaw noises (Lulubelle being hacked to pieces ?) Marr interweaves simple piano lines with a bottomlessly mournful guitar riff while Morrissey in a brittle tone (slightly treated) decries the treatment of animals and specifically the Bisto ad presentation of meat eating -"It's not comforting cheery or kind". The chainsaws return at the end of the song to drive the point home. It's The Smiths at their least subtle but it still packs a powerful punch.
With only one belated single the album didn't hang around for long and has been overshadowed by its successor but it's still a fabulous work of art.