The Queen Is Dead is the third studio album by English rock band the Smiths. It was released on 16 June 1986 in the United Kingdom by Rough Trade Records and released in the United States on 23 June 1986 through Sire Records.
The album spent twenty-two weeks on the UK Albums Chart, peaking at No. 2. It also reached No. 70 on the US Billboard 200 chart, and was certified Gold by the RIAA in late 1990. It has sold consistently well ever since and has received unanimous critical acclaim, with NME listing it as the greatest album of all time in 2013.
Guitarist Johnny Marr wrote several songs that would later appear on The Queen Is Dead while the Smiths toured Britain in early 1985, working out song arrangements with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce during soundchecks. The title of the album is from Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn.
“The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” was, according to Marr, “an effortless piece of music”, and was written on tour in the spring of 1985. The song’s lyrics refer allegorically to the band’s experience of the music industry that failed to appreciate it.:48 In 2003, Morrissey named this as his favourite Smiths song.
A demo of the music for “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” was posted by Marr through Morrissey’s letterbox in the summer of 1985. Morrissey then completed the song by adding lyrics. Marr has stated that he “preferred the music to the lyrics”.:405
“Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, “I Know It’s Over” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” were written by Morrissey and Marr in a “marathon” writing session in the late summer of 1985 at Marr’s home in Bowdon, Greater Manchester.:136 The first of these is reputed to have been addressed to Geoff Travis, head of the Smiths’ record label Rough Trade. Travis has since described it as “a funny lyric” about “Morrissey’s desire to be somewhere else”, acknowledging that a line in the song about “bloody awful poetry” was a reference to a poem he had written for Morrissey.:86
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” features lyrics drawn from “Lonely Planet Boy” by the New York Dolls. According to Marr: “When we first played it, I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard”.:442 The song’s guitar part drew on the Rolling Stones cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”, whose original version by Gaye himself had acted as an inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again”.
The music for “Never Had No One Ever”, completed in August 1985, was based on a demo which Marr had recorded in December 1984, itself based on “I Need Somebody” by the Stooges.:281 According to Marr: “The atmosphere of that track pretty much sums up the whole album and what it was like recording it.”:282 The lyric to the song reflects Morrissey’s feeling unsafe and, being from an immigrant family, not at home on the streets of Manchester.
“The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” were debuted live during a tour of Scotland in September and October,:120–2 during which “The Queen Is Dead” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” were soundchecked.:78 “The Queen is Dead” was based on a song Marr began writing as a teenager.:78 “Cemetry Gates” (sic) was a late addition to the album. Marr had not believed that the guitar part was interesting enough to be developed into a song, but Morrissey disagreed when he heard Marr play it.:70 The “All those people …. I want to cry” section is largely taken from the film “The Man Who Came To Dinner”, which also inspired one of Morrissey’s alias’ Sheridan Whitehead.
The words Morrissey has heard said a hundred times (maybe less, maybe more) come from Shakespeare’s Richard III. The song evokes Morrissey’s memories of visiting Southern Cemetery in Manchester with photographer Linder Sterling.
The album was produced by Morrissey and Marr, working predominantly with engineer Stephen Street, who had engineered the band’s 1985 album, Meat Is Murder. Street recalled: “Morrissey, Johnny and I had a really good working relationship – we were all roughly the same age and into the same kind of things, so everyone felt quite relaxed in the studio”.
At the time the group was having difficulty with its record label Rough Trade. However, according to Street “this didn’t get in the way of recording because the atmosphere in the studio was very, very constructive.”
The first song from the album to be recorded, in July 1985, was “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”. The recording, made with engineer Stephen Street at a small studio in Manchester and initially intended as a demo, was considered by the band to be good enough for release as a single. It went on sale on 16 September 1985 and made number 23 in the UK Singles Chart.:120–1
In August 1985, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” were recorded at RAK Studios in London, along with the B-sides to “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”, “Asleep” and “Rubber Ring”.:121 Kirsty MacColl sang a backing vocal for “Bigmouth Strikes Again” but it was considered “really weird” by Marr, and was replaced with a sped-up vocal by Morrissey in the final mix, for which he is credited as Ann Coates on the sleeve of The Queen Is Dead.:32–3 “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” includes a false fade near the start, intended by Street to give the impression of a door closing and opening again.:405 During the same session, a first version of “Never Had No-one Ever” was recorded.:337
The bulk of the album was recorded in the winter of 1985 at Jacob Studios in Farnham, under the working title “Margaret on the Guillotine”.:124
“Frankly, Mr. Shankly” was an attempt to recreate the “vibe” of Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”, although “it didn’t quite work out that way”, according to Marr. Linda McCartney was asked to play piano on the track, but declined, and a first take featuring a trumpeter was scrapped. The version originally intended for inclusion on The Queen Is Dead was ruined by a technical glitch on the tape, and so the song was re-recorded with John Porter at Wessex Studios in London.:136
“The Queen Is Dead” was among the last songs to be recorded. Its distinctive tom-tom loop was created by Mike Joyce and Stephen Street using a sampler. A line of guitar feedback was played by Marr through a wah-wah pedal throughout the song.
The song “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, was a contender for lead single off the album, but was passed over in favour of “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. (Later in 1986 it was released as a 7″-only single in France.) It received a belated release in 1992, when it became one of WEA’s singles in a programme to promote Smiths re-releases (see the entry on …Best II). In 1990 the song was voted no. 1 on a list of the greatest songs of all time by the readers of SPIN magazine in the US.
“Cemetry Gates” was Morrissey’s direct response to critics who had cried foul over his use of texts written by some of his favourite authors, notably Shelagh Delaney and Elizabeth Smart. Oscar Wilde, who was also accused of plagiarism, figures as a patron saint of Morrissey’s in the song’s lyrics. A Wilde quote, “Talent borrows, genius steals”, was etched in the vinyl run-out grooves of the first single off the album, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. These etchings appear almost exclusively on the UK releases (denoted by the RT and RTT prefixes on the catalogue number).
“The Queen Is Dead”, which leads off the album and notably became an expressionistic music video directed by Derek Jarman, starts with a soundbite from Bryan Forbes’ 1962 British film The L-Shaped Room. Another instance of Morrissey’s fascination with ’60s British cinema, the film featured performances by Pat Phoenix (who had already appeared as a cover star on the 1985 single “Shakespeare’s Sister”) and Cicely Courtneidge as an elderly lesbian veteran of the music halls. The soundbite is Courtneidge’s character nostalgically singing the World War I song “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty”. The actress had also appeared in a gala performance for Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee called “God Save the Queen”, and died in 1980.
A few songs, including “The Queen Is Dead” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, feature pitch-shifted backing vocals by Morrissey. Morrissey liked to experiment with effects on his voice, so Street ran his voice through a harmoniser for the backing tracks. Street recalled, “At that time, apart from the harmoniser, he didn’t go for much backing vocal or harmony work – he’s done that more on recent albums – but he did like to experiment”. The backing vocals are attributed to “Ann Coates” on the record sleeve (Ancoats is a district in Manchester, just north east of the city centre).
The Queen Is Dead finally emerged in June 1986, and was previewed by the May single release of “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, the only single taken from the album. Many encouraged the band to release “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” as a single, but Johnny Marr is said to have wanted an explosive, searing single, along the lines of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, to announce that the Smiths had returned from hiatus. It did not fare as well as expected, stalling at number 26 on the British charts.
The album cover, designed by Morrissey, features Alain Delon from the 1964 film L’Insoumis.