The Smiths’ immeasurable influence casts a long shadow on the music scene that has transpired since their inception. The band is frequently heralded with accolades like “The most influential band of the 80’s, and the most important”. The Smiths examined in hindsight were a direct response to the pomposity of the band’s musical contemporaries group under the New Wave heading. Their peers had generally morphed from once bright hopes for something original into record label generated mush for the masses. The band looked to stand athwart to the synth formula gack that was suddenly all the rage and totally overexposed. “Meat Is Murder” The Smiths’ second studio release bears witness to the brilliance of songwriting duo Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr and their ability to present another musical option.
This pair would produce unforgettable songs filled with lyrical literary put-downs on conformity, wrong-headed political thinking and bullying. The album would also capture Morrissey at the beginning of his now long career as an arch contrarian and Ate apple tosser. On Meat Is Murder he would level equal opportunity attacks on both sides of the political spectrum; pointing out how they both did less than nothing to help those they purported to assist.
Many would ask why this album in particular and The Smiths, in general, have had so much impact. The answer is complicated but boiled down to its essence The Smiths captured the universal angst of life and were able to make it personal. Meat is Murder was also a repudiation of the Synth-laden New Wave movement. Where the New Wave movement, for the most part, presented a no consequence fun ride through romance, with more hair gel than brains on display in too many cases. The Smiths, by contrast, were a perfect blend of angst, sincere realism, self-deprecating humour and a smattering of unrequited obsession. The Smiths emphasize was not on pinup playboy winners but those socially awkward misfits and eccentrics we all feared we actually were. Morrissey lyrically would write about the reality of isolation, heartbreak and the everyday occurrences that grind a person down if they don’t have the mordant humour to persevere. Throughout the album, the listener encounters characters they could easily be identified with: the bullied kid on the playfield, the disappointed dreamer wondering if their turn for love would ever come, and the child who gets smacked no matter what they do. That universality of experience would win The Smiths a legion of admirers. They would influence any number of young incubating bands the likes of The Stone Roses, Oasis, Radiohead, Blur and Suede to name a few. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke admitted as much on a 2007 webcast prior to their performing a cover of The Headmaster Ritual, stating, “This is about when we were younger, but we didn’t write it.” So many felt the same sentiment, The Smiths in their songs were putting a voice to a great number of peoples’ experiences. There was something utterly engaging in the beautiful synergy of Marr’s sonics and Morrissey’s lyrics that once encountered made them impossible to forget.
Prior to recording Meat is Murder the band had been disappointed with their eponymous debut feeling the production had not been what they intended. This time around Morrissey and Marr would take the helm on production with engineer Stephan Street assisting. Meat is Murder was recorded at Amazon Studios in Liverpool and Ridge Farm in Surrey. The album would be a showcase for Morrissey and Marr’s brilliant songwriting along with Andy Rourke’s thumping bass and Mike Joyce delivering inspired drums and percussion. Meat is Murder would be a slow burner on the charts initially but become legendary in its impact and would eventually see success on the charts of the day. The Smiths throughout their career would have a number of singles reach the top 20 in the US and all of their albums would reach the UK top 5 but Meat is Murder would be their only #1 studio release. The official singles from the album were That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore and Barbarism Begins at Home but those two singles would be overshadowed in time by the b-side How Soon is Now that was eventually be included in later releases of the album. Speaking of “How Soon Is Now” it was originally the other side of the single William, it was Really Nothing but caught on with listeners especially as it became a favourite in dance clubs. The track would become Alternative Rock’s equivalent to “Stairway to Heaven”.
“Meat is Murder” would take on unlikely subjects; corporal punishment in schools, child abuse, bullying, vegetarianism, and numerous others with at times an off-kilter droll humour. The narrative was often ugly but real and undeniable. The recording would kick off with The Headmaster Ritual which took to task the torment handed out in British schools for no apparent reason other than it was what had always been done. Morrissey displays sadistic malcontents let loose upon innocents. A situation where any kind of nonconformity is met with an iron fist, “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools spineless swine cemented minds.” The venomous lyrics ride over a magnificent jangle guitar as Morrissey takes a page from Roald Dahl to chastise our society for the hypocrisy, sadism and ineffectiveness of this kind of treatment. It is truly one of The Smiths most impactful and enduring songs. Only like minded bullying bastards could dislike this track.
The carnival atmosphere of Rusholme Ruffians sets the scene for tawdry goings-on. Personified were the carnival toughs, bullying boys and slapper girls all looking for something they cannot find, true love. The song really hits its stride as it addresses the pain of obsessive love and how it is so all-encompassing it causes suicidal thoughts. Morrissey brilliantly inhabits the minds of each character’s angst representing both male and female while cementing the refrain from the song in place, “and though I walk home alone, my faith in love is still devoted”. Marr completes the picture with his spot on the conveyance of joyous surroundings along with a sinister underpinning sonic.
The next track, I Want The One I Can’t Have is a vignette of self-loathing. The topic again is unrequited love, a love denied by the poverty of spirit driven by a lack of self-confidence. This song has spawned many imitations to the point where it can be hard to appreciate the original in retrospect. For the time it was created the idea of not coming out a winner in the romantic sweepstakes was unusual. That it was conveyed over Marr’s bouncy accompaniment made it even more unique for its time and a classic. Morrissey gets to the essence of love’s madness with the lyric, “I want the one I can’t have and it’s driving me mad. It’s written all over my face.” Once again Morrissey paints a picture we can not avert our eyes away from and the truth of the emotions involved in rejection.
What She Said reverts to the knees up sonics that was The Smiths’ wheelhouse. Again the vibrant accompaniment belies the existential angst of Morrissey’s lyrics. Presented is a woman who has all but surrendered to the inevitable with no reason to lie or put a happy face on things, “I smoke’cos I’m hoping for an early death and I need to cling to something.” That is pretty dark stuff, yet the narrator seems to gain a sense of freedom in not giving a toss if she lives or dies. The song leaves the listener pondering if her sentiments are true or a cover for her yearning for a better life.
I always think of That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore as the build-up to How Soon Is Now even though the latter song was not included in the original playlist. “That Joke..” is this spiralling slower tempo sonic that leads perfectly to the edgy “How Soon Is Now”. The song itself is forlorn and portrays a narrator who at times past has made fun of the depressed and lonely but has now become what he once mocked. The song serves as a warning of sorts that “don’t laugh your turn is next” ethos. It also underlined the idea that each of our idealistic bulls eventually gets gored and then we will be on the receiving end of ridicule. Morrissey adds a splendid amount of drama to the song with his vocal delivery that makes it a winning and memorable track.
What can I say about How Soon Is Now it is the song that brought me to The Smiths? I can testify to hearing the song in a smoky Philadelphia dance club and not being able to get it out of my head until I bought the album. It literally was driving me nuts. It is a song unlike anything else The Smiths released but the lyrics were classic Morrissey with that moment when Johnny Marr stepped from the back of the stage and created sonic alchemy. The lyrics encapsulated the frustrations of a generation; when was our turn, when would love come our way, and the wry understanding we were the sons and the heirs of nothing in particular. As per Morrissey’s usual wit, he also points out we are our own worst enemies, questioning if we are victims of love or codependent assistants in our own loneliness. This plays out in the song where at the club we go alone and come home alone completely nonplussed. You could not get any more basic and universal than the lyric, “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”. The song was drama, drama and forlorn angst over the most spectacular guitar work rendered by a guitarist; instantly recognizable and it still sends a chill down my spine every time it unspools.
From that climax on the release Nowhere Fast plays on as it addressed the consequences of rampant consumerism and a narrator who sees through it all. To push the point of the title the accompaniment delivered a train track beat from Joyce and Rourke while Marr continues in his inspired guitar play. The train acts as an emphasis that life is passing us by. The song also displayed the enervation of our daily lives where the only excitement comes from a new household appliance as emphasized by the lyric, “and if a day came when I felt a natural emotion I’d get such a shock I’d probably jump in the ocean.” The song could be a companion to “What She Said” in its depressing dance with the disappointments of life and desire for Thanatos or death to put an end to it all.
Well I Wonder put Morrissey’s legendary falsetto on display. Here he presents a totally despairing individual suffering from the results of an unrequited crush. This ballad is so evocative as we witness the pain that transpires but it points out it is really not the subject of the crush’s fault, just sod’s law. The irony is that even with this rejection the narrator asks his crush to keep him in mind.
From the agony of unanswered love, The Smiths finish off the album with two legendary tracks. The first Barbarism Begins at Home looks at the futility of corporal punishment taking place in the home. Where “The Headmaster Ritual” spoke to over the top sadistic punishment in schools, “Barbarism Begins at Home” took on child abuse at home and the Catch 22 children are caught in where every action is wrong and a crack on the head is always looming. The lyrics and presentation are extremely Dickensian and every time I hear this song I think of Oliver Twist. There is again this dichotomy between the absolute funk fest that is Rourke’s bass and the staccato percussion that delivers the crack of abuse which makes the track riveting. When you add in Morrissey’s offhand vocal, which personifies the evil of the assumption that physical abuse is necessary and does no harm you, have a thought-provoking work. The yodelling falsetto at the end only underlines the torment and terror of the abuse that is going on. The title track Meat is Murder is the grand finale that for many listeners has been a life-changing experience. This song has converted may an individual to vegetarianism with Morrissey just call it as he sees it. As appropriate the accompaniment is dark and plodding with the sounds of the abattoir emphasizing the ugly truth, something has to die for humans to eat meat. Morrissey sees this disconnect between the death of an animal and the obsession with festive meat eating as the ultimate desensitizing in mankind. He signs off the album with the lyric, “No, No, No, it’s murder, who hears when animals cry?” No matter your convictions on the topic this song will certainly make you ponder your eating habits.
Meat is Murder is a walk through the seamy side of human beings existence and the many indignities that are experienced. There are a number of dark and sinister topics discussed. Topics that society likes to avert their eyes from because it is easier to pretend they don’t exist than to find a better way. What saves this release from being an easily ignored screed on the demons of our nature is the way The Smiths married these serious topics to alluring sounds. The music was easy to approach and mesmerizing, helping the medicinal hard truths to go down and take root while making the listener ponder what could be done. That is the brilliance of the recording and why 30 plus years later this album packs such a punch.
The Smiths would go on remaining outsiders while attaining musical success on their own terms. They would only produce two more studio efforts and Meat is Murder would prove to be their most commercially successful endeavour. By 1987 The Smiths would end and the members would move on to other efforts, with Morrissey going solo and Marr moving on to collaborate with numerous artists. Marr would found Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant. In 2013 he would finally embark on his own solo career. The Smiths still has a fervent fan base that dreams of a reunion that is unlikely to occur due to personal and professional differences. That being as it may The Smiths have much to be proud of, many have tried to replicate their creativity but all have to certain degree failed. They helped birth the Alternative genre and spawned numerous bands who owe much to what these four lads from Manchester accomplished. Meat is Murder is deservedly on the list of the most influential albums of our time.