Thirty years ago, The Smiths followed up a self-titled debut album which featured songs like “This Charming Man” and “Hand in Glove” with a record called Meat is Murder. It may not have the visceral punch of the debut, the gothic beauty and cohesion of The Queen is Dead or the pop confidence of Strangeways, Here We Come, but it’s still my favorite of their records, the reason for that being that this is the record in which all of the members of the band showed off their chops in equal measure to the best of their abilities. Don’t believe me? Listen to the first 10 seconds of “Barbarism Begins at Home” and we can talk again after. The fact it was their only No. 1 album on the UK Charts is further testament to its greatness.
To set the scene, let’s talk about music in 1985. In February of that year, two songs held the No. 1 spot: “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner and “Careless Whisper” by Wham! Schmaltz and sax riffs were reigning supreme. The only other album of importance to the latter-day post-punk movement to be released that month was Night Time by Killing Joke. Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair dropped too, just in case you were wondering what kind of rad pop music was available to consumers during that month. Then in walk The Smiths ready for their round two.
Allow yourself to feel small in the presence of the group’s overwhelming talent. Johnny Marr was 21 when this record was released. This means he’d written “How Soon is Now?” at that point in his life, and all I’m doing is writing about how amazing that is. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce’s rhythm section never gripes for unnecessary authority over the songs but when they’re in the spotlight, they always shine. Morrissey’s eloquence and command over the English language can be deceptive. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how recently these Manchester masterminds graduated from the institutions they decry. Their music is so fully formed it’s hard to believe it was being written by people in their early to mid twenties.
Given how youthful so many of their themes are (embarrassment, shyness, unrequited love, etc.), as well as how catchy and accessible their instrumentation is, it’s surprising the band never comes across the same way other groups more immediately identifiable as crews of young guns do. Green Day’s Dookie or even The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night sound like the products of both their times and the ages of their creators—as does most popular rock music of any era. The Smiths were handling the same themes as almost any young rock band, yet they sound infinitely more mature and wise because of how well they were writing and playing them. Anyone at college can give you a litany of complaints about their parents, but when someone tells you “Barbarism Begins at Home,” it sounds like the product of a lot more thought and time.
Since they were so beyond their years, the music doesn’t sound very dated. Sure, it’s easy to identify Meat is Murder as an ’80s record, but more because of mood and jangle than anything else. In the age of synthesizers, this is a guitar rock album through and through. Johnny Marr could shred as well as any metal band popping up back then, but he keeps everything so tasteful and necessary. Each layered riff and strumming pattern adds to a unified whole which never comes off as an ego stroke. The same goes for Joyce and Rourke. Even the notoriously self-pitying-AND-loving Morrissey keeps himself from saying anything too grandiose here.
It speaks to The Smiths’ timelessness that an album which opens with the line “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools” still sounds as bizarrely relatable today as it did 30 years ago. Morrissey’s distinctively English lyricism, borrowing more from Oscar Wilde than from any punk-rock poets of his day, is never more prominent than it is on “The Headmaster Ritual.” The song details a British schooling experience from hell which is both beyond duplication in the here and now yet so very easy to hang your hat on.
You may not have ever had a stodgy headmaster do a “military two-step down the nape of your neck” but, if you listen to The Smiths with any degree of regularity, Morrissey’s hatred for the social stratifications and abuses of power in any system of formalized education probably sounds like a page out of your own autobiography. You may say the kids you went to school with were bullies and your teachers were assholes, but is there a better way to describe the feeling of constant adolescent humiliation, both realized and anticipated, than that it “grabs and devours, kicks me in the showers, kicks me in the showers and grabs and devours?” The answer is no.
So they were a band who could help you get through your teen years while sounding like they’d been playing music and the game of life much longer than they really had. Adding to the overall maturity of the sound was Morrissey’s ability to address political injustice through satire rather than spitfire vitriol or dismissal. He hated Thatcher as much as the Sex Pistols did, but he could tell you why through well-spoken humor or smug political awareness rather than by screaming “I am an anarchist!” This is not to say he’s never above a simple pot shot, but so it goes with The Onion or The Daily Show too. On “Nowhere Fast,” he proclaims, “I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen / Every sensible child will know what this means.”
That song serves as a good sampler for the separate poles of his writing style. He’ll refine lowbrow humor here and there, but it’s always tempered with sincere and somber rumination on the human condition. A minute or two after stating his intent to moon Her Majesty, he admits, “And when I’m lying in my bed / I think about life and I think about death / And neither one particularly appeals to me.” It’s this fast-and-loose with comedy and tragedy which makes him such a singular voice. There’s no respite of levity on The Cure’s Pornography or Disintegration but there’s a “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu” on The Queen is Dead, if we’re talking about the darkest records these two often-compared bands ever put out.
Then again, Meat is Murder isn’t that dark at all (to be fair to The Cure, neither was The Head on the Door, their album from the same year). The biggest descent is probably the slow-moving and deathly title track, and can you really blame a committed vegetarian for showing the grimness of eating animals when no one else would? No Smiths album can really be described as an experiment in optimism, but this one comes pretty close at certain points. They are usually made when the band voyages into rockabilly instrumentation on songs like “Rusholme Ruffians” and “What She Said.” On the former, Morrissey remarks that his “faith in love is still devout,” and that’s about the same as Richard Dawkins saying he’s accepted Jesus Christ into his heart.
On “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” Morrissey is no longer the practicing member of the church of love he was just a song before. He wants the one he can’t have, and it’s driving him mad. But there’s still a bit less dramatization to this wanton love affair than there is on his later songs about love. There are no murderous double-decker buses and he isn’t saying dreaming about someone ever loving him was just another false alarm. He’s just kinda pissed off about not getting into his love interest’s life. This song also includes the best sext of all time: “So if you ever need self-validation / Just meet me in the alley by the railway station.”
So far, we haven’t even really talked about the singles. Before Meat is Murder, The Smiths’ 7” repertoire included “Hand in Glove,” “This Charming Man,” “What Difference Does It Make?,” “Still Ill,” “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” and “William, It Was Really Nothing.” So yes, all five-star, A+ songs most bands would kill to write. If those six songs prove anything, it’s that The Smiths came out the chute knowing how to write pop-rock better than almost any band since The Beatles. But seven is the fabled number of completion, so it’s pretty fitting that the next on the list was “How Soon is Now?”
Johnny Marr can play riffs that are so hot you feel like a rotisserie chicken just listening to them, but “How Soon is Now?” is pretty much just effects and that one wailing note the whole way through. To be fair, this song wasn’t on the original record, but it’s been on every edition since 1992 and came out just a month before the LP. So unless you’re a total purist, it’s easy to consider it an integral part of Meat is Murder. If you ever needed more evidence of his impeccable taste, here it is in spades. Besides basically inventing shoegaze as an offhand experiment, the song contains Morrissey’s most defining lyric: “I am human and I want to be loved / Just like everybody else does.”
The acoustic lilt of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” makes for another great single. On this track, the rest of the band lets their poet laureate have his brightest moment on the record. It’s a pretty good career move, considering he delivers some of his most concise and well-written lines with more impassioned determination than he does in most other places. “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives / And now it’s happening in mine” can apply to just about any situation, and Morrissey’s vocal delivery allows you to sing along so as to feel like whatever melancholy circumstance appearing in your own life is as important as you want it to be. The fact that lines like “It’s too close to home / And it’s too near the bone” and “Time’s tide will smother you” aren’t full-blown idioms now is somewhat flabbergasting.
Unsettling British schooling, vehement vegetarianism and exposing your hindquarters to an English royal may not really be the sort of thing everyone across the globe has experienced. Still, The Smiths are a band with a famously diverse fan base. When you listen to this record straight through, it’s easy to see why. Contained herein are acoustic ballads, rockabilly hopscotching guitar riffs, distorted and echoing soundscapes and lines as clever as they are depressing. In other words, Meat is Murder has something for everyone while still being uniquely a Smiths album. They invite so much widespread acclaim because of their specificity just as much as their immediate accessibility.
On Meat is Murder, The Smiths sound like they’re having more fun than they ever had or would again. The record ends on a down note and, at the end of their run, so did the band members’ relationships with each other. Thirty years on, it’s refreshing to hear a band so young and fresh yet so mature let loose and still sound just as incredible. They’re funny, tragic, politically conscious, youthful, wise beyond their years and all-out virtuosos—humans who just want to be loved. We’re just lucky they made it so easy to do.