At the start of the Powell and Pressburger film “A Matter of Life and Death” an RAF pilot finds himself hurtling towards his death following a direct hit at the hands of those blasted Luftwaffe boys. Smoke billows around the cockpit, his second in command lies dead behind him, his parachute is shot to ribbons…his is a hopeless cause. He makes contact with a beautiful young woman at an air base in England and, rather than shed tears or will at his impending fate, he quotes Sir Walter Raleigh;
“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage; And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
But the young pilot, Peter played by David Niven, doesn’t die and, instead, finds himself washed ashore on a quiet beach which, initially, he mistakes for Heaven. As he walks he finds a naked boy, playing a pipe, surrounded by goats who points him to the nearest village.
The whole thing is a hymn to a vision of England which, at that point, was still recognisable. Good manners, tolerance, reserve, patriotic but not nationalistic and while it is all very Romantic and while the same people who believe that Fawlty Towers is a symbol of Britain’s imperial, racist, past will find much to upset them…it doesn’t upset me. This is a vision of what England (Britain) could be at its finest moments, a vision of the country as Albion, a template for where we could take ourselves as a nation. Something went very wrong of course and now we live in a country where men in Stone Island sweaters piss next to statues erected in memory of fallen police officers and others desecrate memorials to those who fought, died, to defeat actual fascism.
Fings ain’t wot they used to be.
All of which brings us to The Smiths “The Queen is Dead”, an album that regularly features in those tiresome lists of the “best” albums of all time that make up about 37% of Q magazines output. But the wonder of “The Queen is Dead” doesn’t lie in it’s status as one of the “best” albums but in its own quiet confidence, strident emotional power and, crucially, in its own attempts to present a particular vision of England and Englishness. This is the Albion of Powell and Pressburger dressed in a raincoat and presented through the eyes of a miserablist.
As with David Niven’s “Peter”, Morrissey introduces himself by referencing a “song” from the past, a nod to the nostalgic vision of England that has, if we are to be honest, become something much darker and more sour in his hands in the years since. “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” is a music hall number that was written during the First World War and, despite its upbeat melody, is a glimpse inside the mind of the young men sent to be canon fodder in the trenches as they dream of a return to home;
Take me back to dear old Blighty!
Put me on the train for London town
Take me over there
Drop me anywhere
Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester, well, I don’t care!
It’s a poignant and tender reminder that there really is…no place like home.
The juxtaposition of this patriotism in a song that glories in the notion of regicide is one of the reasons why this album better explains what it means to love your country than a mountain of manifestos ever could. Including from those parties who have hijacked the very name of the nation they claim to love, in order to spread division in direct opposition to the very best qualities of that country. Of course it is possible that even here in his most Wildean phase that Morrissey was already hinting at the narrowness of his own vision of England.
While many see “Meat is Murder” as the most political statement in The Smiths catalogue I think “The Queen is Dead”, musically and lyrically, is the most revolutionary and charged song in their canon. For all the delicacy of Marr’s playing, the intricacy of the soundscape and the ridiculousness of some of the imagery conjured by the lyrics, the truth is that it is a forceful, blistering, blast of rage against the machinery of the State that they never really came close to matching.
Another aspect of the English identity is the awful business of knowing one’s place. Nowhere is this better represented in art than in Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar”. Anyone who is working class who watches Tom Courtenay, as Billy, turn his back on the chance to escape the humdrum town where he lives, the (literally) dead end job with Mr Shadrack and to replace them with the bright lights of London and the even brighter lights of Julie Christie’s eyes will know exactly why he makes that choice. He knows his place. When, in “Frankly Mr Shankly”, Morrissey warbles; “…it pays my way and it corrodes my soul” those of us who know, weep.
The funereal, hopeless, double blast of “I Know It’s Over” and “Never Had No One Ever” is enough to break the strongest of hearts and stoutest of constitutions. Songs that reveal the truth of the human condition, that all too often it is inhuman and inhumane. Loneliness, death, misery, tiredness and worry are the very best we can expect at times. Haven’t you ever felt the soil falling over your head, the dreadfulness of an empty bed, heard the sea sing it wants to take you? Ever walked without ease on the streets where you were raised? I thought so. Rotten innit. I didn’t forget the question mark, it wasn’t a question.
When I first discovered The Smiths it was like being inducted into another world. I was introduced to music, films and, crucially, books that I hadn’t ever heard, seen or read and that, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t ever have heard, seen or read without them. Kitchen sink dramas, the New York Dolls and Keats, Yeats and Wilde. Hearing “Cemetry Gates” was like a reading list for a fey boy like me, off to the local book shop I ran (yes, ran) to order volumes of poetry and prose because they had been referenced in this song.
He spoke, I listened and obeyed…even when no commandment had been given.
That the two singles from the album don’t arrive until side two begins is testament to the wilfully obtuse nature of the band and their soaring self-belief and confidence. On both songs it really is all about Johnny Marr. His playing, his command of everything else going on around him, like the conductor in front of the orchestra and the composer struck by inspiration these are epic examples of why so many consider him to be the finest, the bestest and the most importantest guitarist of his generation and why some even consider him to be the greatest ever. Just listen to “Bigmouth…” or “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” and tell me another musician who could have delivered something so perfect.
Oh, before you rush to Twitter to tell me about something from that chap out of Radiohead or Hendrix or John Squire or Noel Gallagher or…don’t bother, you are wrong.
That should save you some time.
While “Vicar in a Tutu” has a rockabilly charm and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” can be excused as a blip the truth is that the album wouldn’t miss either of them. Actually one could make a case for “Some Girls…” if it had been there as an instrumental or with a different lyric that was less indebted to the worst aspects of “Carry On…” but it isn’t and it does so, off with its head.
In an ideal world the album would have concluded with the epic, anthemic, hymn to suicide, love, romance and double-decker buses that is “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”. It is the an aching and achingly honest and earnest song filled with tender delights that thrill every time you hear it. “To die by your side…well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine”. Come on. I don’t care how much you have decided you hate The Smiths because they are “miserable” (they are not) or because of Morrissey (I get it) but you have to (you have to) confess that this is all the evidence that people like me need to explain why we love them so?
Damn your eyes.
It is difficult to accept this twisted vision of England and the English character today as “debate” rages about the countries imperial past and as statues topple but, for me, there is something to cherish about the Romantic vision of England as presented by “A Matter of Life and Death” and by the more complex vision of it contained within “The Queen is Dead”. Both versions rely on the suspension of our critical faculties for sure but both also offer a template for a country that everyone could rejoice in; patriotic but inclusive, romantic and realistic, hopeful and hopeless, strong and vulnerable.
It may just be.
It usually is.