Rewind to 1985. The rich are making their first calls upon excessively large “mobile” phones, Oxford are busy refusing Maggie Thatcher a doctorate, whilst the BBC are engineering the downfall of evening television by launching Eastenders. Meanwhile, back up north, Morrissey, Marr and co are busy releasing their own kitchen-sink drama in The Smiths’ second album – Meat is Murder.
30 years later, and it is still easy to see how the album became The Smiths’ highest charting release, topping the album charts. Opener ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ still blasts unrelentingly a remarkably relaxed tale of schoolboy abuse. Ever cryptic, who knows if any of the tale is autobiographical to the lyricist. But who really cares?
Thematically, what’s a Smiths album without a literary muse? Their debut snipped up the playbooks of Sheila Delaney, gleefully sneaking quotes amidst their track listing. But Meat is Murder relies on the cult classic Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. You need only read the title to understand why the work appealed to Morrissey. It doesn’t take too much to picture him lying down and weeping by Manchester station, scrawling quotes for ‘What She Said’ and ‘Well I Wonder’ into a large notebook entitled ‘Feels’.
‘Well I Wonder’ is a song of immense beauty. The work is a musical interpretation of the heart-breaking final lines of By Grand Central Station, “My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?” Critics were always so quick to shallowly condemn Morrissey’s use of literary sources as plagiarism. But, as always, he does not merely lift quotes – he gives them new life. A sentence upon a page now meanders atop the sorrowful plodding of Joyce’s bass and Marr’s soft acoustic. The sound of rain begins to filter into the arrangement as the song reaches a close. The arrangement is perfect, and it is clear why the band chose never to play the song live. It belongs to an isolated moment in time, one that is so overwhelmed with pathos that it could never be recreated live.
Melancholy aside, the album is also humorous – whatever Morrissey will
proclaim in ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’. ‘Nowhere Fast’ marks Morrissey’s first foray into monarchy bashing. 30 years on, and the image of him dropping “his trousers to the queen” is only funnier. Similarly, the narrative of young love and contemplated suicide at the fair in ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ is somehow made very amusing. There is so much glee taken in the pain of young lovers. If someone “scratch[ed] my name on your arm with a fountain pen” in their arm, that’s as good as a marriage proposal, isn’t it?
But then there is the album’s title track – the closer, ‘Meat is Murder’. The song is a perfected dramatic performance. Sampled bone-saws and animals cries serve as a harrowing prologue and epilogue, introducing the main text of Morrissey’s vegetarian mantra. It’s a struggle to find a better and more affective opening line than “Heifer whines could be human cries” when uttered
in a grave-like whisper. There is something disturbing about how Morrissey’s voice remains so delicate while documenting such harrowing sights. Who knows how many people have been converted to vegetarianism since having their blood chilled by the track. And for a band so passionate about their views, who could ask for a better legacy than to still be affecting the dietary choices of their listeners 30 years down the line?