The 1980s required resilience from those of Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s disposition, whose agenda conflicted so starkly with the political and pop mainstream of the time. In 1985, The Smiths released their second album, ‘Meat Is Murder’, a continuation of the band’s uniquely effete defiance, but also a shift towards engaging with the contemporary figures and policies they would come to openly execrate, both on vinyl and in public.
The album’s title, taken from its closing track, has been used as a neat delineation marking a transition for the band. However, though they occupy a position of militancy on ‘Meat Is Murder’, they had courted controversy with a similarly tendentious album closer on their debut record, ‘The Smiths’. It is not now considered as intrinsic to the band’s legacy, but ‘Suffer Little Children’, about the Moors murders in their native Manchester, was personal, unsettling and evocative of a sensitive subject in much the same way ‘Meat Is Murder’ is. In both instances Morrissey is strident, rather than mawkish or reliant on pathos. That there are a number of similarly forthright, politicised songs on this album make it an important progression for The Smiths, though not an inexplicable one.
The band had previously risen to prominence with singles ‘What Difference Does It Make’ and ‘This Charming Man’. The world had become acquainted with Morrissey’s florid verse and androgynous performance, but the group were frustrated by their stilted series of studio sessions. They therefore took control of production on ‘Meat Is Murder’ to avoid any further discrepancies that might hinder their progress, and this liberation is palpable.
On ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, Marr props a rockabilly riff up against Morrissey’s provincialism. For many, the pair’s alchemy solely defines and accounts for the band’s magic, and ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ is one of the clearest examples of their distinct styles combining. The searing, graphic sound of the abattoir blades and its tortured victims is further evidence of Morrissey and Marr matching the violent lyrical themes with unsparing, brutal production. Indeed, the album begins with a tremendous sense of urgency; opener ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is aggressive, its opening riff curtailed only for Morrissey to declare, “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”.
Elsewhere, “unruly boys” are “taken in hand” and cracked on the head on ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, and people are kicked when they fall down on ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’. Yet, among the album’s violence, there are also some of the finest examples of Morrissey’s idiosyncratic articulations of wit, love and yearning.
Typically melodramatic, the album’s quotidian references are parochial and insular, but draw upon profound, universal sentiments. ‘Nowhere Fast’ has Morrissey describe “each household appliance is like a new science in my town”, while retaining his political perspective and taking aim at the Queen for being ignorant and oblivious of the needy, a topic he would readdress on ‘The Queen Is Dead’.
There is also a poetic wistfulness that foreshadowed Morrissey’s (invalid) reputation as a misanthrope. Perhaps back in Manchester, a train going by is “such a sad sound” to him, while he pines for an unrequited love on ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’. But Morrissey’s wit is as prominent - and overlooked - as his longing. His story of adolescent, fairground romance is depicted with the words: “Scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen / This means you really love me”, and a tryst is recommended to take place in an alley by a railway station as a means of self-validation.
It is in its closing song though, that the group achieved something momentous. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that, like many others, my nascent vegetarianism was informed and consolidated by The Smiths. If undertaken by any other group, the song’s intention would have been lost and its execution botched. Instead, ‘Meat Is Murder’ is neither didactic nor silly, and it is with this achievement The Smiths were able to conclude one of the decade’s most important albums.
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Words: Luke Tadgell