The Forgotten Middle Child
Meat Is Murder is the forgotten middle child. It is the one that goes unnoticed, and is unjustly ignored at Christmas, weddings, and funerals. Unfairly grouped behind its siblings due to their universal acclaim (Strangeways, Here We Come, and The Queen is Dead), and the fact that Meat Is Murder came afterwards (The Smiths), the sheer importance of The Smiths‘ wonderful second LP is often forgotten. In his review for All Music, Stephen Thomas Erlewine matter of factly states the LP repeated, “lyrical and musical ideas of before without significantly expanding them or offering enough hooks or melodies to make it the equal of The Smiths or Hatful of Hollow“, while Robert Christgau declared that The Smiths, “come on–passive-aggressive, the pathology is called, and it begs for a belt in the chops.” These summations are simply inaccurate and rather miss the point. While the record does not have any ‘hits’, scoring chart toppers was not the band’s goal with the record, and Christgau’s quack pseudo psychology is just lazy.
Recorded in winter 1984 for a February 1985 release, Meat Is Murder found the band sounding more muscular and confident, politically strident, and far less lyrically abstract than they had up to that point. It is a more coherent and unified effort than either Hatful of Hollow, which is unsurprising as Hollow is a compilation, and The Smiths, which suffered from the way too perfect production of John Porter (Roxy Music), and the fact that some songs on there simply didn’t work (‘Miserable Lie’).
In March 1985, in an interview with fanzine writers for Melody Maker, Morrissey stated that, “the whole idea with Meat Is Murder was to control it totally and without a producer things were better. We saw things clearer. I mean, in very simple terms we are very, very angry. We’re angry about the music industry. We’re very angry about pop music. And I think it’s about time that somebody said something and somebody did something that is of value.” The control and anger of which Morrissey speaks are two of the major strengths of the LP. After all this is a record that begins with the lines, “Belligerent ghouls, ran Manchester schools. Spineless swines, cemented minds.” Gone are the allusions and ambiguity of ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ (“It’s time the tale were told, of how you took a child, and made him old”) and ‘This Charming Man’ (“Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, will nature make a man of me yet?”) replaced with a much more forthright and forceful Morrissey.
The new found bluntness culminates in the tour de force of the title track. A near seven minute diatribe railing against human consumption of animal meat, over the years it has received its fair share of criticism for being overly maudlin, yet there is something undoubtedly spine tingling about Morrissey crooning equally mournfully and angrily, “Heifer whines could be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die”. Combined with this is the very fact that the song is responsible for the conversion of innumerable people to vegetarianism, something that makes Johnny Marr quite chuffed. In a book by Neil Taylor called Document and Eyewitness: An Intimate History of Rough Trade, he said, “I am very proud of the fact that 20 years on people tell me they became a vegetarian as a result of ‘Meat is Murder’. I think that is quite literally rock music changing someone’s life – it’s certainly changing the life of animals. It is one of the things I am most proud of.” That certainly sounds like a piece of art with ‘value’.
And there’s humour too, as ‘Nowhere Fast’ demonstrates with it’s now classic line, “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen. Every sensible child will know what this means.” There’s a playfulness here, and in lots of music by The Smiths and Morrissey that is often ignored in order to perpetuate Morrissey’s image as a grumpy, misanthropic curmudgeon. In actuality, that is a rather unimaginative, two dimensional view. Rather, he is an often wry, and darkly humourous curmudgeon, not a million miles away from Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Witness the rather funny description of the speedway operator in ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ with “grease in his hair” who “is all a tremulous heart requires”.
Combined with this more aggressive lyrical approach, the record introduced themes and topics that have been the foundation of Morrissey’s material since. There’s the roiling anti-education system “The Headmaster Ritual” with it’s tales of beatings at the hands of sadistic teachers, a subject that cropped up again in the Morrissey solo epic “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” from 1995’s Southpaw Grammar and again in his autobiography in which he dubbed Mother Peter, the Catholic nun who ran the primary school he attended, “a bearded nun who beat children from dawn to dusk”.
Then there’s the tale of domestic abuse “Barbarism Begins At Home” and it’s disturbingly accurate exploration of the indiscriminate fury it entails, “A crack on the head is what you get for not asking, and a crack on the head is what you get for asking.” This subject would be touched in, in a more abstract manner on 1987’s Strangeways, Here I Come with ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’: “There are times when I could have “murdered” her (but you know I’d hate anything to happen to her)” and most recently on “Staircase at the University” from Morrissey’s solo effort World Peace Is None Of Your Business, in which a student commits suicide due to academic pressure placed on her by her father and boyfriend.
Morrissey’s ambigious sexuality is explored in “I Want The One I Can’t Have”, but in a much more up front manner than previously. It’s lyric of “I want the one I can’t have, and it’s driving me mad, it’s written all over my face” is a far cry from the elusiveness of “This Charming Man” from The Smiths’ debut. This subject seems to occupy Morrissey nearly as much as his fans as he has returned to it again and again since on “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” from Strangeways, the standalone 1991 solo single “My Love Life”, and on “You Have Killed Me” from 2007’s Ringleader of the Tormentors which references the openly gay film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
These quintessentially ‘Morrissey’ themes and blunt lyrics are presented over a suitably more muscular and athletic musical accompaniment. Since following John Porter’s lead during the recording of The Smiths in 1983, Johnny Marr had become a much more robust and confident musician, guitarist, and producer. Disappointed with Porter’s polished production on the first LP, Marr, who has said “it (The Smiths) really doesn’t represent how the group sounded at the time”, and Morrissey, who declared in his autobiography that the recording on The Smiths sounds “pasty and thin”, decided to strike out on their own production wise, and with the help of a young engineer named Stephen Street, created what would become the defining sound of the Smiths on Meat Is Murder.
There’s an urgency present that is sorely missing from their preceding LP. Most notable is the improvement on Andy Rourke’s bass tone, and Mike Joyce’s drum sound. Whereas Rourke’s wonderfully, and surprisingly, funky bass lines were left limply in the background on The Smiths, tracks like “Nowhere Fast”, “Rusholme Ruffians” and “Barbarism Begins At Home” sees them displayed much more prominently. The bass lines snap and pop, often offering a lead-like melodies that play counter to Marr’s sometimes flamboyant, and sometimes understated guitar work. The tracks are much more forceful and energetic as a result.
Like any drummer worth his pay cheque, Joyce drives the songs. On Meat Is Murder his drums are dry, sharp and hit with impact, a stark contrast to the anemic echo drenched drum sound that John Porter brought to The Smiths. Again, urgency is the goal. While Joyce is not exactly the most spellbinding of drummers, Morrisey once said that both Rourke and Joyce were lucky, “If they’d had another singer they’d never have got further than Salford shopping centre”, the production on Meat Is Murder allows his drum work to help focus the more upbeat tracks like “Rusholme Ruffians”, and “I Want The One I Can’t Have” with a genuine sense of velocity. As each track heads into the next, the record develops a more than solid momentum, glossing over any lulls.
Two things are different about Johnny Marr on Meat Is Murder when compared to The Smiths. The aforementioned crisp, sinewy production, and the more intense, nimble song writing. It’s like he sat down, listened to “This Charming Man” on repeat, and thought, “Let’s be having more of that”. Just listen to the opening of “Rusholme Ruffians”. The track practically drips with life. The acoustic guitar chimes with verve and vigour, the bass bounces dynamically, while the drums steadily, but assuredly steer the song with aplomb. It’s a method repeated elsewhere, on “I WAnt The One I Can’t Have” but with signature jangly, fill heavy Marr guitar work, on “What She Said” which is really far to funky to be indie. The slower numbers benefit too. There’s a depth to Marr’s echoing guitars on “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” that would have been as shallow as a paddling pool on their debut, while “Well I Wonder” again has a solidity and backbone that is essential for the songs success. The Smiths was Marr’s apprenticeship, Meat Is Murder is his first unequivocal success.
Generally, the consensus on Meat Is Murder is that while it is a better produced record than its predecessor, its songs are not on a par with those featured on The Smiths, while its ambition is lesser than The Queen Is Dead, and Strangeways, Here We Come. But Johnny Marr once said, “We invented indie as we still know it” and it is here, on Meat Is Murder, that The Smiths successfully created the lasting template of indie, and not on the limp self-titled record, nor on the two records that followed. There they expanded the template to a level that few have reached since, but Meat Is Murder is the nucleus, the foundation that made this exploration possible. It is fundamental. It is essential. It is The Smiths.