Meat Is Murder was the second album released by the Manchester quartet. The eponymous debut album The Smiths launched the group into the stratosphere and before Meat Is Murder came out, there had been several single releases and also a compilation album, Hatful of Hollow which in its own right can be considered as a classic, and includes the wonderous ‘How Soon Is Now’.
The world was fully aware of Morrissey’s whimsical lyrics, and Johnny Marr’s sweeping guitar hooks, but nothing compared the world for this. Just to bring a little perspective to the timescale, Foreigner had been replaced at the number one slot in the album charts by Wham, the miners were on strike, we were between Band Aid and Live Aid. Johnny Marr had only recently turned 21.
So, to the album. Any thoughts of a slow start are blown away with the first track ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ which is a romp through the glories, or gories (is that a word?) of the Manchester schooling system which the lads had not long departed. The line “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester Schools. Spineless bastards all” sums up the tone of the song, as well as the actions of the titled Headmaster -“He does the military two-step down the nape of my neck”.
The next song, ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ has a lighter tone, while still retaining a sense of dread, as this is centered round the actions at a fun fair in Manchester. As well as the wariness of the bullies who are wandering around, this shows more of Morrissey’s playful side (“a skirt ascends for the watching eye, it’s a hideous trait on her mother’s side”). Added to with Marr’s roackabilly theme adds to the light-heartedness of the song.
‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’ brings Morrissey back down to familiar territory where he pines for something / someone who is just out of reach. Although he leaves a literal “Message on the toilet door” with the line “And if you ever need self-validation just meet me in the alley by the Railway station”. Not that he was desperate or anything!
Track four, ‘What She Said’ is a jaunty pop track that Morrissey describes life from the perspective of a female, who is in need of understanding. As usual this has Moz’s prophecy of doom (“I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death”). Thankfully in the end of the song a “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” opened her eyes! Marr’s inspiring hooks catch you and you end up cheerfully singing along to what is a basic plea for help. The track also showcases drummer Mike Joyce, with a pounding beat that keeps the urgency of the track moving along.
The highlight of the album, both musically and lyrically in my opinion follows. ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ is at points tender, scathing, cynical, curious and aggressive. This has been quoted as being Johnny Marr’s favourite Smiths song, and he conjours up a haunting, waltzing unique melody to go with it. The chord structure of the first verse alone makes Musos stand up and take notice. “It was dark as I drove the point home . And on cold leather seats well, it suddenly struck me I just might die with a smile on my face after all”.
“I’d like to drop my trousers to the world, I am a man of means. Of slender means.” are the opening lyrics to ‘Nowhere Fast’ which follows, and again brings the humour and fun back into the album. The song, the shortest on the album at 2mins 37secs races through with pops at the Queen, class, modern society and eventually thinking about life and death, which according to Morrissey, “Neither one particularly appeals to me”. A triumph.
The track ‘Well I Wonder’ would be seen by any other measure as a filling, album track. But with this album there was nothing of the sort. “Gasping, dying, but somehow still alive” summed up the desperation of the protagonist of the song as they wanted to be kept in mind, for whatever they were hoping for.
The next to the last track, ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, is where the rest of The Smiths are finally allowed to let their hair down. It starts like a bomb, with Andy Rourke’s bass line providing the theme and tempo for the song – a gift he was very rarely given under Marr’s guidance – and he carries it off expertly. Think of the role John Deacon of Queen was given on ‘Under Pressure’ and you can have a meaningful comparison. The lyrics on the song reflect back to the Headmaster Ritual, where violence in school (and at home) was generally accepted. (Capital punishment was not abolished in English schools until 1986). “A crack on the head is what you get for not asking. And a crack on the head is what you get for asking”. Rourke finishes the song in a bass line that wouldn’t have been out-of-place with Nile Rodgers and Chic!
The last song, is the title track to the album ‘Meat Is Murder’. The song starts with the piano playing over the top of animal noises which gently fades into Marr’s jangly guitars. But the lyrics are anything but jangly. Morrissey doesn’t hold back in his contempt for those who choose to eat meat, and opines that any killing of animals is murder. He doesn’t miss his targets “And the calf that you carve with a smile – it is MURDER”. (The word ‘murder’ is emphasised in full capitals in the lyrics book, just to get the point across.). Whatever your views on this, I personally know two people, who upon discovering The Smiths in the 1990’s, gave up meat through being Morrissey fans, and probably this song had something to do with it.
The U.S. and Canadian versions of the album had ‘How Soon Is Now’ added to the album, and the U.K. followed suit in the mid ‘90s on the re-release of the albums, but I have left them from this review as it wasn’t on the original release.
Meat Is Murder is not considered The Smiths finest album by many, but to be fair there is a great deal of competition. But it has to be remembered that this is their only Number One album (The others ‘only’ got to Number two). This may not sound like much in today’s environment, but this was in the day when pop was king. The album is remembered as majorly significant in the development of the group. Morrissey’s lyrics were becoming more focused and sharp, and Marr’s control and production was moving up a gear. Britain was genuinely shocked when they were told they were murderers for eating meat, and the album gave a voice to those on the outside of society. As for the general tone of the album – well it certainly hasn’t aged the same way as its contemporaries, and would still be considered a masterpiece if it was released tomorrow.