Vegetarians of the world unite and save the day. And to all meat eaters - you are sleeping, you do not want to believe.
For many of us who came of age in the mid '80s, The Smiths probably provided the soundtrack to a political maturing as much as an emotional one. My epochal moment of teenage rebellion came on July 23, 1986, a day I had strategically reserved for the purchase of The Queen Is Dead, so as to coincide with the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
The gesture had its drawbacks: it took me 15 minutes to be served in an empty Woolworth's, unable to distract the shop assistants from the spectacle of Ferguson's 17-foot long train inching its way up the aisle of Westminster Abbey.
A vegetarian life only began a few years later, not least because it took me until then to work out what vegetarians actually ate. Anyone who felt similarly, or worried about the Smiths' protein intake, may find some validation in Michael Bonner's "Meat Is Murder" cover story in the new issue of Uncut, in UK shops today. For young Mancunians adrift on the motorways of Thatcher's Britain, awkward visits to Little Chef and a predilection for crisps were the only solution.
"If they’d have been presented with something like a couscous salad," says their old tour manager, "it wouldn’t have gone down well." Michael's piece is very good on diet, then, but it's also a great snapshot of an era when politics were at the forefront of British music: besides interviewing Billy Bragg and Paul Weller for the piece, he also spoke with Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party.
Some other auspicious figures are interviewed in the new issue, notably Maestro Ennio Morricone (whose memories of working with Morrissey are revealing)
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Morrissey is on the front cover of the new issue of Uncut – out now – and inside we celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder with an in-depth, inside look at the making of the group’s second record, released 30 years ago.
With help from band members, close associates and contemporaries – even Neil Kinnock – we learn about awkward moments in Little Chefs, car races with OMD and the use of sausages as an offensive weapon. We also look at the political climate of the time, and how that influenced the band’s vegetarianism.
"You can’t record an album called Meat Is Murder and slip out for a burger,” observes Andy Rourke.
“One time, we stopped at a service station to get some breakfast. Everyone ordered scrambled eggs or fried eggs or whatever. I ordered the full English breakfast.
“When it arrived, Morrissey left the table. Then Johnny Marr left the table. Then Mike Joyce left the table. So I was sat on my own with this English breakfast feeling very uncomfortable. I went vegetarian after that.”
Katharine Viner at the Guardian wrote a review of the album in 2011.
It would be easy to be appalled by the Smiths if you came across them now. There is Morrissey's tendency for unpleasant Little Englander outbursts. His laddy gang of followers, suedeheaded meatheads with football terrace chants. And, worst of all, David Cameron's repeated claim that they're one of his favourite bands. From a distance, the Smiths look unlovable, safe, and strangely, considering Morrissey's gladioli-wielding androgyny, overwhelmingly male.
Well, they were none of those things at the time. If you were a teenager in the 80s, perhaps – what are the chances? – misunderstood and alone in a fraying household in a northern city with only books and records to save you, well, you might have fallen for them too.
The album I have chosen is 1985's Meat Is Murder. The Smiths' eponymous debut is their most astonishing record, The Queen Is Dead their best, but Meat Is Murder is my favourite: freewheeling, exciting, political, with Morrissey's words and Marr's music interlacing perfectly.
It starts as if in the middle of something – you're already part of this. Meat Is Murder is local and British from the first line – "Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools" – and expresses fury at a kind of school life that has been forgotten. When the album was released, corporal punishment was still legal – it wasn't banned until 1986 – and everyone had a particularly sadistic teacher like Morrissey's "spineless swines". Mine was Miss Grant, who had a flat bat on which she had chalked two faces, one happy and one down-in-the-mouth – if the smiling face was showing, the bat would be hitting someone that day. The brilliantly titled Barbarism Begins at Home, during which Morrissey yelps as if in pain, is also about children being hit – "a crack on the head is what you get for asking". There's a lot of violence in the Smiths.
Rusholme Ruffians, with Johnny Marr's rockabilly riff, is about Manchester too and makes the city (home of much of the history of British feminism, socialism, vegetarianism and the Guardian) sound exciting, a place where things happen. Who wouldn't want to be ruffian from Rusholme? I was from the other side of the Pennines, but pilgrimages to the city (because of the Smiths) gave me style (old men's coats from Affleck's Palace, the second-hand clothes and records emporium that opened in 1982), rare Smiths 12ins (What Difference Does It Make? with Morrissey on the front instead of Terence Stamp), photos in front of Salford Lads Club, chance meetings with Morrissey's ex-girlfriend (artist Linder Sterling, working in Deansgate Waterstone's), and, just a little bit, a sense of possibility.
It's a record full of yearning("I want the one I can't have, and it's driving me mad"), the humiliating obviousness of when you want something ("It's written all over my face"), low expectations ("Please keep me in mind"), the melodrama of youth("This is the final stand of all I am"), and romance ("My faith in love is still devout").
It's also funny. "I'd like to drop my trousers to the Queen," sings Morrissey on Nowhere Fast. "Every sensible child will know what this means. The poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms." It's hard to hear the song without wondering if Morrissey is already, on only his second album, parodying himself: "If the day came when I felt a natural emotion, I'd get such a shock I'd probably jump in the ocean."
I love the way What She Said, one of the best Smiths songs, is told from a female perspective – it's rare for male songwriters to write about women with empathy rather than desire – and how it taps into a certain kind of teenage girl's fantasies: "What she read, all heady books, she'd sit and prophesise … It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really open her eyes." And the tune! Morrissey beats a path to your head, but it's Marr who carries the words to your heart.
And then, right at the end, the title track: a great political song, and the best ever written about animal rights. (Even famous vegetarian Paul McCartney, who has written tracks about the British in Northern Ireland, revolutionary politics and 9/11, has never written a song about vegetarianism. He once told me he'd always found it curiously hard to commit one to paper, even though he'd tried, and that he greatly admired the Smiths' effort.) Meat Is Murder's sinister opening, full of strange noises that conjure up an abattoir, moves into a terrible, beautiful melody. "The carcass you carve with a smile, it is murder … And the turkey you festively slice, it is murder." The song made me stop eating meat, and I haven't eaten it since.
Sometimes I wonder if a love affair with the Smiths is an 80s, self-absorbed, teenage thing, something you grow out of – perhaps when the day comes "that you feel a natural emotion". But those witty, thoughtful lyrics; that beautiful guitar; an album containing the great line, "a double bed, and a stalwart lover for sure – these are the riches of the poor". It's a wonderful thing.
Stereogum published an anniversary text 5 years ago...
When I was in high school I had a Meat Is Murder t-shirt. The one with the lyrics to the album’s title track on the front: “It’s not natural, normal or kind / The flesh you so fancifully fry / The meat in your mouth / As you savor the flavor / Of murder,” etc. I went to Catholic School, so I usually wore it beneath a dress shirt that was only unbuttoned at the end of the day, but when the regular uniform came off, it existed in a rotating cast with Minor Threat, Dinosaur, Youth of Today, and Sonic Youth tees. I mention it because Meat Is Murder is sort of the perfect high school album, regardless of when you were a teenager, even if you were usually more into noisier music.
Meat Is Murder is the Smiths’ sophomore album. It came out on February 14, 1985, following their 1984 self-titled debut. (Yes, Valentine’s Day is a more than fitting release date for an album housing “How Soon Is Now?,” one of the greatest lonely heart anthems of all time.) It’s a great “teen” record because of its lovesickness, but also because of the politics and rebellion and how it can so easily overlap with that romanticism. Listen again to “The Headmaster Ritual,” “Rusholme Ruffians,” “Barbarism Begins At Home,” the aforementioned title track. Or look at the bold album art, a touched-up still from the 1968 documentary In The Year Of The Pig. These 10-songs find Morrissey taking on the position of wounded poet and strong-willed activist, wry comedian. He’s also just taking control: Unlike the John Porter-helmed debut, Morrissey and Johnny Marr produced this one.
Sure, Meat Is Murder’s lyrical angles were continued and expanded upon on 1986′s Hubert Selby-referencing The Queen Is Dead and the band’s fourth and final studio album Strangeways, Here We Come and onward into the compilations and solo careers. Morrissey’s wit, details, and heart flutters were always a staple for the kids reading Oscar Wilde and throwing gladiolas onstage for his back pocket, but Meat Is Murder has always struck me as the most punk of the Smiths’ studio album as well as the most varied musically. If you listen to The Queen immediately after the final notes of “Meat Is Murder,” it feels so much more cohesive and mannered, the weird stylistic jumps in its predecessor honed into a more easily beautiful whole. I’m not saying one is better than the other — because both are great — but Meat is definitely weirder (there are cow samples, people). The collection’s most enduring song “How Soon Is Now?” was initially a B-Side for “William, It Was Really Nothing,” but its success in clubs/on radio earned it a spot on the record. “Well I Wonder” and “What She Said” were also initially B-Sides. In a way, it’s an odds and ends … one that fit together pretty perfectly.
Nobody stays in high school forever, but Meat Is Murder has a way of gaining layers and subtleties as you move onto college and beyond. Unlike some “teen” albums, it still sounds good after you’ve grownup. With that in mind, the record turns 25 this Valentine’s Day. It’s been around a long time, soothing any number of misfits, so we asked some of our favorite musicians about their own experiences with the record. (...)