Meat Is Murder Turns 25
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.
Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu
When I was a young boy I heard a dying cow screaming out above a minor and sweltering harmony. I did not know what it was for or who the man singing was or why the cow was dying. As a teenager, during one of my first physical encounters, at a party, with several other equally hapless teenagers, someone put this record on. I had not heard it since and was immediately thrown back into being childhood. The vague memory was so strong and disquieting that I got up and left the virgin’s orgy. My mind could not have been further away from what was going on around me. We were trying to connect and the soundtrack was about being unable to. I could not stand myself. It led me to meatlessness, it led me to questioning my fucking catholic school teachers, it led me to question youth in war and it led me to want to try to sing. Along with everyone else on earth the lines, “You could meet somebody who really loves you. / So you go and you stand on your own, / and you leave on your own, / and go home and you cry / and you want to die,” gave my being alone meaning. It gave me somewhere to put that feeling, knowing that it was the feeling of a grown up, that not only teenagers felt that way. The cassette!
Colin Meloy, The Decemberists
Like a bomb specifically designed to detonate at the perfect time and altitude so as to exact the maximum amount of carnage, Meat Is Murder came into my life exactly when it was intended to strike. Literally 15 clumsy and shy. The song “Well I Wonder” spoke to me so much that even I, all pimply and introverted, thought it bore almost too much resemblance to my life. I wore that cassette thin, so thin you could hear the shadows of the first throes of “The Headmaster Ritual” through the hissing bandsaws at the end of the title track. “So scratch your name on my arm with a fountain pen / This means you really love me.” In my mind, I petitioned to be a character in one of the songs; the stories of provincial England resonated somehow, impossibly, with my agonized adolescence in provincial Montana with all its hicks and jocks and repressed, meddling adults. (No offense, repressed, meddling adults!) The carnival idyll of “Rusholme Ruffians” could be the Last Chance Stampede and Fair with all it’s wheeling rides, desperate teens and drunken toughs; the brute in “The Headmaster Ritual” was my moustached, short-shorted gym teacher Mr Trenary. God, how that record ruled my life.
Frankie Rose, Frankie Rose & The Outs
I definitely had a Meat Is Murder shirt that I wore almost every day of the ninth grade. Also, that album has one of my favorite Smiths songs ever on it: “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” It’s great. The Smiths are the one band my mother and I can both agree on. She loves Morrissey. My mom discovered them through me!
Travis Egedy, Pictureplane
When I was really young, I remember seeing the Smiths Meat Is Murder t-shirts and patches before I had ever heard the band. I always thought they were a punk band like the Dead Kennedys or something.
My introduction to the Smiths was through Zach Condon of Beirut. When we were in high school he gave me a stack of CDs to listen to that were influencing him, because we were collaborating at the time. One of them was Singles by the smiths. It really blew me away, and I could tell right away that Zach was super-influenced by Morrissey.
During my freshman year at art school, my girlfriend and I at the time used to turn up the Smiths really loud so we could have sex in my room without my roommates hearing. She and I really bonded (literally) over that record. Anytime I hear certain songs that are on that Singles album, I think about having 18 year old sex.
Zach Condon, Beirut
I remember first running into the Smiths because I had written what I assumed to be one of my best melodies yet as a 16-year-old and then my brother walks into the room and says “You ripped off the Smiths.” I ripped off the chorus of “How Soon Is Now”: “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” I ripped off that melody note-for-note and had no idea … it was probably buried in my subconscious from some ’80s radio channel … It was an education…
Andy MacFarlane, The Twilight Sad
Since we started as a band Meat Is Murder has always been a big influence on us. We can relate to the album a lot with our music, the “kitchen sink realism” concepts, guitar and bass playing, the artwork — everything about it really. Two of us are vegetarians also, although maybe that wasn’t the influence of the album, seen as I was barely one when it was released. It’s an album I always refer back to when doing any writing. To this day, I’d easily say it’s not just the Smiths best record but one of the best records ever made.
Zac Pennington, Parenthetical Girls
If it were possible to draw a line through a lifetime’s worth of despondency and misanthropy back to a single lo-bias cassette tape, my first copy of Meat Is Murder would have a lot of blood on its hands. All of the blood, actually. In my early teens, I had the sort of contempt for the Smiths that’s typically reserved for closet case homophobes — they were the musical manifestation of everything that I feared and hated about my pubescent self: hypersensitivity, self-absorption, morbid desperation, and above all else, sexual dread. Then there was Meat Is Murder, and suddenly I had found my enabler.
Though at this point perhaps my least favorite full length in the Smiths’ essentially flawless catalog (though it’s splitting hairs, really), Meat Is Murder was certainly my gateway into an unhealthy mania for Morrissey that still plagues. It was the first reaffirming fight song for everything that was wrong with me then, and that more or less remains wrong with me now. I blame Meat Is Murder for every person I’ve ever wronged, every bad decision I’ve ever made, every song I’ve ever written, everything. Every deplorable action in the long line of deplorability that I have engaged in during my adult life can be traced back to this album.
But I need to cling to something.
Dean Spunt, No Age
I got this in high school, after I got the Smiths Singles record off those magazine ads where you could get 10 CDs for a penny. This is my favorite of the Smiths’ album covers and also of the shirt designs. So iconic it’s scary. Also this record, the song and also the imagery of the cover was a big part of me going vegetarian. I had a really cool badge of the kid with “Meat Is Murder” written on his helmet that I used to wear all the time, and then I made stationary with the kid on it in high school for a printmaking project. It also has “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” which is one of my favorites (but really, they all are my favorites). There is no bad Smiths song.
T Grave, Blessure Grave
The Smiths were a band I got into late in the game. During the Summer of 2000 I started hanging out with this kid James who I was internet friends with all through my later crust punk years after I discovered AOL. He lived in Worcester, Massachusetts and we finally met when his parents rented a house on Hampton Beach, New Hampshire which was about 15 miles from where I lived. Hampton Beach was a dirty place where metal heads, gangbangers from Massachusetts, and jocks went to get shit faced and run wild. When I arrived he and his friend who had come up with him were fighting about Meat is Murder and how it was the worst Smiths album, but how his friend had bought it anyways on cassette since it was so cheap. We listened to that tape and some live Cure albums while laying on bunk beds in that beach house for a week or two straight in between flirting with girls and eating pizza. The Smiths went on to become a personal favorite of mine and I have since come to think that Meat is Murder is not their worst record by any stretch and has some of the best songs they ever wrote. And then there was the time I bought a shirt depicting the album cover from Taang Records for 20 bucks, only to try it on and realize it was an iron-on transfer, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Drew Daniel, Matmos/Soft Pink Truth
“Gasping, But Somehow Still Alive”
On the subject of Meat is Murder, let’s get the obvious part over: we have surely hugged “How Soon Is Now?” to death. From its shimmering Shondells-esque tremolo hook to its unforgettable miserabilist stanzas to its kitschy rebirth as a sampled loop in Soho’s “Hippychick,” the song enjoys the dubious distinction of being The Smiths’ “Stairway To Heaven” (banister to purgatory?). All together now: “So you go and you stand on your own / and you leave on your own / and you go home, and you cry and you want to die.” I first heard the song in eighth grade from a tall, bookish boy named Christian. His fierce love of the Smiths got me speculating. Was he … ? He’d put on the Smiths and we’d listen and we’d look at each other. I knew what I wanted to know, but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask. I still can’t vouch for Christian, but I do know that back then listening a little too carefully to the Smiths was an adolescent rite of passage for lots of shy boys and girls my age. Sometimes you used their music to test the waters, and sometimes you used it to shield yourself and cover up.
By the time I was in college and out of the closet, the queers I hung out with engaged in bitter debates about the politics of Morrissey’s, ahem, “celibacy.” Radically political pals in ACT UP and Queer Nation decried what was seen as a corny case of the glass closet, a spineless switcheroo in which “celibacy” was a way of not having to stand up and be counted amongst the down and dirty perverts of the world. To such listeners, Morrissey’s four-alarm faggotry was a fait accompli, which meant that all this celibate posturing wasn’t a radical form of straight-edge virtue but just a reactionary cop-out. I recall my friend Diet Popstitute listening to some such argument and harrumphing in disgust words to the effect that “worrying about Morrissey’s sex life is about as interesting as debating the subtleties of acting technique in the career of Tom Selleck.” Diet had a point. But if Morrissey upheld community-based models of belonging and togetherness and political solidarity then he wouldn’t be Morrissey. Not fitting into any community was the point, and whether the “club” in “How Soon Is Now?” is a straight pick up joint or a gay bar doesn’t really matter from this point of view. No matter what demographic you’re in, sometimes you wind up alone. Diet died of AIDS and Morrissey has lived to (not) tell, a brutally indifferent outcome woven into the everyday which is surely of a piece with the business-like abattoir killings decried in the anti-animal cruelty anthem “Meat is Murder.” By the time I finished college minus Diet and many others, I didn’t need the Smiths to tell me that in the midst of life we are in death. I didn’t much feel like listening anymore.
Cut to twenty years after these early puppy-love imprintings and unresolvable resentments. From out of nowhere, just last month I was ambushed by a bite-size Proustian madeleine of keening nostalgia courtesy of this era of the Smiths. My band was setting up and getting ready to play in San Francisco at a big anniversary bash for the SFMOMA. We were dutifully booting up software, tuning oscillators on synths, and making sure that MaxMSP/Jitter patches were running smoothly on the video processing rig. I was testing a microphone when the DJ put on “Well I Wonder,” the B-Side to “How Soon is Now?,” and I was instantly teleported back into my awkward, closeted teenage self. Then, bitterly stung by unrequited love for a straight bandmate in my high school hardcore band, I would play “Well I Wonder” over and over to myself while wallowing in hopeless ardor: “Well I wonder / Do you hear me when you sleep? / I hoarsely cry…” at which point a wordless sighing croon erupts in the place of yet more useless demands. Within the contracted world of this song, it’s a foregone conclusion that the answer to such human-doormat questions is a resounding No — and yet that knowledge doesn’t extinguish the impossible desire for love, but only inflames it further. Like James Brown’s “Prisoner of Love” or John Dowland’s “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” it’s the kind of song you can listen to until your tears distort the room.
Channeling my teenage self, years later the words poured out of my mouth and into the microphone as I lip-synced like a drag queen for a now kinda confused Matmos audience. They thought I was being snide and condescending; surely this electro-noise-improv-musique-concrete group has nothing but contempt for the heart-on-sleeve gush of the Smiths. Technology and abstraction killed the necessity for such vulgar displays of cheap sentiment, right? Embarrassingly enough, I remembered every one of Morrissey’s words as they flooded through me: “Gasping / But somehow still alive / This is the fierce last stand of all I am…”
The words don’t sound so out of place today — or do they? To be sure, there’s plenty of hopelessness to go around in modern music: from the stark, gloomy anorexia of countless dubstep 12″ singles to the suicidal smoke signals of Xasthur and Apathia on the depressive black metal scene to the Hobbesian brutality of Prurient on the noise scene, there are many hopeless musical worlds which are, paradoxically, deeply pleasurable in their effect and entirely current in their aesthetic. But there’s nothing cool about the hopelessness of the Smiths: their hopelessness runs hot with desire, spilling over with basic, grubby, guts-on-the-floor emotional need. In this sense, it is not really hopeless at all, but rather over-full of a hope that is utopian, impossible, a painful burden which is going “Nowhere Fast” but which won’t go away. People take the piss out of the Smiths for the relentless and mawkish self-pity of Morrissey’s most over-the-top lyrics (“I Know it’s Over,” anyone?). In the case of “Well I Wonder,” it is an excruciating listen — but that’s because of a skinless vulnerability that skirts egotistical bathos and goes somewhere more interesting instead. The speaker never turns away from acknowledging the wider world of other people — on the contrary, he obstinately presses for a singular place within that wider world. Walter Benjamin wrote that “The only way of knowing someone is to love them without hope”; it is this stance that “Well I Wonder” (beautifully) refuses to achieve. The speaker of the song can’t quite abandon longings for which he knows there is no hope in this world, and the music cradles its listeners from imminent proof of that fact for as long as it can. Letting indifferent nature have her say, in its final minute we gradually hear a field recording of steadily falling rain. Eventually, the song ends. It never gives up.