Strictly speaking the second studio album by The Smiths Meat is Murder was released in 1985 four months after the compilation album of radio sessions Hatful of Hollow. Meat is Murder has had rough time finding its true place in the The Smith’s Discography. While it reached number one in the Album Charts when it was released, it has a habit of finding itself bumped down the rankings of their back catalogue by both fans and critics alike. However, Meat is Murder is not only a classic but a linchpin of indie music.
The move towards more politically charged lyrics by Morrissey coupled with the jangling and swooshing of Marr’s guitar sounds had a direct impact on the C86 scene that followed. A movement that in turn broke out bands like The Wedding Present, Primal Screamand the criminally marginalized Half Man, Half Biscuit. A movement that changed the indie music scene forever. John Squire of The Stone Roses credits the album as a major force in shaping his own sound. If he’d have joined Ian Brown and Mani downing pills in The Hacienda and not sat in his room painstakingly trying to emulate Marr, we wouldn’t have had The Roses sound that took the scene by storm, therefore no Madchester, no Oasis, no Gene.
After being disappointed in the production values of their debut album, Morrissey and Marr produced the album themselves. The production is credited to The Smiths but Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke were relegated to deciding their instrument levels in a George and Ringo fashion. They also brought in Steven Street to engineer the record. Requesting his number after meeting him on a session for Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. This provided the catalyst for Street to go on to produce the Strangeways Here We Come album and to become a pivotal force in Britpop. Later calling up a fledgling Blur with an offer to produce the single There’s No Other Way propelling them into the nation’s consciousness. Also cutting albums for New Order, The Courteeners and Suede.
One thing that hits you when the album strikes up, is that after the cult of personality built up around Morrissey and the influence of Johnny Marr on pretty much every indie guitarist that followed, is just how good Joyce and Rourke are. It’s a crime that they are swept aside in the adoring tributes to The Smiths but they work together as a perfectly timed engine room that allows space for Marr’s jangle riffs to have maximum impact.
The themes of this album reflect Morrissey’s own aching desires to be saved from the misery of his childhood. The demoralizing effect of the English education system in the album’s opener Headmaster Ritual. Rusholme Ruffians painting the brutality of late 70’s working class Manchester. With its vocal that’s faster paced than we are accustomed to from Morrissey he begins hitting his trademark falsetto croons for the first time on the record. Backed by Joyce’s brush snare the lyrics manage to be so provincial but touching on a global scale. I Want the One I Can’t Have sees classic Marr riffing before striking a Rockabilly tone on What She Said. The reverb making it sound like you’re listening to the band from the other end of a long corridor. The culmination of the track no doubt providing the blueprint for the instrumental finish of I Am the Resurrection by The Stone Roses.
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore was the only single from this album. Rough Trade famously rejecting the seminal How Soon is Now? Relegating it to be released as a B-Side before including it on the US version of the album. Reissues included it on the album but it was dropped again in the 2011 re-master to return to the original track listing. It doesn’t have the immediate grab of a hooky Marr riff that cornered other Smiths singles. But it does have beautiful harmonized choruses and a soaring feedback of a slide guitar fading to a false end only to reprise. Nowhere Fast is almost textbook Smiths. The rhythmic poetry of Morrissey, the jangle of Marr, rolling snare of Joyce and plodding bass of Rourke. Well I Wonder is probably the weakest track on the album. Although Morrissey’s anguished ‘keep me alive’ refrain and the sound effect of rain is almost the soundtrack to Manchester. Although sadly this isn’t the sound of the rain that hit the cobbled streets outside of the Salford Lads Club. Not even Liverpool rain where the album was recorded. But from Morrissey’s own collection of BBC Sound Effects. Barbarism Begins at Home with its bright riff betraying the dark subject matter corporal punishment returns to the pain that blighted Morrissey’s childhood.
The album closes with title track Meat is Murder and its bovine howls. The subject and phrase is something that Morrissey became inextricably linked to. And you can’t help feeling this is not the best Smiths record you’ve heard. Either lyrically or musically. But it holds its place as a true classic because nobody in British music sounded anything like this in 1985. It was the stretch creatively that gave them the confidence to make The Queen Is Dead. It inspired a generation of musicians that inspired a generation more. Quite simply, the British music scene would not be what it is today without Meat is Murder.