Famous when dead
Reynolds wrote the perfect epitaph for The Smiths when JM decided to take his guitar elsewhere. The denouement was the simple paradox: "Who wants to grow up? Who wants to go back?" I don't give a flying fluck what the likes of Stewart Lee & Kathy Burke opine, but it makes me kind of sad when Reynolds references "the entire blemished body of M's work."
How Rock and the Royals Jostled for Britain’s Cultural Identity During the Queen’s LifetimeFrom the Beatles to the Sex Pistols to the Smiths, disgust and fascination with the monarchy became a British rock tradition over the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. (By Simon Reynolds, published today on Pitchfork)
[Copy/paste of the part covering The Smiths / Morrissey.]
Another Brexiteer, Morrissey doesn’t appear to have reneged on his fervent anti-Royalism, even though his politics have shifted sharply to the right. Then again, “The Queen Is Dead,” the title track of the Smiths’ classic 1986 album, is not a clearcut denunciation of the Royal Family, but more like a weird blend of lament and whimsy. As so often in his songs, Morrissey seems at once trapped by a country where nothing ever changes yet horrified by change—fatally attached to the past, even though it was so miserable.
“The Queen Is Dead” was consciously designed to be the successor to “God Save the Queen,” elevating and anointing the Smiths as the most important and subversive band since the Pistols. But the feeling that comes off the song, the album, and the entire blemished body of Morrissey’s work is his signature blend of fatalism and doomed romanticism. As much as the lyric mentions breaking into Buckingham Palace to speak to “Her Lowness” (who haughtily declares, “I know you and you cannot sing”), “the queen” in the title equally refers to the dandy Morrissey, who’s waiting for his life to start, lost in reveries of third genders and indefinable sexualities. The title is borrowed from a chapter in Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, about a drag queen named Georgette. This perhaps accounts for the surreal fantasy of the lines that address the Prince of Wales: “Charles, don’t you ever crave/To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?"
Later lines about how “when you’re tied to your Mother’s apron/No one talks about castration” strengthen the sense of a curious identification between Morrissey and Charles, in 1986 and for another three and a half decades stuck in limbo as he waited for a beloved mother to die so that he could become the man he was born and trained to be. (Now, finally, at the ripe old age of 73, he’s King Charles III.) Morrissey sings about being distantly related to the Royals (“I’m the 18th pale descendant of some old queen or other”), which may or may not be why in the earlier Smiths classic “Still Ill,” he declared, “England is mine, it owes me a living.”
Simon Reynolds' essay about Royalty and British music for Pitchfork, 13 September 2022.