This lengthy article on the making of 'The Queen Is Dead' originally appeared in Uncut's 'The Queen Is Dead' 20th anniversary edition (January 2006) and includes new interviews with Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. A detailed and well-written (if occasionally a little rose-tinted) look at the troubles surrounding the recording and release of this seminal album.
BY SIMON GODDARD
Twenty years ago this month, The Smiths were battling drink, drugs, depression and lawyers. They should have split up. Instead, they created their masterpiece, The Queen Is Dead. On the eve of its 20th anniversary, Smiths biographer and Uncut contributor Simon Goddard travels to Manchester where Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce reveal all about the album of the '80s... and disclose just what it would take for The Smiths to reform.
I'M ALONE, AND I'M OUTSIDE what used to be Morrissey's house: 384 Kings Road in Stretford, Manchester. A car pulls into the driveway next door. An elderly gent climbs out, takes one look at your man from Uncut and shouts over: " He doesn't live there any more. Him. Smiths."
It turns out the neighbour can remember when the young Steven Patrick Morrissey did live there, albeit vaguely. "You never saw him much," he says, which tallies with the singer's mythological adolescence as a daylight-weary box bedroom casualty immersed in Oscar Wilde, James Dean and the New York Dolls. As a house, it's an unremarkable, semi-detached two-up two-down, barely distinguishable from any other on the street. But it was here, on this doorstep, that the most remarkable band of their era came into being.
Fuelled by rumours of his lyrical prowess in an aborted punk group featuring mutual friend Billy Duffy (later of The Cult), in the summer of 1982 guitarist Johnny Marr turned up here unannounced and suggested he and Morrissey start a band. Within a week they had their first two songs and, shortly afterwards, agreed on a name: The Smiths.
Within six months they'd recruited Marr's school friend Andy Rourke on bass and drummer Mike Joyce. Within a year, The Smiths signed with London indie label Rough Trade and released their debut single, "Hand In Glove". Musically neither new pop nor post-punk, lyrically neither gay nor straight, both the single and B-side "Handsome Devil" offered a brave new version of the traditional four-piece rock sound at a time when synths had rendered guitars obsolete.
By 1984 The Smiths had become a regular addition to the national charts, each hit provoking Morrissey to bring new life to the staid environs of Top Of The Pops. Gladioli and beads. NHS specs and a hearing aid. Simple props but, as antidotes to the synthetic glitz of Duran and Spandau, ingenious displays of rock'n'roll showmanship.
Three years on from Marr's first visit to 384 King's Road, The Smiths had proved themselves both a thrillingly prolific singles band and an exhilarating live act. The darlings of the UK music press, Morrissey and Marr were being hailed as their generation's Lennon and McCartney. A place among the pantheon of all-time-greats seemed secure - bar one troublesome, final hurdle.
In the classic album stakes, 1984's debut The Smiths had potential, but it was stymied by antiseptic production. The same year's Hatful Of Hollow may be the most sublime Morrissey/Marr songbook of them all - but as a compilation of BBC session tracks and non-album As and Bs, it's not a legitimate contender. 1985's Meat Is Murder almost ticked every box. Lyrically daring and musically eclectic, it would be their only studio album to reach No 1 in the UK (toppling Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA in the process). But it still wasn't The One.
Which brings us to the real reason Uncut has come to Manchester. Not just to gawp at Morrissey's old abode, but to ask how The Smiths came to make the album which sealed their reputation, once and for all, as the greatest British group since The Beatles: 1986's The Queen Is Dead.
It is October 2005 and, over two days and many, many hours, Uncut will share tea with Johnny Marr, spend a rainy night in Chinatown with Andy Rourke, and return to the album's symbolic heart, the Salford Lad's Club, with Mike Joyce. As for Morrissey, finishing his new album in Rome and unwilling to participate in this celebration of his finest hour, the doorstep of 384 Kings Road is as close as we're going to get. For now.
"Rome, eh?" says the man next door, mildly surprised. "Makes a change from Stretford, doesn't it?"
FIVE MILES SOUTH OF STRETFORD is another lesser known spiritual home to The Smiths. Early chart success on a London label had originally necessitated a group move down south, but it wasn't long before Metropolitan isolation, homesickness and the rigours of promotion forced Johnny Marr to lead a return exodus north. Which is why, at the end of 1984, he bought a house in the Cheshire village of Bowdon. It was destined to become the band's Greater Manchester HQ for the remainder of their career.
"I think we knew, subconsciously, that we had to shut the outside world out," says Marr, speaking to Uncut over one of his "funny hippie teas" in a central Manchester cafe. "In London, when we weren't in the studio or on the road, it was all getting a bit NME-centric. We were surrounded by the record company all the time, people who were nice, but clucking round us, holding us up. We were all isolated in flats, with no good hang-out, so I bought a hang-out back up here and everything fell into place creatively. It was all very insular. We just shut up shop, moved back and became incredibly Mancunian again. Even more Mancunian, if that's possible."
Fatefully, Marr's Bowdon house came with an upright piano courtesy of the previous owner. Days after moving in, he was using it to compose the elegant instrumental "Oscillate Wildly" (featured on the 12-inch of "How Soon Is Now?") and the lachrymose lullaby "Asleep" (B-side of "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side"). "It was very worthwhile buying that house, now I think of it," he smiles.
Mike Joyce, then renting a cottage round the corner, will later tell Uncut it was "Johnny's Brill Building". Upstairs in the designated music room, he and Marr would "light a spliff" and listen to the guitarist's roughs for what would eventually become The Queen Is Dead.
"Johnny always had a guitar round his neck," Joyce will recall, with the awe of a Smiths fan. "Walking through the house, even in the kitchen. Always had a guitar. He looked weird without one. Every time he played me a riff he was working on, I'd be sitting there going, 'It's the best fucking thing I've ever heard in my life!' After a while I felt as though I was being a bit blase, but I couldn't have gotten any more excited without collapsing on the floor, or killing myself and leaving a note saying, 'It can't get any better than this, I'm ending it now!' That's the only way I'd have been able to express how amazing I thought Johnny's writing was."
Another frequent caller chez Marr was Morrissey, who had recently swapped Kensington for the neighbouring village of Hale. Listening to Marr recount how, during one night's visit, they conceived three of The Queen Is Dead's 10 tracks - "Frankly, Mr Shankly", "I Know It's Over" and "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - it's difficult not to share Joyce's amazement at both the speed and splendour of the duo's output.
Yet the apparent ease with which Marr built the foundations for The Smiths' third album belied the pressures, both private and public, on his shouders at the tender age of 21. The nature of the band dynamic, and in particular Morrissey's notorious passive-aggressive behaviour - it was not uncommon for him to blow out foreign tours at the 11th hour by refusing to get on a plane - was such that managers rarely lasted more than a couple of months before their nerves and patience snapped, only to be abruptly excommunicated. In addition to his duties as composer, arranger and co-producer, in the resultant management vacuum, it was Marr who was forced to handle their complex financial and legal affairs. Between January and December '85, and throughout the making of The Queen Is Dead, all these responsibilities would, mentally and physically, take their toll on the guitarist while also feeding the ambient gloom of the record itself.
I ask Marr about the common perception that The Smiths' 'miserabilism' was all down to Morrissey.
"That's the classic take, isn't it?" he replies. 'Johnny was upbeat and Morrissey was downbeat.' Well, it's way too convenient to think that he was sat in his room drinking camomile tea while I'm sat in the bar drinking brandies all night. That wasn't the way it was. Our relationship would have been pretty boring if that's all it had been about."
Morrissey once said his words were inspired by the sadness he heard in your melodies. So where did your sadness come from?
"Funny," he says, leaning forward. "Nobody's ever bothered to ask me that question, about why the music sounds sad. Ever. I was expecting it years ago."
Were you a sad person back then?
"Well, nobody is entirely one-dimensional, are they? I was sad when I was a little kid because the area where I grew up was very heavy. Ardwick in the late '60s was actually grim and I wasn't insensitive. It was the inner city. Women in beehives bringing up large families on not a lot of money, wearing coats bought on HP. A young Irish community. A lot of drinking, a lot of music and a lot of melancholy in the music, which I was really drawn to. These really melodic Irish ballads, like 'Black Velvet Band', which I used to love. Even some of the stuff my folks were listening to, like Del Shannon - there's a dark, gothic sadness even in his upbeat stuff. But I was brought up in an environment where it was considered impolite to lay your moods on people, so I always kept it to myself. I still have an absolutely massive capacity for introspection."
That introspection was a quality you and Morrissey recognised in one another early on?
"Yeah, absolutely. We both recognised the beauty in melancholia. We talked about it, often. About the difference between depression and melancholia. About how depression was just useless, but melancholia was a real emotion and a real place, a creative place that dealt in images and music and creative aspects of the self. Those were the things that we discussed a lot. I would often simplify it by saying, 'Yeah, well, you know, it's that feeling where you've got your head leaning against the bus window on a November Wednesday morning with the rain coming down, driving through Manchester.' That's what a lot of my songs sounded like because I spent a lot of time doing that. So I think me and Morrissey were coming from the same place. Expressive melancholia."
This bond between wordsmith and composer was, reiterates Marr, based on genuine friendship.
"That period when we'd moved back to Manchester, when we were writing The Queen Is Dead, there was always stuff with me and Morrissey going on during the daytime. He'd come round, or we'd go out for a drive and buy records. As a kid I used to swap everything, so he put this idea to me that now I'd earned a little bit of money then maybe every seven-inch piece of vinyl that I used to own which I'd swapped, I should perhaps go back and retrieve. It was a really good idea, and it became really important to the two of us. Things like 'Amateur Hour' by Sparks, 'Shoes' by Reparata. It was our special mission."
Morrissey once joked that you drove 250 miles together to get a copy of "Good Grief Christina" by Chicory Tip.
"No, that's true!" laughs Marr. "That's absolutely true, we did. All the way to Brighton, I think it was. Yeah, 'Good Grief Christina'. I'd forgotten about that."
Morrissey and Marr as passenger and driver alone for hours in a vehicle with potential for collision with a 10-ton truck at every bend... Sounds very "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", The Queen Is Dead's emotionally overwhelming hymn to romantic suicide destined to become the group's anthem (or the "indie 'Candle In The Wind', as Andy Rourke puts it).
The oldest Smiths theory in the book is that Morrissey was literally in love with Marr - and earlier this year the singer was again questioned on the subject in an interview with GQ magazine. "There was a love and it was mutual and equal, but it wasn't physical or sexual," explained Morrissey, refuting speculation that "There Is A Light..." had been written about their relationship: "It wasn't, and it isn't."
I ask Marr the same question. It seems to amuse him. "I've heard it said about other songs," he says. "I assumed that 'Hand In Glove' was about the two of us when we did it - purely 'cos we were the only people hanging out with each other at the time! But 'There Is A Light...', to me I was just happy to have the song done. I never personally spent that much time thinking about that stuff. It was only after the band split that the theories came out. They're interesting and they may be right. I don't know, but when I used to play it live, I never thought, 'Aw, this is about me and him.' Not at all. But only Morrissey knows that and he's always liked to keep people guessing. It's more interesting to theorists than it is to me. I don't really care. If it is, great. If it's not, it's a great song. But I wasn't the only person who used to drive Morrissey around in their car, put it that way.
The Smiths perform 'Shakespeare's Sister' on The Oxford Road Show, February 22, 1985
BEYOND THE REFUGE OF MANCHESTER, there was still the day job of being the most innovative group in the country to contend with.
Despite the No 1 success of Meat Is Murder, 1985 would see a dip in The Smiths' fortunes at 45rpm. Their bewitching blockbuster "How Soon Is Now?" (No 24, February) did as well as could be expected for a track which had already appeared twice the year before (first on the "William, It Was Really Nothing" 12-inch, then again on Hatful Of Hollow). Hot on its heels, "Shakespeare's Sister" (No 26, March) welded the philosophy of Virginia Woolf and the angst of Elizabeth Smart to 129 seconds of demonic boogie-woogie in Marr's electrifying homage to The Rolling Stones "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?". Though The Smiths caused backstage pandemonium when they insisted on playing the song on BBC2's Oxford Road Show (the producers had begged them to do "How Soon Is Now?" instead), it would be their first single, bar "Hand In Glove", not to earn a Top Of The Pops appearance.
The next '45 fared even worse. Marr admits to being "surprised but very proud" of Morrissey's decision to release "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" from Meat Is Murder as their summer single that July. "I'd secretly wanted it to do well because I thought it would be our big torch song, our Dusty single," says Marr. "For about two days I got excited thinking we might have a big 'All I See Is You"-type torch song in the chart. Then reality struck. Why would they play that continuously on Radio 1?"
As Marr suspected, they didn't. Sales-wise, "That Joke..." was a joke, scraping to a wretched No 49. After two 'misses' in a row, The Smiths no longer looked unstoppable.
Did they panic?
"Not at all," says Marr. "It didn't surprise me that a song like 'Shakespeare's Sister' didn't get in the charts. It was a very arch record to release at that time. Quite audacious, a bit mad. That's why I loved it."
Morrissey blamed Rough Trade, moaning to the NME that they'd "released 'Shakespeare's Sister' with a monstrous amount of defeatism". Did you feel the same way?
"He certainly drew my attention to some problems with Rough Trade that weren't just about getting us in the charts," he admits. "They did take their eye off the ball several times for whatever reason. It wasn't sinister; it was a fair bit of incompetence, bad business, distribution cock-ups. It was very important that we had presense, that each record was an event. If 'Shakespeare's Sister' was out there with a big presense it would have made us happy. It wasn't actually the number next to the chart placing in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles. Well, it wasn't to me, anyway. I was more concerned with what my mates thought of the B-sides."
Nevertheless, The Smiths' singles slump was a major catalyst in the decision to seek legal advice, just as the Queen Is Dead sessions were about to commence at Mickie Most's RAK studios in London in September '85.
Enter "an absolute shark of a lawyer", as Marr describes him, "hellbent on getting us off Rough Trade. He was not good news. He caused a lot of bad feeling between us and the label. Basically, he convinced us that we were out of contract and that they'd either have to re-sign us or we could go and sign with somebody else. Which proved to be wrong."
Morrissey's feelings toward Rough Trade were expressed in one of the first songs rehearsed at RAK, "Frankly, My Shankly", an uproarious worker's resignation speech bouncing atop a vaudevillian oompah rhythm inspired, Marr reveals, by the 1965 Chris Andrews hit "Yesterday Man". In truth, "...Shankly" was a droll pseudonym for label boss Geoff Travis, right down to his "bloody awful poetry" (apparently the Rough Trade MD had once attempted to impress Morrissey with verses of his own).
Their month in and out of RAK allowed The Smiths to make serious headway on The Queen Is Dead, laying down the bare bones of "I Know It's Over", "There Is A Light..." and a spectral first draft of "Never Had No One Ever". However, the jewel in the album's crown at this halfway stage was undoubtedly "Bigmouth Strikes Again" - Morrissey's self-mocking allegory of pop martyrdom invigorated by Marr's equally spine-tingling fretwork. "One of those moments," agrees the guitarist, "when listening to it afterwards I thought, 'This is why I'm in a band.'"
As the knives sharpened in preparation for their imminent legal battle, a temporary halt in recording was called in mid-September for a short tour of Scotland to promote their fourth single that year, "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side". The Smiths' highland fling took them from Ayrshire to the windswept Shetland Isles ("I think we were the first live event there since The Wicker Man," Rourke jokes to Uncut.) Marr's eyes light up as he reminisces about the "celebratory mood" of that tour, particularly the frenzied climax in Inverness - which this writer witnessed as a swooning 13-year-old Smiths acoloyte. [To read reviews of dates played on the '85 Scottish tour, see the page 1985: Sep-Dec .]
"The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" climbed to No 23 in early October, enough to return them to Top Of The Pops (where Morrissey could be seen gyrating with "BAD" mysteriously scrawled on the side of his neck). Enhanced by strings from "The Hated Salford Ensemble" (actually an Emulator keyboard - the album's orchestration was all synthetic), it would also be included on The Queen Is Dead - "purely to give the record a bit of light," explains Marr, "because by that time we weren't feeling light."
True enough, when sessions restarted at Jacob's Studios in Farnham, Surrey that winter, the celebratory mood of the Scottish tour had long since faded. "It was a very heavy atmosphere, a weird atmosphere," he explains. "In what way? Outside influences, all the business stuff. The music and the writing of the music between me and Morrissey, that was always a buzz. I can't stress that enough. Not just some of the greatest times I've ever had, but some of the greatest times that have been had. It was everything else. Me having to take phone calls about van hire because we didn't have a manager, same as me having to meet this lawyer, sometimes on my own in the control room, where I'd have to vacate everybody. That happened a couple of times and would really cut the flow of the day's music, which was all I cared about in the world. To suddenly be dragged away from that to talk to lawyers was a fucking joke. That kind of shit was just too much."
According to Smiths lore, Marr responded to "that kind of shit" by drinking excessively, a fact bourne out in Uncut's interviews with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. The latter tells of a visit to Marr's cottage in the grounds of the studio's residential complex, where he was met by a disturbingly emaciated figure. "I remember knocking on his door," says Joyce "and he opened it with his top off. I just thought, 'Fucking hell. He's thin, man!' There was nothing on him. He was just a stick."
"Johnny wasn't eating," confirms Rourke. "He was taking on too much. Then again, he didn't really have a choice; it was all thrown at him. Like all of us, he started hitting the bottle a bit, the old brandy. We were all kind of getting a bit nuts by that point, but weren't in a position to pull ourselves out of it. We were in freefall."
"Oh, yeah. My drinking and the rock'n'roll thing," acknowledges Marr when I broach the subject. "I'm sorry to say there was no deep psychological reason for it. There was that pressure, and it was a heavy, weird atmosphere, but if I've got to be honest, drinking a lot and all the rest of it was on my 'To do' list, alongside crashing a motor car [which Marr did in November '86] [see original Melody Maker news item below - BB] and buying 100 guitars. But too much has been made of this partying thing over the years. Yes, on tour, absolutely. Copious amounts. But in the studio, I was really together. Cocaine has always been a disaster for people's music, and alcohol ain't too clever, either. But smoking pot till it came out of me ears I never had a problem with. Pot, hash, was really good for the sounds, and I think you can hear that. But it's not like I was sprawled all over the mixing desk. That just wasn't the case."
Isolated at Jacob's in the bleak midwinter of '85, between uninvited visits from their wily solicitor, the final pieces of The Queen Is Dead fell into place. It was there that Morrissey added his heart-breaking vocal to the epic "I Know It's Over" - which also offered one of the most melodramatic opening lines in pop: "Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head". He and Marr also nailed a definitive take of the equally solemn Mancunian blues, "Never Had No One Ever". When I tell Marr how the latter has become one of my favourite Smiths songs, he seems touched.
"Really?" he says. "Wow. That's good to know. Strange, 'cos I can never divorce that song from the emotion that inspired it, which is totally personal. It goes back to what I was saying before about where the sadness comes from. It's me, being in my bedroom, living on a housing estate, on a dark night, surrounded by all that concrete and trying to find some beauty through Raw Power and [Iggy Pop guitarist] James Williamson. There's a certain kind of gothic beauty in 'I Need Somebody'. I wasn't looking to cop a riff; I was looking to cop a feeling. The atmosphere of 'Never Had No One Ever', and pretty much the whole LP, for everything that can be said about the pressure I was under at the time as Johnny in The Smiths in '85, really that music could have come out of my bedroom when I was 16."
Between such mournful set-pieces, a dash of levity appeared in the form of pithy rockabilly sitcom "Vicar In A Tutu". There was also "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others", one of Marr's most haunting melodies neutralised by an incongruously facetious lyric, while wit of a more playful nature fashioned "Cemetry Gates", Morrissey's knowing riposte to critics who'd chastised his cultural ransacking of books and films in previous songs, which still managed to incorporate quotes from Richard III and the 1942 movie The Man Who Came To Dinner. "There were a couple of figures, smart-arses in the press and around Rough Trade," explains Marr, "who needed a bit of a verbal slap. I think Morrissey delivered that very well."
The album's high point, though, and arguably the greatest recording of their career, was the cataclysmic title track. "The Queen Is Dead" was a concept - The Smiths do The Stooges - that Marr had been harbouring for a while. When he finally unleashed it on his bandmates, Andy Rourke recalls how he, Joyce and Morrissey "just stood there, grinning our heads off". Marr acknowledges the tune's partial debt to the groove of The Velvet Underground's "I Can't Stand It", but the ghostly screech underpinning it he credits to divine intervention - he accidently knocked his guitar against its stand, setting off a high-pitched feedback wail.
This dynamic score would be prefaced by a sample from another of Morrissey's kitchen-sink favourites, 1962's The L-Shaped Room, in which Cecily Courtneidge belts out the WWI trenches singalong "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty". Morrissey makes his grand entrance bidding "farewell to this land's cheerless marshes", before following in the footsteps of Palace intruder Michael Fagan, the man arrested in the Queen's bedroom in July 1982. Before its awe-inspiring instrumental coda, the song raises its sights beyond an acid attack on the monarchy, becoming a howl of near-Swiftian disgust at Thatcher's decaying Britain and its doomed populace enslaved by alcohol, drugs and religion.
In spite - or perhaps because - of the strains endured during its recording, the finished LP, completed shortly before Christmas '85, exceeded all expectations. By turns their boldest, saddest, funniest, prettiest, toughest and most dramatic work to date, The Queen Is Dead saw The Smiths finally make The One. The only trouble was, it would be another six months before anyone heard it.
Angered by the band's legal subterfuge, Rough Trade refused to release the album until an agreement could be reached. In desperation, Marr even tried to "steal back" the studio tapes, but to no avail. Having painstakingly created their magnum opus, The Smiths found themselves in the insane situation of being unable to release it. But as 1986 unfurled, greater catastrophes were to come.
SEVERAL HOURS AFTER MEETING MARR, Uncut is sitting in the basement of a Manchester bar with Andy Rourke. The man famous for being 'the bass player in The Smiths', whose contribution to The Queen Is Dead's title track Johnny Marr has praised as "something no other bass player could match"; the man infamous for being 'the junkie in The Smiths', whose story is often sensationalised, but rarely understood.
"Since my early teens I'd been messing about with all sorts," he begins. "Mushrooms, dope. Then, because of where I was raised, Ashton-on-Mersey, there was heroin everywhere. All my mates were on smack. A couple of my brothers got into it, so even before The Smiths started, I was dabbling in that stuff. Then, of course, all of a sudden you're in a band getting loads of money. That's when I kind of went nuts on it."
Initially, Rourke kept his addiction private. Marr, who'd met Rourke at school, had always known. Joyce only discovered "about a year" after joining the band. Which left Morrissey, vociferously anti-drugs in the press, none the wiser on account of Marr's constant shielding.
Rourke was canny enough not to smoke heroin on the road ("I didn't want to jeopardise the band"), instead supplementing his habit with Valium, Temazepam and Mogodon, all courtesy of a crooked Harley Street GP who'd "give you a bag of whatever you wanted for 50 quid". Ironically, Rourke's not-so-secret stash became common tour bus knowledge, with even the most unlikely member of the Smiths' entourage regularly knocking on his hotel room door asking for "a handful of sweeties".
"Unfortunately," he continues, "the thing about Valium is you take a couple and then you forget. Well, I used to anyway. Then before you know it you're in a kind of stupor, being clumsy, really embarressing. Eventually it all came to a head in Ireland."
With The Queen Is Dead still on ice until the Rough Trade fiasco could be resolved, The Smiths' mini tour of Ireland in February 1986 marked a new low in band morale. By his own admission, Rourke was screwing up his medication backstage and his basslines out front. As Marr confesses with visible anguish, "People were starting to make comments about our live shows. We rarely made howling errors, but there were a few big mistakes, which made for a very, very bad atmosphere on the bus. I know Andy felt really awful about it, but he just wasn't able to keep it together any more."
Contrary to received wisdom, Rourke wasn't cruelly booted out of The Smiths to begin with. Following a group discussion, he was "asked to leave so I could go and get my head together". Sadly, the intended wake-up call backfired. Rourke plummeted into depression, alleviating the pain by driving to a dealer he knew in Oldham. He reasoned it would be "safer" than scoring in Manchester. Actually, he found himself walking into the climactic raid of a six-month police surveillance operation focusing on an international drugs cartel. Banged up in a cell over the weekend (though in the long term he'd escape prison with a £1000 fine and a two-year suspended sentence), his family learnt of his arrest on local TV news. So did Morrissey. "I knew as soon as he found out it was going to be the nail in the coffin, really," says Rourke. "And it was."
Couldn't you have just gone for help - for your sake, and never mind the band?
"No," he says, "because the drug's got you by the balls at that point. You're quite powerless. To coin a phrase, you've got this monkey on your back and it's giving you a nudge all the time. I was kind of using it as a crutch, I suppose. For what, I don't know."
As has since become part of Smiths legend, Rourke's dismissal - after his arrest - came in the form of a note left under the windscreen-wiper of his car: "Andy. You have left The Smiths. Good luck and goodbye. Morrissey".
Earlier, I'd asked Marr why Rourke had been sacked in so brutal a fashion.
"I don't know," he says. "Honestly, I've no idea. Obviously, he must have told me about it at the time, but that was news to me, and it was pretty ugly. But that situation with Andy was something which I'd been dreading since day one."
Did you feel he'd let you down?
"No, I didn't feel let down. My overriding feeling was, 'This is a fucking disaster'. When he'd been told he was fired and he came over to my house, it was a moment for me and him that was way beyond the band. We'd been best friends at school, y'know. I mean, he was only out of the band for three weeks, but it seemed like three years in our world."
Those three weeks saw Rourke recuperate at his mother's house in Majorca before being readmitted to The Smiths, vowing to behave. To his surprise, his return coincided with the inauguration of a new, fifth member: ex-Bluebells/Aztec Camera guitarist Craig Gannon. Briefly considered as a replacement bassist during Rourke's absence, Gannon was now retained as a second guitarist to bolster the group's sound in concert.
Barely a month later, on May 20, 1986, the public got their first glimpse of the revitalised five-man Smiths on BBC2's Old Grey Whistle Test. Looking and sounding sharper than ever, they began by ripping through "Bigmouth Strikes Again", the 'comeback' single, marking the merciful resolution of their quarrel with Rough Trade. Carved into the single's run-out groove was an ominous warning: "BEWARE THE WRATH TO COME". The Queen Is Dead's time had finally arrived.
The Smiths performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test
IT'S UNCUT'S FINAL morning in Manchester, and time to meet the musician responsible for the pummelling jungle drums which jumpstart The Queen Is Dead at 0:19, for a tour of Salford Lad's Club.
"Incredible place, isn't it?" says Mike Joyce.
The Smiths may have been conceived in Stretford, The Queen Is Dead might have been largely written in Bowdon, but it's this red-brick relic of Edwardian England which for most fans remains the band's holy ground. Still a youth and community centre, famous Salfordians who have passed through its doors since it opened in 1904 include Graham Nash, Albert Finney and Peter Hook from New Order. Morrissey's favourite playwright, Shelagh Delaney, was brought up just around the corner, as was TV scriptwriter Tony Warren. When he came to launch a northern soap opera on Granada TV in 1960, Warren christened it after the road running parallel to the club: Coronation Street. And it was here, on the corner of the real Coronation Street, on a cold, dank day in December 1985, that The Smiths, not a Salfordian among them, assembled in front of the main entrance for the portrait destined to grace the inside sleeve of The Queen Is Dead.
Joyce is as gushing in his enthusiasm for the album as any Smiths fan. "Look at side one alone," he says, admiring the track listing on the vinyl copy. "You've got a punky opener, an oompah song, a ballad and then a blues track. It's so eclectic, so unique. I still can't believe how many great songs we had." Fortunately, when The Queen Is Dead was released on June 16, 1986, press and public alike greeted it with a similar fervour. The Queen Is Dead compressed every facet of The Smiths' brilliance into its 37 minutes. They were now the band against whom all others were inevitably judged.
Assessing its merits and anticipating its long-term impact, no one was more accurate than legendary rock scribe Nick Kent, who in his heartfelt review for Melody Maker prophesised: [It is] the album which history will in due course denote as being the key work in forcing the group's philistine opposition to down tools and embrace the concept of The Smiths as the only truly vital voice of the '80s."
"There's a phrase Neil Tennent uses about the moment when a band 'goes imperial'," considers Marr, "and that's what The Queen Is Dead was for The Smiths. That was our imperial moment."
This "imperial" effect ensured their next single, "Panic", would return them almost to the Top 10. By the time they toured the UK that autumn - Morrissey now taking the stage triumphantly wielding a protestor's placard inscribed with the album title - their rapidly expanding fan base appeared more devout than ever. As a measure of their popularity, one need only consult the following spring's NME reader's poll, in which The Smiths triumphed over opposition as formidable as New Order, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Echo & The Bunnymen. Astonishingly, in the same paper's end-of-year critics' poll, The Queen Is Dead only made No 9.
"That goes to show that, although we were the darlings of the inkies, there was always a lot of resistance," decides Marr. "Some people always thought we were too big for our boots." [The 'philistine opposition' as described by Nick Kent in his LP review for Melody Maker? - BB]
Marr is not impressed by NME's 1986 Album of the Year - Parade by Prince - declaring the Purple One "overrated. I couldn't stand his records." He is even less enthused by the runner up: Oleta Adams' Rapture. "You're joking! Oleta Adams? Man, that is sooo fucking London, and you can print that. No wonder we kept moving back to Manchester.'
The NME may have been wrong, but history has proven Nick Kent's forecast correct: The Smiths are indeed widely regarded as the decade's "only truly vital voice" *. Yet in terms of the album being their "key work", Marr isn't so sure. Nor is Rourke, and nor is Joyce. Nor, for that matter, is Morrissey. "The Queen Is Dead is not our masterpiece," he said in 1995. "I should know. I was there. I supplied the sandwiches."
In fact, the ex-Smiths all nominate Strangeways, Here We Come - their last album, recorded shortly before Marr split the band in August 1987 - ("for musical reasons, as much as personal") - as The One. But that's another argument for another time. [See the article 'Jailhouse Rock' in Appendix A for more on the Queen Is Dead vs. Strangeways debate.]
Joyce drives me to the station, Roxy Music and T. Rex blasting out of his stereo. He's still chatting passionately about The Smiths: about how Morrissey's phrasing was "unbelievable", and how when he first heard 1985's "The Headmaster Ritual", he asked if the singer would write the lyrics down. He did, and Joyce kept that piece of paper to this day, which, given what's happened in recent years, is quite extraordinary.
In December 1996, Joyce contested his 10 per cent share of Smiths performance royalties in the High Court, and won. Morrissey and Marr were ordered to pay in the region of £1 million between them (Rourke, also on a 10 per cent royalty, had already settled out of court in 1990 for less than a tenth of that sum). Marr complied with the verdict but, a decade on, Morrissey continues to fight it. Ever since, the singer has regularly expressed a pathological contempt for Joyce, publicly accusing the drummer of having "destroyed The Smiths".
"You can't destroy The Smiths," asserts Joyce today, "no matter what happens. Which gives me great strength. Sometimes it's difficult trying to explain what being in that band was like. The intensity; when one's in those situations, the bond that comes between people. It can get so intense that you shift from the reality of a relationship, and then it starts to go into an obsession. It did with me and The Smiths. An unhealthy obsession."
An obsession with the band?
"An obsession with the individuals, really. Each individual. Wanting to make sure everybody was happy. That lyric in 'What Difference Does It Make?' - 'leap in front of a flying bullet'. I would have done anything for anybody in that band. Absolutely anything. Anything. Right out of the realms of what I'd normally do in many situations. And it is amazing that one can do some pretty crazy things that one wouldn't normally have on the agenda. So I know there's a lot of interest in what happened and the intricacies of the group outside the music. But what we've got, all four of us, is the music, something like The Queen Is Dead, that can't be touched. It can't be tampered with. It's there and it'll be there forever, no matter what happens."
Fortunately, some bridges have been rebuilt. When I interviewed Marr in 2004 for the revised edition of my Smiths book, Songs That Saved Your Life, he concluded that the real tragedy after the split wasn't, as most imagine, the dissolution of his writing partnership with Morrissey, but the lasting damage to his lifelong friendship with Rourke. On January 1, 2005, Rourke finally healed that riff, making his peace with a text message to Marr. They've since met up "several times", says Rourke, happily. "It was important for me to end that situation, and luckily Johnny felt the same. We're taking it slowly, which I know sounds like a couple who've got back together, but it is a bit like that."
So... Marr is friends again with Rourke, who's always been mates with Joyce, who now plays in Vinny Peculiar with Craig Gannon, who's also sorted out his post-split issues with Marr after a similar financial dispute in 1989. Only Morrissey, whom Marr admits he hasn't had any communication with "for quite some time", would appear to be out of the loop.
There are times, though, such as when Marr talks animatedly about the new album he's making with his band, The Healers - which "has the vibe of [Meat is Murder's] 'I Want The One I Can't Have'" - that you have to wonder: why not reform? In fact, it's such an obvious question that I have to ask all three: not why would they, but why wouldn't they?
"Why wouldn't we reform? Because of Morrissey's hatred towards me, I suppose," says Joyce. "Musically it'd still be fucking brilliant, I think. Imagine coming on to 'The Queen Is Dead'! But it's too hypothetical."
"That's a tough one," ponders Rourke. "It really is. I'd like to say 'never say never', but I think it's pretty unlikely, for one reason or another."
"Why wouldn't we ever?" frowns Marr. That is more interesting. Why wouldn't we reform? Aw, shit! I've never been asked that question in my life!" He mulls it over for a few seconds. "There's been an awful lot of very dirty water gone under the bridge," he finally says. "But it is true that no one's ever asked us."
So, you get home tonight and there's a message asking you to reform. What do you do?
"Well," he smirks, "I think we'd have to go to some new age retreat in Arizona, all wear muslin and get up every morning to share the dawn. For several months. Go on some meditation walks and then share." He laughs, raising an eyebrow. "Share! Share! Share! That's a very Smithsy thing to do, isn't it?"
Then, suddenly, the laughter subsides. For a second, Johnny Marr looks almost serious.
"Or we could all go for a walk around Ancoats," he says. "And sort it out."
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* Must we assume then that New Order, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Echo & The Bunnymen did not provide The Smiths such 'formidable' competition after all, at least among music fans? And if The Smiths were in fact the 'only vital voice of the '80s', does The Queen Is Dead therefore prove that they are 'the greatest British group since The Beatles'?
Since The Smiths are so fondly remembered it is tempting to view their legacy through rose-coloured spectacles. But before any such grand claims can be substantiated - or even put forward - it is necessary to consider the context within which the LP was released. I don't think Kent's comments were intended as a prediction, rather a challenge to critics of the day. We ought to consider to what extent The Queen Is Dead's low position on the NME critic's poll reflected ongoing reservations about the group. As Johnny Marr says in his interview with Goddard: "There was always a lot of resistance". Could this be the reason for the LP's low chart position? (Contributing factors may have been the delayed release, blunting enthusiasm for the LP, and the inclusion of the poorly-received September '85 single "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side".)
So was The Queen Is Dead received quite as rapturously as Goddard remembers, or likes to remember? And is it meaningful to claim, as Goddard does, that the NME was simply 'wrong' about The Queen Is Dead? The LP may not have made Album of the Year, but in addition to receiving a more or less glowing review at the time of its release, The Queen Is Dead topped the NME's 'Half-Term LPs' list.
It would have been interesting if Goddard had considered whetherThe Queen Is Dead had persuaded any critics of The Smiths - the 'philistine opposition' as Kent describes them - that the group was worthy of the many accolades that had been thrown their way; or (more relevantly) how the album saw The Smiths realise the considerable potential that had once been seen in them, potential which some critics claimed The Smiths had squandered. The Queen Is Dead is a fantastic album - arguably their greatest - and it did galvanise The Smiths' reputation as one of the 1980's best bands. But perhaps if Goddard had given more attention to what The Queen Is Dead represented with respect to The Smiths' rapid musical progression - the LP was in the can well before its June '86 release - as well as the ongoing importance of the LP's bearing on the Smiths' critical and popular reputation, his argument that the group is the greatest since The Beatles may have held more water - BB