MUSIC

Remembering The Smiths' album Meat is Murder

Meat is Murder is packed full of social commentary beautifully framed by Johnny Marr's guitar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm

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The Smiths' eponymous 1984 debut album established them as a musical force to be reckoned with, but it was their follow-up that made them Britain's newest and most uncompromising social commentators.

The principal theme occupying Meat is Murder couldn't be broadcast more loudly: lead singer Morrissey's militant vegetarianism had become one of his most talked-about characteristics. That and the flowers he'd wave while performing or stuff into his back pocket.

But while the public perception of Morrissey, and vegetarians in general (remember, this was 1985, the era of Thatcherism and its associated machismo), was fey and fragile, there was nothing shy or retiring about the album track. Played to a backdrop of buzzing abattoir saws and bovine screams, Meat is Murder's sinuous groove is at once catchy and nauseating, its gentle roller-coaster textures more than a little sickly. And that's before the lyrics kick in.

Morrissey's remarks about vegetarianism to the press had been bombastic, caustic and accusatory. In Meat is Murder, he went for the emotional jugular, declaring the traditional Sunday roast a deadly bloodbath and Christmas lunch a massacre. "Heifer whines could be human cries/ Closer comes the screaming knife/ This beautiful creature must/ This beautiful creature must die", he opines over Johnny Marr's loping guitar line.

And on it goes, in blood-soaked imagery, denouncing meat as no less than homicide.

As a mission statement it couldn't have been more blunt. Morrissey had been photographed with kittens (long before social network time-wasting had elevated felines to near deities) not only to cultivate his androgynous image but to demonstrate his love of all creatures, great and small. He'd famously posed in a T-shirt declaring "I Don't Eat My Friends".

But here was a lasting statement that would be carried as a rallying cry for future vegetarians. Many are the fans who claim to have been converted to the cause by the song. Such was its potency that the nascent People's Ethical Treatment for Animals, then a fringe protest group, became an international movement after using the song as its clarion call.

While the album wasn't as well received as its predecessor or its successor, the era-defining The Queen is Dead, it set The Smiths' stall as more than a whimsical group with a singer obsessed with 1960s British culture and naughty seaside postcards. The title track aside, Meat is Murder is packed full of social commentary as well as the personal heartache Morrissey had made his own on the band's debut.

The Headmaster Ritual challenged Britain's rigid class system via a scathing denunciation of the rule of the school playground and Rusholme Ruffians was a wry take on the threat of violence on Britain's streets.

For tunesmith Marr, it was a milestone: he'd hitherto given over production duties to label-recommended engineers. For Meat is Murder, he took to the controls, giving him the freedom to flex his melodic muscles. The result was an album that, despite its grisly title, beautifully framed the hard-hitting witticisms of Morrissey's lyrics.

Meat is Murder The Smiths (Rough Trade)