Featured album: The Smiths “Meat Is Murder” (1985)


The latest in AFDPJ’s regular series looks back at the album which topped the UK charts thirty-five years ago this month…

THE SMITHS: “Meat Is Murder” (1985)

  1. The Headmaster Ritual
  2. Rusholme Ruffians
  3. I Want The One I Can’t Have
  4. What She Said
  5. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
  6. Nowhere Fast
  7. Well I Wonder
  8. Barbarism Begins At Home
  9. Meat Is Murder


In the space of just under four years, The Smiths came, The Smiths conquered and then all too soon, The Smiths crashed and burned. They may have only existed for a brief time, but oh boy did they leave behind a beautiful-looking corpse.

Four studio albums, two compilations and a live album. Even a US-only collection ended up becoming an iconic release, and found itself part of The Smiths canon.

(This is, of course, covering only the original Rough Trade years and not taking into account the myriad posthumous releases once Warner Brothers bought out the catalogue in the early 1990s for fresh exploitation).

Debut set The Smiths (1984) reached #2 in the UK. The Queen Is Dead, their third album, also peaked at #2 in June 1986, stuck behind Genesis’ Invisible Touch. Their unexpected farewell Strangeways, Here We Come again made #2 when issued at the very end of September 1987.  The odd one out was Meat Is Murder, which managed to enter the charts at #1 in February 1985 and knocked Born In The U.S.A. off the top in the process.

Yet, despite being statistically their most successful (studio) album in Britain, Meat Is Murder ultimately sold fewer copies than the other three, spent fewer weeks on the Top 100 than the other three, and has by and large been relegated to the position of The Smiths’ least celebrated, least loved, least heralded album. But why? And how?

The Smiths, on top of their game in early 1985. Game sadly not pictured.

From the outset, Meat Is Murder seemed intent on commercial self-sabotage. Its promotional campaign was bizarre; a month prior to release, Rough Trade took the decision to issue How Soon Is Now? – a song first featured on the 12″ B-side of William, It Was Really Nothing the previous year –  as an A-side in its own right. Arguably one of the band’s finest-ever moments, its profile had been continually on the up since its inclusion on the November 1984 stopgap collection Hatful Of Hollow, but nevertheless….with just a few weeks to go before an eagerly-awaited second LP, to put it out at that stage seemed strange. The single shuffled around the mid-20s of the chart, the least-successful Smiths 45 since Hand In Glove had emerged from nowhere in 1983.

Then, a month after the album dropped, came another single; with the abundance of riches to be found on Meat Is Murder, one would expect something like Nowhere Fast or The Headmaster Ritual, perhaps. Classic slices of Smithery both. Are you serious? No, obviously it would be a brand new track, just to confuse the public even more and take attention away from the still-fresh album that might have benefited from some related promotion. Not just that, but it would be a rambling, shambling, tune-free ditty lasting all of 129 seconds. Shakespeare’s Sister.

Best known for inspiring Siobhan Fahey when naming her new project after she quit Bananarama, and also for its Pat Phoenix cover artwork, Shakespeare’s Sister limped to #26 – two places worse than How Soon Is Now? – and managed to create the perception that the band were in some kind of slump, a matter of weeks after their latest album had debuted at #1!

These shenanigans would normally be attributed to changes of record label, or contractual issues, or maybe an attempt to mask an underwhelming misfire of an album, but The Smiths appeared to be at the peak of their powers as 1985 dawned. The contents within Meat Is Murder offer ample proof of this, beyond the headline-grabbing title and the sleeve artwork (a not-so-subtly altered photograph of a young Vietnam soldier, whose helmet was originally daubed with the charming slogan “Make War Not Love”…


This is The Smiths at their most full-on, muscular and almost feral at times. Morrissey’s penchant for self-parody had yet to take hold, so his ego is absorbed in bouts of unrelenting candour and black humour, his unrivalled skills as a lyricist given free reign on already-familiar Morrissey topics. The band take no prisoners, able to forge some fearsome backing tracks that rank among their finest.

Barabarism Begins At Home takes the claustrophobic funk-rock of How Soon Is Now? and ups the ante; in some EU territories it was rightly picked as a single. What She Said and I Want The One I Can’t Have are the closest to classic Smiths, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of their other LPs. The fairground rockabilly of Rusholme Ruffians proved an unlikely inspiration for Girls Aloud’s Love Machine almost 20 years later.

Sadistic schoolteachers, local gangs, domestic abusers, The Queen and of course meat-eaters…they all come under fire from Moz’s waspish tongue; Nowhere Fast‘s famous opening line, “I want to drop my trousers to the Queen, any sensible child will know what I mean” surely sowed the seeds for the following album. There’s a violent undercurrent to much of the music, too, and even the more reflective moments (Well I Wonder and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore) are swamped in a sense of physical unease rather than self-pity. It’s no coincidence that the album ends in a sound collage of abattoir machinery and dying animals. For Morrissey, it was dark as he drove the point home.

Contrary to much of The Smiths’ output in the last two years of their recording life, and unlike Shakespeare’s Sister, none of Meat Is Murder‘s 9 tracks are clever or eye-catching titles in search of an actual song. There is substance to all of it, but it’s not always an easy listen. Perhaps the band, or the label, or both, decreed that for Top 40 purposes they had to look elsewhere; however, in the summer of 1985 – as Live Aid was dominating and altering the musical landscape – That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore was released.

One of the least commercial, and longest tracks on Meat Is Murder, it was certainly a contrary move that wrapped up one of the most contrary album eras of the decade. The single peaked at #49. It definitely wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t funny. Everybody else, even New Order and The Cure, were realising they had to conform to some degree with the emerging practice of putting singles on their albums and generally creating a concerted campaign around it.

Morrissey and Marr – there was always something between them.

The Smiths had always been staunch supporters of the single as a special entity, recording material explictly for such a purpose and amassing an impressive catalogue of 7″ and 12″ B-sides (the main reason Hatful Of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs stand as so much more than mere compilations). No trawling the album for possible 3rd or 4th singles, anything that might fit the bill, just to prop up sales. Their debut album didn’t contain all of their 45s up to that point (and not necessarily in the same versions even if they did feature), and in 1986 there would be no further singles taken from The Queen Is Dead once it hit the shelves.

The difference then was The Boy With The Thorn In His Side and Bigmouth Strikes Again had trailed the album’s (delayed) release, so there was at least some focus to it all, even if the brand new, non-album Panic soon followed. Plus they were top-tier Smiths tunes, which neither Shakespeare’s Sister nor That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore could lay claim to being.

A very singular campaign: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore (main image) was the only official UK release from the album, but some EU territories got The Headmaster Ritual (top right) and Barbarism Begins At Home. There was also a CD-only, posthumous UK release of The Headmaster Ritual in 1988.


Maybe that was the point. The Smiths thrived on their other-ness, on being defiantly non-conformist and different to the rest of the acts in the charts. The independent music scene had plenty to say in the music press, and the music press continued to devote acres of column inches to all manner of jangling post-punk wannabes, but in the period where The Smiths were in their pomp, they were very much alone in enjoying genuine, mainstream success. Their singles run in 1985 did its best to hamper their previously untroubled ascent, with something old, something lame and something nobody really wanted.

Unquestionably, it set them back for a while; the next two brand new singles would only reach #23 and #26. It would take the release of The Queen Is Dead and then Panic to get them back on track with the public, and back in the Top 20.


    • Thanks! Yes, about the only thing they got right was the timing…early enough in the year to stand a better chance of debuting at #1…a week or so later, and No Jacket Required, Songs from the Big Chair and Dream Into Action would all arrive. The rest of the top 5 on the week Meat Is Murder topped the charts showed how much the band were swimming against the tide…..Born In The USA, Alf, Agent Provocateur and Diamond Life. All great albums, it should be said, but they may as well have been from another planet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s