Tony Fletcher on The Smiths and “Meat Is Murder”

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From Tony Fletcher‘s wondrous and brilliantly written “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths“, about “Meat Is Murder”, the song, a bit about the album and vegetarianism:

Morrissey had been accused in the past of clouding his lyrical agenda, of hiding his meaning behind too many metaphors, and if “The Headmaster Ritual” purposefully opened the second album as an (overdue) statement of absolute clarity, it was nonetheless bested in that regard by the record’s unequivocal finale, that for which it was named: the song “Meat Is Murder.” Vegetarianism itself was far from taboo in 1984, and Morrissey was not alone among his circle in his refusal to eat meat: his mother, Betty; Angie Brown; Grant Showbiz; Sandie Shaw; the band James; and more recently Marr himself had all made their own commitments to abstain. James, in particular, had caused the Smiths all sorts of amusement by bringing a Calor gas stove on the road and cooking their own meals in the van. (It is perhaps not insignificant that James and Sandie Shaw tried—and failed—to get the Smiths, especially Morrissey, to engage in meditation as a means of dealing with the intense pressure, scrutiny, and responsibilities that came with their fame.) By comparison, the Smiths were not even strict lacto-vegetarians: Stuart James had been surprised to find Morrissey eating whole fish on the mid-1984 tours, and Marr had tuna sandwiches on his rider. In addition, collectively they consumed so much milk, cheese, and eggs that they could have been sponsored by the factory-farming dairy industry. And they routinely wore animal products. Still, Morrissey had come to see his vegetarianism as a matter not only of pride but principle, and insisted that those around him follow suit. Mike Joyce found the transition easier than did Andy Rourke, but the result of the decree was sufficient solidarity that Morrissey could now sing about his pet crusade with the Smiths not just at his side, but fully behind him.

Having his band’s support was crucial. Morrissey knew perfectly well that he ran the risk of alienating at least 90 percent of his audience with “Meat Is Murder,” and yet it was a risk he was not only willing to take but, in terms of naming the album for it, that he was willing to bet the band’s career upon. “The artist must educate the critic,” Wilde had written, which Morrissey would cite as his most treasured line from his most dependable icon. He set out on the process of educating not just the (Smiths’) critics but the public at large without subtlety, without apology, and without guilt; rather, he set out to impose guilt upon the carnivores, even those who were throwing flowers at his feet.

To that end, subsequent charges that “Meat Is Murder” was dogmatic may have been accurate, but they also missed the point. That point was simple: Meat is murder. “The calf that you carve with a smile?” Murder. “The turkey you festively slice?” Murder. “The flesh you so fancifully fry?” Murder. “It’s not ‘natural,’ ‘normal,’ or kind,” insisted Morrissey, it’s “murder.” To dress the subject matter in more comforting tones would have been the equivalent of dressing the meat of a “beautiful creature” with tomatoes and lettuce, placing it in a bun, and presenting it to the consumer as something other than what Morrissey believed it to be: murder.

If there was a line in the song that failed to stand up to scrutiny, it was that “death for no reason is murder.” Death by car crash, or by brain cancer, or in a house fire could be construed as death “for no reason,” and yet surely not as murder. Then again, Morrissey was not given to outside editing of his words, and for a singer who had traded so far in lyrical obfuscation, the fact that only one line defied logic was noteworthy of itself.

When it came to the music for “Meat Is Murder,” Morrissey had told Marr of both the title and concept in advance and the guitarist duly submitted something atypically flat, ponderous, mechanical, and “nasty”—so much so that it took a while to realize that it had been written in 6/8 time, the rhythm of his nostalgic and melancholic ballads. Morrissey then supplied Stephen Street with a BBC Sound Effects album with mooing cows on it and asked the engineer if he could make it sound like an abattoir. Street, to his personal and professional satisfaction, succeeded by adding other incidental noises to that of the cow and putting them through a reverse echo. That was mixed in alongside the simple guitar chords and Marr’s lead piano melody that sounded as if originally intended for a ghost film. The final arrangement was not particularly loud, abrasive, or even harsh. But at more than six minutes in length, “Meat Is Murder” was as unforgiving of its listeners as Morrissey was of meat-eaters. Even those whose eating habits were profoundly affected upon hearing the song tended to express something of a relief when it concluded.

It was music as propaganda, and as such it would have had no place on a major label. But the Smiths were on Rough Trade, the distribution arm of which was distributing the likes of Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, and other anarchist-punk bands with equally uncompromising messages, and with a number of staff who were vegetarian or vegan as a natural product of their politics and/or lifestyle. News that the label’s golden calf was releasing an album with such a militant title was therefore greeted, in some quarters at Collier Street, with genuine excitement. The stakes were raised that much higher when Morrissey then delivered his design for the album cover: an image of an American soldier in Vietnam from the controversial 1968 documentary In the Year of the Pig, the album title Meat Is Murder inscribed on the soldier’s helmet in place of the original motto “Make War, Not Peace,” the picture repeated four times like a Warhol silkscreen. In its simple, two-color, almost amateur design, it could have been an LP sleeve by any independently distributed political band of the post-punk era. It happened to be by the Smiths, the biggest of them all, and it served as confirmation that for all their mainstream popularity, this was not a group in any mood for compromise.

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