September 16, 2004

The Pretty Toney Column: Morrissey

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An album’s final track can be so many things. Songs like Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” from The Bends not only end an album on a commanding note, but can also provide a preview of what’s to come. In Radiohead’s case, “Street Spirit” foreshadowed OK Computer, an album that, seven years after its release, critics still haven’t shut up about (unless, of course, they’re talking about Kid A).

On the other hand, there are songs like “Her Majesty” from Abbey Road. The ultimate “What the hell?” song, “Her Majesty” was accidentally left on the album’s original tapes, but Paul McCartney included it anyway, preventing “The End” from attaining its rightful greatest-closer-ever status.

And then there are closers like Morrissey’s “Margaret on the Guillotine,” a pleasant little ditty from Mr. Pompadour’s debut, Viva Hate, about how much he wanted then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to die. Here are some song excerpts:

“The kind people have a wonderful dream/ Margaret on the guillotine.” “When will you die?” “And people like you make me feel so old inside/ Please die.” “Make the dream real.” Aside from a line or two that I left out, this is pretty much the entire song. There isn’t much instrumentation, just some acoustic guitar and other atmospherics.

“Margaret on the Guillotine” had been a work-in-progress of sorts for quite some time before Viva Hate’s 1988 release. It was originally intended to be the title of the Smiths’ 1986 classic The Queen Is Dead, and then later the lyrics were written during sessions for Strangeways, Here We Come, the Smiths’ final album.

Of all the enemies Morrissey has attacked through his lyrics (the music industry, America, carnivores, etc.), his railings against Thatcher may be his most famous. Normally a master of subtlety, “Margaret on the Guillotine” pulls no punches, and the blunt lyrics aren’t even the half of it — the song (and album) ends with the sound of a guillotine slamming down on the chopping block.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the song is the fact that for American Morrissey followers who are historical neophytes (such as myself), this is the only reference to Thatcher’s regime they have ever heard. Regardless, Moz and Britain have both moved on, Thatcher is still alive, and “Margaret on the Guillotine” stands as one of the most disturbing and humorous moments of Morrissey’s career.

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer