CLASSIC TRACKS: The Smiths 'The Queen Is Dead'

Producers: Morrissey, Johnny Marr • Engineer: Stephen Street

Published in SOS January 2005
Bookmark and Share

Technique : Classic Tracks

Stephen Street made his name as an engineer working with one of the most influential indie bands ever. He describes the sessions that created the title track of the Smiths' most celebrated album.

Richard Buskin

classic tracks street plate.s

As a struggling bass player in various bands on London's post-punk scene of the late '70s, Stephen Street enjoyed spending time in the studio and decided to try to follow in the footsteps of influential young producers like Martin Rushent and Steve Lillywhite, both of whom had started out as engineers. To that end, in 1981 he got a job in the Fallout Shelter basement studio of Island Records, helping to rebuild the London facility's control room and, within about 18 months, engineering sessions. Then, in late 1983, having done a fair amount of dub mixing alongside Paul 'Groucho' Smykle, Street was asked by the studio manager if he'd like to engineer a session by a band named the Smiths.

"I nearly jumped out of my chair," he recalls. "I'd seen the Smiths perform 'This Charming Man' on Top Of The Pops a week or two before, and thought they were great. So, I jumped at the opportunity, and my first session with them was working on 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'."

This song title was pretty characteristic of Britain's premier indie rock band of the 1980s. The eclectic Mancunian outfit built a bridge between new wave and guitar rock, combining punk ethics, rockabilly sounds and guitarist Johnny Marr's jangling pop melodies with frontman Morrissey's theatrically self-absorbed crooning and poetic, melancholic, angst-filled lyrics... performed, you might recall, while wearing a hearing aid, with gladioli stuffed in his back pockets.

classic smiths CD sleeve.s

An eponymous 1984 debut album, its 1985 follow-up Meat Is Murder, and singles like 'This Charming Man', 'What Difference Does It Make', 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', 'William It Was Really Nothing' and 'How Soon Is Now' established the band at the forefront of the indie movement by the time The Queen Is Dead was released in the spring of 1986. This album, which peaked at number two on the UK charts and expanded the Smiths' cult following in America, had a denser, more-hard-edged sound than its predecessors. Probably the best example of this was the rocking title track that opened the record — a diatribe against the Royal Family, the state of the Empire, and the songwriter's own lousy situation.

On Meat Is Murder, the Smiths produced while Stephen Street engineered, and the roles were maintained for The Queen Is Dead. "It was great," Street says. "This was a chance for me to get into production as well. Obviously, when you're engineering a band and they're producing on their own, you're often used as a soundboard in terms of the sound and various ideas. Well, Morrissey, Johnny and I had a really good working relationship — we were all roughly the same age and into the same kind of things, so everyone felt quite relaxed in the studio. In fact, at that time they were going through a bit of a fiasco, with Rough Trade and EMI trying to sign up everything, but this didn't get in the way of recording because the atmosphere in the studio was very, very constructive."

Stable Situations

While the basic track for 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' was recorded at a small eight-track facility in Manchester, and sessions for 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others' and 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' took place at RAK in north-west London, tour dates preceded the recording of the bulk of the album, which took place along with the mixing at the residential Jacobs Studios in Farnham, Surrey, during the winter of 1985/86.

While overlooking the swimming pool of the Georgian mansion that is Jacobs, the Studio 1 control room also connects to two recording areas: the live room, formerly a drawing room, has a recess with large, five-sided bay window that accomodates a grand piano, while the converted stables, with their cobbled and oak floors, beams and joinery, feature three different floor levels and corresponding ceiling heights, as well as a couple of booths and a secondary isolated live area.

"The stables looked quite cool, but to be honest, the acoustics in there weren't all that brilliant," Street remarks. "And although we put the drums in the live room because it was brighter in there, it was a bit too live. That's why 'The Queen Is Dead' had to be assembled in a slightly piecemeal fashion, with the snare and bass drum recorded separately from the cymbals and tom-toms."

classic 1 Stephen Street.s
Photo: Barry Marsden
Stephen Street, photographed in the late '80s.
Stephen Street, photographed in the late '80s.
Stephen Street, photographed in the late '80s.

As was the case with most of the album's other material, the band members had already rehearsed the title track before they entered the studio. Accordingly, the first time Stephen Street heard the song was the same day they started recording it. "I think I heard Johnny and Andy just running through it, and Mike playing along," he says. "It was then that I said 'I'd like to try sampling the drum loop so it's really, really strong and the same speed all the way through.' Not an Adam and the Ants-type thing, but something that was like a loop — it had a certain quality, I think, and a kind of darkness thanks to the constant tom pattern. On the track itself the toms do cut out every now and again, but this is just me cutting it on the desk during the mix to give it some sense of dynamic."

Situated in the middle of the room with a couple of screens around it, Mike Joyce's kit was miked with an AKG D12 on the bass drum, Shure SM57s above and below the snare, a Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat, a Sennheiser 421 on the tom, a Neumann U87 on the floor tom, and a couple of 87s as overheads. "There was a very basic little sampler called a Window that Jacobs was trying out, and I've never seen it before or since," Street continues. "It had about one and a half seconds' sampling time, so if you sampled something you could trim the front and end, and then all you could do was loop it. Well, 'The Queen Is Dead' came along quite late during the sessions — Johnny knew he wanted to do this track which had a pretty strong rhythm going all the way through it, so I said 'Look, if I can just get a drum loop off the tom pattern, I'm sure I'll then be able to get a better sound separately for the snare.'

"For one thing, it was too messy when everything was going on at once. And for another, it gave us the chance to do something slightly different, something else in terms of the overall production. Mike therefore played the tom pattern that you hear at the beginning of the track, and I recorded that, sampled it, and it ran all the way through the track. I should also point out that the toms were recorded in the live room, but I didn't use so much of the ambience tracks. I just used the natural overhead tracks and close-mics on the toms, whereas when we recorded the snare I used a more distant 87 in the room and compressed it.

"Andy Rourke laid down a rough bass line to that tom pattern — a real killer bass line that pushed the track along — Johnny did a rough rhythm guitar part to it, and then Mike went back into the studio so we could record the bass drum and snare separately, enabling us to get a little more ambience on the snare without making the toms sound too wet. Later on, some cymbal crashes and swells were added on top of that — it was a very different way of recording to what they'd been used to. I mean, I knew that when John Porter worked with them he'd sometimes trigger an Akai bass drum and snare from Mike's playing, but I never did that. In most cases I'd use the actual sound of the kit. It was only on this one occasion that we used a bit of technology to see what else we could do with the drums, and I have to say it worked out pretty well."

Coates Of Many Colours
Meanwhile, take a look at the album credits and you'll see that the slightly weird-sounding, high-pitched backing vocals on 'The Queen Is Dead' and several other tracks were performed by one Ann Coates. Ever wonder what happened to her? If so, you'll be hard pressed to find out. Ms. Coates, you see, was otherwise known as Morrissey with a pitch-shifter.
"I was experimenting one day, trying the AMS harmoniser with different pitch changes, and it kind of worked and he kind of liked it," Street explains. "So, we decided to go with that; me putting him through a 1.5 on the harmoniser. You can hear it on 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' as well. Morrissey was a great one for wanting me to try out effects on his vocals. At that time, apart from the harmoniser, he didn't go for much backing vocal or harmony work — he's done that more on recent albums — but he did like to experiment. And the fact that I did this to a greater extent than John Porter, using his vocal like an instrument, probably helped endear me to Morrissey."
Print And Be Damned

Stephen Street was not afraid to record instruments to tape with their effects. "Instead of leaving everything to the mix, I would try, while we were tracking, to settle on what I wanted to do with the drums, if possible. You know, if I found a really good reverb or something else that I liked for the snare, and if I had enough tracks available, then I'd print it. And if I wasn't able to print it, I'd always make a note of what it was and get it back up so we could use it while we were tracking. That was part of the reason why I wanted to do the sampling thing and say 'That's it. That is the mix. That's the way it's going to be. That's what we'll go with.' Then again, with Mike overdubbing his snare separately, I was able to get much more of a clean and groovy sound than if he had been hitting his hi-hat and cymbals at the same time.

classic 3 Jacobs Studios.s
Photo courtesy Jacobs Studios
Jacobs Studios is still flourishing today, and Studio 1 looks much as it did in 1985 — this is one of the playing areas, with vocal booth.
Jacobs Studios is still flourishing today, and Studio 1 looks much as it did in 1985 — this is one of the playing areas, with vocal booth.

"Once Mike had tracked his parts, Johnny then went back in and got all this fantastic feedback, using the wah-wah pedal to change the pitch; all of that howling pitch-change stuff that you can hear weaving in and out the entire track. It was a really, really cool sound, and one of those happy accidents that can happen when you're in the studio, resulting from the guitar that he had and his proximity to the cabinet; a case of 'Hey Johnny, that's really great. Let's try to get a bit of that running all the way through.' I comped from a couple of tracks, and again we recorded quite a lot of it — I'd say there were another four minutes over and above what ended up on the actual record. First of all, I edited it down quite a bit on the two-inch. Then, when we got to the mixing stage, I told Johnny I thought we could take out a little more here and there, and this is what happened on the half-inch mixes. Still, that feedback was used to the max, giving a real kind of tension to the track."

While Andy Rourke's bass was DI'd, Johnny Marr's guitar went through a Fender Twin or Marshall stack and was recorded with what Stephen Street describes as "the usual combination of cheap mic, good mic; a Shure SM57 or 58 along with a U47 or 87. And I would try to set them up so that I could use both mics or just one. It depended, really, on the sound and what was suitable for the track."

Desk Vs. Recorder
Like RAK, Studio 1 at Jacobs was equipped with an SSL E-series console, as well as a Mitsubishi X850 32-track digital machine and the usual array of AMS and Lexicon reverbs and delays. "I've always been a great lover of SSLs," Stephen Street says. "They're really well laid out, and while a lot of people back then weren't too sure about the EQ, I liked the console especially because of the computer. The Mitsubishi, on the other hand, was a pain — every now and again we'd hear clicks during playback, and those were annoying, but we'd get around the problem by dropping in. However, after recording 'Frankly, Mr. Shankly', we played it back and there was a massive dropout halfway through the song, meaning we had to re-record the entire track. What a nightmare. Because of that, the song wasn't complete when we finished the album, and John Porter was brought in a little later to record and mix Morrissey's vocal."
No one was willing to take the blame for the technical hitch that was causing a number of dropouts during recording. "The people who made the tape machine blamed the people who made the tape," Street recalls, "and the people who made the tape claimed there had been a power surge. So, there was a back-and-forth about who was responsible, and I've never used that machine ever since."
A Kind Of Darkness

Although Morrissey rarely sang when Marr, Joyce and Rourke cut the backing tracks, he'd usually lay down his vocal immediately afterwards, helping to clarify the song's direction. "When Mike did his overdubs there were these little drop-down bits," Street recalls. "It was a jam that went on for quite a long time, so we just tried a few things, and then it was a case of cutting it all together. After Morrissey had done his vocal, for instance, we finished, and then we had quite a few more bars before that really good drop-down happened towards the end. So, all I had to do was get the old razor blade out and bring that forward. Arrangement-wise, something new was happening every few bars. And what's more, it was after we knew what was happening vocally — where everything was going to peak, and so on — that Mike added the cymbal crashes and swells.

classic 2 Smiths.s
Photo: Stephen Wright / Redferns
The Smiths famously posed in front of Salford Lads Club for the inner sleeve of The Queen Is Dead; this is one of the other photos from that session. From left to right: Johnny Marr, Morrissey, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce.
The Smiths famously posed in front of Salford Lads Club for the inner sleeve of The Queen Is Dead; this is one of the other photos from that session. From left to right: Johnny Marr, Morrissey, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce.

"Morrissey recorded his vocals in the live room, screened off so no-one could see him. At that time I was using a U87 on him, and two or three takes were all he needed. The guy could perform. He'd get himself vibed up and just go out there and do his takes. I'd have a little check-sheet with the lyrics, and I'd make notes regarding which were the good takes and which were the slightly dodgy parts. But, to be honest with you, within two or three takes we'd have everything we needed from him. He was fantastic. In fact, the things that really turned the song around were, one, getting Morrissey's vocal on there, and secondly, Johnny's great feedback.

"I comped everything, and if Morrissey had a problem with what he heard, he'd ask for an alternative line. However, nine times out of 10 he was happy with what I did. I mean, I wasn't changing every word when I was comping. I pretty much knew a take was great from there to there, so I could use that whole chunk. You see, Morrissey has his moments when he's in the studio and he gets into things, but his tolerance of being there non-stop is pretty limited. That's why Johnny was in the actual control room with me most of the time.

"Morrissey would just come in now and again, and if he didn't like something he'd obviously make it known and try to think of something else. But he wouldn't be there all the time, giving me instructions. His thing would be to come up with the intro to 'The Queen Is Dead' — 'Oh! Take me back to dear old Blighty...' [sampled from the 1962 film version of The L-Shaped Room, starring Leslie Caron]. That's typical Morrissey — 'Can we put this on?' In those days, it really was a case of just getting out the record deck and trying something until it felt right. At that point, you'd know you had the take."

Since leaving Island's Fallout Shelter to go freelance in 1987, Stephen Street has racked up an impressive list of production credits, not least his hits with the Cranberries and Blur. Nevertheless, nearly 20 years after the fact, he is still very proud of the work that he and everyone else did on the Queen Is Dead album, as well as all of his other collaborations with the Smiths. "I just feel chuffed to have been given the chance to work with them," he says. "As with everything else in this industry, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and I'm just grateful that we were able to go on and make that record together."

Stevie Wonder 'Pastime Paradise'

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: Stevie Wonder 'Pastime Paradise'

Epic in every sense of the word — unning to 21 songs, involving more than 120 musicians and taking almost two years to complete — Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life was in many ways the high-point of an already illustrious career. This is the story of how it was created.

Billy Swan 'I Can Help'

Classic Tracks: Producers Chip Young, Billy Swan; Engineer Chip Young

Thumbnail for article: Billy Swan 'I Can Help'

In 1974 Billy Swan walked into Chip Young's Young'un Sound studio and, in two takes, recorded a million-selling single that had taken him 20 minutes to write. This is how it was done...

Ian Dury & The Blockheads

Classic Track: 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick'

Thumbnail for article: Ian Dury & The Blockheads

The story of how a characteristically chaotic and unorthodox 1978 recording session took Ian Dury & The Blockheads to the top of the UK charts.

Madonna 'Like A Virgin'

CLASSIC TRACKS: Producers: Nile Rodgers, Madonna, Stephen Bray • Engineer: Jason Corsaro

Thumbnail for article: Madonna 'Like A Virgin'

In mid-1984 Madonna arrived at New York City's Power Station studios with Nile Rodgers to record the album that would make her an international superstar - using cutting-edge 12-bit technology.

Fleetwood Mac 'Go Your Own Way'

Classic Tracks

Thumbnail for article: Fleetwood Mac 'Go Your Own Way'

In 1976, in the face of deteriorating personal relationships and massive record company pressure, Fleetwood Mac managed to create a record that would go on to sell 30 million copies.

CLASSIC TRACKS: The Only Ones: 'Another Girl, Another Planet'

Producer: Alan Mair • Engineers: John Burns, Robert Ash

Although never a commercial success, the Only One's 'Another Girl, Another Planet' has proved to be massively influential; and nearly 30 years after its original release, it's finally getting the recognition it deserves.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Tricky 'Black Steel'

Producers: Tricky • Mark Saunders

Thumbnail for article: CLASSIC TRACKS: Tricky 'Black Steel'Tricky's highly unorthodox approach to recording and making music led to the creation of one of the most unique and critically lauded records of the '90s.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Charlie Rich 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World'

Producer: Billy Sherrill • Engineer: Lou Bradley

1973's 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World' was one of the defining moments of the Nashville sound, and was the product of a finely-honed studio recording process.

CLASSIC TRACKS: The Ronettes 'Be My Baby'

Producer: Phil Spector • Engineer: Larry Levine

Phil Spector was one of the first producers to realise that a recording studio could be an instrument in itself - and the sound he created over 40 years ago has influenced popular music ever since.

CLASSIC TRACKS: The Jam 'The Eton Rifles'

Producers: The Jam, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven • Engineers: Alan Douglas, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven

'The Eton Rifles' captured both Paul Weller's growing talent as a songwriter and the raw power of his band the Jam, and gave the group their first top 10 hit.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Depeche Mode's 'People Are People'

Producers: Depeche Mode, Daniel Miller, Gareth Jones • Engineer: Gareth Jones

Released in 1984, 'People Are People' perfectly combined Depeche Mode's love of pop music and experimentalism, and gave them their first US hit single.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'

Producer & Engineer: Les Paul

Les Paul made some of the most innovative records of the 20th Century, but he had to invent multitrack tape recording first...

CLASSIC TRACKS: The Cure 'A Forest'

Producers: Robert Smith, Mike Hedges

Mike Hedges made his 1980 debut as a producer with one of The Cure's most enduring singles. 'A Forest' and the accompanying Seventeen Seconds album used his and the band's creativity in the studio to the full.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Sade's 'The Sweetest Taboo'

Producers: Robin Millar, Sade Adu, Mike Pela, Ben Rogan

Sade's ice-cool vocals and sophisticated, jazz-tinged instrumentation defined a new kind of soul music for the '80s. Engineer and producer Mike Pela describes the organic recording process that produced one of the singer's most memorable hits from 1985.


Artist: David Bowie; Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti; Studio: Hansa Ton, Berlin

With 'Heroes', David Bowie pulled off the rare feat of having a major hit with a highly experimental piece of art-rock, which featured among other highlights live synth treatments from Brian Eno, pitched feedback from guitarist Robert Fripp, and a lead vocal with level-triggered ambience.


Artist: The Sex Pistols; Producer: Chris Thomas; Engineer: Bill Price

When punk rock broke in 1976, the Sex Pistols caused panic in establishment Britain — and more than a few raised eyebrows in Wessex Studios, where Chris Thomas and Bill Price recorded the band's milestone EMI debut album.

MICHAEL JACKSON 'Black Or White' | Classic Tracks

Producers: Michael Jackson, Bill Bottrell • Engineer: Bill Bottrell

The 18-month gestation period behind Michael Jackson's Dangerous album and its lead single 'Black Or White' saw '80s studio perfectionism taken to extremes — and despite their success, the experience helped to convince co-writer, engineer and co-producer Bill Bottrell that there had to be another way to make records!


Producers: Duran Duran, Alex Sadkin, Ian Little; Engineers: Phil Thornalley, Pete Schwier

When Duran Duran began work on their third album in 1983, they were already one of the biggest bands in the world — and with eight months of studio time and half a million pounds spent, huge expectations surrounded Seven And The Ragged Tiger...

CLASSIC TRACKS: 'Wuthering Heights'

Artist: Kate Bush; Producer: Andrew Powell; Engineer: Jon Kelly

Kate Bush's 1978 smash hit debut single was also the first major project Jon Kelly had recorded. It proved to be a dream start for both artist and engineer, and a perfect illustration of the benefits of working with talented session musicians.

CLASSIC TRACKS: 'What's Love Got To Do With It?'

Artist: Tina Turner; Producer: Terry Britten; Engineer: John Hudson

In 1984, a dose of British soul resurrected Tina Turner's flagging career in spectacular style. For engineer John Hudson, the recording of 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' also provided a memorable example of the 'less is more' principle in action...


Artist: The Rolling Stones; Engineer: Chris Kimsey

In 1981, 'Start Me Up' became one of the Rolling Stones' biggest hit singles. Yet it was actually a reject from a previous session, and only saw the light of day because its infamous co-writers had fallen out...

Classic Tracks: The Police's 'Every Breath You Take'

Producers: The Police, Hugh Padgham • Engineer: Hugh Padgham.

The Police's final studio album was both a technical and artistic tour de force, and yielded one of their most memorable hit singles. Yet the three members were unable to play in the same room without a fight breaking out, so the recording sessions proved tough going for engineer and co-producer Hugh Padgham...

CLASSIC TRACKS: 'Unforgettable'

Artists: Natalie Cole & Nat 'King' Cole; Producer: David Foster; Engineer: Al Schmitt

Half a century in the business has seen recording engineer Al Schmitt reach the very top of his profession, but even a man of his experience can find himself faced with new challenges. So it was in 1991, when he was called upon to turn a classic Nat 'King' Cole recording into a duet with Cole's daughter Natalie...

DAW Tips from SOS


Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Blog | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads

Advertise | Information | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help


Email: Contact SOS

Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888

Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895

Registered Office: Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB23 8SQ, United Kingdom.

Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales.

Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26


All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors, 1985-2015. All rights reserved.
The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part, whether mechanical or electronic, is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents. The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers.

Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media