Songs that saved your life: The Smiths – “The Headmaster Ritual”

THE SMITHS – The Headmaster Ritual (1985)

“Five years of education here proved to have no effect upon me whatsoever…except in a very adverse sense. Not to be recommended.”

In winter 1985, Morrissey walked The Oxford Road Show past childhood Manchester haunts, and stopped outside the gates of Stretford St Mary’s school. His sour pronouncements would compel the school’s sitting headmaster to mount a counteroffensive on local radio. The new Smiths LP, Meat Is Murder, was #1 in the U.K. album charts, while its tumultuous opening track, “The Headmaster Ritual,” made art out of the singer’s magnificent angst.

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s arch, vituperative lyric was neither the first nor last time Morrissey brayed about adolescent tribulations, but as the press and public’s fascination with his thematic material intensified, he began using his celebrity to ramrod a wider array of targets. The results could be spectacular. As the lead song on a chartbusting LP, “Ritual” was guaranteed analysis and notoriety, and its subject matter further distanced The Smiths from the Brit pack.

Morrissey’s March 1985 walking tour of Manchester, courtesy The Oxford Road Show:

The host album’s a wonderful piece of work, the most bewitching and beguiling of the four Smiths studio LPs. Miles ahead of  The Smiths‘ stiff and boxy execution, Meat Is Murder sounds luscious, muscular, vivacious. The all-hands-on-deck stylistic breadth’s amazing: consider the ground covered, from “What She Said”‘s metalheaded clangour to the swampy, multitracked guitar break in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” from “Well I Wonder”‘s desolate, rain-soaked reverie to the pound of flesh exacted by the stridently funked-out “Barbarism Begins At Home.”

And then, the lyrics. They’re the reason so many of us dig The Smiths in the first place, and while Morrissey arguably grew more artful over the next decade, Meat‘s lyrics represent the best Smiths-era expression of his morose, inescapably magnetic confessionalism: while he’s still teasing out his Wilde-ly romanticized frustrations, in improving upon The Smiths‘ model, his delivery’s rawer and less fanciful, experiential consequences more desperate and deep. Meat Is Murder diarizes fatalistic romantic entropy, dicey political rage, unsettling social forays, and, famously, “belligerent ghouls [who] run Manchester schools.”

The Headmaster Ritual” live in Madrid, May 19, 1985:

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s plainspoken imagery was unsettling (and is possibly even moreso today, a quarter-century further removed from the excessive corporal punishment once common to the English school system). With accounts of child abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – a matter of public record easily recalled through any Google search, “Ritual”‘s grey, dead-ended grimness ranks among Morrissey’s most powerful statements on inequity.

Mid-week on the playing field,                                                                                        Sir thwacks you on the knees.                                                                                   Knees you in the groin, elbow in the face.                                                        Bruises bigger than dinner plates.                                                                                     I wanna go home, I don’t wanna stay…                                                  Lalalalalala la-ee-ay…

Perhaps Morrissey’s taken poetic license with his recount of life on the soccer pitch at Stretford St Mary’s. Perhaps not. The word deployment’s awfully effective, either way. Thwack. Who else uses that in a song lyric? The mid-verse repetition of “knees,” first mentioned as the hapless victim’s body part, then as his tormentor’s weapon of choice. The ingenious long-vowel rhyming scheme incorporating “face,” “plates,” “stay” and the feral, wordless chorus yodel.

The couplet that gets me has to be the last verse’s “Please excuse me from gym/I’ve got this terrible cold coming on…” I went to Canada’s most prestigious boys’ preparatory school for five years (“not to be recommended”). Competition loomed at every turn, an exhausting and exhaustive gauntlet which re-made and re-modeled athletic, scholastic, social and pyschological heroes and zeroes on a weekly, if not daily basis, where class reports were sometimes graded by peers and field trips reasserted the alpha, beta and omega statuses of 10- and 12-year old boys, under the yawping direction of burly gym teachers and hirsute music instructors who grabbed shirt collars and screamed at below-average performances. Please excuse me from gym…Feigned illness? Oh, I used that. Sometimes it got me out of an undesirable task. Sometimes it got me screamed at. In “Ritual,” Morrissey’s pubescent sadsack finds himself grabbed and kicked in the showers. If this were going on today there’d be a whole lotta sad vaguebooking, a whole lotta investigation, a whole lotta publicity, a whole lotta withdrawn financial support. In “Ritual,” the protagonist only knows humiliation. In “Ritual,” Morrissey – supported by Marr’s cascade of jagged riffage, Andy Rourke’s ornate, thrusting basslines and Mike Joyce’s no-nonsense snare and cymbal work – exposes a bully pulpit for the monstrosity it is, and the result is one of the four or five best tracks in The Smiths’ canon.

And now, curios for the curious:

In 2009, Marr discussed Smiths riffs for a Fender guitar promo. In this excerpt, he lays out “Ritual”‘s central figure:

By 2004, Morrissey had taken to playing “The Headmaster Ritual” in concert, albeit at a slower tempo. This clip’s from the official tour DVD, taped in Manchester on the occasion of the singer’s 45th birthday, May 22, 2004:

In November 2007, Radiohead tackled a pair of cover versions by Manchester’s twin legends: the incipient New Order’s post-Curtis single, “Ceremony,” and “The Headmaster Ritual.” The Smiths cover’s energetic, full of feeling and worth a listen, if not a patch on the original article:

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4 responses to “Songs that saved your life: The Smiths – “The Headmaster Ritual”

  1. Oh, you’ve nailed it. This song saved my life indeed. Mine was an idyllic encounter: the first time I put the tape in my walkman — my first Smiths album — was in January of my 14th year, in the playground of my former elementary school. Stark, grey, lonely — I wouldn’t change a thing.

    Thank you for capturing it.

    • Meat was my final studio Smiths buy, actually. Lukewarm reviews from trusted sources put me off, so the first time I ran it through my walkman was a prolonged shock: “Trouser Press says it’s ‘dry’ and ‘less appealing’? Are we playing the same record?” It very quickly became my favourite Smiths LP; I can’t think of a track that fails, whether as a staggeringly good bit of song (try “Well I Wonder” during a dark night of the soul; “Barbarism” and “I Want The One I Can’t Have” would’ve made terrific singles), or in comparison to similar catalog items (“Rusholme” is the best of their rockabilly tunes by some margin), or as legend-mongering (say what you will about the ugly title track: it grabbed everyone’s attention).

      On a wonderful album, “Headmaster” is the first among equals. Its sound and feel. Those churning guitar riffs, that tough drumming, that gulping bass. Those yelps, those words, the pleading and the fist-shaking tones in the singing. And obviously, for a great number of us – “too gentle for grunge, too questioning for pop pabulum, they hear in their love-wounded icon some echo of their own uncategorizable sadness (Trouser Press again, this time with a sensible assessment) – the subject matter.

      Thank you for reading again, Kate. Always a pleasure to share musical impressions with you.

      The singer’s playing Albany and Niagara Falls in October (18th and 19th, respectively). Are you attending?

  2. mmmmeeeeehh … probably not. I was able to catch him in Montreal some time ago, and we waited in our seats for longer than he actually played. Morrissey can get away with that, of course — a 1-hr set, 2 Smiths songs! — but my contrarian ways may be winning over my fandom in this instance. Or maybe I’m too nostalgic for Johnny Marr for it to be any more than bittersweet for me. But that’s also the attraction, I suppose, if there is any Smiths feeling to be had. We’ll see. Unless I get a golden ticket for my birthday or something, I may just hear the Morrissey report from others. And from you, perhaps?
    (“Shoplifters” and “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” by the way –)
    Oh, and a free show this Thursday (8/2/12) in Buffalo: The Jesus and Mary Chain. http://www.bestofwny.com/concerts_festivals/#tats

  3. Thanks for this post. Headmaster is an incredible song.

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