By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ is one of many classic songs by the Manchester group The Smiths. More than this, it is one of many classic songs to appear on a single album, The Queen Is Dead (1986), the album which represented the peak of the band’s success and powers.
On the original vinyl LP release of the album, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ gets side two of the record off to a barnstorming start. But what does this song mean?
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’: summary
The song begins with Morrissey, the singer of The Smiths, addressing a loved one (‘Sweetness’). He reassures this addressee that he was only joking when he said he’d like to see terrible acts of violence visited upon her (or him: we don’t know the actual gender of the person he’s talking to).
He then compares himself to Joan of Arc, the famous French (although technically and pedantically, she wasn’t ‘French’ per se) soldier who defended France against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan of Arc was subsequently captured and burnt at the stake (by the French, oddly enough, in league with the English – but I digress).
The chorus to the song includes its title: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, which is another way of saying ‘me and my big mouth, what trouble my tendency to shoot my mouth off has got me into, yet again’.
This chorus is repeated several times, as is the Joan of Arc verse, although ‘Walkman’ is substituted for ‘hearing aid’ when the lines are sung the second time.
Curiously, the song was more specifically meant as an attack on the media who, at the time, appeared to have it in for Morrissey, twisting everything he said and casting it in a negative light.
‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’: meaning
The principal meaning of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ is obvious enough: it’s about someone lamenting their habit of opening their mouth and saying something they shouldn’t have said.
But what makes ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ more than its rather trite sentiment is, as so often with Morrissey’s lyrics, the irony and playfulness with which he delivers this sentiment. The comparison to Joan of Arc is, of course, ludicrous: the singer merely threatened violence (of a rather exaggerated kind) upon his beloved in the heat of the moment. Joan of Arc led a military campaign which resulted in the deaths of many people in the brutal war between the French and the English. It’d be like someone getting a paper cut on their hand and saying they now knew how Jesus must have felt when he was crucified. Joan of Arc’s own death was brutal: she was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Burning was often a slow and agonising way to die.
The modern-day speaker has no such fate awaiting him for his ‘bigmouth’. And the contrast between the two figures is brought home by Morrissey’s deliberate use of anachronism: the Walkman and the hearing aid which Joan of Arc, he claims, had on her person when she was executed.
I remember first hearing this song and thinking this was one arch lyric too far from Morrissey: the anachronism lacked the subtlety of the best examples, where the two different historical periods are ingeniously brought together to express a congruence as well as an obvious time-difference.
It was only when the penny (belatedly) dropped that I realised what the anachronism was doing. Joan of Arc rose up against the English because she heard voices telling her to do so. A Walkman (now an obsolete piece of technology in the age of iPods and so on) was a portable electronic device which enabled people to hear voices, such as the voice of Morrissey singing on Smiths records, in their heads, thanks to the earphones.
And if we’re surprised to find Morrissey comparing himself with a French female martyr from the Middle Ages, there’s a nice little joke on the album sleeve of The Queen Is Dead. The backing vocals to ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ are credited to an ‘Ann Coates’, but were actually performed by Morrissey himself, with his high-pitched vocals replacing the original backing vocals recorded by the late Kirsty MacColl (who, a year later, would score a huge hit with her duet with The Pogues, ‘Fairytale of New York’). ‘Ann Coates’ was a Manchester-themed joke: a play on Ancoats, an area of the city.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, with its catchy and jaunty riff and arch lyrics, offers an idiosyncratic and memorable take on the idea of opening your mouth without thinking. And whilst this is the ultimate meaning of the song, the way Morrissey delivers this sentiment is what makes the song among the more memorable tracks on The Queen Is Dead.