The Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual” Lyrics Meaning
The Smiths were only around for a short time during the 1980s but left a lasting impression on the British music scene especially. It can be said that their heyday was during an era when countercultural acts in the UK, i.e. those critical of society, were en vogue.
Even though they only got around to releasing four studio albums before disbanding, The Smiths had firmly established themselves as being outspoken in that regard.
And so it is with “The Headmaster Ritual”. This song served as the opening track of the crew’s second studio LP, “Meat Is Murder”, which Rough Trade Records made public on 11 February 1985. Furthermore it was issued as a single though, by the looks of things, solely in the Netherlands.
Credits of “The Headmaster Ritual”
“The Headmaster Ritual” was written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, i.e. The Smiths’ lead singer and rhythm guitarist. During the brief time they were together, the duo were backed by bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.
It’s all four of them, as a unit, who produced this track. Of further note is that even though most of the band’s songs were written by the pairing of Morrissey and Marr, reportedly this marks the only time that the latter contributed lyrically.
The Lyrics of “The Headmaster Ritual”
This song has been popularly described as Morrissey’s tirade against corporal punishment. One simple way of defining corporal punishment is when a person is penalized for breaking a certain rule(s) through the administering of physical pain.
And as can be ascertained by the title of this track, since “headmaster” is a term related to schooling in Britain (i.e. the equivalent of what Americans refer to as a principal), what The Smiths are more specifically referring to are such practices within the context of the educational system.
So as for Morrissey, he was schooled at St. Mary’s Secondary Modern School in Manchester, which was the experience which inspired these lyrics.
Eventually, the UK did proceed to by and large outlaw corporal punishment (in 1986). But that was some time after Morrissey’s school days. And we can speculate that he must’ve been a handful for teachers to deal with and probably fell victim to the lash regularly.
Or any event, Morrissey felt it justified to use the opportunity of this song to for instance depict such disciplinarians as being “belligerent ghouls” who “run Manchester schools”. Belligerent is another way of saying that a person is overly aggressive. And putting forth that someone is a “ghoul”, within this context, is basically another way of calling them evil.
The Attacks Continue
And as the lyrics progress, we can see why when this song was dropped, the headmaster of the secondary school Morrissey attended was compelled to publicly respond. In truth, the vocalist doesn’t actually attack the practice of corporal punishment. Rather, he criticizes those in the schools who administer it for unjust reasons.
Amongst such criticisms of such individuals are them being cowardly, lacking in open-mindedness, “jealous of the youth” and out of touch with reality basically, as if they are old, disillusioned military dictators. And note that such wording is not only present in the first verse but is repeated in the third also.
As for the second verse, Morrissey gives a more vivid illustration of what he and his schoolmates apparently went through. And it would seem that most notable abuse happened “on the playing field”, which we will take as a reference to a soccer pitch or something similar, since Morrissey was active in sports back in those days.
So as implied, the teachers or coaches – or whoever were in charge – were quick to assault students. And they did so via acts such as “knees… in the groin” or a “elbow in the face”, and sometimes the results could sometimes be “bruises bigger than dinner plates”.
As for the actual chorus, it most simply revolves around the vocalist’s desire to “go home”, i.e. be freed from having to attend school. Therefore, the implication is that despite all of the abuse suffered, he was forced to attend anyway.
“I want to go home
I don’t want to stay
Give up life as a bad mistake”
In one of the choruses, Morrissey also makes the statement “give up life as a bad mistake”, which sounds a lot like suicidal language. And it may seem a bit extreme, based on the lyrics alone, to think the narrator may be contemplating suicide.
But outside of this song, Morrissey also described “the education (he) received” as being “so basically evil and brutal”. And the way he perceives it, “all (he) learnt” in the process of going to school “was to have no self-esteem and to feel ashamed without knowing why”. So maybe, if time at St. Mary’s was making him feel worthless and pathetic, on top of the physical abuse being doled out, then yes, suicidal thoughts may have well materialized along the way.
The Long and Short of “The Headmaster Ritual”
The thesis sentiment of this song isn’t against corporal punishment per se. Rather, the “education” itself is presented as being “a bad mistake”. That is to say that what The Smiths are actually raging against is how the entire educational system is structured, in a manner where as inferred, authoritarians can disrespect students, without the latter having any recourse for justice.
And obviously, that is what he remembers the most about his time at St. Mary’s Secondary. So who knows? “The Headmaster Ritual” may have even contributed to corporal punishment being by and large abolished in British schools a couple of years after this track came out.