In 1997, Johnny Marr told Guitar magazine that it took him two years to write the guitar part of this song, which carries an anti-corporal punishment message: "The nuts and bolts of "The Headmaster Ritual" came together during the first album (The Smiths), and I just carried on playing around with it. It started off as a very sublime sort of Joni Mitchell-esque chord figure; I played it to Morrissey but we never took it further. Then, as my life got more and more intense, so did the song. The bridge and the chorus part were originally for another song, but I put them together with the first part. That was unusual for me; normally I just hammer away at an idea until I've got a song."
This was covered by Radiohead in a 2007 webcast. Marr later joked to Uncut magazine: "I saw the Radiohead version. I have shown Ed (O'Brien Radiohead guitarist) the chords, but maybe he was looking out of the window! But they do a better job than anyone else I've heard."
This song opens The Smiths' second album, Meat Is Murder. This was the one and only Smiths album to reach the #1 spot in the UK. In 2003, the album was ranked at #296 on Rolling Stone magazine's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Despite its commercial and critical success, Marr told The Guitar Magazine that he was dissatisfied with Meat Is Murder: "Artistically, I think Meat Is Murder is the least successful of all The Smiths' albums. Some of the songs are just played too fast. That's me - I'm terrible for just speeding things up."
Morrissey's lyrics were inspired by his own unhappy schooldays at St. Mary's Secondary, Stretford, Manchester. The song' s fury was directed at vicious beatings dished out by the teachers.
Morrissey described the song in his autobiography as: "A live-wire sapitfire guitar sound that takes on all-comers."