Morrissey appeared this week on The Late, Late Show With James Corden, giving a bravura, if clap-happy, performance of his new single, a cover version of ‘Back On The Chain Gang’.
Originally released in 1982 by The Pretenders, written and sung by the indomitable Chrissie Hynde, I’ve always liked this up-tempo melancholic pop song musing wistfully-angrily on the discovery of ‘a picture of you’ that ‘hijacked my world last night’.
But I hadn’t realised until now how… Smithsian it sounds.
So much so, that you think Moz has changed some of the lyrics. But on checking it turns out to be very little, just a pronoun here and there. The most substantial change seems to be:
'In the wretched life of a lonely heart'
'Lonely hearts, lonely hearts'
Morrissey-esque turns of phrase like:
The phone, the TV and the News of the World Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Or the sun-shines-out-of-our-behinds exhilarating extravagance of:
The powers that be That force us to live like we do Bring me to my knees When I see what they've done to you But I'll die as I stand here today Knowing that deep in my heart They'll fall to ruin one day For making us part
Turn out to be pure Hynde. I just hadn’t listened properly before.
But then it’s probably not a coincidence that The Smiths were formed the same year as this catchy-jangly, bitter-sweet, poetic-dramatic pop song was released.
For the next few days only, Saint Morrissey is available on Kindle for just 99 cents/pence.
I recently got around to watching the video for ‘Spent the Day In Bed’, Morrissey’s first single from his new Low in High School album.
Since writing Saint Morrissey – which was something akin to an exorcism – I’ve taken a somewhat more leisurely approach to the Stretford Bard’s output. Perhaps I’m slightly disappointed that he didn’t have the decency to finally retire incommunicado to Bognor Regis after it was published over a decade ago.
Instead my 58 year-old subject has, very selfishly, continued to tour furiously, put out new albums, as well as open his big Manc mouth and managing to epater les bourgeoisie fairly regularly, getting his name in the papers. I’m positively dreading all the updating I’d have to do for a new edition. Just when you think you’ve pinned and mounted your butterfly….
To make matters worse, ‘Spent The Day in Bed’ is Morrissey’s strongest, catchiest, most lyrical single for years.
Yes, the themes are very familiar – you might almost say… ‘tired’. The lines ‘Spent the day in bed/As the workers stay enslaved’ could be a three decades on sequel to ‘Still Ill’: ‘And if you must go to work tomorrow/Well if I were you I wouldn’t bother…’. And also ‘Nowhere Fast’ of course, with its lying in bed thinking about life and death and discovering ‘neither one particularly appeal to me’.
Morrissey – Spent the Day in Bed (Official Video)
‘Spent the Day in Bed’ and the video are full of lazy intimations of mortality and gallows humour – but this time, a third of a century on, and with recent cancer scares, the gallows looms rather larger. Those sheets for which he’s paid and in which he’s laid could also be winding sheets, just as those pillows are ‘like pillars’.
But why not lie in your bed mausoleum taunting death?
‘Oh time do as I wish/Oh time do as I wish’
And avoiding life. Or at least, the impostor version of it we have to submit to:
‘No bus, no boss, no rain, no train./No emasculation, no castration’
In the video, when he gets to ‘no castration’, I think I detect a flicker of a self-mocking grin.
The video is almost as darkly funny as the lyrics. Morrissey in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? wheelchair is trundled into what looks like a dimly-lit 1960s Manchester working men’s club by a smirking, fresh-faced Joey Barton (I’d like to think Moz insisted that he get a shave if he wanted to be in his promo).
Barton, a famous Morrissey fan, is a professional ruffian footballer and tattooed boy from Birkenhead – well, Huyton if you want to be pedantic. And who wouldn’t want to be wheeled around by him in their dotage? Especially since Bette Davis is no longer available. (Though a passable stand-in does make an appearance later…)
Moz then performs the entire song seated, head tilted backwards, perhaps to catch the little light there is, perhaps to stretch out his 58-year-old neck, while his band perform on their feet around him – finally falling off his chair and out of shot at the end. A reminder that:
‘Life ends in death/So, there’s nothing wrong with/Being good to yourself/Be good to yourself for once!’
Life ends in death, so pamper yourself. By rehearsing it.
But it is the dreamy ‘Oh time do as I wish’ interlude in the video which is the main reason I’m writing this post. I almost fell off my chair when my old chum the performance artist David Hoyle suddenly appeared onstage at this point doing some sexy dancing with something shimmy. Watched avidly by Morrissey and Joey Barton, the latter hungrily popping peanuts into his mouth.
David, someone I got to know in the early 80s in London when we were both teenage runaways to Sodom-on-Thames, now lives in Manchester but grew up in Blackpool – where as a teenager he performed Shirley Bassey numbers in working men’s clubs, rather like the one in the video.
Hoyle and Morrissey have a lot in common – both northern, scornful, working class poet-prophets of the absurdity of desire, both determined not to keep the customer satisfied, and both keeping on keeping on, though one rather closer to the breadline than the other. It’s about time they got together.
And in fact much of the sentiment of ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ is also present in many of David’s shows (you can see many of them on YouTube) – which are also chock-full of gallows humour.
David likes to remind his audience regularly that they’re all going to die, despite their precious identities, ideologies and Sainsburys loyalty cards. He also likes to urge them to not bother to go to work tomorrow and try a little bit of anarchy instead. No bus, no boss, no train, no rain….
Here’s a review I wrote of one of David’s shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London in 1998, a frightening two decades ago, when he was still appearing as The Divine David (a persona he was shortly to kill off – before it killed him). All will be explained. Or perhaps not….
Joan and Bette together again
THE DIVINE DAVID AT THE ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN, LONDON
by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 1998)
Last year a one-man avant-garde whirlwind arrived on the London alternative cabaret circuit. Looking and sounding like Bette Davis meets Iggy Pop (and drinks him under the table) he proclaimed the death of drag and traditional crowd-pleasing en-ter-tain-ment.
Oh yes, and the redundancy of sexuality and gender as well.
“REMEMBER!” he would howl at the audience, after some crazed portrait-painting or singing Bowie’s Heroes in the style of Tommy Steele, “you may be standing there feeling very proud of yourself for being ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ , ‘a straight’ or a” – spitting the word out like a piece of four-day old mince he found lodged between his teeth – “‘gay’, but you’ve all got something in common, something much more certain than any of these fragile illusions. YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”
“Now,” he’d add softly, “isn’t that lovely, ladies and gentlemen? Doesn’t that give you a warm feeling inside?”
But The Divine David has decided that this isn’t the kind of thing that the punters want. The embodiment of the avant-garde after the death of the avant-garde, the zombie Spirit of Humanity that used to urge audiences not to go to work tomorrow or pay any bills has gone corporate. A glossy colour leaflet advertises his latest show, Viva 5 Apathy, with pictures of smiling people in suits clutching lap-tops at board-meetings and includes a statement from the President, The Divine DavidTM, about how market research has convinced him that what is needed is a more consumer-led product.
“This time,” he concludes, “it’s corporate!”
Although this sensible mission statement is undermined slightly by a photo on the last page depicting The Divinely Skinny One snapped from behind in a pair of purple briefs, looking over his shoulder, sloppily lip-sticked lips parted coquettishly, mouthing a faux surprised “OH!”.
At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, now re-named the Royal Vauxhall Conference Centre, Jay Cloth, The Divine David’s delectable-yet-efficient secretary and receptionist, takes your money (£3 waged/£3.50 unwaged), issues you with a name badge and does a spot of niche-market research, showing you some flash cards featuring fire, ambulance, police and mountain rescue and asking: “Have you used any of these services recently?”
The Vauxhall Tavern is a perfect venue for the Divine David’s reinvention of himself. Built in the mid-nineteenth century as a music-hall venue, after the Second World War it became a drag pub. In the seventies disco lights, black paint and a dj booth was added and it became a gay drag pub. Corinthian columns, flaking paint and a century of tobacco smoke, alcohol fumes and rowdy, anarchic performance reaches its apotheosis and nadir in The Divine David.
Except, of course, he’s now gone corporate. “I’ve learnt that people want entertainment”’ he announces when he finally steps out onto the stage, wearing a business-like mauve woollen twin-set with padded shoulders Herman Munster would have envied. “Audiences don’t want anything that will stretch them a bit. There’s going to be none of that avant-garde rubbish tonight. None of you need go home tonight to your rented accommodation feeling stupid.” He then performs a cappella quite the most disturbing version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ – so inane that it takes on meanings you never wanted to think about before: I didn’t wanna do it…
Entertainment over, David conducts a flip-chart seminar on how to “make a go of it” in business. “First,” he says, all schoolmarmish, “you take your self,” and writes ‘SELF’ at the top of the chart. “And then you get rid of that.” He strikes the word through. “And you become a what? Does anybody know?”
“A CUNT!” shouts out a drunken Scottish voice.
“Yes, a cunt that’s right.” He writes ‘CUNT’. “And what do you end up in?”
“A FOOKIN’ NIGHTMARE!”.
“A nightmare, exactly,” agrees David in a businesslike fashion, writing ‘= A NIGHTMARE’. “Does everyone see how that works? That’s lovely.”
The Divine David, corporate or avant-garde, doesn’t have much time for sentimentality. At one point he declares his support for Tracy Edwards: ‘Any woman who kills a man is a friend of mine.’
A little later he ruminates: “When I’m at a garden party or some such social occasion, people often come up to me and say, ‘Oh, David, there’s a gay over here, you must meet him.’ And I say, ‘Oh a gay, I know all about that – that’s about gristle up your shitter – if memory serves me right….’.
Not very fond of ‘men’ or ‘gays’, The Divine David has what some might call a certain distance on his predicament. Others, of course, will accuse him of ‘self-hatred’. But the whole point of The Divine David is drama and conflict, a refusal to become what you are supposed to be, a refusal to relax into identity, into niche markets and corporate/corporal values, into predictability. Or profitability.
So before the second half of his performance, we hear him announce over the p.a.: “Ladies und gentlemen, I’ve a confession to make. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve gone avant-garde again!”
Out he prances on stage in an alarming vented black body-suit, stretched over his gangly frame and his head, leaving a mad little oval of smeared red lips and melting mascara eyes. To the tune of a disco rhumba he then dances and mimes in a delightfully demented way with a couple of hoops, including an hilarious wheelchair moment straight out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
The Divine David is back – quite the scariest, funniest, smartest, truest, noblest thing you can see for three quid. Invest now.
1991’s big, busty novelty hit ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was as zeitgeisty and bitchily funny as it was ear-wormingly annoying.
I remember it playing everywhere in London that summer: builders’ vans, barber’s shops, caffs, pubs, nightclubs, funeral parlours. OK, I didn’t actually hear it in funeral parlours but I’m sure that even the dead didn’t escape it’s strutting beat and croaking vocal. A perfect trashy radio song for a then still trashy London that was, back then, all mouth and no trousers. Of course, today it’s all oligarch trousers and hipster mouth.
Cruelly, Right Said Fred – who were all leather trousers – saw their cheeky, giggly song about self-love cheated of the No.1 spot in the UK. They were pinned down at No.2 for six weeks by Bryan Adam’s heavyweight paean to his own altruism: ‘Everything I Do I Do It For You’. A ballad to end all ballads which selflessly hogged the top spot for sixteen weeks that felt like years of Canadian winter.
‘I’m Too Sexy’ was the camp, saucy music-hall dance pop counterpoint to the naff north American mawkishness of EIDIDIFY. Though in truth we Brits deserved Mr Adam as much as anyone could deserve that fate: the UK pop music scene, like the UK economy, was in a right post-80s, post acid-house state. Right Said Fred were the only living British act in the top five top-selling UK singles that year. At No.1 was EIDIDIFY (natch), No.2 a reissue of Queen’s 1975 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (after Freddie Mercury’s death that year from Aids-related illness), at No.3 Cher’s ‘It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)’, at No.4 ‘I’m Too Sexy’, and at No.5 ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons.
Even a cartoon American managed to sell sold more records in the UK that year than any British act that wasn’t wearing just leather trousers. Britpop, which got underway a couple of years later, in large part as a reaction to a US-dominated UK hit parade, was of course all about cartoon Mancunians.
Right Said Fred are back in the news after Taylor Swift’s recent acknowledged use of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ baseline in her latest single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Everyone it seems likes a bit of ‘I’m Too Sexy’: the Guardian, along with many others, recently ran an interview with Richard Fairbrass, lead singer (middle in photo) about the hit.
There’s some interesting background: I didn’t realise that it got to No.1 in the US (in 1992). I also enjoyed the anecdote Richard Fairbrass relates: ‘In Texas, there was a fight in a bar because some girls played the video for eight hours, and when a guy tried to turn it off, they attacked him.’ I wonder though whether after eight hours of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ anyone would have been capable of doing much more than drooling insensately. I also didn’t realise Right Said Fred were still performing and recording.
But it was the (slightly edited) pull-quote at the top of the article that grabbed my attention.
‘Everyone thought we were sad gym queens… but we were proper musicians’
Now, I have nothing to say about the Fairbrass brothers’ musical prowess. But I do want to mention that out bisexual Richard and his slightly shorter straight brother Fred (left in the pic and on guitar in the vid) were gym queens, and as Richard mentions in the article, actually owned one – which is where part of the inspiration for the song apparently came from: watching people interact with the gym mirrors.
Their own gym queeniness though was very much part of the novelty of their very gay looking novelty act – you had to hire muscle by the hour in London in 1991: pub culture not gym culture ruled back then, even in the gay world. London had not yet turned into a rainy version of Southern California with no parking spaces. Everyone smoked. Everyone drank like fishes. No one ate anything except crisps and chips and the occasional kebab. And no one had seen the inside of a gym since school – except for escorts and bouncers. The Fairbrass brothers looked like both, but even gayer. It’s why if they wore anything on stage apart from leather trousers it was just waistcoats. Really awful waistcoats.
And why I’m pretty sure I tried chatting one of them up in a gay pub in West London not long before their hit. The straight one of course. Fred or someone the spitting, salivating image of him actually was a bouncer back then, working on the door of the Penny Farthing in Hammersmith at the time. As I recall he was very patient and indulgent with me. And soon he would have a much bigger fan-base, some of whom would be even more annoying than me. I think he may have told me about being in a band and having recorded a single, but I can’t be sure because of the passage of time – and because I was anyway mightily distracted by his biceps.
The early nineties was an era when metropolitan male vanity – something celebrated and mocked but mostly, in spite of the lyrics, celebrated with ‘I’m Too Sexy’ – was just beginning to get into its stride in the UK. It was almost a soundtrack to my book about male narcissism and homoeroticism in a mediated world, Male Impersonators (which I wrote 92-93). ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was probably still ear-worming in my head in 1994 when I predicted, after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’, that the future was metrosexual.
True, the model of the song (‘I’m a model, you know what I mean’) and their little tush they shake on the catwalk, who is ‘too sexy for Milan’, their car, their cat, their hat, their love, their shirt and even the song, is gender non-specific at a time when models were generally assumed to be women. And the official story about the lyrics is that my short-lived imaginary boyfriend Fred was dating an American female model when the song was written. But the song was performed by the Fairbrass brothers. In leather trousers (sorry, I can’t stop mentioning them). And in 1991 London’s idea of a Chippendale body that was too sexy for their shirts.
Right Said Fred – I'm Too Sexy (Original Mix – 2006 Version)
In the promo the boys sashay topless on the catwalk and down the street followed by female pappers – a reversal of Duran Duran’s early 80s ‘Girls On Film’ moment, and also of course the usual clichés about the ‘male gaze’ (which wasn’t entirely new then, but a quarter of a century on some still think they are the first to subvert).
‘I’m Too Sexy’ started out satirising the fashion industry, but ended up massaging the muscles of male exhibitionism and narcissism – a noble cause the boy band Take That were to eagerly further evangelise later in the 1990s with their leather harness rent boy aesthetic. But ‘I’m Too Sexy’ for all its apparent silliness also turned out to be strangely prophetic about our 21st Century shirtless selfie-obsessed culture and the e-catwalk of Instagram – before most people even had a mobile phone, let alone one that could take really cool, app-filtered photos of their favourite gym changing room mirror. We’re all now way too sexy for not just our shirts but real life.
Which reminds me. Although they were kind of proto-spornos, the Fairbrass brothers’ bodies, which were glad-handled and devoured by the great British public’s eyes at the time as if we’d only just come off the meat ration, don’t look terribly ‘shredded’ to our much more jaded and judgey 2017 eyes. After all those back issues of Men’s Health/Fitness, and the ever-increasing refinement of what is supposed to be a ‘sexy’ male body, they look somewhat ‘watery’ – to use a technical term that only a handful of keen bodybuilders knew back then but probably your granny knows now. Were they eating clean? Were they doing enough cardio? Planking? And where’s the ink, bro?
But then, as someone who used to spend too much time hanging around gyms in London then, ‘watery’ was very much the look. I channelled it myself.
And yes, I did work as a bouncer for a while – just one of the so many things Fred and I had to talk about.
This month also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the surprise 1997 hit UK movie The Full Monty, about laid-off working class men in the (largely former) steel-making city of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who decide to put together a male strip troupe to entertain the women that they used to provide for.
It was a serious (possibly overly-didactic) ‘crisis of masculinity’ movie which used male stripping as a visual metaphor for changing gender roles, particularly in the wake of 80s de-industrialisation. But it was also about male ‘sexiness’ as a kind of salvation. The whole point is that most of the guys are not vain, or conventionally sexy, or much wanted at all – and in fact have been dumped on the scrapheap of the late 20th Century.
But in learning how to act as if they were ‘too sexy’ – and move their hips to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ – they have somehow re-skilled themselves for the brazen new world and century bearing down on them.
“The Smiths are sooooooo depressing!” said every naff twat you knew in the Eighties – which was millions upon millions. But, annoying as it was, every time you heard that lazy dismissal it confirmed something deeply, almost sexually satisfying: that most people simply didn’t deserve to be Smiths fans.”
I wrote an essay for Rolling Stone celebrating the 30th anniversary of the demise of The Smiths, explaining why we’re really lucky that they split in 1987.