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.
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I can only assume that Pietro Boselli is getting career advice from an older homosexual. Which makes me very jealous.
He may be a sporno star, but Pietro is far too young and far too cherubic to know who Jeff Stryker is, or the ridiculously butch way he used to talk on the classic gay porn videos he made in the1980s when testing the gag reflex and nose-breathing techniques of his on-screen colleagues.
Though Pietro’s obviously coached attempt to copy Jeff’s sleazy delivery is very sweet.
Either way the career advice Pietro’s getting seems designed to drive middle-aged homos like me into a tizzy.
All I can say is: it’s working.
But I’m hoping that Pietro isn’t actually hung like Jeff. I’d prefer to think the Bona of Verona has a neo-classically-sized -- i.e. tastefully tiny -- uncircumcised penis, instead of a cut cock the size of lubed dolphin.
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
There’s nothing quite like realizing that it’s three entire decades since the most perfectly-beautiful, perfectly-worded, perfectly-pitched and perfectly-quiffed relationship you ever had ended for making you feel dead and buried already.
Yes, this month is the big 30th anniversary for the 1987 breakup of the Smiths – possibly the most fraught, emotional and oft-lamented breakups in musical history. The Smiths generation keeps trying to piece back together its broken home, even as they find themselves closer now to their own retirement home than the 1980s. If only the lead guitarist Johnny Marr and lead singer Morrissey hadn’t fallen out of handsome love with one another. If only they’d had a manager that they – i.e. Morrissey – could work with. If only Moz hadn’t chosen to record that silly Cilla Black track that Marr hated! If only the NME hadn’t run that premature “break-up” story. If only Marr, who was living on cocaine and booze at the time, had got himself a cheese and pickle sandwich from Boots instead of going home in a huff.
And if they’d stayed together – for the sake of the kids – imagine how the Smiths would have gone on to make the world listen! Imagine how they would have silenced with total, global, crushing success all those vulgar people that hated them and laughed at us loser fans back then! Imagine the body of work they would have produced by now! Instead of forcing us to keep going back to those four albums – and buying all those countless compilations, reissues, repackages and retro-vinyl limited release scratch-and-sniff picture discs.
But actually, really, very deep down, among our squidgesiest bits, I think we’re all, even the biggest, die-hardest fans, secretly really quite glad the Smiths broke up. And if you’re not, you probably should be. Their “premature” demise was entirely timely. It saved us from ever having to suffer the unspeakable outrage of a mediocre Smiths album. Something considerably less survivable than end of the band. And it would have come, as surely as bed death follows boredom. That’s what happens when any band, let alone one as passionate and truthful as the Smiths, don’t like each other anymore but “keep the show on the road.”
The expiry of the Smiths after five incandescent years saved them not only from existing in the same timeline as acid house, but also from becoming the very thing they hated and which they rallied the disaffected youth of the “entrepreneurial” Eighties against: just another business. We were spared them ever becoming the Indie Rolling Stones. Or Coldplay with a frontman. Or, that form of musical living death as ghastly as it is commonplace, their own tribute band. Thanks to Cilla Black and that missing cheese sandwich, the Smiths now live on forever in their – and our – pomp: shining, stainless, peerless. No one can touch a hair on their head.
The Smiths, that’s to say the creative, emotional, sexy-but-sexless marriage of Morrissey-Marr, were not simply a band, they were, as the name advertised, a family – the non-nuclear, passionate, alternative family to the thermo-nuclear Price Is Right primetime family sired by the monetarist marriage of Thatcher-Reagan. This was the 1980s, if you’re crumbly enough to remember, that was not just dominant at the time, but compulsory: “There is no alternative” Maggie famously decreed.
So the Smiths were effectively banned from daytime BBC Radio 1 – except as a punchline – and from pretty much all of the non-NME press, and thus from the upper reaches of the singles charts. The highest charting Smiths single ever was a 1992 reissue of “This Charming Man,” five years after they had given up the ghost – it got to Number Eight. The original release in 1983 stalled, criminally, at Number 25 – one of the greatest singles in pop history didn’t even reach the Top Twenty. Even then their hippy record company Rough Trade reportedly struggled to press enough copies of their records, so it’s probably just as well it seemed to have a publicity budget smaller than Phil Collins’ annual spend on combs.
All of which, while a source of great frustration to the band and to Morrissey in particular (and also bitter inspiration: e.g. “Frankly Mr Shankly”), was rather wonderful from the selfish point of view of the fans.
Because it meant that the Smiths remained a well-kept secret, one that belonged entirely to them – and being a Smiths fan in the Eighties was to be part of a very exclusive misfit club. Though in fact this exclusivity just came down to three requirements: Do you have any taste? Do you have a heart? And do you have a sense of humor? “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.
All this was about to change in 1987. The Smiths had a brand new non-hippy record label, EMI, with plenty of printing presses and even cash to splash on publicity. The monster that is the American market was beginning to stir and had fixed its rapacious eye upon them. They were poised to finally reap the rewards of all their hard and tender work: the misfit Mancunians were about to become masters of the universe. And probably end up playing stadiums full of those people who used to tell you: “The Smiths are sooooooo depressing.”
Many of those people now pretend they were fans anyway, since the Smiths, a band at gentle but total war with the Eighties, has ended up defining that decade, artistically, aesthetically, and even politically (now that neoliberalism is no longer topping the charts). Everyone wants a piece of them – precisely because thanks to the “untimely” split The Smiths never were bought and sold to everyone.
And because they never reformed, despite the perennial feverish speculation – Smiths reformations have become the latter-day Elvis sightings. As Morrissey himself put it back in 2006, mercilessly squashing yet another reunion/resurrection rumor: “We are not friends, we don’t see each other. Why on earth would we be on a stage together?” Of course, the answer is money – great steaming ever-increasing wodges of the stuff – but that really wouldn’t be the Smiths, who were never about the moolah. Only the Sex Pistols could (just about) get away with calling their (1996) reunion: “The Filthy Lucre Tour.” The closest the Smiths seem to have come to reforming was in 2008 when Marr and Morrissey almost rekindled their friendship – before Morrissey lapsed into Morrisseyean silence again.
Besides, since the termination of his union with Marr, Morrissey has had a long and (mostly) successful solo career doing pretty much precisely what he wants – which is partly why the Smiths reforming without him is so inconceivable. Morrissey was the face, the voice, the poet, the ideologist, the polemicist, the art director, the photo researcher, the archivist, the skinny vegan sex symbol, the stand-up comedian, the ego, the invalid and the big fat mouth of the Smiths that a generation of “losers” fell hopelessly-hopefully in love with. And it is probably Steven Patrick Morrissey’s own needy, emotional attachment to the Smiths as the band that saved him from being a fanboy forever smothered in a box bedroom in Stretford that has – so far – saved it from the ritual cannibalism of a reunion.
The breakup of the Smiths was pre-ordained anyway. It was foretold in their very first and perfectly-formed single, conceived between their second and third gigs and released in May 1983 – the startlingly original yet bafflingly timeless “Hand in Glove,” a three minute, derriere-scorching epic which peaked at Number 124 (I told you the 1980s were swinish). It announces the snug union of Morrissey-Marr as a kind of updated Jo-Geoff odd/queer alliance (from Morrissey’s uber-text, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey), and the Smiths as their alternative family looking to adopt a generation. It also urgently evangelizes the Smiths’ ironic but entirely sincere credo:
“The sun shines out of our behinds No, it’s not like any other love this one is different – because it’s us.”
Here, in the first single, is a declaration of war on the shoulder-padded sensibility of the Eighties: “Yes, we may be hidden by rags/But we have something they’ll never have” promising to “fight to the last breath.” But for all the bravado and insolent optimism, Morrissey imploring his new-found “charmer” to stay on his arm and find the “good life out there, somewhere,” the song ends on a melancholic and, as it turns out, accurately prophetic note:
“But I know my luck too well And I’ll probably never see you again.”
There’s something in the third repeat of that last line and it’s drawn-out delivery that is wistful and pensive – “I’ll prob-ly ne-ver see you-ou a-gain” – but deliciously so.
The prospect of losing what has been gained just after gaining it is what is already preoccupying Morrissey. But then, the masochistic logic of pop music decrees that the whole point of possessing someone is so that you can lose them – so that you can possess them forever, nostalgically. By the end of “Hand in Glove,” the very first Smiths single is already nostalgic about the end of the Smiths.
At its happy-sad heart, the magic of great pop music is this bitter-sweet-sweeter blend of hope and despair, possession and loss: The sweetness of happiness and the even sweeter sadness that lies behind happiness and the prospect of losing it. The Smiths, of course, had this magic in spades and were a beautifully-doomed band for a beautiful, doomed generation.
Mark Simpson on how George Michael was the missing, subversive gay link between Bowie and Beckham
(Rolling Stone, 28/12/2016)
Back in the early 1980s, I was one of those annoying ‘alternative’ teens who, when pressed, would admit they quite liked ‘Wham Rap!’, which extolled the freedoms of unemployment (‘I’m a soul boy! -- I’m a dole boy!’), and acknowledged he was ‘really talented’, but essentially dismissed George Michael as ‘too commercial’. Which in the inverted snobbery of the era essentially meant ‘uncool’.
And also – you may find this rather difficult to believe – ‘too straight’.
Thanks to the massive influence of 1970s Bowie (who also checked out this year), the early 80s UK pop scene was queerer than Weimar Berlin on poppers. It was chock full of fabulously ‘freaky’ stars like Pete Burns of Dead or Alive (another victim of 2016), Boy George of Culture Club and Marc Almond of Soft Cell. None of them were particularly out at the time, but then, looking the way they did they probably didn’t need to be.
By dazzling-teethed contrast, the disco-dancing, bird-pulling, Mr Good Time persona Mr Michael presented – but which seems to have been based largely on his Wham partner Andrew Ridgeley – looked almost heterosexual.
Almost. OK, the leather jackets, the naked boy-flesh and the blow-dried hair appears très camp to us now, but that wasn’t necessarily the case at the time. George was officially very much for the ladies and the ladies were even more for him. But also, as his success grew, ‘loadsa’ straight boys wanted to be him.
After all, his (white) soul boy image was a tweaked, glammed-up, sexed-up, slightly Princess Di version of what many wedge-sporting, Lacoste-wearing working class London and Essex lads were styling themselves at the time. And he was mega rich and famous and getting his leg over.
In one of those peculiar postmodern ironies that made masculinity what it is today – flamingly metrosexual – George Michael’s ‘closetedness’ for two decades of pop stardom meant that straight women ended up expecting rather more from straight boys and straight boys ended up copying a gay version of themselves.
Michael’s multiplied image helped make ordinary male heterosexuality visually tartier, while his amplified lyrics helped make it more available emotionally. A straight female friend of mine told me that every single boyfriend she dumped in the 1980s sent her lyrics from ‘A Different Corner’.
George Michael was the missing, subversive -- and actually gay -- link between David Bowie and that other London pretty boy, David Beckham.
Even when a now-solo Michael ‘butched up’ for the rather more ‘traditionally-minded’ American market with his smash hit 1987 album Faith, the effect was… ambiguous. More so arguably, than the twinkiness of Wham! In the famous promo for the title single, he is wearing jeans, boots, a leather jacket and sunglasses in what looks like a homage to the previous year’s Hollywood fly boys hit Top Gun. But with a large crucifix earring and designer stubble (this accessorization of facial hair is something else ‘gay’ he helped popularise.)
He’s next to a 1950s jukebox like the one in the Top Gun bar, wiggling his butt apparently trying to invent twerking, while the camera zooms in on it relentlessly (the word ‘REVENGE’ hovering above on his leather jacket). Perhaps waiting for Maverick – or maybe Iceman.
This might sound like the wisdom of hindsight, but some contemporary gay boys were picking up the queer vibrations. An American gay male friend who was living on a military base at the time remarked: “He was the first teen idol that felt “gay” to me even though he was always with sexy women in his videos. I didn’t even know what the gay clone look was, but he was sort of replicating it. The earring also seemed a signal – my dad said fags wore those, especially in the left ear.”
George Michael - Faith (Official Video)
George’s phenomenal success in the US and the subconscious ‘down low’ queer signals he was broadcasting in plain sight came, remember, at the height of the Aids crisis and the foam-flecked reactionary backlash in the late 80s against ‘Satanic’ and ‘sick’ homosexuality.
Perhaps it was because of how he’d helped redefine heterosexuality for a generation, when he finally came out in 1998, toilet paper stuck to his shoe, a surprising number of straight people were still shocked -- despite having been fairly explicit about his orientation in the lyrics and dedications of his songs for most of that decade.
Though of course there is another piquant irony to be had in the fact that this man whose career had originally been based on ‘masquerading’ as a heterosexual was finally outed in a public restroom by a plainclothes Beverly Hills Police Dept officer who (George claims) was masquerading as a gay man.
However, the way George handled that incident was so defiant and assured that he completely turned the tables on not just the Beverly Hills PD and the tabloid press, but also homophobia itself. He immediately told the world he was gay and refused to display any shame.
Instead, he released ‘Outside’, a jaunty single extolling the pleasures of outdoor sex for everyone, regardless of sexuality – along with a video that featured cross and same sex couples getting it on in hidden away outdoor places, while being recorded by a police helicopter. George in gay cop gear disco dances in a public restroom where the glitter balls descend from the air vents and the urinals revolve. In many ways, this was the absolute zenith of pop music as propaganda for pleasure and against shame.
George Michael - Outside (Official Video)
What George achieved with ‘Outside’ was certainly no less than historic. That original pop star Oscar Wilde had been convicted of Gross Indecency a hundred years earlier and been completely destroyed by it. George had turned his own ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ into an all-singing, all-dancing commercial and cultural triumph.
Now that he was out, New Millennium George still refused to ‘go quietly’ and ‘make it easy on himself’. He was not what you might call a ‘good gay’. He had a long term partner but was frank about the fact that their relationship was an open one – when most gay celebrity couples maintained a veneer of monogamous respectability.
He remained true to the dream (and nightmare) of masculine freedom that male homosexuality can symbolise. For all his faults and increasing foolishness, he refused to become that most absurd of things a ‘role model’. He insisted that he remained a sexual being -- unlike most other celeb UK gays in the Noughties. ‘Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable,’ he told the Guardian in 2005. ‘And automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.’
The tabloids thought they knew how to ‘deal’ with it. In 2006 they sent a flash photographer to follow him to the famous gay cruising area of Hampstead Heath, a large park in north London -- at 2am -- and plaster the results all over the front page, along with oodles of hypocritical concern about his ‘sick’ and ‘sordid’ behaviour and warnings/incitements that he ‘could get his throat cut’.
His reported response to the photographer when ‘snapped’ was, however, pitch perfect: “Are you gay? No? Well fuck off then!”
Sexual jealousy of course was at the root of it all. The scandalously free availability of ‘no-strings’ sex is an aspect of the gay and bi male world that many straight men tend to be very interested in, one way or another -- and had been at the root of much of the tabloid attacks on gay men at the height of the Aids panic. Gay men ‘deserved’ Aids because of their ‘unnatural’ sex lives and their promiscuity. For having, in other words, too much fun.
One famous tabloid editor and columnist from that era worked himself into a violent lather of indignation: ‘I can’t stand George Michael and every time he tries to laugh off another vile gay sex exploit I dislike him a little more… I’d like to give him a good kick in the balls. Unfortunately, he’d probably enjoy it.’
But these bitter voices were already beginning to recede into the past -- thanks in part to the changes that Mr Michael had helped bring about by being the kind of ‘commercial’ pop star I disdained in my teens. And of course, nowadays straight people have Tinder. While in the UK at least, straight(ish) ‘dogging’ has pretty much replaced gay ‘cruising’.
His continued, unapologetic -- ahem -- pride in his not always exactly wise life-choices remains invigoratingly rare in an age of safe sleb spin and public apologies as grovelling as they are empty.
‘I don’t want any children; I don’t want responsibility,’ he told Time Out matter-of-factly in 2007. ‘I am gay, I smoke weed and I do exactly what I want in my life because of my talent’.
Michael’s earlier secrecy about his sexuality was criticised by many -- including gay pop stars who didn’t come out until after their careers were effectively over. Perhaps he could, as some have insisted, combatted the transatlantic anti-gay tide by coming out in the 80s or early 90s. Or perhaps his career would merely have been ended, and with it much of his influence.
Whatever his reasons for staying in so long, and whatever the long term effects on his happiness, being ‘openly closeted’ for so long seems to have been key to not only making Michael a commercially-successful artist but also a surprisingly subversive one.
And perhaps it also lay behind his determination, once out, not to go back into the biggest closet of all. Respectability.
30-years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The film, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for Alpha male supremacy, was about to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.
But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.
Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. There’s a plot which sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.
Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.
TG Locker Room Scene
And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: ‘Giving me a hard-on!’ whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. ‘Don’t tease me!’ replies his buddy. ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: ‘You can be my wingman any time!’ ‘Bullshit, you can be mine!’
And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.
Top Gun - Playing with the Boys - Beach Volleyball Scene
All this plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.
So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful movies of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.
Even nearly a decade on in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book Male Impersonators, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a controversial cameo appearance in the movie ‘Sleep With Me’, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.
The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.
So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did it’s virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?
Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.
For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)
All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.
In 1985, the year before TG was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.
Levi's commercial - Laundrette
The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.
What TG succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the loan to the film-makers by the USN of the USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)
After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned The Village People a destroyer to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of hetero American machismo.
Village People - In the Navy OFFICIAL Music Video 1978