The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: pop music (page 1 of 2)

The Importance of Being Adam Ant

Elise Moore takes a close, loving look at the protean punkster pop star’s masterfully submissive manipulation of sexual imagery – and his wet shorts

(special guest post)

As a Canadian born in 1975, I knew essentially nothing about Adam Ant until this year. I don’t even have the faintest recollection of “Goody Two Shoes,” his one big U.S. hit, or “Stand and Deliver,” the one everyone in the UK remembers. I do have a vague recollection of “Room at the Top,” which was a U.S. dance hit in 1990: probably I saw the video, in which a suited, slick-looking Ant engages in a lot of elaborate mic play.

At the time it came out, I was already taking an interest in punk and New Wave, a context in which I encountered the cover of Kings of the Wild Frontier a million times, although I certainly would not have connected it with the “Room at the Top” video. I also heard the story of how Malcolm McLaren stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, and accordingly thought that Adam and the Ants were a comparable packaged post-punk confection. Which I have nothing against, but for some reason, I just never got around to them.

Then the other week, an old, brief post on Ant’s “Prince Charming” video by Mark Simpson that has since disappeared [here’s the enlarged repost] but was probably occasioned by the release of Ant’s comeback album in 2013, rose from my murky subconscious and sent me down an Ant-related internet rabbit hole. Since my thoughts about Ant, as I perused this material, were framed by my familiarity with Mark’s writing, he offered to give me a platform for them.

The benefit of not having “been there” for any part of Ant’s career is the overview of his oeuvre that it gives you. There appear to be two official versions of the story of his career: that of the British music press that was there for his rise as a cult performer in the late punk scene, which is that he was a failed punk who used his pretty face to sell out; and that of the fans he acquired with Kings of the Wild Frontier who grew up to be serious music fans (in part thanks to that album), which is that he was an avant-garde pop genius who sold out with his pop album, Strip, and then utterly betrayed them a few years later by making a, gasp, dance album.

There’s also the revisionist account, prompted by several triumphant tours since his comeback, which is that he was an eccentric pop genius all along, so far ahead of his time that the critics never caught up with him and too protean for the public to stay with him. It’s probably clear, since I’m writing this, that I prefer this version of history.

However, it remains for the exact nature of this eccentric genius to be described. I’m not a musician, nor a music critic, nor even a “serious music fan,” so I can’t say much about that component of Mr. Ant’s career. But the “Adam Ant project,” so to speak, extended far beyond music or even visuals. And the most interesting aspect of it was his conscious manipulation of sexual imagery.

It was as an art student that Ant (then Stuart Leslie Goddard) first became fascinated by transgressive sexual imagery in art and transgressive sexual behaviour in subcultures. Not, according to early interviews, as something he wanted to enact in his own life, but for its taboo-breaking value and visually appealing iconography. This disclaimer rings true, given that one of his heroes was 60s British gay playwright Joe Orton, despite the fact that by all accounts Ant is enthusiastically heterosexual. But more on that later.

Adam and Siouxsie Sioux inventing Goth, London 1977

Part of what drew him to the punk scene, presumably, and McLaren’s SEX boutique in particular, was its congruence with these interests. The other part was Johnny Rotten’s theatrical and aggressive self-presentation (based on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, according to Lydon), which so impressed Ant that he quit the pub rock band he’d been in the first time he saw The Sex Pistols. That happened to be their first gig, supporting Ant’s band. But Ant wasn’t married to the sound of punk. Instead, it was the attitude of punk that he never lost, and that he brought to his approach to pop stardom and relationship with the music industry.

Which is the other piece of the puzzle. Ant’s teenage years were dominated by Bolan, Roxy Music, and Ziggy-era Bowie, and it was over the love of glam rock that he bonded with long-time collaborator Marco Pirroni, another ex-punk, when he formed Adam and the Ants 2.0. It wasn’t just the sound, fashion, and theatrics he loved, however. Already a student of human sexuality, he saw the reaction of teenage girls to Marc Bolan and knew what he wanted to do with his life.

When the puzzle is all put together, we have this: an artist whose subject is sexual transgression but who wants to be Marc Bolan. Actually, there’s one more piece, which is Ant’s comedic side. You can see it from the earliest videos, as well as in a Dadaist prank like “Ant Rap,” but he really starts to lean into it with his first solo album, Friend or Foe, perhaps because he’s dropping the Johnny Rotten act and letting more of his own personality through. I don’t know much about the history of music videos, but one that did get on my radar is Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” which has quite a similar sensibility to “Friend or Foe.” The songs also notably share a similar attitude toward the artists’ critics, to wit, Fuck all y’all. If the early 80s music press already found it impossible to deal with Ant as a sex-obsessed, “style-over-substance” sell-out, adding comedy to the mix must have been even more unforgivable.

Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking deconstruction of pop.

It went together, really, the style-over-substance accusations and the comedy. Perhaps what was most unforgivable about Ant was that he knew, and didn’t try to hide, the fact that popular music (even, or especially, punk) had always been as much about the image as about the music. In fact, it had been about three things: music, image, and sex. In the reverse order. Punk was perhaps especially about image, because it certainly wasn’t about music or sex. Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking, or rather bouncing, deconstruction of pop. The addition of comedy and panto was just another way to refuse to pretend that there was anything serious about being a rock star—the punkest gesture of all.

Sex and comedy come together at what might be the double climax of his career, the albums Strip (1983) and Vive Le Rock (1985). Pun intended. Kings and Prince Charming are two of the least sex-obsessed of his albums, his conversations with McLaren having triggered not only an interest in tribal drumming and vocalizations but also an exploration of the theme of romantic heroism, which drew on Ant’s other obsession, history. Even then, he would end concerts by stripping his shirt off and singing “Physical (You’re So),” a punk-period bump-and-grinder that Nine Inch Nails saw fit to cover. The lyrics, tentatively requesting a romantic date and perhaps a little roughhousing after dinner, are positively sweet, so it’s hard to know what was going on in his head to cause his ecstatic gyrations, but easier to know what was going on in the heads of the women in the audience during them.

(Forget Reznor: you’ve got to wonder if Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote Olivia Newton-John’s massive 1981 hit “(Let’s Get) Physical” with a male vocalist in mind, caught an Ants concert.) 

Friend or Foe was the fame album, after which the sex theme came to the fore again with a vengeance. How could someone with Adam Ant’s interests resist the opportunity push the envelope sexually in a mainstream context for his audience of pubescent girls? In the process, he alienated the teen boy audience he’d acquired with Kings, and with Vive Le Rock he alienated the girls. But before that happened he had an almost unheard-of opportunity to make pornographic art in a completely mainstream context. 

Of course, the 80s were the decade for putting porn into pop. Madonna and Prince were doing it in the United States. Wham! were all leathered-up on the cover of Fantastic already in 1983, and dancing around onstage in tight shorts on their Club Fantastic tour. The problem was really how to distinguish yourself, as a pornographic artist, from what was just normal pop proceedings. I would say Ant managed it, or at least, put his own stamp on the trend.

The Libertine character invented for Strip was a natural evolution of the Prince Charming/Dandy Highwayman character, who had in turn evolved out of the original Buccaneer/Warrior. The Strip character is Casanova by way of Jane Russell: the album cover apparently nods to a poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notorious now and controversial then for the eccentric millionaire’s obsession with his Muse’s mammaries.

It’s not something you can really reproduce with a male body (at least not Adam Ant’s: you’d need a Tom of Finland type), but the reference is a mission statement for the album: we’re here to celebrate sex and court controversy, and Adam is taking the place normally occupied by women in popular culture. Ant, who was the only man in his college course Women in Society, presumably knew all about second-wave feminist objectification arguments, and was only too happy to gallantly relieve women of the gaze. Apparently, he did manage to get the “Strip” single and video banned by the BBC, although the single sounds more innocuous than “Like a Virgin” now and the video looks like an indigestion nightmare after watching too much 70s TV sketch comedy.

 I was joking when I said there was an element of gallantry in Ant’s assumption of the role of “objectified woman,” but I may not have been far off. The great crowd-sourced pop archive that is YouTube has a “making of” clip about the “Strip” video in which Ant, who studied filmmaking at college and storyboarded his videos, explains that, far from a mere video babe, the woman in the video is its “hero,” and the point at which he sits in her lap on a park bench a gender-flip of the more conventional heterosexual situation. (Which is easier to do when the man is the same size as the woman.) The lyrics of the song actually reject “sneaky” voyeurism, represented in the video by the moustache-twirling villains who constitute the showgirl heroine’s audience; the alternative offered is mutual stripping, with the man going first. The video’s Psycho homage makes more sense in this feminist context, underlining the aggression in the act of erotic looking. An aggression that Ant evidently felt capable of facing, although his post-fame breakdowns make you wonder. And it’s perhaps worth noting here that the first breakdown was triggered by a female stalker whose aggression levels were comparable to Norman Bates’s.

But back to gender: Ant was already doing gender-flipped versions of narratives in the “Prince Charming” video, in which Ant really assumes the role of Cinderella. Diana Dors, “the English Marilyn Monroe,” is the fairy godmother whose magic wand transforms our baby-faced, biceped working-class hero into an exotic spectacle, a Star. So as with the Strip album, an iconic female pin-up stands behind Ant’s conception of himself as a sex symbol.

The limitation of feminist objectification theory is its rigid structure: only men possess the destructive “gaze,” and only women can be its object. But Ant, of course, beginning with Prince Charming and continuing with Strip, was courting the gaze of his teen girl audience. With his scholarly, historically-oriented approach to pop culture, Ant was aware that Bolan wasn’t the first male star to create mass hysteria in women, and neither were The Beatles (to which “The Ants” nods) or even Elvis. At the end of the “Prince Charming” video he fragments into several characters, one of which is this Ur-male sex symbol, silent film star Rudolph Valentino, The Latin Lover, in his most famous role, cosplaying as The Sheik. The seeds of Strip are there.

Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness

Much naughtier than the banned “Strip” single and video was the stage show, which was easily the most outrageous aspect of this phase, or maybe any phase, of Ant’s career. And I include his punk-era appearances in a gimp mask. (Or was it a Cambridge rapist mask? I can’t quite get to the bottom of this story.) Photos of the tour preserved by fans and documented on the internet detail his routine of stripping down to little shorts (also on display in the “Strip” video) and immersing himself in a tank of water before completing the show soaking wet. Which was ostensibly an homage to Houdini, although I don’t quite see what he was escaping from other than his clothes.

Damp Ant

His project of making himself, in his late 20s, into a porn star for pubescent girls was apparently entirely successful, to judge from the fascinating and extensive YouTube comments on his videos and live clips. Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness (one even admitting to lusting after him during the “Physical” gig climaxes). (Unless that was another lesbian.) It may be that his own relaxed attitude toward his self-objectification, his entire indifference to presenting himself as “masculine,” made Adam Ant the male star that it was okay for straight men to admit to finding attractive. In his cover of “Y.M.C.A.,” “A.N.T.S,” with lyrics altered to yet another Ants manifesto, he made his hostility toward what the internet has taken to calling “toxic” masculinity, which perhaps might better be called repressed masculinity, crystal clear:

It's fun to go to the A.N.T.S.... 
Put on that paint and hold up your head
Til all the tough men drop dead.

Ant didn’t stick with androgyny for long, however. With his Dietrichesque canvas of a face (high forehead included), it must have been too easy for him. Instead, with Strip and Vive Le Rock  he fashioned himself into first a heterosexual, and then a homosexual porn archetype. You can put over the gay porn archetype with a teen girl audience, as George Michael magnificently proved with his Faith album just two years after Vive Le Rock. But not if it comes with a hair metal-by-way-of-its glam roots sound, I guess. With a single, “Apollo 9,” that hearkens back to the demented bubble-gum of Bowie’s avant-pop album, Lodger (also produced by Tony Visconti), by way of a square dance. With accompanying video featuring Ant decked out as a pink-gloved space cowboy, sporting a band aid-as-accessory long before Morrissey. Incredibly, “Apollo 9” was a bit of a hit, unlike the title single, a more straightforward rocker—that, however, namechecks Tom of Finland. I’m assuming that no heterosexual man would have known who Tom of Finland was in 1985 without a dedicated interest in pornographic imagery and sexual subcultures.

Ant as Mr Sloane, backstage at the Royal Exchange

Maybe the only reason Vive Le Rock tanked was that Ant, distracted by acting, let a whole year lapse between the success of “Apollo 9” and the album’s release. In the spring of 1985 he appeared in his first and most noteworthy role, as the title character in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; Vive Le Rock appeared in the fall. Ant made his first reference to Orton, however, on a 1980 demo called “Prick Up Your Ears,” about Orton’s relationship with the lover who murdered him, Ken Halliwell. The timing suggests that Ant read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, when it came out in 1978. Ant has said that he felt he understood Orton very well, and believed that Sloane was Orton’s alter ego.

Sloaning again

As someone who is also not a gay man who wrote an award-winning play about Orton and Halliwell in my teens, I feel like I’m in a better position than most to understand what he means. My own take on Orton, who became my alter ego in the play, in some regards, was that he was a narcissist who continually refashioned himself into other people’s fantasies and had no real identity. Well, I think that was actually John Lahr’s take, but it was one that fascinated me and resonated with me. I grew out of that phase, but Adam Ant, for good or ill, found a way not to, by becoming a pop star.

With Orton as one of the guiding spirits of the Vive Le Rock era, I suspect Ant was using this new “gay” image not so much to court a gay male gaze, or anyone else’s at this point, as to explore his narcissism, or, in Mark Simpson’s phrase, his “desire to be desired.” The heterosexual fantasy characters he’d previously enacted had the unfortunate drawback of having, ostensibly, to do something. Even if his Prince Charming/Cinderella in the video, unlike the characters he’s based on, doesn’t go to the ball to meet anyone, but to be looked at. Whereas the rent boy persona of the Vive Le Rock era doesn’t have to do anything except look sluttily available—not even feel desire. It’s not a character that exists within the lexicon of heterosexual fantasy, but Ant, ever the cultural appropriator, doesn’t let that stop him. And it makes sense that the pop music image influences of his 50s childhood, the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, are part of this mix. Because the decade that gave us pop masculinity as we still know it—“rebellious,” Romantic, a bit dangerous in a Byronic way, rough trade for the boys and girls—is also the decade in which masculinity’s desire to be desired came out of the closet.

Rock ‘n’ roll really started with Brando’s leather look in The Wild One (1953), which inspired Tom of Finland to create a gay archetype that grew up alongside the “straight” one. Like a couple of twins checking each other out, exchanging style tips. Whatever label you want to put on this new masculinity, it was both aestheticized and sexualized in a way that masculinity had seldom been before, in the modern world.

In fact the only proper label for it is—dare I use the “m”-word?

Ant taking Grace Jones, early 1980s

My source of unique information for this essay was this article, by a psychologist fan.

As mentioned in the essay, I was a playwright in my teens and early 20s. I’m currently working on a novel, which should be out some time in the next century, if there is one. Meanwhile I like to think about pop culture, usually film. I co-host the weekly film podcast There’s Sometimes a Buggy: Irresponsible Opinions About Classic Film and have published essays with various (non-academic) journals, usually Bright Wall/Dark Room and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Mark and I have been chatting about masculinity in pop culture for about 15 years, although we’ve never actually met.

Prince Charming – Adam Ant’s Pop Apotheosis

Some years back I posted a piece called ‘The Prettiest Punk’, about the most fetching three minute wonders. Scandalously, Adam Ant appeared nowhere in the list.

Perhaps this oversight was an unconscious censorship – because otherwise none of the other candidates would have stood a chance. Or more likely down to the fact I was born a bit late for punk and so only remembered Adam Ant in his much more successful, much more made-up new romantic ‘dandy highwayman’ phase, which twas technically new wave musically, but very much new romantic visually, and ideologically.

When he transformed from a punk Cinders into a glamorous, baroque butterfly, drowning in lip gloss.

Born Stuart Goddard in 1954, and raised in an unplumbed two-room north London slum, this art school ruffian chose the punk name ‘Adam’ because ‘he was the first man’, and ‘Ant’ because ‘they will survive nuclear war’. He personified more than anyone else (even, dare I say, that other London boy made good, D**** B****) the open secret that British youth cults of glam, punk and new romanticism, although they officially hated each other, were all part of the same aesthetic rebellion.

One that eventually culminated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view), via the assimilation/proliferation of glossy magazines, consumerism and advertising, and the increasingly mediated nature of masculinity, in metrosexuality.

The tongue-in-cheek but seriously extravagant by the standards of the time ‘dandy highwayman’ promos for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, both shot in a day and released in 1981 (forty years ago next year), were at least as influential in shaping the sensibility of the 1980s as Paul Schrader’s more ‘adult’ Hollywood feature film and young Richard Gere panopticon, American Gigolo, released the previous year.

‘Stand and Deliver’ was a pitch perfect pop song, noisily celebrating male narcissism and declaring, with wailing warcry, a national uprising against naffness – while holding grown-ups to ransom.

“It’s just stealing people’s attention. I’m a very big history fan of certainly the Georgian era and I like the flamboyance and sexuality and bawdiness of the time. I’ve seen films like Tom Jones and I grew up going to Saturday morning pictures and seeing all these other influences. I put them all together and Stand And Deliver was just purely grabbing people’s attention and using the whole sort of classical English highwayman feel as a theme.”

Adam ant

The promo, directed by Mike Mansfield, begins with us enjoying in close-up a fully-made-up but apparently naked Adam gazing smolderingly at himself in the mirror as he applies his ‘war paint’ – while the hunting horn sounds. The ‘threesome’ mirror-shot that invites the viewer to gaze on a beautiful young man gazing at himself is a trope which has become a cliche in the decades since, in a world where metrosexuality is completely mainstream and corporate, and social me-dia is rampant. In 1980 however, it was still an arresting vista.

I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention

Mr Ant is entirely upfront and personal about his ravenous desire to be desired. In fact, he wields it as a weapon. Instead of holding up travellers with a pistol he holds a mirror to their faces. (Perhaps inspiring 1980s Taboo nightclub ‘door whore’ Mark Vaultier’s infamous habit of holding a mirror up to hopeful punters, asking:”Would you let yourself in?”).

Stand and deliver your money or your life
Try and use a mirror no bullet or a knife

Tossing the phallic pistol and replacing it with a mirror is a provocatively fey gesture, as befits the ravishing passivity of male vanity. It also perhaps references the raucous Sex Pistols-style guitar chords that open ‘Stand and Deliver’ (who also styled themselves as ruffians).

Working class Adam completely embraced the nascent medium of glossy, aspirational pop promos, coming up with many of the grandiose ideas himself – as well as the medium of glossy, aspirational self-love. Both of which were of course abhorred by ‘proper’ punks and the ‘serious’ music press.

The devil take your stereo and your record collection (oh-oh)
The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension 

Which is why, in addition to being enormous fun, ‘Stand and Deliver’ went to No.1 in May 1981, and refused to budge from its pole position in the hit highway for five weeks, relieving nearly a million teenagers of their pocket money. But then, unlike most pop singles, it did contain useful fashion advice:

It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making

During the ‘hanging’ sequence (which was banned by the BBC) accompanied by the divine Georgian gibberish chorus of ‘Qua qua da diddley qua qua da diddley‘, we are regaled with knee-clasping stylised shots of stylised Blitz Kids. There’s more than a nod in this video to The Dame’s seminal ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo of the previous year, at the time the most expensive ever made, which also featured eminent denizens of London’s hyper-cool Blitz nightclub, paying homage to their prophet.

‘Stand and Deliver’ ends as it began, just you, me, Adam and his reflection sharing an intimate moment: a close-up on mirrored glossy lips again, as if (re)discovering their own irresistibility.

And frankly, has anyone worn lip gloss and full foundation better? Blondie’s soft-focus kisser looked crusty in comparison. Even Tim Curry’s iconic smackers as pouty Frank ‘n’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem drier than a Weetabix discovered behind a radiator after Mr Ant’s spangly lusciousness.

If ‘Stand and Deliver’ was Adam Ant’s glamorous gospel, ‘Prince Charming’ was his shining apotheosis. It is quite the most perfect promo ever made – delivering him straight into pop cultural heaven.

The track has a repetitive, terrace/school playground chant-like quality to it, like some of the best glam rock singles. But unlike glam rock it doesn’t really exist separate from the panto pop promo. In fact, ‘Prince Charming’ is more pop promo than song. This is not a criticism. It is part of its historic achievement.

It starts with Adam as Cinders, his bandmates singing to him:

Don't you ever, don't you ever
Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome

It’s a touching image of male camaraderie in the British youth cult tradition, and reminds me somewhat of Bowie’s ‘When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out‘ line from ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

His fairy godmother turns up, played by camp icon Diana Dors – on a cloud, surrounded by toned oiled-up topless young black male dancers. With a wave of her wand he is transformed into a sexy Beau Brummell – something I suspect Mr Brummell never actually achieved himself. (Check out those tight breeches and the way they reflect the light – gadzooks!).

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Quite so. Male vanity only really works if it is unashamed and fearless. Ridicule is a form of attention, after all. And frequently a form of envy.

At the ball that Cinders/Adam attends, the chanting and the arm-crossed synchronised dancing is wonderful, but also slightly Satanic, in a thrilling Dance of the Vampires sense, despite or perhaps because of the childish panto theme. As Adam mounts the cloudy staircase towards a landing mirror, the revellers freeze and fade away to nothingness and our hero is left alone, with his Orphée-esque reflection – and our gaze.

He smashes the mirror with a handy candelabra, fragmenting himself, and we see Adam as a series of male pop cultural icons: the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), Alice Cooper, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) and Adam in his dandy highwayman garb from ‘Stand and Deliver’. It’s the drag sequence in Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ promo, but this time cross-dressing in the clothes of the same gender. Metrosexuality is, after all, about accessorising attractiveness.

With admirable arrogance, this slightly odd-looking, very tiny man from the humblest of backgrounds imaginable has, via the powerful transformative magick of pop, inserted himself into the immortal iconography of male celluloid stars. His desire to be desired made famous flesh.

Cinders has found his Prince Charming – in himself. At his coming out ball.

Mind, he is only really convincing in his dandy highwayman role and as Valentino. His Valentino is actually quite devastating – a revelation, both in terms of Valentino and Ant. Besides, the fact that he knew and understood the long-dead silent screen star’s importance as one of the first male sex objects, let alone coveted it, is an indication of his close study of the subject.

But there is a ghost in attendance at this ball. The ghost of Johnny Depp Future, who was only 18 when this video was made. Depp credited Keith Richards with inspiring his criminally successful Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Jack Sparrow’ character – but curiously didn’t mention Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. Which, visually at least, it clearly references. Perhaps he didn’t because Ant did it even prettier.

Some of Adam’s (much) later looks also put one in mind of Depp. Maybe it’s because facially they do share some genes. Or perhaps it’s because they are both, for that reason, stealing styling tips off each other – seeing each other as their respective reflections.

Call me a biased Limey, but I think it’s pretty clear that in all essentials, Adam is the original and Depp is the copy.

I posted a brief piece about Adam Ant and ‘Prince Charming’ on this blog many years ago – but it seems to have mysteriously vanished. Much like the revellers at Adam’s ball...

The Smiths is Dead – Long Live The Smiths!

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.

“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.”

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.

Their demise was always part of the deal.

Dear Hero in Prison – Quotes From Morrissey’s Autobiography

Well, I’ve read that book. You know, the fastest-selling music biography ever.

And while it would be hideously indecorous of me to review it – especially since Morrissey was kind enough not to mention my biography of him – I will say this:

It certainly didn’t disappoint.

In lieu of a review, here are some especially cherished lines. Because of course, everything that he says rings true-oh-oh-oh.

On his hometown

…we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.

On his big head

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, but soon it is I, and not my mother, on the critical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital.

On being Irish Catholic

…we Irish Catholics know very well how raucous happiness displeases God, so there is much evidence of guilt in all we say and do, but nonetheless it is said and done.

On school punishment

“You touch me and my mum’ll be down,” I warn Miss Dudley. I am nine years old.

On Myra Hindley

Tormentedly, everyone appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehumanized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.

On George Best

My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apocalyptic disturber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remember my father’s rasp as he dragged my twisted body through the crowd and out into the street, causing him to miss the rest of the match.

On Lost in Space

Dr Smith’s voice is the caustic cattiness of a tetchy dowager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intolerance. Major West, on the other hand, will kick to kill. My notepad resting on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.

On being caught by a teacher with a New York Dolls album sleeve

“LOOK AT THIS!” she demanded of everyone, “LOOK AT THIS!” and everyone looked at this. “THIS is sickness. These are MEN making themselves sexual for OTHER MEN.”

On delicate boys and rough girls

In King’s Lane a sporty Welsh girl lands me such a powerful clenched-fist blow that I fall to the ground deafened. “What was THAT for?” I said, sightless with soreness. “Because I like you and you won’t look at me,” she said – as if what she had done might improve the situation. It didn’t.

On 1970s teenage sex

Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their owners doing nothing at all other than letting you. The call of duty is all yours – to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; as the owners of such Bermuda Triangles do … nothing.

On 1970s porn

Female nudity is generally easy to find – if not actually unavoidable – but male nudity is still a glimpse of something that one is not meant to see. In mid-70s Manchester there must be obsessive love of vagina, otherwise your life dooms itself forever.

On Top of The Pops

All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.

On AE Housman

Housman was always alone – thinking himself to death, with no matronly wife to signal to the watching world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scoring a partner: to trumpet the mental all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more important than how things are?

On Patti Smith

In a dream state I watch her explode as she takes on the lesbian contingent at the front who are calling to Patti to ‘come out’ (where to? from what?), and they heckle her in almost every song.

On Sparks

Ron Mael sat at the keyboard like an abandoned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French italics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.

On being banned by his best mate’s mum

I ponder on how I could possibly be considered a bad influence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influential. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dancing, or read jokes aloud at funerals. I had never even once been drunk. My main concern in life was to find somewhere that could make spectacles in less than an hour.

On Sandie Shaw

I had collected all of Sandie’s slap-bang singles of the 1960s, and thought that they perfectly traversed the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.

On the North

…the north is a separate country – one of wild night landscapes of affectionate affliction.

On Success

…there is Paul Newman, sitting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smiling at La Luna restaurant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sitting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unemployable Stretford canal-bank cleaner is introduced. This all could be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.

On Rough Trade Records

These are the days when almost any unsigned artist that I favor instantly awakes to find Geoff Travis sitting at the foot of their bed, a short-form agreement between his teeth. It’s a compliment, of sorts.

On David Bowie

David quietly tells me, “You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,” and I loudly tell him, “You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.”

On life with the boxer Jake Walters

…every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhilarating, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.

On Jake’s belly

I am photographed for Creem magazine with my head resting on Jake’s exposed belly. “Do you know what you’re doing?” asks new manager Arnold Stiefel. “No?” I say in a small voice. “Well, that’s a very intimate shot.” “Oh?” I say, baffled. “A man doesn’t rest his head on another man’s stomach,” Arnold goes on. “No?” I answer, all adrift on the cruel sea.

On that November Spawned a Monster video

Tim had asked me to do the entire November spawned a monster video naked. I explained to him that this would be impossible since my entire lower body had been destroyed by fire in 1965. His expression remained wide-eyed with belief as he replied, “Oh.”

On his fans

As I watch and study, I am mirrored by a handsome legion of the tough and the flash, and with this vision all of my efforts succeed.

Will Morrissey Have The Last Laugh – Again?

 ‘Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest?’

Mark Simpson on the most eagerly-anticipated music biography ever.

C4 News, 14 October, 2013

MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”

Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.

His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?

Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.

But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.

A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.

Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”

But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.

And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.

But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.

Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?

But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?