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 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.
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?
Because the 80s is the decade that actually ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up operation – it’s also the decade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the decade that just won’t die.
Economy in (‘Big Bang’) recession. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal weddings on the telly. The Falklands becoming a fighting issue. And my mother complaining about Morrissey: “I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!”
As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.
In fact everyone has been enjoying moaning about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you somehow missed it, at a performance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts printed with the charming message ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remember 80s protest t-shirts?).
Perhaps worried this might be overlooked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bouquet to his Argentine fans about those bitterly contested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: “Everybody knows they belong to you”.
The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all dutifully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earnest discussion between two music critics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treasure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)
Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner currently without a record contract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hairspray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.
The British experience of the 80s is forever dominated by two very difficult personalities. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both possessing a gender all of their own.
And while one was a working-class militant vegetarian anarchist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homoerotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bourgeois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who famously outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, both of them were radicals on a revenge trip.
But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the alternative that Maggie said didn’t exist.
In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost everyone at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effectively banned from daytime Radio 1), the record business (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buying public (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).
But they have become the heart of a decade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that everyone liked – two or three decades after the event.
Including, most famously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detoxifying tool at least as important as those melting glaciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favourite group not long after gaining the leadership of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pictured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.
But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assimilated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.
When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘forbade’ David Cameron from liking the Smiths, animal rights activist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:
‘David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.’
No-one can be genuinely surprised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the remnants of the British Empire. And let’s not forget his famous 1984 quip: “The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed”, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ from his 1988 album Viva Hate.
Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mellowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adolescent curmudgeon, an otherworldly prophet from Stretford – he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, promise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.
It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embarrassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.
I shall never be able to play The Smiths again without thinking of Prime Minster David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague sharing a hotel room – and Cameron complaining about Hague’s disappointing endowment.