A Rare Genius
THIS will not be a hugely authoritative and biography-heavy…
things but, instead, a loving nod to one of the most extraordinary songwriters who has ever lived. This piece is fuelled by two different occurrences. The first is the fact the biopic, England Is Mine, has been released and met with muted applause. There are a lot of three-star reviews that commended the film’s lead, Jack Lowden, but criticise other aspects of it. The fact we are supposed to be fascinated by that pre-Smiths period; the man of the hour did not approve of the film or provide blessing – one imagines he would rarely crack a smile so it is no surprise – have all gone into the brew. I have not seen the film but, gleaming reviews; it seems to be one reserved for three die-hard fans. It looks like a fascinating glimpse into a clumsy, ambitious and isolated young man and his time growing up in the North – just before he met Johnny Marr and went to form The Smiths. I am not given to over-romanticising Morrissey because he has his flaws and is very outspoken. His stance on animal welfare is passionate but often misguided – to the point hyperbole and righteousness detaches from the ethics and moral reasoning and becomes personal attacks on people who eat flesh. I am not a meat-eater but would never speak about animal cruelty/murder the way Morrissey does. Those kinds of outbursts are not reserved to carnivores: the man has taken shots at the monarchy and large swathes of society. He is, however, refreshingly honest and unfiltered in a time when people are incredibly self-conscious and wary of what they say online. One suspects he does not take to Twitter too often but, in an age where social media is as much a force for bad as it is good – the likes of Morrissey are remnants of a time when there was simplicity and directness. Mancunians (and northerners) are renowned for their wit and humour but also their plain-speaking tongues. There is nothing unusual about Morrissey but, when reading a New Statesman article that suggested the biopic was misguided – and Morrissey does not deserve to be seen as extraordinary – that is where I take umbrage.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ebet Roberts
One cannot claim The Smiths frontman has not made an immense impact on music. My first encounter with Morrissey was, actually, through his solo album, Your Arsenal. That album arrived after 1991’s Kill Uncle and a rather rough creative period. That album was given poor press and negative reviews. Many felt the album was tired and rehashing previous work. Your Arsenal arrived a year later and was an incredible turnaround. It was sharp, muscular and inspired: Morrissey back to his very best. You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side has a swagger and introduction similar to Footloose’s theme – in a strange way – but is a rollicking and riotous cut from the former Smiths man. In-command and at his acerbic best: a track that beautifully kicks off proceedings. The album borrows shades from other artists – Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’s riff/sound can be heard on I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday – but, largely, it is the hungry and talented artist back on top. The National Front Disco addresses right-wing politics and fascism – Morrissey copping heat because of its references to extremism and racism – whereas You’re the One for Me, Fatty is the man at his humorous best. It is a dexterous and all-killer, no-filler album that benefits from the musical impetus of Alain Whyte – and Morrissey feeling the need to regain momentum and relevance. I investigated subsequent solo albums and love Vauxhall and I – the 1994 album that is commonly seen as his pinnacle as a soloist – and 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business. Both albums are very different in terms of themes and compositions but Vauxhall and I, I guess, complete that incredibly ripe period – following from Your Arsenal; there was a lot of determination and inspiration in Morrissey’s bones. Spring-Heeled Jim, The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get and Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning are some of my favourite songs from the master. I could vacillate about the solo work and all it holds but I am, like many people, adoring of Morrissey because of The Smiths.
I wanted to avoid using a song title in the title of this piece as it seems rather wasted and tragic. Whilst the actual title is a little vague; one cannot define Morrissey by a single song. The Smiths’ 1984 eponymous debut remains one of the most influential records from all of music. In a period where nothing like The Smiths had ever come about: it was a blast of light witnessing the Manchester band come to music. Formed in 1982 – I shall not get into the background and famous meeting – but feel, at that time in music, The Smiths’ arrival was hugely unexpected. Among the finest albums of 1984 were Sade’s Diamond Life; Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain. Some world-class albums, for sure, but nothing remotely like The Smiths. There were few standout British albums that year so, when the quartet released their debut, few people were prepared for them. There has never been a composer as individual and malleable as Johnny Marr. The way he could create searing guitar stabs and semi-orchestral rushes – almost within the space of a verse – is unprecedented and laid down the mantle from a unique and extraordinary band. Not forgetting the contribution Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke made to the band – their bass and percussion were pivotal elements in the overall sound. As much as I love their impact and talents; the incredible compositions of Marr – it is the wordplay and performances from Morrissey that makes the music stand out. I love the band’s debut but feel they went on to better things. This Charming Man is the standout from that debut and has gone on to be one of the most-respected and best-known songs from the band. Its unforgettable chorus and vivid verses stick in the mind. The hero not going out – not a stitch to wear, as it seems – and the isolated bicycle: that sense of loneliness and incredible magic one gets from the song. It is a rare form of poetry and storytelling from a man who would have been taking from his own life.
One of the reasons I connect with Morrissey is his loneliness and place in society – not feeling like he fits in and being able to connect with other people. Of course, the songs did not all speak of these troubles. The young songwriter ate and devoured literature and culture. Right from their earliest moments; characters and controversy came into the music. Morrissey would address murder, incest and sexual abuse alongside romance, dreams of being killed in a car crash and a girlfriend in a coma. There is that malice and unsettled vibe that sits with immense humour, sardonic wit and personality. In everything is passion and incredible intelligence. The first two albums can, debatable, be argued as less memorable and enduring as their final two. The debut remains essential because it was the first: that arrival and unexpected brilliance. The songwriting is incredible throughout but, apart from the odd number here and there, I do not revisit it a lot. I tend to bond more with The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come. Meat Is Murder contained the phenomenal How Soon Is Now? and remains one of the band’s finest songs – not on the original album but added for the U.S. version. That sense of awkwardness and going to the club: being rejected and standing alone in the corner – whilst being sountracked by that stabbing, epic guitar-playing from Marr. The Headmaster Ritual and Barbarism Begins at Home, between them, contains yelping, corporal punishment and satirising out-of-touch teachers. They are staples and highlights from the band but are not matched by other songs on the album. It got a warm critical response but, in my mind, it was Morrissey’s words and subjects that brought the album to life. Growing in confidence as a songwriter and singer; one could sense changes coming in and a natural evolution. Less reserved (vocally) than the debut: Meat Is Murder is a much more inflamed, boisterous and variegated album – both composer and lyricist pushing themselves like never before. This all reached fever-pitch heights on the follow-up: the band’s hallmark, The Queen Is Dead. Again, 1986 contains no other albums like The Smiths’ third L.P. It is a complete and fantastic work that, like Morrissey’s finest solo works, contains absolutely no filler.
Not only is The Queen Is Dead one of the best albums of the 1980s but the apex of Morrissey’s songwriting. His lyrics were at their sharpest and most emotive. One cannot listen to Cemetry Gates – where the hero reads inscriptions and finds mordant romance in departed poets – and not be encapsulated and entranced by its peculiar narrative. The title track opens proceedings with so much fascinating humour and spit. It is Morrissey’s commentary, insight and wordplay that perfectly matches Morrissey’s rampant and driving composition – one of his finest from the cannon of The Smiths. I Know It’s Over is one of the most striking and stirring from a band who were in no short-supply of emotional offerings. Morrissey’s sense of foreboding and claustrophobia makes the song one of the most unforgeable and haunting from the band. One suspects, like Cemetery Gates, some of the poetic greats were running through Morrissey’s mind when writing this. Bigmouth Strikes Again, turning the focus on himself, is about the outspoken and too-quick-to-speak. It addresses the frustration of being hounded and being forced into a corner – that pressure leads to some misguided comments (where the narrator has to confess he was only joking). Comparing himself to Joan of Arc – where her “the flames rose to her Roman nose” and the Walkman melted – it is a unique and brilliant take on a subject that, at the time, was not as common as it is now. The same can be said of the longing and romantic frustration one hears on There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. Many would rank this song as The Smiths’ finest. It is considered one of the greatest ever songs, and with good reason. One cannot ignore the contribution by Marr: that luscious and symphonic score that perfectly articulates everything Morrissey puts into the lyrics. The doomed-but-humorous combination was Morrissey’s stock-and-trade, but here, it is at its most defined and luminous.
Strangeways, Here We Come completed the band’s career – they would split in 1987 – and is s fitting and fine swansong. Containing Morrissey and Marr’s favourite song, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, it is a fantastic album that builds on The Queen Is Dead’s eclecticism – even if it does not reach the astonishing heights of that record. There are fantastic moments from Morrissey throughout that album but it is tracks four-through-six that that showcase how fervent and consistent his imagination was. Girlfriend in a Coma is a short-but-not-so-sweet song that finds an ill-fated girlfriend near to death/in a near-death situation – never explained how she got there – and the hero semi-genuine in his terror and upset. It is a perfect distillation of Morrissey’s patented combination of wit and tragedy. Pathos and triumph; sarcasm and doomed romance all within two-and-a-bit-minutes. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before – an album with many long-titled songs – again looks at physical upset and trauma. It is the last track of the trio that, for me, defines Morrissey’s songwriting. That sense of false alarms and being safe from harm: all false, unsettled and unreal. The song title’s literal meanings cannot be misinterpreted but it is the way Morrissey presents that feeling of being alone and sharing his bed with nobody – a song that would have resonated with so many listeners at the time. It is a stark, sad and hugely revealing song that perfectly says goodbye to the band. It proved we would be hearing more from Morrissey’s incredible pen – sadly the band would call it quits before the album hit the shelves. It is not only the writing through The Smiths’ career that fascinated me. Morrissey’s singing remains unique and emotion-rich. The way he phrases lines and twists them to his own means has meant the songs have transcended from the fantastic to the peerless. Few singers have that crooner-like sound that manages to stretch and bend in all sorts of directions.
In looking at the continuing genius and influence of Morrissey; one cannot ignore every facet of his creative personality. From his work with The Smiths through his solo career – there are few that have the same attributes, talents and tells as Morrissey. He is an endlessly fascinating character and, let’s hope, there are more albums arriving from him. Perhaps England Is Mine is not the film he would have wanted to see about himself (one imagines he would have preferred to be left alone altogether) but there is an enormous affection for the Northern poet who, over thirty years since that first album, remains incredibly influential. Even if songwriters are not name-checking Morrissey; it is clear their work, subconsciously or not, derives from that early work. I can hear comparative put-downs, quips and revelations from new songwriters. None match the height and scope of the man but that is not to say they are vastly inferior songwriters. Morrissey is one of those once-in-a-generation artists that cannot be replicated or cloned. One only need listen to an album like Your Arsenal or The Queens Is Dead to witness endless emotions over the course of a few songs. There are few that can take you from laughs to horror; right through to tears and mock-outrage as the man himself. He is a legend of music who feels, like the dearly-departed poets in Cemetry Gates, deserves special real estate in the graveyard of the legendary scribes – not to get ahead of myself or morbid; I think he would approve. There is something unfashionable about loving Morrissey in 2017: he does not fit in with the cool and trendy mainstream and seems like his best days have passed. That said; the music community owes his songwriting brilliance a debt of gratitude. Those too-rebellious-for-school artists and slick-haired bands might be on your side but, you see, the wonderful and endlessly irrepressive Morrissey…
IS on mine.