Sounds, June 1988
DIARY OF A MIDDLE-AGED MAN
Shaun Philips, Sounds, 18th June 1988
Having seen The Messiah and his Smiths feed the 5,000 with a Mother's Pride and a tin of sardines, no doubt his disciples were a little disappointed when on his own he could only manage to turn the water into house red and not the champagne they were expecting.
When Morrissey released Viva Hate, the first album of his solo career, in March, even the Godfather Of Gloom shared in the anticlimax.
"Lyrically, it wasn't the best, I'm well aware of that," he confesses.
"It was a very peculiar time for me, making that record so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and I wanted to try something different.
"Because of the particular status I have, where many people concentrate quite scientifically over every comma, I reached a stage where I wanted to be entirely spontaneous without physically writing the words down and memorising them. Rather, just step into the vocal booth and sing it as it comes. But I don't think I'll try that again... back to the typewriter."
His soul unburdened, Morrissey slips down onto the park's uncut grass and surveys his audience.
To the sound of Friday's angry traffic attacking London's Hyde Park Corner, a thousand beached secretaries go as bare as they dare, oblivious to everything but the carcinogenic Summer sun. Morrissey dares to strip down to his roll neck sweater.
It seems an inappropriate spot to prod the protagonist of the dreary seaside resort, the champion of the wet, silent Sunday that comes and stays forever. A dank, impersonal hotel room at the end of a fetid corridor would surely have been more appropriate.
Having just turned 29, Morrissey already feels on "the tremulous threshold" of 30.
His birthday, naturally, passed unhappily.
"I live a very deprived existence. I don't physically go out and get drunk and vomit over policemen or anything like that."
He nurses just a few grey hairs and an inflamed right eye; the result of an impetuous contact lens. It's causing Morrissey discomfort but does not warrant the risk of a corrective visit to the nearby public convenience. The mere suggestion is greeted with an arched eyebrow.
"I think age personally makes me feel a bit better, because youth for me was revolting and being young and feeling young, I always hated that. I feel a bit better now, as I stumble blindfoldedly into middle age."
Pop stardom, it seems, need not end in crushing disappointment with the passing of acne. Nor does facetiousness.
Like his heroine [? sic], Maggie Thatcher, Morrissey occasionally makes it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.
I mean, did he really sing, "It was a good lay" at the end of "Suedehead," his first solo single?
"No, 'It was a bootleg'. I mean, good heavens, in my vocabulary? Please..."
"Well, have I ever been dishonest?" he laughs. "Do people think it was 'a good lay'?"
"And is that quite racy?"
"Well, it was actually 'a good lay'."
And was there one?
"No, I just thought it might amuse someone living in Hartlepool."
In matters of grave importance, Morrissey adheres to his idol Oscar Wilde's adage that style, not sincerity, is vital.
However lightly Morrissey chooses to reflect it, his solo career has hardly run smooth. While the consistency of quality ended abruptly after the release in June '85 of The Queen Is Dead LP and the excellent Panic and Ask 45s that followed, Morrissey's profile seems to have blossomed.
His popularity owes much to his tongue-in-cheek revolution; one week he'd taunt the Top Of The Pops audiences with "Marry Me" slogans, the next he'd mime gunning them down as they danced.
Comparatively, his solo career is far more subdued.
"I think so many people were inspired by the whole Rough Trade ethic of trying to fight, and winning in many cases, which was exciting. And obviously with EMI that doesn't exist."
It may seem irrelevant that Morrissey no longer buys his underwear at M&S, but it reflects how everything about his presentation has changed.
Once, faded film stars adorned his record sleeves, now it's portraits of himself, and he practically looks like a stubbleless George Michael on his latest release, Everyday Is Like Sunday. It's tempting to think his days as the bedsit revolutionary are all but over.
Morrissey, however, still feels like the Che Guevara of pop.
"If you really concentrate on the Top 40 there aren't really that many striking individuals so it is rather easy within that block to be semi-anarchic. But I don't for one second believe that I'm really considered to be entirely trustworthy. I still think that people might suspect me of saying the wrong things or, rather, expect me to say 'the wrong thing'. But I don't feel institutionalised, I don't feel faintly akin to George Michael or his world for that matter. If George Michael had to live my life for five minutes, he'd strangle himself with the nearest piece of cord."
But one could think Morrissey's revolution had gone underground with his solo single releases, as neither has met with such hostile reactions as certain Smiths releases. Handsome Devil (the B-side of Hand In Glove) was thought by some to allude to child abuse; Panic as a racist attack; and Girlfriend In A Coma as gross bad taste. But Viva Hate treads a far more precarious line.
Yet Morrissey refutes allegations that he courts controversy.
"There is no controversy on Viva Hate, as far as I can see, apart, perhaps, from the title. But I've never been deliberately controversial. It just so happens that because of the climate and the standards of writing in pop music today that if one has any self-judgement about the things you write then you're bound to be considered not controversial but at least... I've forgotten the word... Tesco's!"
While accusations of racism were spurious for Panic, revolving around Morrissey's reasons for wanting to "Hang the DJ", tactless lyricism on the album's Bengali In Platforms leaves it open to a racist interpretation.
"Bob Geldof In Platforms you nearly said," quips Morrissey, treating the issue with far more contempt than it deserves.
Was it intended to have a double edge?
"No, it still doesn't, not at all. There are many people who are so obsessed wtih racism that one can't mention the word Bengali; it instantly becomes a racist song, even if you're saying, Bengali, marry me. But I still can't see any silent racism there."
Not even with the line, "Life is hard enough when you belong here"?
"Well, it is, isn't it?"
True, but that implies that Bengalis don't belong here, which isn't a very global view of the world.
"In a sense it's true. And I think that's almost true for anybody. If you went to Yugoslavia tomorrow, you'd probably feel that you didn't belong there."
Morrissey, however, makes no such disclaimers for the album's last track, Margaret On The Guillotine.
Originally the working title of The Queen Is Dead album, the lyrics in this shortened form were put in cold storage because they "didn't fit any music that was presented at the time". But there is little doubt about the singer's impressions of The Iron Lady.
"The kind people/Have a wonderful dream/Margaret on the guillotine..."
"I follow her career," Morrissey explains. "Obviously, I find the entire Thatcher syndrome very stressful and evil and all those other words. But I think there's very little that people can do about it. The most perfect example, I suppose, is Clause 28. I think that absolutely embodies Thatcher's very nature and her quite natural hatred."
The time when Oscar Wilde is banned is nigh?
"I think so, possibly. But protesting to me is pointless because people suffer this delusion that the very issue of Clause 28 is actually anything to do with the British people. They have no say in the matter. I think that's been the story throughout Thatcher's reign, so I don't see the point of wandering around Marble Arch in a pink T-shirt, carrying books by Andrea Dworkin."
(Andrea Dworkin is a feminist writer who had, among other things, rather a lot to say about the sexist nature of The Bible and how that affected society.)
And isn't committing your feelings to records as pointless?
"Not really, because it's there forever."
But if the world won't listen now, it seems highly unlikely it will listen in the future. And if George Orwell's prophecies in Nineteen Eight Four were ever to materialise, the Ministry of Information would delete your record anyway.
"In a sense, that almost gives people qualification to write more and stronger. I do believe if we lived in a harmonious environment, everybody would be excessively overweight and they would all listen to records by Vince Hill, even you."
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Bob Geldof's career will know that, even with a free world advert, going solo can be a disaster.
And as The Smiths fizzled out with their lacklustre last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, from which two further singles, I Started Something I Couldn't Finish and Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, failed to make any great impression on the charts, Morrissey feared that his first solo release, Suedehead, "would gasp in the higher 30s and disintegrate".
He hadn't even wanted to release the song as a single but was "carried along on a wave of general enthusiasm".
The song was not as good as prime Smiths, but it was a beautifully reflective tune, showing that ex-Smiths co-producer Stephen Street could step into Marr's previous role as composer, and that Vini Reilly (guitar), Andrew Paresi (drums) and a six piece string section could adequately cope with the departure of Marr, Rourke, and Joyce.
Backed by two equally inspiring numbers, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name and Hairdresser On Fire, the record rewarded the confidence of Morrissey's colleagues by getting into the Top Five while no Smiths single had ever got higher than number ten.
"I thought this was the time for people to destroy me," Morrissey reminisces. "I think it's remarkable that the records (both the single and the following album) were successful without a solitary television appearance or tours etcetera."
One such "etcetera" was a planned Peel session for Radio 1, which although recorded was never released.
"It was really awful, horrible," says Morrissey reflecting on the treatment he received from the technicians at the Maida Vale studios.
"They're quite accustomed to treat everyone like they were some insignificant, unsigned group from Poole. And that's how I felt on that day. I felt as though I'd never seen a record let alone made one. So I found them a bit rude and I couldn't sing because I was so annoyed and angry. I think John Walters made a reference to it, saying I just didn't want it aired because I didn't think it was good enough but that really wasn't the case. It certainly wasn't good enough but the reasons behind it were the situation at Maida Vale. I suppose a lot of new, naive, untested groups go through that situation and they have no choice and they're happy to do it. And in a sense it is quite a good opportunity but it really is a put up or shut up situation."
Will you be doing any more sessions?
"Not as long as I've two legs... which possibly means I might be doing a session next week!"
And that is just as likely as the rumour that Morrissey would be appearing live at the ICA. Touring is not high on his agenda.
"In a sense I don't feel instantly inclined to attempt anything. It was perfect, and The Smiths did play a lot. I was slightly satiated at the time that it ended, but it's nice to be able to step back but not disappear entirely."
So have you made any plans?
In fact, Morrissey's only live preparations have been for the forthcoming live Smiths album on Rough Trade. He titled it (" Rank as in J Arthur"), chose the tracks (the listing was approved by Johnny Marr) and designed the sleeve "with the excellent assistance of Jo Slee and Caryn Gough".
But it's not necessarily the last time you'll hear Morrissey sing a Smiths song. Were he to perform again in the future, he is adamant that he would sing songs from The Smiths' repertoire.
"I was there when those songs were recorded; I wrote the words. Just because the group ended didn't mean that suddenly all those feelings dissolve. It's still very much a part of me in 1988."
That Stephen Street would compose the music in Morrissey's post Smiths career came as a surprise to many but, in retrospect, the singer had little alternative. Morrissey's own musical accomplishments begin and end with a one-fingered piano recital on Death Of A Disco Dancer on the last Smiths LP.
"It was the first time the group played it together and we just switched the tape on and didn't take it terribly seriously. And I just fell onto a piano and began to bang away. We kept the tape because it had some unnameable appeal."
And people kept the piano away from you after that?
"People kept away from me after that!"
Unable to compose for himself and go completely solo, Morrissey's only other option was a demo tape provided by Street.
"At the time there were no other people presenting things and I happened to like what Stephen had done. It happened very quickly. I mean, this time a year ago the last Smiths album was nowhere near being released. It has been a very hectic year. I know it's quite tempting to think I'm coasting to some degree and I'm not playing live and all those usual things, but I haven't stopped at all."
Is the partnership open ended?
"It's entirely open, it's not the new Smiths or anything like that. There's no existing group."
And you're happy with it?
Has anybody approached you with another offer?
"Er, no, not at all."
Would you consider anybody?
"Well, I wouldn't object to being approached, put it that way."
Is there anybody at the back of your mind, who you sit at home thinking...
"George Michael... no. Andrew Ridgeley... Fairground Attraction!"
What about the rumours of a Marr reunion?
"Are there rumours? I haven't heard anything about him or of him since a year ago. The last time The Smiths were together was May 21, 1962, or whenever it was, which was a year ago. So since then I haven't heard a dickie bird, as they say."
In fact, the only other person from his past who has expressed any interest in Morrissey's post-Smiths compositions is Sandie Shaw. Her association with Morrissey first came to light in April, '84, when she had her first hit in 15 years with a cover of The Smiths first single, Hand In Glove.
Shaw's latest acquisition will appear on her forthcoming album. "Yes, it's called Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness and it was originally written for Viva Hate. There wasn't enough space and it was frozen. Sandie picked it up and put it in the microwave."
There may not be a queue of musicians begging to work with Morrissey, but there's little doubt that his work with The Smiths is highly valued by his peers.
Ex-Smiths bassist Andy Rourke regularly performs an onstage duet of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (from The Smiths' eponymously titled debut album) with Sinead O'Connor (ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce is also in her band) and many other artists have expressed an interest in covering Smiths songs.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the story that Dave Stewart of Eurythmics intends to cover Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.
"Is that true?" asks Morrissey, somewhat startled.
"I get sent several tapes from people who are considering them and I get really disappointed when they're not released."
Johnny Marr once said his ambition was to see someone get a Smiths cover version to number one.
"Oh yes, it would be wonderful, regardless of what position it received, but that would be great."
You wouldn't be jealous?
"I'm not really a jealous person. I mean, I liked the Dream Academy version of that old Smiths song ( Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want). Everyone despised it and it got to number 81, which is nearly a hit."
Two planned covers which excite Morrissey are Nottingham's Hope Augustus' release of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out on WEA, and Kirsty MacColl's proposed You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby for the B-side of her next single.
MacColl, whose most recent success was a duet with Shane MacGowan on The Pogues' Christmas hit "Fairytale Of New York", has worked with Morrissey before, performing backing vocals on The Smiths' Ask and Golden Lights.
But this enthusiasm pales next to his desire to work with, or even meet, Shirley Bassey.
"I went to see her last night, I thought she was excellent. I'd love to meet her, I'd love to touch the end of her dress."
Clearly, Morrissey envies Shirley Bassey's stature.
"It's the kind of position I, not aspire to, but like the idea of. I don't think people consider me to be a superstar, or a world superstar, or a rock star or anything like that. I think I'm just considered to be a British phenomenon... as well as a sex symbol."
So would you like to do...
"A nude centrefold?"
The theme tune to a Bond Movie?
"No, what on earth for? Because she did it? Oh, I see."
No, because Duran Duran did it.
"Yes, I would actually. I liked Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger, things like that."
Sheena Easton did one as well.
"Could you name it though 'For Your... Legs Only'!?"
So you're not a big Sheena Easton fan?
"Not at the minute."
You'll be taking the Shirley Bassey route to stardom then?
"Good heavens, that means I'd have to stay alive for another 22 years. Could you imagine that, it's a ghastly thought, all those Christmas Morecambe & Wise Shows... No, I'm alright actually, because they're already dead."
Morrissey's solo career may not have been stunning to date, but at least he didn't simply try to emulate The Smiths. Instead, he had the audacity to be different and employ various styles.
The resulting Viva Hate album was disappointing but it had perfect moments, including the new single Everyday Is Like Sunday - a perfect rebuff to the Cliff Richard "Summer Holiday" hit syndrome with its drizzly chorus "Everyday Is Like Sunday/Everyday is silent and grey".
But its really the B-side that holds the secrets to Morrissey's future.
Will Never Marry, Sister I'm A Poet, and, particularly, Disappointed indicate a turning point in his new career, a return to eloquence, satire, contempt and wit. Morrissey's trade marks before he forsook them for the elegant tranquility of Viva Hate.
Recorded two months ago, they also see the return of his old writing style - the first songs hot off the typewriter.
"They were the first three songs that I actually set down and pandered across. Which is probably quite awful to admit, but I had reached the stage where I no longer wanted to be intense. I wanted it to be straight forward and almost, in another way, I wanted everything else to take over. But that didn't really happen in the way people viewed the record. So many people who bought Viva Hate and bought Smiths records actually lived with the lyric sheet for days before they would play the record. So I think that's a unique position, but it's one that momentarily began to suffocate me slightly."
What also makes the B-sides so important is a change in Street's music. They are much rounder and dare to employ devices one might associate with Johnny Marr.
Morrissey refutes the idea that Street held back on these more punchy numbers for fear of having his head nailed to the floor by critics for being too derivative of Marr. He considers the new compositions to be "a progression from Viva Hate" and "quite magical".
He also denies that the change of mood had anything to do with his own influence, or that it was a conscious decision by Street "to do something more aggressive". But it has given Morrissey new confidence.
"Yes, I feel a bit happier with a pulverised manic sound."
Ironically, Disappointed sums up the new mood perfectly. Vini Reilly's reverberating guitar echoing Marr's How Soon Is Now ? style and accentuating Morrissey's kick in the eye to all those who would have seen him burn, hearing aid and all.
"This is the last song I will ever sing/No, I've changed my mind again/Goodnight and thank you..."
So typical of Morrissey. Just when you thought it was safe to put him on the chopping block, when you believed the omnipotent to be impotent, the bigmouth strikes again.