4 April 2010

The Smiths (well, almost entirely Morrissey), and Manchester

The Smiths were the most unlikely rock stars, and the huge popularity of lead singer Morrissey's lyrics of alienation and outsiderdom is truly bizarre. The history of The Smiths was short (1984-87), and Thatcher was in power all the time. One of the reasons she was widely detested is because she caused so many people to be unemployed. Morrissey hated her - his first solo album, Viva Hate (1988), contains a song called 'Margaret on the Guillotine', which keeps repeating: 'When will you die?' and ends with the sound of a descending guillotine blade. And yet 'You've Got Everything Now' from The Smiths début album The Smiths (1984), which is sung by an alienated nobody and the title of which could almost suggest a Thatcherite utopia for the few, contains the lines

'No, I've never had a job
Because I've never wanted one',

and in 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', from Hatful of Hollow (1984), are the lines

'I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I'm miserable now.'

Clearly, there was something very odd about The Smiths.

Shyness had been sung about before - one only has to think of Jacques Brel's 'Les Timides', for example. But whereas both Brel and Morrissey see shyness as an affliction, Morrissey - who not for nothing is a fan of Oscar Wilde - adopts a paradoxical stance toward it, and also sees it as a badge of honor. The narrator having stated in 'You've Got Everything Now' that he'd never wanted a job, he continues by saying

'No, I've never had a job
Because I'm too shy',

which might appear to be more honest: what was first declared as lack of desire is perhaps now turned into the truth - social ineptitude? Apparently not, because 'Ask' (The World Won't Listen (1987)) contains characteristic paradoxical Morrissey lines:

'Shyness is nice and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life
You'd like to.'

Overwhelming, though, are the qualifications of statements, the tags that we normally think when we say things, but never actually express verbally. Just what kind of an animal was Morrissey, who could step out of a rather dull Manchester housing estate, proclaim The World Won't Listen (1987 album, and the last), and soon had the world eating out of his vegetarian hand? Here are just a few of these qualifications, which surely no one had sung about before, and which greatly helped to propel rock into a brave new lyrical world:

'Oh, people said that you were easily led
And they were half-right'
('Reel Around the Fountain')

'For there are brighter sides to life
And I should know, because I've seen them
But not very often'.
('Still Ill')

'Nothing's changed, I still love you, oh, I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love'.
('Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before')

'But I'm well-read, have heard them said
A hundred times (maybe less, maybe more)'.
('Cemetry [sic] Gates')

'And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
But I won't cry'.
('Unhappy Birthday')

Like 'Margaret on the Guillotine', occasionally Morrissey's songs are not the love songs of conventional rock but hate songs, as in the opening lines of 'Unhappy Birthday' above:

'I've come to wish you an unhappy bithday
'Cause you're evil
And you lie'.

In a bald statement such as this, it is perhaps difficult to see the humor in what is in effect a very funny song: Morrissey's words would have nothing like the power they have if they weren't so amusing.

Coincidentally, the advent of The Smiths came at the same time as the fear of Aids, and the celibacy that Morrissey appeared to be advocating fell in with the spirit of the times, although sexual ambivalence was often not far away, as in 'Half a Person' on The World Won't Listen:

'Sixteen clumsy and shy
I went to London and I
I booked myself in at the Y...W.C.A.'
(The narrator then asks if there's a vacancy for a 'back-scrubber'.)

The sexual ambivalence above is also mixed with self-deprecation, a common element in Morrissey's work, which is perhaps best illustrated in 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' on Viva Hate:

'But you...without clothes
Oh I could not keep a straight face
Me - without clothes?
Well, a nation turns its back and gags'.

With Morrissey, The Smiths took the book of the conventional lyrics of rock and roll, turned it on its head, shredded it, and the audience fed on it, became addicted, and yearned for more. Never have such words been so avidly digested in the world of rock, never have such lyrics, at once so literate and so strange, been appreciated by so many people.

384 Kings Road, Stretford, Manchester, UK, where Stephen Morrissey met Johnny Marr and the rest is history: this is the birthplace of The Smiths.

Perhaps one of the most noted backcloths in the history of the Smiths: Salford Lads Club, on Coronation Street.

'Under the iron bridge we kissed'. The famous iron bridge immortalized in the song 'Still Ill', which is also on Kings Road next to house number 502. The graffiti below the image of the bridge is on the metal of the bridge itself.

The Holy Name Church mentioned in 'Vicar in a Tutu'.

I wonder if the barbed wire here is designed as a deterrent to anyone inspired to lift some lead?

And finally, the song 'Cemetry [sic] Gates' begins:

'A dreaded sunny day
So I meet you at the cemetry gates
Yeats and Keats are on your side/[...]
While Wilde is on mine'.

For some years Morrissey had enjoyed walking around cemeteries, particularly Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, where he sometimes went with his friend Linder Sterling, the feminist artist and singer in Ludus, a band admired by Morrissey. The song in part reflects on intellectual repartee.

Sterling lived at 35 Mayfield Road, Whalley Range, where Morrissey was a frequent visitor, and the area is mentioned in 'Miserable Lie' from The Smiths:

'What do I get for my trouble and pains?
Just a rented room in Whalley Range.'

She once followed The Smiths on tour, taking photos of them which in 1992 she published as a book called Morrissey Shot.

Both 'Vicar in a Tutu' and 'Cemetry Gates' are from the 1986 Smiths album The Queen is Dead, the cover of which was designed by Morrissey, and bears a photo of Alain Delon from the 1965 film L'Insoumis. Inside the CD booklet is the famous shot of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce posing in front of the Salford Lads Club.


EnriqueFreeque said...

I love love love The Smiths. But I think I love your blog more. Do you take book review requests on obscure and outsider literature?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Hi! Just noticed this, and thanks - we're in Paris at the moment so don't have much time to check the internet, but your own site looks very interesting too and I'll have to check it out properly when we get home in three-four weeks. Will get back later.