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 recently got around to watching the video for ‘Spent the Day In Bed’, Morrissey’s first single from his new Low in High School album.
Since writing Saint Morrissey – which was something akin to an exorcism – I’ve taken a somewhat more leisurely approach to the Stretford Bard’s output. Perhaps I’m slightly disappointed that he didn’t have the decency to finally retire incommunicado to Bognor Regis after it was published over a decade ago.
Instead my 58 year-old subject has, very selfishly, continued to tour furiously, put out new albums, as well as open his big Manc mouth and managing to epater les bourgeoisie fairly regularly, getting his name in the papers. I’m positively dreading all the updating I’d have to do for a new edition. Just when you think you’ve pinned and mounted your butterfly….
To make matters worse, ‘Spent The Day in Bed’ is Morrissey’s strongest, catchiest, most lyrical single for years.
Yes, the themes are very familiar – you might almost say… ‘tired’. The lines ‘Spent the day in bed/As the workers stay enslaved’ could be a three decades on sequel to ‘Still Ill’: ‘And if you must go to work tomorrow/Well if I were you I wouldn’t bother…’. And also ‘Nowhere Fast’ of course, with its lying in bed thinking about life and death and discovering ‘neither one particularly appeal to me’.
‘Spent the Day in Bed’ and the video are full of lazy intimations of mortality and gallows humour – but this time, a third of a century on, and with recent cancer scares, the gallows looms rather larger. Those sheets for which he’s paid and in which he’s laid could also be winding sheets, just as those pillows are ‘like pillars’.
But why not lie in your bed mausoleum taunting death?
‘Oh time do as I wish/Oh time do as I wish’
And avoiding life. Or at least, the impostor version of it we have to submit to:
‘No bus, no boss, no rain, no train./No emasculation, no castration’
In the video, when he gets to ‘no castration’, I think I detect a flicker of a self-mocking grin.
The video is almost as darkly funny as the lyrics. Morrissey in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? wheelchair is trundled into what looks like a dimly-lit 1960s Manchester working men’s club by a smirking, fresh-faced Joey Barton (I’d like to think Moz insisted that he get a shave if he wanted to be in his promo).
Barton, a famous Morrissey fan, is a professional ruffian footballer and tattooed boy from Birkenhead – well, Huyton if you want to be pedantic. And who wouldn’t want to be wheeled around by him in their dotage? Especially since Bette Davis is no longer available. (Though a passable stand-in does make an appearance later…)
Moz then performs the entire song seated, head tilted backwards, perhaps to catch the little light there is, perhaps to stretch out his 58-year-old neck, while his band perform on their feet around him – finally falling off his chair and out of shot at the end. A reminder that:
‘Life ends in death/So, there’s nothing wrong with/Being good to yourself/Be good to yourself for once!’
Life ends in death, so pamper yourself. By rehearsing it.
But it is the dreamy ‘Oh time do as I wish’ interlude in the video which is the main reason I’m writing this post. I almost fell off my chair when my old chum the performance artist David Hoyle suddenly appeared onstage at this point doing some sexy dancing with something shimmy. Watched avidly by Morrissey and Joey Barton, the latter hungrily popping peanuts into his mouth.
David, someone I got to know in the early 80s in London when we were both teenage runaways to Sodom-on-Thames, now lives in Manchester but grew up in Blackpool – where as a teenager he performed Shirley Bassey numbers in working men’s clubs, rather like the one in the video.
Hoyle and Morrissey have a lot in common – both northern, scornful, working class poet-prophets of the absurdity of desire, both determined not to keep the customer satisfied, and both keeping on keeping on, though one rather closer to the breadline than the other. It’s about time they got together.
And in fact much of the sentiment of ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ is also present in many of David’s shows (you can see many of them on YouTube) – which are also chock-full of gallows humour.
David likes to remind his audience regularly that they’re all going to die, despite their precious identities, ideologies and Sainsburys loyalty cards. He also likes to urge them to not bother to go to work tomorrow and try a little bit of anarchy instead. No bus, no boss, no train, no rain….
Here’s a review I wrote of one of David’s shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London in 1998, a frightening two decades ago, when he was still appearing as The Divine David (a persona he was shortly to kill off – before it killed him). All will be explained. Or perhaps not….
THE DIVINE DAVID AT THE ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN, LONDON
by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 1998)
Last year a one-man avant-garde whirlwind arrived on the London alternative cabaret circuit. Looking and sounding like Bette Davis meets Iggy Pop (and drinks him under the table) he proclaimed the death of drag and traditional crowd-pleasing en-ter-tain-ment.
Oh yes, and the redundancy of sexuality and gender as well.
“REMEMBER!” he would howl at the audience, after some crazed portrait-painting or singing Bowie’s Heroes in the style of Tommy Steele, “you may be standing there feeling very proud of yourself for being ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ , ‘a straight’ or a” – spitting the word out like a piece of four-day old mince he found lodged between his teeth – “‘gay’, but you’ve all got something in common, something much more certain than any of these fragile illusions. YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”
“Now,” he’d add softly, “isn’t that lovely, ladies and gentlemen? Doesn’t that give you a warm feeling inside?”
But The Divine David has decided that this isn’t the kind of thing that the punters want. The embodiment of the avant-garde after the death of the avant-garde, the zombie Spirit of Humanity that used to urge audiences not to go to work tomorrow or pay any bills has gone corporate. A glossy colour leaflet advertises his latest show, Viva 5 Apathy, with pictures of smiling people in suits clutching lap-tops at board-meetings and includes a statement from the President, The Divine DavidTM, about how market research has convinced him that what is needed is a more consumer-led product.
“This time,” he concludes, “it’s corporate!”
Although this sensible mission statement is undermined slightly by a photo on the last page depicting The Divinely Skinny One snapped from behind in a pair of purple briefs, looking over his shoulder, sloppily lip-sticked lips parted coquettishly, mouthing a faux surprised “OH!”.
At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, now re-named the Royal Vauxhall Conference Centre, Jay Cloth, The Divine David’s delectable-yet-efficient secretary and receptionist, takes your money (£3 waged/£3.50 unwaged), issues you with a name badge and does a spot of niche-market research, showing you some flash cards featuring fire, ambulance, police and mountain rescue and asking: “Have you used any of these services recently?”
The Vauxhall Tavern is a perfect venue for the Divine David’s reinvention of himself. Built in the mid-nineteenth century as a music-hall venue, after the Second World War it became a drag pub. In the seventies disco lights, black paint and a dj booth was added and it became a gay drag pub. Corinthian columns, flaking paint and a century of tobacco smoke, alcohol fumes and rowdy, anarchic performance reaches its apotheosis and nadir in The Divine David.
Except, of course, he’s now gone corporate. “I’ve learnt that people want entertainment”’ he announces when he finally steps out onto the stage, wearing a business-like mauve woollen twin-set with padded shoulders Herman Munster would have envied. “Audiences don’t want anything that will stretch them a bit. There’s going to be none of that avant-garde rubbish tonight. None of you need go home tonight to your rented accommodation feeling stupid.” He then performs a cappella quite the most disturbing version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ – so inane that it takes on meanings you never wanted to think about before: I didn’t wanna do it…
Entertainment over, David conducts a flip-chart seminar on how to “make a go of it” in business. “First,” he says, all schoolmarmish, “you take your self,” and writes ‘SELF’ at the top of the chart. “And then you get rid of that.” He strikes the word through. “And you become a what? Does anybody know?”
“A CUNT!” shouts out a drunken Scottish voice.
“Yes, a cunt that’s right.” He writes ‘CUNT’. “And what do you end up in?”
“A FOOKIN’ NIGHTMARE!”.
“A nightmare, exactly,” agrees David in a businesslike fashion, writing ‘= A NIGHTMARE’. “Does everyone see how that works? That’s lovely.”
The Divine David, corporate or avant-garde, doesn’t have much time for sentimentality. At one point he declares his support for Tracy Edwards: ‘Any woman who kills a man is a friend of mine.’
A little later he ruminates: “When I’m at a garden party or some such social occasion, people often come up to me and say, ‘Oh, David, there’s a gay over here, you must meet him.’ And I say, ‘Oh a gay, I know all about that – that’s about gristle up your shitter – if memory serves me right….’.
Not very fond of ‘men’ or ‘gays’, The Divine David has what some might call a certain distance on his predicament. Others, of course, will accuse him of ‘self-hatred’. But the whole point of The Divine David is drama and conflict, a refusal to become what you are supposed to be, a refusal to relax into identity, into niche markets and corporate/corporal values, into predictability. Or profitability.
So before the second half of his performance, we hear him announce over the p.a.: “Ladies und gentlemen, I’ve a confession to make. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve gone avant-garde again!”
Out he prances on stage in an alarming vented black body-suit, stretched over his gangly frame and his head, leaving a mad little oval of smeared red lips and melting mascara eyes. To the tune of a disco rhumba he then dances and mimes in a delightfully demented way with a couple of hoops, including an hilarious wheelchair moment straight out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
The Divine David is back – quite the scariest, funniest, smartest, truest, noblest thing you can see for three quid. Invest now.
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.
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 ringstrue-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.
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.
…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.