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.
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.
Hard to believe, but this year Tony Richardson’s wide-eyed 1961 ‘neo-realist’ masterpiece A Taste of Honey, based on a play by Salford playwright prodigy Shelagh Delaney is half a century old.
Filmed on location in lyrical black and white when Manchester was still connected to its chimney-stacked ‘dark Satanic’ past, it tells the story of Jo, a gawky, dream-filled, pregnant, unmarried working class teenage girl thinking about life and thinking about death and neither one particularly appealing to her.
This Sunday the Liverpool-based queer arts festival Homotopia will be holding a 50th anniversary screening of this classic film followed by a Q&A session with Rita Tushingham, who played young Jo in what turned out to be the performance of her life. (As part of the same festival, yours truly will be ‘in conversation’ with April Ashley on Nov 23.)
Back in the 1980s, when it was almost forgotten, A Taste of Honey had a big mouthed, bolshy, blousey northern champion — the singer Morrissey, who fashioned pretty much the entire world of his first couple of albums out of it. And famously lifting several lyrics from it:
‘Hand in Glove’: And I’ll probably never see you again (‘I’ll probably never see you again. I know it!’)
‘Reel Around the Fountain’: I dreamt about you last night/and I fell out of bed twice (‘I dreamt about you last night. Fell out of bed twice’.); You’re the bees knees/but so am I (‘You’re the bees knees, but so am I’.)
‘You’ve Got Everything Now’: As merry as the days were long (‘As merry as the day is long’.)
‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’: Six months is a long time (‘It’s a long time, six months’.)
‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’: (‘I don’t owe you anything’.)
‘Alma Matters’: It’s my life/to ruin/my own way (‘Anyway, it’s your life, ruin it your own way’.)
‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ The dream has gone but the baby is real (‘Oh, well, the dream’s gone but the baby’s real enough.’) And I’m not happy and I’m not sad. (I’m not sorry and I’m not glad.’).
The title I gave the chapter in Saint Morrissey examining Moz’s doomed little love-affair with Shelagh/Jo — ‘Dump her on the doorstep, girl’ — was yet another Moz lyric inspired by Taste. As the man himself admitted in the 90s: “Even I — even I — went a bit too far with A Taste of Honey.”
Here’s an excerpt from that chapter, explaining the impact and freshness of the film in 1961, how Delaney’s sparkling script sets Taste apart from the rest of the so-called British New Realism cinema of the 1960s, and why despite the passing of time and all its heinous crimes (and the normalisation of many of the taboos it tackled) it has hardly dated at all:
Unlike the other works by Fifties (usually northern) working class authors that were turned into films in the early Sixties, such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, and Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey was written from a female perspective, or rather intro-spective. Unashamedly self-absorbed, it manages to be genuinely ‘shocking’ and contemporary in its subject matter: adultery, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, maternal irresponsibility, abortion, miscegenation, homosexuality, congenital madness . . . (if this list reads like an episode of Brookside, perhaps this is why, in the late Eighties, Morrissey made a cameo appearance in a spin-off of that show called South).
However, Taste managed to cover all these themes without being sensationalist, refusing to hide behind pompous gestures and pseudo politics. It isn’t a play about an angry young man, but a vaguely anxious young girl — a much more ‘universal’ subject, since most of us are vaguely anxious young girls at some point in our lives.
And all of these characteristics — poetic naturalism, shocking without sensationalism, refusal of pompous gestures, dreamy introspection, a freshly feminine perspective — were to be features of Morrissey’s own work.