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Most people assimilate charismatic singer-songwriter MORRISSEY with The SMITHS, whose all-too-brief tenure in the mid-80s was a thing of legend. A controversial, but initially shy protagonist/budding journo, Stephen Patrick Morrissey (born in Manchester, 22nd May 1959) had emerged from the city’s suburbanite-to-street punk scene, venturing between The Nosebleeds and SLAUGHTER & THE DOGS; as UK president of the NEW YORK DOLLS fanclub/fanzine around the same late-70s period, author MORRISSEY had his biography on cult icon/hero James Dean published by Babylon Books.
After his bust-up with SMITHS guitar maestro JOHNNY MARR in August ‘87, MORRISSEY, one of rock music’s most intellectually incisive wordsmiths, hastily embarked upon a relatively successful solo career. Remaining with E.M.I. (the label whom The SMITHS signed to prior to their demise), his debut solo effort VIVA HATE (1988) {*8} was subsequently released on the re-activated H.M.V. imprint.
With music co-written by his new producer, Stephen Street, and a backing band that numbered DURUTTI COLUMN guitar-lizard Vini Reilly (a friend from his Nosebleeds days) and drummer Andrew Paresi, the album heralded a new beginning for the man as it reached No.2 in the UK charts on the back of the catchy `Suedehead’ single; incredibly, the singer’s first 45 to give him Top 5 status. Another stand-out track was the lavish melancholy of `Everyday Is Like Sunday’, arguably his best solo track to date and a song which gave him another Top 10 hit later that summer. Though the album received a relatively warm critical reception, it was, as ever, not without controversy. `Bengali In Platforms’ was an ambiguous address to immigrants which he later unsuccessfully attempted to play down while `Margaret On The Guillotine’ was a self explanatory ode to Thatcherism (a recurrent theme from his SMITHS days), no doubt meeting with a little more empathy.
Recruiting a fresh band comprising of Neil Taylor (guitar) and former SMITHS allies Craig Gannon (second guitar), Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums), MORRISSEY returned the following year with another couple of fine singles, the playfully coy `Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ and `Interesting Drug’, both records breeching the Top 10. This line-up didn’t last long, however, as he brought in a completely new cast (guitarist Kevin Armstrong, bassist Matthew Seligman, drummer Steve Hopkins and the returning Paresi) for `Ouija Board, Ouija Board’, a song that suffered scathing reviews in the music press and which barely breeched the Top 20.
The following year, a projected album was scrapped although its title, BONA DRAG {*7}, was retained for an impressive career resume that appeared in late 1990. The collection also contained some recent Top 20 material, notably the grim `November Spawned A Monster’ (featuring Andy Rourke again) and the contentious narrative, `Piccadilly Palare’.
With another fresh backing group that included ex-MADNESS bassist Bedders and the singer’s new writing partner, Mark E. Nevin (a recent acquisition from FAIRGROUND ATTRACTION), MORRISSEY cut the KILL UNCLE (1991) {*7} opus. Released to mixed reviews, the album (and the singles `Our Frank’ and `Sing Your Life’) failed to deliver on the promise of his earlier material; with the exception of the glam-like/“Virginia Plain”-ish `Mute Witness’ and the celibacy-fuelled `(I’m) The End Of The Family Line’. Enlisting a rockabilly backing band comprised of Alain Whyte (guitar), Gary Day (bass), former POLECATS guitarist Boz Boorer and drummer Spencer Cobrin, he and his team toured the album around the world, his first live appearances since the prime of The SMITHS; further Top 30 hits came by way of `Pregnant For The Last Time’ and `My Love Life’.
The tour was largely a success and, enlivened and inspired, the enigmatic vocalist cut the YOUR ARSENAL {*8} (1992) set. Produced by MICK RONSON and co-penned with Whyte, the album took the watered-down glam-rock of his “…Uncle” platter and kick-started it with some raw rockabilly, resulting in MORRISSEY’s highest chart placing for years (No.4). Though the record failed to spawn any major Top 10 hits (`We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’ and the disturbingly anthemic `You’re The One For Me, Fatty’ reaching the Top 20), it still contained such thoughtful material as `I Know It’s Going To Happen Someday’ and Top 40 BOLAN-esque breaker `Certain People I Know’.
That same year, MORRISSEY hit the headlines with his scathing criticism of Johnny Rogan, author of The SMITHS biography, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance. It wasn’t the last time the “Oscar Wilde of Rock’n’Roll” would be in the news, MORRISSEY subsequently losing a well publicised court battle with Mike Joyce over unpaid SMITHS royalties. More controversy surrounded the singer following his disastrous appearance at the 1993 “Madstock” concert in London’s Finsbury Park. Supporting headliners MADNESS, the singer was given an extremely hostile reception after coming out draped in a Union Jack, further fuelling debate over the perceived ambiguity of his motivations. A stop-gap concert set, BEETHOVEN WAS DEAF (1993) {*5} was therefore ill-timed and met with derision from critics and fans alike.
Following all this strife, VAUXHALL AND I (1994) {*8} resurrected MORRISSEY’s near-flagging career, a sympathetic production by Steve Lillywhite (Boorer and Whyte on guitars, Jonny Bridgewood on bass and Woodie Taylor on drums) setting the scene for his most considered and consistent album to date. The record was also the man’s return to the top of the UK charts (March spawned a Top 10 Britpop monster `The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get’), a critically acclaimed opus that was marked by more emotionally-charged lyrics, laying off the trademark caustic barbs. Eleven tracks in all, bookended by gems `Now My Heart Is Full’ and `Speedway’, the record was MORRISSEY at his most horizontal and calm as he gracefully turned down the volume on `Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning’ (not exactly a re-make of “Girlfriend In A Coma”) and `Used To Be A Sweet Boy’.
The non-LP, orchestral-led SIOUXSIE collaboration `Interlude’ and its similarly-fruitful (Top 30) follow-up `Boxers’, were chosen to prop up MORRISSEY’s part-compilation, Parlophone swansong WORLD OF MORRISSEY (1995) {*6} set.
Moving to RCA Victor Records (Spencer James Cobrin also returned to replaced Woodie), the former SMITHS singer released SOUTHPAW GRAMMAR (1995) {*6}, a bizarre part-prog concept album that focused on the man’s apparent boxing fixation. Unsurprisingly, the record met with bewilderment from critics, though it consolidated his position as one of rock’s few genuine mavericks. Bookended by two lengthy 10-minute-plus cues, `The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’ and `Southpaw’, there were at least some hit single fodder courtesy of `Dagenham Dave’ and current crime-wave cut, `The Boy Racer’.
In 1997, MORRISSEY once again switched stables, this time to Island Records who got their chance to showcase the bard on some new work, MALADJUSTED {*6}. At a time when Brit-pop was going through the motions, the quiffed one suffered his least poorest selling Top 10 album ever. While one can barely vouch for brief chart entries, `Alma Matters’, `Roy’s Keen’ (about a window-cleaner) and `Satan Rejected My Soul’, this was a man going through the motions.
Without a contract for several years, MORRISSEY looked to have retired to his L.A. bachelor pad. Suited and booted, the man eventually made his grand re-entrance in 2004 with the million selling YOU ARE THE QUARRY {*8}, showcasing a ramped-up guitar assault and the unlikely sonic fingerprints of producer Jerry Finn (BLINK-182, GREEN DAY, et al). On the back of rave reviews, with the musical climate finally in his favour, and for the first time in a decade, he almost hit the top of the British charts, while no less than four singles made the Top 10: namely `Irish Blood, English Heart’ (his highest and most overt invective ever at No.3), `First Of The Gang To Die’, `Let Me Kiss You’ and `I Have Forgiven Jesus’. MORRISSEY’s outspoken views on a number of issues – not least animal rights, inverted racism and American politics – generated almost as much coverage as his musical/commercial comeback.
2005’s LIVE AT EARLS COURT {*6} mixed in a myriad of his past and present songs; The SMITHS’ `How Soon Is Now?’, `Last Night I Dreamt…’, `Shoplifters…’, `Bigmouth…’ and `There Is A Light…’ sitting comfortably for once next to his solo material, including a near Top 10 hit version of PATTI SMITH’s reggae-styled `Redondo Beach’; over the years, MORRISSEY had covered a handful of tracks including The JAM’s `That’s Entertainment’, BRADFORD’s `Skin Storm’, MARC BOLAN’s `Cosmic Dancer’ and Henry Mancini’s `Moonriver’.
A lifelong vegetarian, he duly announced a tour boycott of Canada in protest at the country’s seal culling. The tour in question was in support of RINGLEADER OF THE TORMENTORS (2006) {*7}, a Tony Visconti-produced UK chart-topper, wrapped in a mock-up of the classic Deutsche Grammophon sleeves. The Manchester wit once again went Top 3 with the single `You Have Killed Me’, and also pulled off something of a coup by securing the services of soundtrack legend ENNIO MORRICONE (organ accompaniment on the ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS-esque `Dear God, Please Help Me’). `The Youngest Was The Most Loved’, `In The Future When All’s Well’ and `I Just Want To See The Boy Happy’ continued the singer’s run of consistent and consecutive Top 20 hits, while America was, as always, taking the man equally serious.
After another fruitful year of Top 30 hits by way of `That’s How People Grow Up’, `All You Need Is Me’ (b/w BOWIE’s `Drive-In Saturday’) and `I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, parent album YEARS OF REFUSAL (2009) {*7} re-united the satirical singer with his most miserabilist grumpy times; stalwart co-scribers Boorer and Whyte joined by a separate third contender in Jesse Tobias.
Hot on the heels of Morrissey: Autobiography, another batch of the bard’s wondrous wit surfaced in 2014. WORLD PEACE IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS {*7} was eccentric MORRISSEY’s attempt at unsettling his audience through global politics – and then some. Released on a revived Harvest label (but not for long) and produced by Joe Chiccarelli, the moody Moz and band co-writers, Boorer, Tobias or Gustavo Manzur, wield words of wisdom about places and people. Air miles are earned through `Istanbul’, `The Bullfighter Dies’, `Mountjoy’ and beatnik reference `Neal Cassidy Drops Dead’, while sartorial elegance arrived by way of “I’m Not A Man’, `Earth Is The Loneliest Planet’ and the mariachi-fuelled `Kiss Me A Lot’. Some albums are bigger than others, as they say down Smiths way.
Following on from the publication of his first novel, List Of The Lost, the maverick MORRISSEY mirrored anti-media mopes for umpteenth set, LOW IN HIGH SCHOOL (2017) {*6}. On the Top 5 record’s sleeve depicted a young T-shirt-donning fan(atic) yielding an “axe the monarchy” banner (and the attendant weapon in hand) outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. This is necessary in the mind of its maker; as is his re-found flirts with xenophobia under the auspices of this divided nation’s Brexit folly. The man does wear his heart on his sleeve (photo-shoot or otherwise), and other swipes at the establishment echo through `Who Will Protect Us From The Police?’, `Israel’, `The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel’ and the lengthy anti-war `I Bury The Living’. Under a guise of swinging continental crooning and a potpourri of exotic electronica et al, a romantic or seedy angle shaped up, respectively, in the sarcastic `All The Young People Must Fall In Love’ and the nocturnal, `When You Open Your Legs’.
If one was already familiar with the works of folk stars JONI MITCHELL (`Don’t Interrupt The Snow’), DYLAN (`Only A Pawn In Their Game’), SAINTE-MARIE (`Suffer The Little Children’), OCHS (`Days Of Decision’), HARDIN (`Lenny’s Tune’), MELANIE (`Some Say I Got The Devil’) and, at a push, NYRO (`Wedding Bell Blues’), then 60-turned MORRISSEY’s reinterpretations of their aforesaid lesser-known songs on his Top 5 set, CALIFORNIA SON (2019) {*7}, was worth checking out. Opening with JOBRIATH’s `Morning Starship’ and peppered with other nostalgic nuggets, including a highly-strung take of ROY ORBISON’s `It’s Over’, “Suedehead” MORRISSEY, somehow, pulled the whole thing off. Ouch!
The maverick MORRISSEY was back on song; his own; or least on joint efforts with individual band members Jesse Tobias (guitars), Mando Lopez (bass) and Gustavo Manzur (multi) for the Joe Chiccarelli-produced I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN (2020) {*7}. And just as he’d previously wound up his doubters, `What Kind Of People Live In These Houses?’ was his way of turning up his nose to his former fanbase. Of course, his smug, snooty mockery was possibly tongue-in-cheek, balanced on a precipice by his turn-coat political views; one opinion he’d never altered was his disdain for Donald Trump. On face value and putting prejudices and rhetoric to one side, the Top 3 record itself consisted of high spots, `Jim Jim Falls’, `Love Is On The Way Out’, `Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?’ (featuring “Don’t Leave Me This Way” disco diva THELMA HOUSTON) and prog-length `The Secret Of Music’, while its low points was the latter half and his perceived arrogance.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG/MCS-GRD // rev-up MCS May2012-Mar2020

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