Morrissey: Maudlin Treats From Beyond The Hits
, March 2nd, 2010 07:11
While there's nothing wrong with a Morrissey solo hits comp, that is never going to give you the whole story. Jeremy Allen, Jude Rogers, Alex Ogg, Will Parkhouse, Ben Graham, Tom Milway, Joseph Stannard and Petra Davis explain their non-hit single choices...
There were times when we could have killed him... but Morrissey will always hold a special place in the hearts of the Quietus. Perhaps it is more true of Steven Patrick than any other solo artist: the A-sides just don't give you the full story. Our writers explain why.
'Speedway' from Vauxhall And I (1994)
The opening lines of 'Speedway' ("And when you slam down the hammer, can you see it in your heart?") cannot help but call to mind the Smiths royalties suit, which led to Morrissey being described as "devious, truculent and unreliable" by a high-court judge, narrative ambiguity and personal mythos being apparently somewhat less adorable in a courtroom setting. 'Speedway' constructs a robust defence, both musical and lyrical, against this heresy - particularly impressive when one considers that the album it comes from, 1994's Vauxhall And I, actually predates the court case by a good couple of years.
In 1994, though the singer's character was not yet officially sub judice, public appreciation of Morrissey's world-view had recently waned. Taken to task by biographer Johnny Rogan, whose book, Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance the singer considered outrageously hurtful (largely, as he later admitted, because it was carefully researched), Morrissey responded that he hoped its author "[met] his end very soon in an M3 pile-up." The glam stomp of Your Arsenal, and its gauche lyrical provocateurism, had won Morrissey a new and unfamiliar audience. A flag-waving performance of 'National Front Disco' at Madstock 1992 resulted in unexpectedly close scrutiny from the UK music press, with the NME dedicating pages of editorial to debating Morrissey's relationship with the far right.
That 'Speedway' finds Morrissey in defiant form is unsurprising. What is more interesting is the tack he takes. He steps away from his habit of denial to construct a more elaborate ruse: confession. "All of the rumours keeping me grounded - I never said, I never said that they were completely unfounded," he sings over and over, in a tone increasingly triumphant, punctuated nevertheless by accusations of cruelty against his aggressors. The growing elation of the lyric is met by glorious performances from Alain White (whose guitar part here is oddly reminiscent of Bernard Butler's work with David McAlmont on 'Yes'), and Woodie Taylor on drums, both benefiting from strong treatment by Steve Lillywhite in the producer's seat. "And all those lies, written lies, twisted lies: well, they weren't lies, they weren't lies, they weren't lies," Morrissey exults. There's a sense of redemption here that makes it tempting to read this as his long-awaited coming-out song, and it would not be unusual for Morrissey to sidestep censure by equating public denunciation with the politics of the closet ("I could have dragged you in, guilt by implication, by association," he argues here); but the tone is too gleefully reminiscent of earlier character work, in particular 'The Last Of The Famous International Playboys', to read this as a simple first-person narrative. Even under pressure, the truth of his intention is unclear. Trenchantly, syllable by shifting syllable, Morrissey refuses once again to abandon his ambiguity, his own strange way.
'Hairdresser On Fire' B-Side to 'Suedehead (1988)
Arguably the finest B-Side of Morrissey’s career and purportedly penned one grey, bleak afternoon around Moz' ex-stomping ground in Knightsbridge when he couldn't get an appointment at his ‘preferred salon’ of choice, so his venting for the rest of the week turned towards ‘Jason’ the hairdresser. It’s clear that Morrissey once felt he had genuine understanding for his lifeline as one of the only few that understood his “power”, whereas now he sits shunned like a jilted and unrequited lover, and the only thing he can possibly entertain is setting him on fire as revenge. The track's opening strings paint a picture of decadent London, of Bentleys and Rolls Royce’s, an opportunistic London… “Oh, if only one could get an appointment! Do these people not realise who I am... or more precisely how important it is I get this appointment?” The trademark ‘bells’ are as instantly recognisable as the Bunnymen-like low-slung bassline found on Viva Hate number 'Everyday Is Like Sunday' and “Hairdresser…” remains one of the best solo Morrissey numbers in history.
'The Never-Played Symphonies' B-side to 'Irish Blood, English Heart' (2004)
With a title like that, it's rather fitting that 'The Never-Played Symphonies' didn't land a place on 2004's You Are The Quarry. Although the lyrics express the dying protagonist's regret-filled reflections, Moz sounds more alive than ever, his vocals rich as a chocolate gateau made by Scott Walker, and there's such confidence to his timing, it's like he's hung a "do not cover this song" sign on the front gate. Despite the building sense of resignation – "Black sky in the daytime/ And I don't much mind dying/ When there is nothing left/ To care for/ Any more" – it's a wonderfully triumphant three minutes.
'A Song From Under The Floorboards' B-Side to 'The Youngest Was The Most Loved' (2006)
Sometimes a cover selection can say as much as any self-composition about a writer. Here Morrissey unearths what for many observers was the aesthetic high watermark of Manchester post-punk. In doing so he was acutely aware of the song’s primacy but also its legacy; the culmination of an ethos founded by Richard Boon, Howard Devoto, Linder and the City Fun troublemakers at New Hormones’ offices in Newton Street. The aspirant music journalist (back when he didn’t hold the species in contempt) would haunt the premises as, in his own words, a ‘limbless teenager’. "They watched BBC2, for instance," he professed, citing them as "much more my type".
The pillars of the Manchester post-punk scene that New Hormones helped birth had congregated in or around Magazine by late 1979. John McGeoch was the finest guitarist of the post-punk generation, Barry Adamson a sublime bass player and Martin Hannett at the height of his powers as a producer. Much of ‘Floorboard’s individual charm was founded on Dave Formula’s atmospheric, scaffolded keyboard passages dovetailing with McGeoch’s brittle, skeletal indentures. Devoto’s anxious but conversely resigned tone, especially around issues of emotional congress, is hugely anticipatory of much of Morrissey’s subsequent catalogue. For once, ‘most observers’ had it about right.
So how did Morrissey choose to approach Devoto’s Dostoevksy-inspired magnum opus? Rather faithfully, as it happens. The change of tense and one particularly arch line-change ("I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it" becomes "when I speak it") mirror the playful self-consciousness of Devoto’s original lyric. Is it as good? Well, no frankly. As a dues-paying homage however, it’s winningly heartfelt.
'The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores' from You Are The Quarry (2004)
After a seven year self-imposed exile, Morrissey had stored up plenty of bile for the You Are The Quarry album; his critics were an obvious target, the United States as a country less obvious, and the tirade (on 'America You Are Not The World') was unfocused and uncharacteristically toothless thanks to the mixed feelings he had about his home. He got it just right though with 'The World Is Full of Crashing Bores', which starts out attacking policemen, taxmen, "uniformed whores". Once he's warmed up by hitting the little man he turns his focus to celebrity, and it's here he really sinks his teeth in. "More lockjaw pop stars, thicker than pig shit, nothing to convey," he sneers. "They're so scared to show intelligence, it might smear their lovely career." Lesser mortals grumble about celebrity culture all the time, but few have the capability of Morrissey, which is kind of what he's singing about. Indeed, with a gloriously hooky, anthemic chorus, and with truth on his side, Steven could hardly fail.
'The Lazy Sunbathers' from Vauxhall And I (1994)
Timelessly topical and aimed at those who choose to live in denial and remain blissfully unaware of the realities of life, 'Lazy Sunbathers' opulent musical backing and contrasting vivid lyrical matter build towards a gentle climax of falling shells, war fight and eerie delays as if the monolithic apocalypse will flatten us all softly from the skies as the world reclines on its continental First Choice package-deal sun lounger. In fact the source for the title reportedly stems from a George Formby quote where he once accused contemporary performers of being "lazy sunbathers" for not being more active in their protest and involvements in the war efforts. A well-documented view shared by Morrissey but also yet another example of his incredulity towards those who carry out any form of ghastly ‘normal’ activities, such as “Thomas Cook-ing it”.
'Mexico' B-side to 12" of 'The First Of The Gang To Die' (2004)
On the cool, dark night of September 17, 2002, the night our long-lost, much-loved pop hero rose from the dead after five years in exile, this was the song that stood-out from the Royal Albert Hall stage. 'Mexico' reminded us of the bruised heart of Morrissey’s best album, 1994’s Vauxhall and I, and massaged its pastoral swing and strangely selfless melancholy – not qualities his music is generally known for, but qualities which suit him when he tends to them keenly – slowly back to life.
'Mexico' is proudly mournful; gloriously stately; swirling into being on waves of ghostly guitars. It tells the story of a fiercely passionate country full of outsiders – a perfect home-from-home for our disaffected boy – then unfurls into a homage to a nation that has always clasped our Northern boy to its bosom. America is the enemy nearby, simmering with “rich white men” who always “think you’re so right”, while the whiff of “chemical waste”, and the “hate of the Lone Star state” breathes over the borders. Somehow this doesn’t detract from the “tranquil, cool, lover’s air” and the grass we lay our bodies on, crying our hearts out for want of love. As a song that hurts and hungers, heavy with romance and the weight of loss, it’s somehow strangely suitable that it is hidden away on the 12" of a single that bristles and blusters.
‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name' B-side to ‘Suedehead’ (1988)
The Smiths always stuck some of their best songs on b-sides, perhaps knowing that their fans were the kind who would treasure the buried flip tracks over the “hits” anyway, and Morrissey continued this trend with his debut solo release. ‘Suedehead’ was great, but this plaintive, confessional ballad, lasting precisely two minutes, is more than its equal. Music-writing credits go to Stephen Street, but it’s guitarist Vini Reilly’s haunting, reverb-drenched playing that enchants, anticipating a partnership that may have laid Marr’s memory to rest if it hadn’t been cut suddenly short after just one album. A fluffed alternate take, titled ‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Note Wrong,’ and credited to Vincent Gerard and Stephen Patrick, was issued as a limited single with Durutti Column’s 1989 Vini Reilly album; if anything, up until Vini’s slip-up, it’s actually the superior recording, laying bare the gorgeous guitar arpeggios which mix echoes of Davy Graham with The Smiths’ own ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.’ Mystifyingly, the original was left off the following year’s Bona Drag round-up of singles and b-sides, and has been overlooked by compilers ever since.
'The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils' from Southpaw Grammar (1995)
Dismissed as a "churning, bloated extravagance" in Q Magazine's round up of 1995's Albums Of The Year, the 11-minute-plus 'The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils' is one of two lengthy songs bookending Morrissey's fifth album Southpaw Grammar, the other being the less remarkable 'Southpaw'. 'Teachers' is remarkable for reasons aside from its length, however; for starters, a looped sample from Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony dominates proceedings, a shrill omen of impending doom which perfectly complements the song's terrifying lyric regarding the chickens-coming-home-to-roost scenario of a schoolteacher who finds his position of privilege and authority under attack from all sides: "Say the wrong word to our children/We'll have you/Oh yes, we'll have you."
The feeling of nausea created between the see-sawing string sample and the paranoid isolation of the lyric is compounded by the somewhat incongruous use of Asian-sounding percussion – perhaps added in sardonic reference to the controversy surrounding 'Bengali In Platforms', 'Asian Rut' and 'National Front Disco' – while the track's pattern of elongation and repetition is grimly appropriate, forcing the listener to follow the ill-starred anti-hero all the way down the spiral, to the bitter end.
'Teachers' is an unforgiving listen, then, made even more so by Morrissey's refusal to make his position clear. He seems to be gloating as he intones “Mucus on your collar/A nail up through the staff chair/ A blade in your soap/ And you cry into your pillow,” but when he moans, “To be finished would be a relief” we can detect a hint of empathy for the tormentor-turned-victim. It's probable that our narrator finds it impossible to throw his lot in with either side, for as much as 'Teachers' relates a tragic downfall, it also highlights Morrissey's ongoing fascination with the powers of terror. "Nothing shifts or stirs people like a slight underhand threat," he told Simon Reynolds in 1988. Listening to this song, you know exactly - exactly - what he means.
'It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore' from Years Of Refusal (2009)
The title may smack of prime Steven Patrick petulance, and the Casio drum machine beat on which its verses rest could easily sound lazy, but something in the peculiar electronic crackle at the start of this song – like a Radiophonic Workshop machine blinking itself back into existence – suggests other things might happen as this track takes us by the hand, and clasps our sweaty palm.
And it does. This track shows how great Morrissey can be when he departs from the cribsheet of laddish guitars and thuggish drums that have defined so many of his 21st century songs. A song that talks about the unsentimentality of sex, it is also an exercise in sustained suspense. In the first verse, gongs fizz at the end of bars, in the second, strings flicker like fireflies, while the guitar fuzz and snares that take us into each chorus itch with anger and lust. Then come the dirty purrs of woodwind in the middle-eight, giving a regal edge to its narrator’s unwholesome desires – “to the love I am now giving to you/ Right here, right now/ On the floor” – before the song climaxes, rather fittingly. with one of Morrissey’s most powerful vocal performances for years. As it whirls away on a sea of electronic sounds, you wipe your brow and catch your breath. This, you want to tell Morrissey, my man, is how braggadocio should be done.
'Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself' from Vauxhall And I (1994)
Luxuriant Steve Lillywhite production typifying the overtly blissful Vauxhall And I sound, sees Morrissey performing this cautionary tale of a beleaguered pop star who has been “stabbed in the back so many, many times” by everyone from businessmen to journalists. Who “JUST SIT THERE” stating the bleeding obvious. Nothing new here then! However, the track was reportedly laid down to tape initially with a much heavier, distorted backing, yet Lillywhite’s influence in helping to discard this abrasive clatter in favour of subtle multi-layers atop a basic acoustic guitar and upright bass backing, whilst still utilising Moz’ understated yet silky original vocal performance, make this track a masterful and frequently under-appreciated gem.
‘National Front Disco’ from Your Arsenal(1992)
Supposedly the song that precipitated Moz’s critical fall from grace, this Mick Ronson-produced glam rush continues to fascinate precisely because of its unsettling ambiguities. Obviously anachronistic - the title ‘National Front Disco’ suggests the seventies, and as far as I know there were no equivalent BNP-sponsored rave parties to be had in 1992, when the song was released - it never suggests that attending an NF Disco might be a good thing. Instead, questions are constantly raised in the mind of the alert listener; not least, did the National Front ever really host discos? And if so what dreadful records could they have played, that would uphold their twisted notions of racial purity? ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, perhaps? Meanwhile, the tension-release crash and clang of Boorer and Whyte’s guitars is thrillingly, worryingly anthemic. Just try not to sing along in public.
'Asian Rut' from Kill Uncle (1991)
When I was a kid, Smiths fans were a movement. The Smiths were the first indie band I ever loved, or even trusted, perhaps most significantly because they had such a diverse fan base. Smiths fans were not just the uniform, speccy outsiders that now populate the pages of fashion magazines; we were, in our thousands, working class, queer, Black and Asian kids, young people whose experience of social exclusion was worth more than a gesture, and who found in this band a form of resistance to monoculture. Just how unusual this was only became clear as indie progressed, as the Britishness it loved to discuss narrowed during the 90s, first constricting and then expelling us.
To one previously immersed in the multiculture of Smiths fandom, tracks such as 'Asian Rut', Morrissey's depiction of a racist attack and its aftermath, came as a shock. Though the portrayal of the lead character - the 'tooled-up Asian boy' who seeks to avenge the murder of his friend by a crew of schoolboy fascists - is plausibly sympathetic, the song pays little attention to him, preferring to muse instead on the cruelty of his enemies and the suffering he will experience ("Oh, they may just impale you on railings"). Some read into the shuddery vocal the beginnings of Morrissey's fascination with boot-boy culture, later explored to disastrous effect in 'National Front Disco'; others pointed out the place of the boot-boy in queer iconography, the ambivalence of desire and the pain of empathy across cultures. I didn't know what it meant, and for the first time, I didn't care. The croon Morrissey used to describe this murder, the way the accordion woozed, left me cold, left me behind. "I'm just passing through here", Morrissey sang, "on my way to somewhere civilised, and maybe I'll even arrive."
'Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning' from Vauxhall and I (1994)
The World of Morrissey is a strange place to the uninitiated, and few of his songs are stranger than 'Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning', a refreshing departure for an artist who, while inconceivably influential, has often coasted on his standing, regurgitating ideas as if to affirm his status as the Pope of Mope. He eschews his standard introspective shtick to deliver a narrative, even if it's one which you can probably figure out from the title. What's so interesting is the way the track attempts to recreate the sensation of actually drowning. Not having drowned myself, I am lead to believe that it can be an ethereal, almost womb-like experience, and the bittersweet melancholy is beautifully realised thanks to the production ingenuity of Steve Lillywhite, right down to the claustrophobic, underwater effect on Morrissey's voice. It's a rare and overlooked moment in the canon of the great man, a gorgeous and understated four-minute masterpiece.
'Girl Least Likely To' B-side to 'November Spawned A Monster' (1990)
One of the most intriguing and significant ‘lost’ songs of Morrissey's solo work, the backing track came courtesy of ex-Smiths bass player Andy Rourke and bears more than a passing similarity to Morrissey and Marr favourites 60’s American R&B girl group The Cookies' and their track, 'Only To Other People'. Furthermore, Morrissey sings in a clearly autobiographical nature about himself – although via a female protagonist - about his early days as an aspiring writer grappling with doubt, yearning for vindication and showing the well-documented signs of nearly giving up before Johnny came a-knockin’. He sings of living "for the written word [where] people come second, or possibly third" and questions “somebody's got to make it!... So why, why can't it be me?" clearly so heavily reminiscent of early Smiths material that it seems such a shame that he and Rourke weren’t able to expand their collaboration past just a few songs (one of which was also the fabulous 'Yes I Am Blind').
'I’ve Changed My Plea To Guilty' B-side 'My Love Life' (1991)
Sometimes all our boy’s voice needs is room to breathe and to be. It was never the greatest technical instrument, even in its glorious youth – as all those wavering notes, and that fabulously out-of-tune coda to Shoplifters Of The World Unite, proved ‘til kingdom come. But at its best, left alone, it carries torch songs with perfect vulnerability, and a very special power.
With only a piano bearing its rhythms along, 'I’ve Changed My Plea To Guilty' is one of Morrissey’s finest examples. Its conceit, like others in so many of his songs, is brutally simple. Here is a man at the dock, “standing in the dark/With my innocent hand on my heart”, but he doesn’t want liberty. He wants confinement. The outer world is too much; he wants this inside life instead. The sentiments come cleanly and clearly, almost wet with tears, and when Morrissey hits the higher notes beautifully – “this freedom is wasted, on me” – a sadness glowers and glows, and cleaves the emotions to the bone. Better technicians couldn’t match these effects. At his very best, as he is here, his “rules spoil their game”.
‘Lost’ B-side to ‘Roy’s Keen’ (1997)
Co-written by drummer Spencer Cobrin, this string-soaked beauty is so vastly superior to its featherweight flop of an A-side it’s positively embarrassing. Fans politely turned a blind eye to ‘Roy’s Keen’, and the resulting surge of indifference carried the single to the lofty heights of number 47 in the nation’s hit parade. Only a lucky few discovered the gem beneath the turd, and so the B-side’s title seemed increasingly, unfortunately appropriate. Relish, if you get the chance, the multiple ironies of a swaying, scarf-waving anthem to universal dislocation, alienation and pointlessness, going largely unheard; anomie triumphs as the orchestra surges. It obviously occurred to someone eventually that a mistake had been made, as on the 2009 re-master of parent album Maladjusted, ‘Roy’s Keen’ mysteriously disappeared from the track listing, while ‘Lost’ was added on as a bonus extra, having already featured on Rhino’s 2001 US Best of. If only they’d realised sooner.
'Late Night, Maudlin Street' from Viva Hate (1988)
The sense of a secret world, available only to those able to decipher its clues, engenders faith in its faithful just as it engenders doubt in the skeptic. At the time of Viva Hate's release, I counted myself very much one of the faithful. Like its contemporary, Twin Peaks, Viva Hate - Morrissey's first solo album, and his most tricksy, arcane record by far - made the metaphysical world more real than the physical, and for a dreamy, queer, Catholic adolescent, this was an irresistible tactic. Now that almost two decades separate me from that embarrassing kid, it's fitting that my favourite Morrissey song remains one that ostensibly deals with nostalgia. 'Late Night, Maudlin Street', Morrissey's aching seven and a half minute paean to his adolescence in suburban Manchester - "I was born here and I was raised here, and I took some stick here" - begins with the narrator packing up his childhood house alone, haunted by memories of his childhood sweetheart. If this sounds like uncharacteristically saccharine territory, it probably is. Morrissey's habit of constructing his lyrics around a set of allusory Easter eggs is once again in play, casting contradictory and compelling shadows over character, voice and narrative. Familiarity with queer semiotics, 50s and 60s playwrights, the output of Ealing Studios, and above all Morrissey's autobiographical mythos, can complicate even the simplest-seeming of his lyrics.
In fact, 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' is named partly for Bill Naughton's book of acerbic character studies, Late Night, Watling Street, and partly for the school in Carry On Teacher - hardly the gesture of one bent on sincerity. For all its chimerical beauty (due in part to arrangement by Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column, whose glazed guitars are all over this album), for all its appeal to lost love and urban decay, 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' relates the tale of relationship breakup - referring now to the Smiths, now to the separation of Morrissey's parents, now to Naughton's characters, now to the loss of Morrissey's own, never-named sweetheart - in a narrative as fragmentary and impressionistic as Reilly's guitars, as remote and washed-out as Stephen Street's treated drums, yet located always in a place so vividly recollected, it hurts. It's testament to Morrissey's talent as a vocalist that the emotion of the song never wavers; this is one of his finest performances on any record; but it is his unique ability to construct a believably moving narrative out of disparate cultural signifiers that kept me dreaming then, keeps me dreaming now.
'Jack The Ripper (live)' from Beethoven Was Deaf (1993)**
Devilishly delicious live favourite, sounding as big as 'How Soon Is Now?' when echoing across auditoria, 'Jack The Ripper' is yet another enthusiast’s gem. Its minor verse fiddles the listener to quick climax by contrasting danger, seedy darkness and the collision with “my heart”. Yet another example of Morrissey’s continuing fascination for celebrity murderers, the air of 'Jack The Ripper' - whom is never directly referenced within the lyrical content – is thick with homoerotic risk and fantasy, yet its suavely subtle nature plays to the calculated gentleman traits ‘Jack’ was infamous for. Recorded at haste in the studio, the later live version found on Beethoven Was Deaf recorded at Paris’ Zenith captures the songs very essence so much better than the former that was released as the B-Side to 'Certain People I Know'.