Morrissey interviewed by Simon Garfield
Time Out, March 7-13, 1985.
'The tabloids hound me. What makes me more dangerous to them than anybody else is the fact that I lead something of a religious lifestyle. I despise drugs and cigarettes, I'm celibate and I live a very serene lifestyle.'
Simon Garfield meets the outspoken Morrissey, frontman of The Smiths and self-proclaimed pariah of the pop industry.
If there is any space at all for subversion in the pop charts, then that place is occupied by Manchester band The Smiths. If there has been any creative advancement at all in the music industry in the last year, then that progression has been forged by The Smiths. If there's been one debut album that can safely lay claim to being 'a complete signal post in the history of popular music', then it was 'The Smiths' by The Smiths. And if there's been only one band since the Sex Pistols to upset the cosseted old Biz and genuinely excite young record buyers again, then it's The...
All Morrissey's views these, and what you'd have expected from The Smith's lead singer and lyricist. What you wouldn't have expected not two years ago anyway is that 1985 would find so many people agreeing with him. Worse than that, they're actually worshipping him. Not hard to imagine happening to a Boy George or Simon Le Bon, but this man? A man who unashamedly calls himself a genius, who writes ceaselessly about that darkest well of despair and loneliness, who expresses a hatred for the royal family and the Band Aid project, who sings of the Moors Murders and animal slaughter; a man who admits to being a helpless James Dean and Oscar Wilde nut? Yes, we do, it seems want this stuff.
We want it enough to buy more than 100,000 copies of The Smiths' second official album 'Meat Is Murder' and put it in at Number One in its first week of release. Enough to vote The Smiths best rock 'n' roll band in the world in the music press polls. Enough to set the champagne corks flying at their fiercely independent and often fiercely disorganised Rough Trade label, a company that's finally achieved the sort of success that many swore was impossible. Enough indeed to put Morrissey in audacious and searing form on a high landing in the feverishly refurbished Britannia Hotel in his cold home town.
His media forays thus far have coupled a charming, winning eloquence with a seemingly endless list of controversial sentiments, and have consequently ensured that his interviews have sold probably more records than his lyrics. 'I'm not so shallow that I'd be happy hiding behind slogans,' he says, half uneasy at the way he's become not only the group's spokesman, but also that of yet another lost generation of British youth. It used to be Joe Strummer, Bob Geldof or Paul Weller. Morrissey isn't happy being compared to any of them...
'By rights The Smiths shouldn't be here,' he suggests. 'People want to throw a blanket over even the slightest mention of The Smiths, and the industry spends all its time denying that we're a phenomenon. I think it's because we have this grain of intellect, and when you as a band are trying to lay down the rules you're actually spoiling things for so many middle-aged mediocrities who control the whole sphere of popular music. Let me tell you, the music industry absolutely detest The Smiths.'
Industry darling or not, Morrissey has just reached that thin rung on the success ladder that he'd always dreamed he'd attain, but always hoped he'd never have to deal with. For a lot of people success comes easy: you hire a 24-hour gorilla, you buy that ranch, you stick a rolled fiver to your nose, and you put out one album a year in a vile cover. But Morrissey and his fans know that The Smiths could never move comfortably within the realms of affluence, and he hopes he's recently taken one step further away from it by moving from Kensington to a new house in Cheshire to maintain closer touch with the forces that shaped him.
For the man exudes one thing above all else integrity. 'I will die for what I say,' he boasts, and it's totally convincing.
The Smiths have enjoyed a rise both phenomenal and strange. Formed by the (then) teenaged guitarist and co-songwriter Johnny Marr, the band first lined up as a guitar-based four-piece in September '82 and stirred interest almost immediately.
They stood out about ten miles. For one thing it was the time of the Human League and the synthesizer, and guitar bands were out (in the same way that four-groups were out when The Beatles auditioned at Decca). Further, it was a time of softnesss, of saving face, of dumb-dumb baby-baby lyrics that stood almost a generation apart from the brutal and realistic sentiments expressed by Morrissey. The Smiths had love songs too, but they were anguished and clever and believable. In fact they were often anguished to the point of absurdity, and frequently appeared ludicrously contrived.
John Peel and his producer John Walters enthused, several majors expressed interest, but the band characteristically signed to Rough Trade for a relatively small advance, and their first single appeared just under two years ago. 'Hand In Glove' was a great song, but it did bugger all. In not working it as hard as they might have done, Rough Trade had seemingly let The Smiths down. Morrissey was aware that both Aztec Camera and Scritti Politti had deserted Rough Trade for majors, and he began to understand why. 'But they had to do something with us we were really their last vestige of hope. I'm convinced that if The Smiths hadn't occurred, then Rough Trade would have just disappeared.'
The realisation seemingly hit both parties at once. Rough Trade pushed harder, Morrissey talked his effeminate white beads off, and their fortunes took off together. The subsequent singles charted high, and the often extremely petty, but always intriguing, controversies surrounding the band doubled, trebled, quadrupled in number and stature.
Did Morrissey really have a flower fetish? Just why did he throw £50 of gladioli into the audience every night? Why did he insist on prancing around on 'Top Of The Pops' with a hearing aid and a bush down the back of his jeans? Was he really celibate? And was he really gay, as Rolling Stone hinted? Did he really wear women's shirts from the Evans outsize shop? Was their first single truly to be recorded by Sandie Shaw? Where did the names Morrissey and Johnny Marr come from anyway? Was it just coincidence that they were respectively a murder victim and the hero of Cornell Woolrich's novel 'Rendezvous In Black'? Was Morrissey honestly the desperately lonely teenager who never left his damp Whalley Range room, a room covered from floor to ceiling in James Dean pictures? Did long-time Morrissey hero Terence Stamp really object to being used on one of the band's single sleeves? And did WH Smith really ban the band's eponymous debut album because it contained a song called 'Suffer Little Children', about the Moors Murders, even though Morrissey claimed he got on swimmingly with the parents of the victims?
Some of it was garbage, but yes, most of it was true. The first album went gold (over 100,000 copies sold) and the mini-scandals sure must have played some part in its success. 'No more scandals!' said Morrissey when the worst of them were over. But the tabloids didn't believe him.
'They hound me,' he says, 'and it gets very sticky. What makes me more dangerous to them than anybody else is the fact that I lead somewhat of a religious lifestyle. I'm not a rock 'n' roll character. I despise drugs, I despise cigarettes, I'm celibate and I live a very serene lifestyle. But I'm also making very strong statements lyrically, and this is very worrying to authoritarian figures. They can't say that I'm in a druggy haze or soaking in alcohol and that I'll get out of it. They probably think I'm some sort of sex-craved monster. But that's okay they can think what they like. I'm only interested in evidence, and they can't produce any evidence to spoil my character.'
Dangerous? This 25-year-old man in black blazer, lime-green cotton shirt, heavily creased beige pegs, brown shoes and a James Dean quiff a sex-craved monster and corruptor of youth?
In truth, there is something very unsettling about being in his presence he's almost too soft, too gentle, too nervous, and he's not a million miles from that pathetic archetypal Monty Python accountant. He bows when he shakes your hand, and that's something you don't expect from a rocker with a Number One album.
'The main reason I'm dangerous is because I'm not afraid to say how I feel. I'm not afraid to say that I think Band Aid was diabolical. Or to say that I think Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. Many people find that very unsettling, but I'll say it as loud as anyone wants me to.
'In the first instance the record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it's another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. And it wasn't done shyly it was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.'
But it's another of Morrissey's handlebar flyers the hyperbole and cries of 'conspiracy!' are hard to resist if he knows that they'll at least double the impact of what he is actually bold enough to say. Which is either a whole pile, or not much at all, depending on the richness of your idealism and the length of your memory. Pick the albums and singles to pieces and you find songs that are stirring, occasionally funny, often moving, but, like the man who sings them, far from dangerous or alarming. Indeed they are more an incitement for lethargy than rebellion.
Sentiments are often obscure, abstract and even cowardly in what they don't say. Is a Morrissey line that runs 'Let me get my hands on your mammary glands' really any more risqué than a Tony Blackburn radio jingle that has him 'whipping out his 12-incher'? Well no, it's a mixture of the innocent, the embarrassing and the comic. It's a nice rhyme too.
Or often it's just a case of the old Dylans keep 'hot' songs vague and you're bound to get more people believing that you're gunning for them. But Morrissey's most threatening weapon is sub-textual his dour, parochial obsession with Manchester. His languorous depictions of Rusholme, Whalley Range and the Manchester that in his rhyme always seems to have 'so-much-to-answer-fer', are frank impressions of Northern industrial squalor and decay that show slightly more of the world than the perfumed works of the Wham!s, Durans, Madonnas and Princes.
And as for Johnny Marr's music, well that's nothing earth-shatteringly original either ... and perhaps that's part of its appeal. For someone in his very early twenties, Marr certainly displays an enormous and well-executed guitar range; ethereal, semi-classical acoustics, fine-picked chiming and spiky electrics, and taut, chopping block-chords often working quite apart from the vocals. But at its best it's good old countrified garage stuff delivered with a wink to the same old guitar greats. The new album track 'Rusholme Ruffians', say, sounds a great whack like the 1961 Elvis Presley recording of the Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman composition '(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame'. But it sounds pretty terrific all the same.
Strange, then, that both Morrissey and Marr often seem like desperate men hugging an invaluable patent, hanging on to that magic ingredient that very occasionally makes rock music so special. 'It's just that you have to hold on to what you want to stay very tight,' Morrissey explains, 'because there are so many people in this industry trying to trip you up and push you over and catch you out and unveil you.
'The industry is just rife with jealousy and hatred. Everybody in it is a failed bassist. Everybody wants to be on stage it doesn't matter what they do, they all want to be you. But the mere fact that you have that and nobody can take it away from you, is your ultimate weapon. It's just really awash with jealousy and sourness and bitterness.'
Revenge for not being asked to participate, maybe? Getting his own back, in true flamboyant and petty rockstar style, for what others have previously said about him? Morrissey says that several of the people involved have publicly admitted absolute hatred towards him. Including Geldof, of course. 'He said it on the radio the other day, and it was totally unprovoked. It was as if he was really quite anxious and desperate to put me down. The fact that Bob Geldof this apostle, this religious figure who's saving all these people all over the globe the fact that he can make those statements about me yet he seems quite protected, seems totally unfair. But I'm not bothered about those things...'
Just as the new album shows Morrissey not to be at all bothered by child beating, animal slaughter or the royal family. But the man is away now, in unstoppable flow. Pick a topic and watch Morrissey curl a dry tongue around it...
I ask Morrissey about one of the verses on the album that apparently runs: 'I'd like to drop my trousers to the Queen ... /The poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.'
'Actually I despise royalty. I always have done. It's fairy story nonsense' and all this in the decadence of the Britannia Hotel 'the very idea of their existence in these days when people are dying daily because they don't have enough money to operate one's radiator in the house, to me is immoral. As far as I can see, money spent on royalty is money burnt. I've never met anyone who supports royalty, and believe me I've searched. Okay, so there's some deaf and elderly pensioner in Hartlepool who has pictures of Prince Edward pinned on the toilet seat, but I know streams of people who can't wait to get rid of them.
'It's a false devotion anyway. I think it's fascist and very, very cruel. To me there's something dramatically ugly about a person who can wear a dress for £6,000 when at the same time there are people who can't afford to eat. When she puts on that dress for £6,000 the statement she is making to the nation is: "I am the fantastically gifted royalty, and you are the snivelling peasants." The very idea that people would be interested in the facts about this dress is massively insulting to the human race.'
In short, Morrissey belongs to that old protest school with guts the one where the singer names names. There are a few like him Billy Bragg and The Redskins come to mind but the Band Aid project, he feels, was certainly not one of them. 'The whole implication was to save these people in Ethiopia, but who were they asking to save them? Some 13-year-old girl in Wigan! People like Thatcher and the royals could solve the Ethiopian problem within ten seconds. But Band Aid shied away from saying that for heaven's sake, it was almost directly aimed at unemployed people.'
And, as a result of naming names, Morrissey feels he's unearthed a deep prejudice against The Smiths, an industry plot against independence. He claims his records have been ignored 'by every single media channel in existence'. Actually, he's quite wrong; every single media channel in existence has grabbed eagerly at the band's music, if only as a way of getting to their audacious leader. In fact he's currently turning down interview requests by the bucketload.
Morrissey, by contrast, is currently awash with magnanimity, sweetness and forgiveness. An hour gone, and he's still in full glorious swing. He's hoping the near future will hold a book of his own journalism he's already interviewed Pat Phoenix and has designs on pools scooper Viv 'Spend Spend Spend' Nicholson (the cover star of an early Smiths single). 'I've got lots of questions,' he says, 'and lots of people I want to probe, especially in the dark.'
Morrissey knows The Smiths will be here for a long time yet. 'We're not just fashionable in fact I don't know what fashion is. It's quite simple: before we came there was no outlet for emotion people couldn't tear their coat and jump on somebody's head.'
And if The Smiths do bust up tomorrow, modest old Morrissey already reckons he's done enough for the history books. 'I don't mind how I'm remembered so long as they're precious recollections. I don't want to be remembered for being a silly, prancing, nonsensical village idiot. But I really do want to be remembered. I want some grain of immortality. I think it's been deserved. It's been earned.'
Really? In two years?
'Oh yes! Oh yes! In two days! In two days!'
Is Murder' is released by Rough Trade.
Reprinted without permission from the March 7-13th, 1985 issue of Time Out for non-profit use only.