‘A dreaded sunny day, so I meet you at the cemetery gates…’ Morrissey.

Mozza wrote a tome: I know, I know, its bilious

Autobiography, by Morrissey, Penguin 2013

‘I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before,’ writes Tracey Thorn in Bedsit Disco Queenreviewed last month. 

‘It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well  no I did actually but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another) I wanted to be him…’

Morrissey & Marr, recording [screenshot caught from South Bank Show doco, 1987]

Morrissey does seem to have that kind of  mesmerising effect on some people.

He currently has his first novel out, and as usual is causing a stir. There is a couple of sex scenes in it, which of course has attracted a great deal of attention, partly because they so awfully written.

Caligula would have blushed, apparently.

And as usual there is a heated discussion as to whether Morrissey is taking the piss. Personally: I think he must be.

‘Twas ever thus.

In 1984 it seemed as though, to borrow a phrase from 20 years earlier,  groups of guitars were on the way out.  Most of what was on the airwaves was synth-based or boppy keyboard stuff – Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham, Madonna. Or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

Hated them. I hated them all.

The bands which had mattered most to me, at that point,  – the very English The Jam and the very, very Aussie Cold Chisel  – had split up the previous year.

True, there were some locally based renegades, producing some deliciously throwback-like stuff from Dunedin, but the likes of the Verlaines or the Chills had to be hunted out in the singles and EP bins of the rekkid stores.

You certainly didn’t hear ’em on the radio, and in those days – for any youngsters who have stumbled across this – you had to get your music from the radio, pretty much.

Oh, there was Radio With Pictures on the telly on Sunday nights. You got a sense of something different from that. And of course if you were fortunate enough to be living in a university town, there was student radio.

I wasn’t fortunate enough. Not at that point, anyway.

There was this band from the US with Byrd-like guitars, a silly name, and incomprehensible lyrics who had a recent, interesting song called Radio Free Europe. 

Then one afternoon at a mate’s place in Whakatane this filigree riff tumbles out of the speakers, followed by an unmistakably Motown-ish beat, and this warbly, not-quite-in-tune vocal sort-of-sings across the song, 

‘Puunct-ured bicylce
On a hillside, desolate….
Will nature make a man of me yet?’

The lyrics were…well, uncommonly lyrical for the time.

The singer was so camp he made Boy George look like Jimmy Barnes, but in the context of the time, that wasn’t unusual.

The blokier musical fan often had a problem with this about the Smiths. I know people – well, blokes – who will happily punch up the volume button for the B-52s or Queen but who find the Smiths a bit too gay.

I suspect its not so much the gay aspect, actually: its the emotional rawness of some of Morrissey’s lyrics, especially when combined with Johnny Marr’s guitar.

But then, one should not play down the obvious cause. It was, after all,  hardly calculated to comfort your average, 20 year old, vaguely blokey music fan who had been hankering for a decent guitar-based band and who thought he’d found it, only to find it was accompanied by a singer prancing about the place with gladioli sticking out the top of his trou and singing about the sun shining out of his behind.

It was a bit like the Mountie chorus in Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, when they suddenly realise what they’re singing.

But, beyond that rather obvious issue, there were others. Morrissey’s lyrics are bleakly, bluntly honest about the desolation of rejection and depression, often to the point of self-parody.

Often well beyond that point, in fact.

A personal fave is Cemetry Gates , (yeah, that’s how Morrissey spelt it) with its clean, shuffling rhythm (borrowed from this 1970s pop hit?) and Mozza deliberately over-doing the negative ions, or negative irony:

A dreaded sunny day, and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates/ Keats and Yeats are on your side…’

A song full of poetic allusions, it wears its lyrical cleverness on its floppy, foppish sleeve.

But it isn’t just about the words.

The reason the Smiths worked so well was Marr’s guitar work sounded like what Morrissey’s words were trying to convey.

That grim rumbling low guitar chord which announces ‘How Soon Is Now? is like a twist in the stomach:  Marr’s zooming, lurching runs down the fretboard sound like it feels to be on your own in the big city and unable to connect with anyone. It’s a recording full of deep-in-the-gut lurches of dread and despair.

Or ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ –   the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar towards the end, as Morrissey croons ‘I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine….’ over Marr’s waves of rising, receding, sad guitars.

The  desolate,  shimmering (and it is very difficult to write about the Smiths without using either of those words) opening to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ sounds like a wide,  empty rain-coated ashfelt road on a Sunday morning would sound if it could play the guitar.

It is the sound of wandering home the morning after a lousy, unenjoyable party.

This is all conveyed even before Morrissey opens his mush to warble that great opening line

‘I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…’.


The words fit together like well-sculpted brickwork. As Aussie singer Paul Kelly notes in his book (reviewed here, btw…) , almost every opening line of a Smiths song is a killer.

Marr’s guitars always grab the attention, signalling something deeper than the normal pop song. Combined with Morrissey’s literate, allusive, and often just plain sad lyrics, they pack a powerful emotional punch.

It can be uncomfortable to listen to.

There is a better musical analysis than I can manage here: parts of this documentary are a bit over-wrought and far too sociological for my tastes, but there’s a great piece with composer Charles Hazelwood at around 19 minutes where he talks about the way Marr used chords and and the effect they have.

Morrissey’s Autobiography caused a stir even before it was published: his demand that it be issued as a ‘Penguin Classic’ topped a career of fairly notorious primma donna-ish behaviour.

He got his way. It isn’t a classic: it is a fascinating book in bits and a real bore in other bits.

….So, okay, its a bit like a lot of ‘classics’, I suppose.

At its best, it is a work of a musical fan, and a very thoughtful one. There is a lot here if you like the New York Dolls (I don’t), there are other more obvious influences.

Here is Morrissey on Patti Smith and her ‘Horses’ album:

singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener’s sympathy. But the reverse happened .. however heavy hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song. …the fact you do not look like a pop star in-waiting should not dishearten you because your oddness could become the decisive wind of change for theirs. 

There is nothing obvious about Patti Smith….the female voice in rock music had rattled with fathomless depths of insincerity,whereas Patti Smith spoke with a boy’s bluntness, and she looked for squabbles wherever she went.”

Projection? Whatever. Morrissey writes of Patti Smith as though she’d written his own, personal, artistic manifesto.

For all that, he recalls that when he and Marr decide to form a band, “I suggest to Johnny that we call ourselves The Smiths, and he agrees. Neither of us can come up with anything else.”

Going back further, there is a touch of Misery Memoir about his schooldays….later mined in the opening track of the Smiths second album.

“Belligerent ghouls run/Manchester schools” he was to warble, weaving over the top of one of the most magnificent, meandering rhythm and guitar tracks Marr, Joyce and Rourke were ever to lay down). 

When of the more granite faced, wounded and wounding of his teachers spies a particular piece of music on Morrissey’s desk, the wintry face splits into a hitherto unseen smile and the teacher fetches a record player so they all can listen to it.

“Music, you see, is the key.” Morrissey muses.

It is a rare snatch of warmth. Much of the Autobiography is a settling of scores: with record company staff some of the big targets   “Rough Trade personnel in the early 1980s need never have feared sexual assault” Morrissey says, and he has fun with kind of self defeating mindset, overlaid with political justifications, which hung in the air.

Everything was question of personal identity and Rough Trade set out to assert autonomy whilst at the same time challenging the established order.

They did this largely by pressing records that no one wanted to buy….

Although the existing Rough Trade catalogue was known to be anti everything it was also anti listenability. It would take the Smiths to bring a level of success …and suddenly he smell of money replaced the smell of overcooked rice in the Rough Trade cloisters.”

That shows – contra the evidence of his recent novel – how well Morrissey can write. Not only is it funny, the use of ‘cloisters’ at the end of that sentence is deftly deployed.

And of course the former bandmates, with whom he had a lengthy court case in the mid ’90s, cop it in the neck, not only in the odd bitchy aside, but in several lengthy chapters.  I ended up feeling sorry for them – especially as I feel the rhythm section’s contribution to the band has been underrated (again, check out the drum and bass work on ‘Cemetry Gates’).

Better, much better, is the first half of the book, where even where Morrissey is being waspish he is also being very funny, often at his own expense. In his late teens he had some keen ideas about how Coronation Street should be revamped to meet the post-punk generation, and sent in a script which ended with Ena Sharples snorting ‘Do I really look like a fan of X Ray Spex?’

The link up with Marr is described in still-baffled but appreciative terms: the two might be, in the title of a biography of the two by writer Johnny Rogan, ‘a severed alliance’ but Morrissey is uncharacteristically generous about his former partner.

He reflects on  Marr’s obvious, huge talent and asks why Marr has teamed up with him  and not ‘with others less scarred….It seemed to me that Johnny had enough spark and determination to push his way in amongst Manchester headhunters  – yet here he was, with someone  whose natural  bearing discouraged openness.’

That shows an honesty, a self awareness and a generosity of  spirit not always on display.

I kept thinking of an exchange quoted, not here, but in Tony Fletcher’s great history of the Smiths, ‘A Light That Never Goes Out’ where Morrissey, in a note to some rekkid company executive, tells him to ‘Accept me as I am – completely unacceptable!’

Well, maybe.

But the music: certainly.

‘Mundane and heroic’– Tracey Thorn

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2013

I’ll probably always associate Tracey Thorn’s voice with slightly hungover Sunday mornings. Back in the mid-80s Auckland BFM used to frequently play Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Everyone One’  at that time of the week: I loved it so much I went and bought the album.

‘Eden’ – which could out last year in a remastered digital version – became regular Sunday  morning music, with or without hangover.

While one of these books is a memoir and the other is a book about singing – mostly other people’s singing – they are both really books of a Music Fan (and I capitalise that title deliberately). A Music Fan who just happened to be a singer herself, equipped the with the experience, as well as the wry observational skill and writing ability, to get what she wants to say across.

Or not, sometimes.

Here is Thorn, about a programme in which Elvis Costello enthused about her favourite singer, Dusty Springfield

‘…and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky breathy, vulnerable, bruised resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.

At which point Thorn breaks off, exasperated.
‘Ugh. All the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?’ 
And she goes on to quote Barthes – a theorist chappie who hurt my brain so much at uni I stopped reading such stuff – on the adjective being  ‘the poorest linguistic category’.
All of which might make Naked at the Albert Hall sound inaccessibly pretentious and high brow.
It ain’t. Thorn switches between the deep thinky stuff and the engagingly human, readily and easily.
There is a lovely vignette of being recognised in a night club toilet as she washed her hands: instead of being asked for an autograph or a photo she was asked by some girls to sing a few bars of ‘Missing’ to prove she was that Tracey Thorn.

She did so – ‘because I’d presumably had a few drinks or I would have run a mile in the opposite direction’ and the girls grabbed each other and squealed “YOU SOUND JUST LIKE YOU!”

Which, naturally, becomes a chapter heading. It is perfect for this book.

She starts with the basics of singing, pointing out the primary purpose of the vocal tract is not even to make a noise: it is there to stop us from choking.

Singing, therefore,

‘…is like using a cheese grater or a vacuum clearer to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?’

Her own career emerged in the aftermath of punk and although the band she formed with partner Ben Watt sounded very unlike punk they considered themselves heirs of the tradition and for that reason refused to go on Top of the Pops to promote their records.

Thorn, in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, remembers all this, and that many, in Britain’s fractious national cultural obsession with in-groups and out-groups,  couldn’t handle thus rather difficult-to-categorise band. After ‘Eden’ – came out nearly a year after they had recorded it, and after their music had changed,

‘Those who didn’t like what we were doing had marshalled themselves by now and launched an attack and it was mostly based on the recurring accusation  that we were soppy wimps, wallowing in easy-listening blandness,. Making soft tinged soft rock background music for bed wetters. I think that sums it up – have I forgotten anything?

‘Our career might have been heading at full speed towards the mainstream pop world, but I had in no way made my peace with what that meant, so while we were making quite commercial sounding music, we were at the same time trying to uphold the stand taken by the Clash.’

Later, at the time of Britpop wars between Oasis and Bur she preferred Oasis because of Liam Gallagher’s singing:

 ‘a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory…At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled onto the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me proud to be British.

‘But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them…’

The trouble was, Thorn can sing, and sing very well.   Damn.

While ‘unconventional’ singers – Bob Dylan being the proto-example – had always abounded in rock music, punk made a point of, to use a phrase Thorn makes her chapter title on the subject, ‘No Singing’. 

This, though, was itself a contrivance.

‘Listening to Johnny Rotten, you couldn’t possibly believe in his delivery as a “natural” way of singing. It’s completely improbable to picture an early rehearsal, at which the band started up the opening riff, of, say, Pretty Vacant and Johnny just opened up his mouth and that was the sound that came out. No, you could be sure that a lot of thought had gone into that sound; that it was a style of singing that embodied a whole attitude towards singing and music.’

Thorn herself tried emulating  Siouxsie Sioux but ‘realising I could actually sing, it seemed liked an act of the greatest inauthenticity to cover it up’

The idea that a ‘difficult’ voice is more authentic and it is there for a reason, she suggests: it makes people listen more closely, make more effort.

‘And so the non-singing style of punk and its aftermath meant that you could impress upon an audience, and perhaps more to the point, upon music critics, the thing that you were serious, worthy of close scrutiny; that your work was demanding, and by implication, clever.’

It was also  – as Thorn implies rather than makes explicit – something of a charter for posers and frauds.

But more personally, ‘it seemed to be taken for granted by many journalists that there was something suspect about what might be termed “proper” singing.’

The singer, she says, is almost always the way in to the band…something I’m not sure I agree with. Personally I often find the guitars or drums are the way I get into a band, and can almost be indifferent to the singer. The Who is probably the best example I can think of.  

It’s possible, in fact, to find the singer a bit off putting – again the Smiths, a band I’ll return to in a few weeks – being a personal example.

Bedsit Disco Queen – the earlier book, and the more direct memoir – is unlike almost any muso memoir I’ve read. It lacks the usual narrative arc (boy meets guitar; boy gets famous; boy meets drugs; boy has identity/life crisis;  boy cleans up/becomes older/wiser/more pompous and boring).

Thorn lacks the grandiosity for that: there are laughs a-plenty but they are about human foibles (her own and others) rather than of the tv in the hotel swimming pool/amazingly dumb things done while smashed out of brain/oh how we laughed variety.

There are some lovely observations of the ‘strangely infantilising’ and ‘subtly disempowering’ experience of being a musician on tour – ‘yes it is infantilising, but also addictive…on the surface luxurious and lazy, but in the middle of it all you can feel powerless, useless and without choice.’

One example of a growing suspicion the ‘grown ups’ weren’t necessarily all that clued up: the video for the ‘When All’s Well’ in 1985, the clip was made to mate the lyrics ‘when all’s well, my life is like cathedral bells’ with a shot of Thorn standing inside an enormous cross section of on overturned bell, while partner Ben would be stuck down a well..
‘Yes, I know. But the idea went down a storm in the recording company offices……If in the finished version we look a little uncertain as to  what on earth we are doing, I ask you to search your conscience and tell me if you could have done any better.’
The dreary right on 1980s politics gets a chapter to itself, including the much-mocked ‘Red Wedge’ campaign by the British arts community which did so much to prevent Margaret Thatcher being an effective prime minister.
There was an abortive “Song for Labour” project – a sort of “socialist Eurovision Song Contest” she says – and tells of left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer, brought in to adjudicate on the offerings, dismissing what Thorn calls an ‘apocalyptic’ reggae number with the comment that ‘we don’t want that kind of country and western thing.’
The meeting descends into further farce…but, look, I won’t spoil the book. Read the rest. It’s worth it.
Both books are. Thorn is a great, thoughtful, humorous and occasionally spiky read.