"I would go out tonight but I haven't got a stitch to wear..."
Interview by Len Brown
NME, February 13, 1988
Another dark chunk of past to haunt him, or a whip to drive him giddily on? Either way, the ungainly crash-landing of The Smiths was a watershed for Steven Patrick MORRISSEY. It isolated and exposed him as never before and threw up questions that even his mercurial tongue couldn't immediately answer. But now, with the unleashing of 'Suedehead' and his first public proclamation for months, the longest silence of the Mozzer life is broken. Will the world still listen? LEN BROWN volunteers for the job. Morrissey exposure by EAMMON J. McCABE.
"We have a warrant here, Mr. Wilde, for your arrest
on a charge of committing indecent acts."
Morrissey and I are sitting in Chelsea's Cadogan Hotel; in the very
room where Oscar Wilde was arrested on April 5, 1895.
"There is nothing even approaching 'acrimony' between myself and the other members of the band. I've known them all a long time and I love 'em." (Johnny Marr, NME, 8/8/87).
Morrissey hasn't seen or heard from Johnny Marr since May 19 last year. He hasn't heard from Mike Joyce or Andy Rourke since July. No, not even Christmas cards. The Smiths had been together for six years until last summer's collapse; six years in which they proved themselves to be the most innovative band Britain's produced since The Beatles.
And "like The Beatles", to quote Nick Kent on last October's disappointing South Bank Show profile, "they epitomised their time and place". Until May '87, that is.
"The Smiths were almost like a painting," says Morrissey, with genuine sadness, "every month you'd add a little bit here and a little bit there... but it wasn't quite complete and it was whipped away. And I find it quite hard to adapt to that. Those people who patted me on the back and said, 'Oh! Smiths split! Very clever, very wise, very cunning'... I hadn't a clue what they were talking about.
"Even people who enjoyed the music thought the split was very timely; it's a very popular attitude that the split occurred at the right time. I get quite violent when people say that to me."
Morrissey didn't know about The Smiths' official demise "until I read in the NME". Although the report of August 1 claimed that one of the reasons for "the personality clash between Morrissey and Johnny Marr" was the latter's trip to the States to record with Talking Heads, Morrissey claims he had no knowledge of Marr's travels until he saw that NME news story.
Likewise, Morrissey's hopes of continuing to use the name 'The Smiths' were shattered when he read Marr's comment, in August 8th's NME, that use of the band's name was "tied up in a whole load of legal things". Marr stopped Morrissey re-launching The Smiths "but", says Morrissey, "I like to think he was ill-advised."
Although Morrissey admirably refuses to point the finger, the advice almost certainly came from former Smiths manager Ken Friedman. Friedman remains Marr's personal manager and, because of Friedman's dislike for Morrissey, Marr ended up choosing Friedman's friendship over Morrissey's.
"Within The Smiths, the reason it worked so well was that everybody knew their place and their capabilities and each other's position," continues Morrissey. "It was such a tight unit, and nobody it seemed could penetrate The Smiths' little secret private world. On the occasion that somebody did break through the mould everything fell in 25 different directions."
Other problems within the band - Rourke's heroine battle and ill-founded rumours of Marr's rockist tastes: "Johnny and I once drove 250 miles to get a copy of 'Good Grief Christina'!" - were of less significance in the band's demise. But let's try and look at it from Johnny Marr's point of view.
Did Morrissey oppose the use of Marr instrumentals on the B-sides of Smiths' singles?
"No! Initially the very notion of instrumentals was motivated by me. I suggested that 'Oscillate Wildly' should be an instrumental; up until that point Johnny had very little interest in non-vocal tracks. There was never any political heave-hoing about should we-shouldn't we have an instrumental and it was never a battle of powers between Johnny and myself.
"The very assumption that a Smiths instrumental track left Morrissey upstairs in his bedroom stamping his feet and kicking the furniture was untrue! I totally approved but, obviously, I didn't physically contribute."
But you did refuse to write lyrics for 'Money Changes Everything' (which, since the split, has appeared as a Bryan Ferry/Johnny Marr song titled 'The Right Stuff' on Ferry's 'Bette Noir' LP)?
"Yes, but I was also asked to write words for 'Oscillate Wildly' and 'The Draize Train', which I thought was the weakest thing Johnny had ever done. Geoff Travis came to see me one day with the tape of it and said, 'It's the best thing Johnny's written and it's a Number One single if you put words to it'. But I said, 'No, Geoff, it's not right'. So, yes, there was pressure to write lyrics, but I thought they were better as they were."
Was Johnny jealous of your growing friendship with Stephen Street?
"I didn't have a better relationship with Stephen Street. Stephen, as you know, had been working with The Smiths since 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', quite a long time ago. So Stephen's relationship with The Smiths as a group was totally harmonious and very natural.
"There was no undercurrent of awkwardness at all. As far as writing with Stephen is concerned, he sent me a tape in late August when really the news was quite national. It was the last thing on Earth I expected. He simply sent a tape of his songs and said, 'Would you like to go in and record these?' He was very shy about it."
As the early '70s revival engulfs us up to our snakebelts it seems entirely appropriate that The Mozzer should bounce back with the truly groovy 'Suedehead'. Co-written with Johnny Marr's musical successor Stephen Street and performed by Street (the bass), Vini Reilly (the guitars) and Andrew Paresi (the drums), Morrissey's solo debut single is backed on the other equally fab Mozz side, by 'I Know Very Well How I Got My Name' and 'Hairdresser On Fire'.
Complete with radio-friendly keyboards and string section, this trio of tracks prove that there is life after The Smiths and that Steven Patrick Mother's-Boy didn't really enjoy the sin-free housebound bespectacled club-footed misery-packed adolescence he'd like us to believe. Oh no!
For starters, surely 'Suedehead' has something to do with Richard Allen's pre-punk seminal trash novel of the same name? Yet there's no mention of suedehead(s) in the lyrics?
"No, I'd noticed that. Does the song have anything to do with the title? Well, I did happen to read the book when it came out and I was quite interested in the whole Richard Allen cult. But really I just like the word 'suedehead'."
So it's not even based on an episode from Suedehead?
"No, not really."
And it's not about anyone in particular?
"Yes, it is, but I'd rather not give any addresses and phone numbers at this stage."
Did you read all the Richard Allen books? Skinhead, Suedehead, Smoothies...?
"Yes, they were quite risque little books at the time, certainly for 13-year-olds, who were the only people who read them. They were definitely to be hidden under the pillow."
Did your mother know?
"No, but she wasn't a suedehead. She was heavily into reggae. I don't think she even read Suedehead!"
Weren't the books full of fighting and fornicating?
"Yes, but I skipped those bits. I do remember the fuss they caused but I think they were only really little bits of enlightenment for a certain sector of people."
Were you attracted to Suedehead and Skinhead because the heroes led very different lifestyles to your own?
"They didn't really because youth cults in Manchester were very strong and suedeheads and skinheads and smoothies were very much part of daily life. I went to youth clubs that were quite violent and youth discos in the afternoons. I have certain fond memories... the grime, certain records like 'Double Barrel' and 'Young Gifted And Black'.
"There was a tremendous air of intensity and potential unpleasantness - something interesting grabbed me about the whole thing. Perhaps only in retrospect, not at the time because on your way home you'd always get duffed up."
Were suedeheads the good guys?
"Not really. I don't think there were any good guys. Everybody had several chips on several shoulders. There was a great velocity of hate!"
And what exactly was a suedehead?
"I think it was an outgrown skinhead. But outgrown only in the hair sense, nothing else. I don't mean a very, very large skinhead with a growth on his back. No, an outgrown skinhead who was slightly softer, not meant to be a football hooligan for instance... so obviously much less interesting."
What were you wearing back in '71, when Suedehead came out?
"I fluctuated slightly. I didn't religiously belong to any cult apart from when T.Rex happened and I bought a satin jacket. It was the first independent statement I made and it was extremely important to me."
"I did stray into a pair of loons on some occasions. Quite naturally green at the bottom and quite naturally yellow at the top. Extreme horrendous colours. Then later, when the New York Dolls happened, I tried to buy a pair of knee length platform boots but I was very wisely stopped! At the time, just to have a faint platform on a very dull show was very risque. It was tempting disaster."
"I slept in a Crombie, with a Lancashire rose on it. You could quite easily be duffed up by those wearing a Yorkshire rose. There were constant territorial vicious antagonising reasons for small-time anarchy. Everybody got their head kicked in... it's made me what I am today."
"With the Bowie thing and Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople I began to hang around with a gang of people in Manchester who were very artistic and very expressive. They dyed their hair."
Hence the line, "When 13 years old/Who dyed his hair gold" in 'I Know Very Well How I Got My Name'?
"Yes, that's me. That's true. When I was 13 I did experiment with bottles of bleach and so forth. I tried to dye it yellow and it came out gold, then I tried to get rid of it and it came out purple. I was sent home from school."
How did your mother react?
"She was mildly concerned. Very tolerant, she'd had a lot of practice."
You weren't spanked?
"No, that came much later in life, with the release of 'The Queen Is Dead'."
Why did you dye your hair?
"I think 'Starman' was the beginning but the whole notion of Bowie being this despised person I found very encouraging. The daily tabloids wrote hateful things and there were only one or two people at school who'd actually confess to liking David Bowie. I don't think that level of outrage exists anymore, people have forgotten how dramatic and serious it really was.
"The Slade and Faces contingents were particularly aggressive people, while those who liked Bowie, Mott The Hoople and Lou Reed tended to be slightly more passive and easily picked on. I remember standing outside concert halls in the early '70s, people would just walk past you and start kicking the queue. Everybody would just cower under a mass of Afghan coats."
And now those happy days are here again?
"Not for me! But I've seen a tramp with an Afghan coat on. I think we'll reach the stage where tramps no longer wear old 1930s overcoats and cloth caps, that they'll actually be going round in platforms and Chicory Tip t-shirts. It will happen! The tramps of the future obviously have to move with the times."
"Although there's no pleasure for me in smearing Rough Trade - I can see their dilemmas and I understand them - I simply feel that, in the final analysis, The Smiths were not looked upon as the little treasures that they actually were. I certainly feel I was the only group member who was ever treated with any respect... I don't think there was any for Johnny, Mike or Andy."
Was 'Paint A Vulgar Picture' an attack on Rough Trade?
"No, it wasn't about Rough Trade at all. So I was a bit confused when Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade big boy, despised it and stamped on it. It was about the music industry in general, about practically anybody who's died and left behind that frenetic fanatical legacy which sends people scrambling. Billy Fury, Marc Bolan..."
And 'You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby'?
"Obviously Geoff was staunchly against it because he thought it was a personal letter addressed to him."
Well? Was it a personal letter addressed to Geoff Travis?
"I never said it was a personal letter addressed to him. That's just a very very cruel assumption on your behalf."
How did you feel about the poor B-sides - old mixes and live tracks - on the last Rough Trade singles?
"I approved in the sense that I believe Smiths records should be heard. Quite obviously there weren't acceptable B-sides and quite obviously there was no acceptable reason for a CD and cassette single, but they occurred nonetheless. It's difficult because I wanted those songs to be heard, the death of The Smiths was far too convenient. If there was yet another opportunity to infest the airwaves I thought it should be done."
And Rough Trade's forthcoming Smiths live album?
"Well, it's very good so I'm quite pleased... none of those songs will ever be heard again."
But what's to stop them re-packaging singles till the end of time?
"I don't think they can feasibly, I think it really is over. They were pushing it with the last Smiths release and I think Rough Trade are quite realistic in the knowledge they can't really go any further. If another compilation appeared I think people would descend on them and stone Geoff Travis to death."
Are you glad to be free from Rough Trade?
"In all honesty, yes! 1985 with Rough Trade was horrendous, the duels were unspeakable. We were in such turmoil that we had to do something. We were being treated like some untried independent group from Harrogate and it was not acknowledged at all, in the Rough Trade network, that we were saving their skins. I personally had to fight for any promotion, even though the first album had entered the charts at Number Two and there had been a string of successful singles.
"There was always the sense with Rough Trade that they were ready to back off and just be quite happy with what they had accumulated without speculating in any sensible direction. Like the quiz show contestants who are quite content with the f5 and don't want to try for the f5 million, even though it actually cost them f20 to get to the studio in petrol."
Whatever happened to the 'Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' single?
"I desperately desperately wanted that to be released. Rough Trade sent white labels along to Radio One but they said they would never under any circumstances play it because of the line about mass murder. They said people would've instantly linked it with Hungerford and it would've caused thousands of shoppers to go out and buy machine guns and murder their grandparents. I think Rough Trade should've released 'Death Of A Disco Dancer' instead just to be stroppy."
Because you played piano on it?
"Exactly! What better reason. Move over Lieutenant Pigeon!"
tea-time in Wilde's bedroom. I'm on a fruit flan, The Mozz is wrestling
with a cheese sarnie - "I'd never touch a gerkin" - and
Oscar is probably turning in his grave. Not only are Hinge And Bracket
desecrating The Importance Of Being Earnest in London's West
End, but also - according to Morrissey - "in certain libraries they're
trying to ban Oscar Wilde's books because of the famous slant, as it
In this winter of Pop, with its throwaway icons and its bankrupt penchant for cannibalism, the importance of Steven Patrick Morrissey should never be underestimated; with The Smiths he proved himself to be the most realistic voice, the most articulate lyricist of the '80s. Whether Street and Marr are comparable composers time alone will tell, but clearly Morrissey hasn't come to bury The Smiths but to praise them.
"The Smiths as a live entity were so powerful and, for me personally, almost untouchable. I'd be very nervous of attempting anything less than that... The Smiths as individuals were very hard people in a physical sense, and Johnny, Mike and Andy played their instruments in a very aggressive way. The feeling of power onstage was just like having a vacuum cleaner shoved up your blazer!"
With Johnny Marr writing for The Pretenders - "I'd be very surprised if he gained the same degree of interest and urgent momentum he received from The Smiths" - and Rourke and Joyce playing with Adult Net or Sinead O'Connor, what chance the Smiths reforming?
"I think about it all the time and I'm not really impressed by negative public opinion or lofty artistic approval of The Smiths' disintegration. I would be totally in favour of a reunion - which isn't to cast doubts on the album or the immediate future; if a reunion never occurs I'm sure I'll be quite happy as I am. But yes, I do entertain those thoughts and as soon as anybody wants to come back to the fold and make records I will be there!"
Well, there's hope... Marr's young...
"He's a mere child, he's 24."
There's plenty of time.
"No, because I'm nearly 29. I'll be dead in a couple of years."
So you won't be the Bing Crosby of our generation?
"The Janet Street-Porter, maybe."
This article was originally published in the February
13, 1988 issue of NME.