Morrissey Interview - The mystery and magic of Morrissey
Former Smiths frontman Morrissey’s new album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, has won him some of the best reviews of his solo career. With him due to play a sold-out show in King’s Lynn in May, CHRIS TRACY looks at the unlikely pop star’s enduring appeal.
When tickets for Morrissey's forthcoming gig at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange went on sale back in January, they sold out in little over an hour. This is perhaps not surprising. After all, in 1992 he sold out Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl in 23 minutes, beating a sales record previously held by the Beatles.
But if it seems a little incongruous that, having played vast arenas and festivals, including Glastonbury during his last UK tour in 2004, he should promote his new album Ringleader of the Tormentors with visits to rather more intimate venues, those who have followed this mercurial Mancunian's career will probably agree that it is entirely fitting.
Morrissey has always done things differently.
As lead singer of the Smiths, Morrissey first came to public attention in 1983 as a strange sort of pop star.
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On Top of the Pops, his gangling frame gyrated feyly, while sporting an array of props that included NHS spectacles, a hearing aid and gladioli cascading from the pocket of his jeans.
To the timeless arrangements of guitarist Johnny Marr, Morrissey sang (and sometimes growled or yodelled) intriguingly of 'jumped-up pantry boys' and bags mysteriously lost in Newport Pagnell.
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Bespectacled acolytes bought singles clad in sleeves depicting actors such as Yootha Joyce.
Next to Spandau Ballet or Kajagoogoo, the Smiths stood out.
And then in 1987, at their creative peak, the group acrimoniously split, leaving behind them as pristine a legacy of songs as any in the history of pop music.
All their albums regularly appear in magazines' best ever lists, and in 2002 the NME named them the most influential British band ever.
Since the Smiths' demise, Morrissey has pursued a solo career marked by controversy (accusations of racism, legal battles over royalties) periods of reclusive inactivity and, occasionally, albums as fine as those made with his former group.
And now, nearly 25 years after the Smiths' debut, he finds himself in the unique position of being a hallowed 'godfather' of British pop, whose most recent recordings are among the most successful of his career.
Just this week he's hit the headlines - announcing a boycott of Canada in protest at the country's annual seal cull and ruling out a Smiths reunion in a rather forthright style.
But if, overall, the solo years have been characterised by fluctuating fortunes, one thing has remained constant: the devotion of the faithful.
For while his music is often caricatured as being the archetypal choice of the lonely, moping teenager, (an unfair portrayal that ignores the considerable wit to be found in most of his lyrics) Morrissey undoubtedly inspires an enthusiasm among his fans that often appears to verge on the obsessive.
At gigs, you can witness the extraordinary sight of grown men hoisting themselves on to the heads of the crowd in order to breach the security barrier, and so possibly touch the outstretched hand of their idol.
Perhaps the most extreme examples of this adoration are to be found in America, where, since the early 1990s, this most English of stars has acquired a cult following, particularly strong among the Hispanic community.
In the States, it is not uncommon for fans to display their allegiance in the form of ornate tattoos, painfully inscribed across shoulder blades, arms or chest.
One of the main fan websites is True to You, and if this does take its name from a lyric on the 1994 album Vauxhall and I, it also tellingly illustrates the fiercely protective nature of some fans' admiration.
In this respect, Morrissey is rather like the Marmite of pop: you either get it or you don't.
So what is it about this wry, outspoken northerner that provokes such strong reactions?
When questioned by Jonathan Ross about this in a 2004 television interview, the man himself said that his fans responded to his being a 'real person'.
For David Buckley, biographer of David Bowie and Roxy Music (two of the few artists to have had an obvious influence on Morrissey's career) his appeal lies in his unpredictability and determination to preserve an old-fashioned mystique.
“In an age in which almost every major pop icon has been demystified by the internet or has gone through a 'figure of fun' phase of bad records, big hair and dodgy artistic liaisons, Morrissey (along, for my money, with Sparks) has been able to retain an unpredictability which keeps his admirers enthralled and even his detractors guessing,” he says.
“His astonishingly misanthropic view of the world, his brilliant knack of coming up with acid one-liners in interviews, and his confusing/ed political and sexual orientation mean that he's always newsworthy, plus the quality of his music seldom wavers.
“He'll never be a massive mainstream star, but he's possibly the only pop star from the 1980s who still gets blind devotion from his fans and the support of a sizeable part of the music press.
“And he wrote There Is a Light That Never Goes Out plus dozens of other classic songs.”
Which is, of course, the crucial point: the music. As a personality, Morrissey projects a mixture of authenticity and reticence, which endears him to those suspicious of a modern 'celebrity' culture that champions the bland and mediocre. But his songs, like those of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, will continue to be enjoyed long after the X-Factor is but a distant memory.
Ringleader of the Tormentors is out on Monday, April 3.
Morrissey performs at King's Lynn Corn Exchange on Saturday, May 27.
PICK OF THE POPS
t The Queen Is Dead: Consistently viewed by most critics as the Smiths' finest moment, their third album boasts some of their most memorable anthems, including The Boy With the Thorn in His Side and the achingly yearning There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. With Morrissey at his wittiest and Marr now in complete mastery of his wide-screen musical vision, the album manages to be a grand statement while retaining the group's characteristic warmth and empathy.
t Strangeways, Here We Come: Having emerged only months after the Smiths' 1987 split, their final album displays a musical and lyrical adventurousness that belies the funereal nature of its release. From the psychedelic flourishes of Death of a Disco Dancer to the cinematic scope of Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me (which incorporated one of Morrissey's most affecting vocal performances) everything seemed to indicate a group in the rudest of health. However, some songs (particularly the closing I Won't Share You) hinted of personal strains beneath the surface.
t Your Arsenal: While Morrissey's solo career got off to a flyer with 1988's Viva Hate, it was only with this, his third studio album, that he first truly seemed to carve out his own musical territory. Given a harder, glammy edge by producer Mick Ronson, songs such as Glamorous Glue and Tomorrow swagger with the preening confidence of Morrissey's beloved New York Dolls.
t Vauxhall and I: Following the furore caused by his appearance on stage with the Union flag during his 1992 Madstock appearance, Morrissey returned with a gentler, more reflective album that is possibly his best. Now My Heart Is Full and The Lazy Sunbathers possess a beautifully languid majesty, while Spring-Heeled Jim and the closing Speedway are gloriously dramatic.