Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Manchester, England, England - Morrissey in the 70s

As they struggled to rebuild during those grim days after the Blitzkrieg of World War II, and later through the stifling policies of the Thatcher admin, the people of Manchester turned to music. The city spawned many musicians over the years, starting with Herman's Hermits, The Hollies, and Davy Jones of The Monkees, artists that seem to capture a less Dickensian doom. Manchester's grip on the U.K.’s musical taste was consolidated in the 1980s, in what was called the "Madchester" scene. The era was best known for Mancunian bands like Joy Division, The Stone Roses, and the Happy Mondays. It was a time in the city's history when drug use escalated and night clubs turned from live acts to DJs (as chronicled in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People).

By most accounts, Steven Patrick Morrissey is the best known Mancunian, and as much as the industrial hub is known for Manchester United, it's a bit of a surprise to see how much the city is devoted to Moz. He’s essentially their primary export. In his 2013 Autobiography, Morrissey tells of his time growing up in the city. He paints a vulgar picture of Blakean squalor and decay. As a poor child in a large immigrant family, he saw the worst of the city at the city's worst time. "More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth," he wrote, "Manchester is the old fire breathing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic."

Morrissey isn't shy about voicing his opinion on politics, the Queen, vegetarianism, or anything else. He's been regarded as an overly dramatic blowhard, borderline unbearable, even by his biggest supporters. He's well aware of the criticism. In Autobiography, he writes, "Whenever I’d overhear how people found me to be 'a bit much' (which is the gentle way of saying the word 'unbearable'), I understood why. To myself I would say: Well, yes of course I'm a bit much — if I weren't, I would not be lit up by so many lights."

Nonetheless, Morrissey has never been more popular, and in Manchester, this has led to a surprising side effect: Moz Tourism. Morrissey fans (called Mozophiles) have been coming to the city for years now to see the places that formed his impressionable youth. Familiar backdrops are available for fans to recreate iconic images from album booklets. Also available are landmarks from lyrics, like the Holy Name Church from "Vicar in a Tutu" and the Southern Cemetery from "Cemetery Gates." Fans from all over the planet have come to see where it all began. And yet, Manchester remains a city best photographed in black and white, though for Morrissey the austerity was interrupted by the music, from Sparks to Bruce Springsteen. Imagine if you will a 15 year old Steven wandering the cold gray streets with his Walkman singing "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" or "Thunder Road." That's your homework. I picture something along the lines of Ringo in A Hard Day's Night, sauntering along the Mersey.

Morrissey, by the way, was a prolific contributor to the letters columns of NME and Smash Hits. Here's a smattering.

14 June 1974 - NMELetter from Morrissey praising the latest album by Sparks, Kimono My House. "Today I bought the album of the year. I feel I can say this without expecting several letters saying I'm talking rubbish. The album is Kimono My House by Sparks. I bouth (sic) it on the strength of the single. Every track is brilliant, although I must name 'Equator', 'Complaints', 'Amateur Hour' and 'Here In Heaven' as the best tracks and in that order.

Steven Morrissey, 384 Kings Road, Stretford, Manchester."

18 June 1976 - NMEReview by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: "I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York/Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, 'I'm Not Your Stepping Stone,' a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols' vocalist/exhibitionist Johnny Rotten's attitude and self-asserted 'love us or leave us' approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David Johansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it's nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I'd love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don't look as though they've been slept in."

Morrissey writes about the Manchester music scene: "Of the new bands, Warsaw, The Worst, The Drones and the Fall look the most likely to make any headway. Warsaw were formed some times ago by vocalist Ian Curtis and have performed alongside more prominent bands like The Heartbreakers. Although they offer little originality with Ian's offstage antics resembling one Iggy Pop, highliting (sic) their set is 'Another Kill' which is at least memorable, if slightly typical." 

Morrissey writes about the impact of punk under the title "A Fabulous Adventure... A True Story": "So you think you're cool cos you're on the dole and you think you're hip because you've got a swastika plashed across your torn tee shirt and you think you're tough because The Clash are Your band, well big deal! If you live in Manchester then I'm running with you, but if you're an out of towner, wipe the mascara out of your eyes 'cos London burned down with boredom and spark fly in downtown Manchester! And if you're not around to feel the beat, well that's just too bad babbeee! (...) Sure you've heard of Buzzcocks and you might have a Slaughter And The Dogs single, but ever since The Sex Pistols first venture into Mancunian territory in June '76, a new generation of home grown bands has emerged. Yeah, the story's the same and one band's good until you've seen the next. And suddenly The Hollies and Herman's Hermits won't fare too well the next time someone does a feature on Manchester Rock and Roll."

Morrissey's Top 13 albums of all time are:

Jobriath - Jobriath
Jeff Buckley - Grace
The Smoking Popes - Born To Quit
Damien Dempsey - Seize The Day
Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (AM8)
The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico (AM10)
The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat
Sparks - Kimono My House
Iggy & The Stooges - Raw Power
Nico - Chelsea Girl
Patti Smith - Horses (AM10)
Ramones - Ramones
New York Dolls - New York Dolls