Friday, 20 February 2015


(#362: 26 March 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Alsatian Cousin/Little Man, What Now?/Everyday Is Like Sunday/Bengali In Platforms/Angel, Angel Down We Go Together/Late Night, Maudlin Street/Suedehead/Break Up The Family/The Ordinary Boys/I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me/Dial-a-Cliché/Margaret On The Guillotine

The story goes like this: sometime in the autumn of 1987, Stephen Street submitted some very basic demos to Morrissey with the suggestion that he might want to use them for his first solo record. But the demos were so simplistic and banal that they were unusable, and so Vini Reilly was drafted in to polish them up and help turn them into songs. The album was recorded, Street got full composing credits for the music and Reilly was paid £800 for his work; a fairly reasonable sum by 1988 standards but nowhere near what he should have received. For his own part, Reilly is sanguine; interviewed in Rogan’s Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance, he says that the songs weren’t up to much and that he wasn’t asked to do anything particularly challenging – his view was that getting in a decent session guitarist would have done just as well.

One could say that Morrissey is key in terms of raising Viva Hate out of the seabed of banality; his vocals on the record are among the most playful he ever offered, and while some Smiths songs, even at their best, sometimes resembled blurred photographs of pop songs rather than the thing itself, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” is a majestically frightening pop record – the “strange dust” landing on “your hands and on your face” (Morrissey’s “you”s throughout the record can be interpreted as a conversational “you,” meaning “himself”) reminds us that the song’s central inspiration was not Betjeman on Slough but Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. On this coast, the apocalypse has already happened, and he is the glumly stumbling survivor.

Equally, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” is one of the first and best of Morrissey’s habitual long-form meditations on love and history. Drummer Andrew Paresi in particular never settles for the obvious beats here; the overall impression is that of an indie rejoinder to John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” though filled with entirely comprehensible lyrics which, like so much of Viva Hate, concern themselves with saying farewell to, burying and running as far away and as quickly as possible from the past ("1972, you know"). And “Alsatian Cousin” is perhaps the most disturbing and radical beginning of any Morrissey record, Reilly (and Street’s) atonal industrial hip hop scrapheap soundtracking a keenly and desperately echoed vocal in which the singer seems intent on exorcising all demons, including those van and car drivers – those semi-spoken incidents - referred to in the record’s other songs, including the one about the forgotten sixties television star, which in light of what we now know is perhaps the record's scariest song as well as its shortest (the chunky Duane Eddy guitar underscoring the "1969, ATV" references suggest somebody in Crossroads).

What the album isn’t, however – not even “Everyday Is Like Sunday” – is a band record. Would Viva Hate have sounded any different, or even have existed, had the Smiths continued? The band who recorded Strangeways was a band clearly at the end of its tether. The problem with Viva Hate lies in its presumed advantages; Morrissey free of the Smiths, on a major record label with larger recording and marketing budgets than Rough Trade – the single of “Suedehead” charted higher than any Smiths single had managed in its first week of release – but also a Morrissey without a Marr, without anybody to check his lesser instincts. There are no more “cover stars”; merely the man himself.

And so Viva Hate sounds simultaneously indulgent and tentative; the singer is clearly unsure where to go, and so we get routine sub-Smiths offerings like “Dial-a-Cliché” or “Angel Angel,” whose “Eleanor Rigby” strings introduce an element of sentimentality that had been entirely absent from the Smiths’ work, or “The Ordinary Boys” which only engages attention by virtue of Reilly’s nearly unhinged guitar work (which Lena compared to a “very compressed Eddie van Halen”). “Break Up The Family” trudges over wearily familiar Morrissey mores to a light AoR background that could almost be latter-day Fleetwood Mac.

However, Viva Hate is also a record filled with threat. It is hard to discern what exactly “Suedehead” is about – pace the video, it certainly isn’t about James Dean – other than the singer desperately and vainly trying to dissuade somebody else from looking at his diary. The pages are read, the illustrations are seen, the truth is revealed, the person presumably recoils in horror, and so Morrissey is left to croon “It was a good lay, good lay” with some embarrassment. But it doesn’t grip the listener.

Whereas “Margaret On The Guillotine” is out of keeping with everything the Smiths had stood for. The song sounds like “Meat Is Murder” but where Morrissey had once sung “This beautiful creature must die,” he now booms “Please die.” Finding he has little to say – although what he does say might be a crude condensation of what most recent TPL entries have been covertly trying to say – he exits the picture and leaves Reilly to turn the song into a Durutti Column piece, as backwards effects slowly turn reality into dream, before an abrupt chop brings proceedings to a close. But the song’s notion is an essentially foolish one.

And few songs in this tale carry more foolish notions than “Bengali In Platforms” which is the album’s stumbling block that I cannot get past. It is what Lena describes as “every shade of wrong” and actually throws the rest of the record, and Morrissey himself, into deep question; if he wants Thatcher gone, is this what he proposes to put in her place? It is an idiotic piece of work which probably found favour in those then twenty-something Oxbridge types who are now running, or plan to run, the country, and induces me to think: if you get this wrong, how and why should we trust you with anything else? Then I remember his comments in the 1986 Melody Maker about the charts, the radio and black musicians, and one’s face freezes. 1988 was a colourful, zany, rip-it-up-and-start-again year for music, and Morrissey felt and still feels out of place in its lit cloisters. Clearly thrown together rather quickly and superficially, Viva Hate, which made number one at a time when one of Morrissey’s spiritual ancestors, Kenneth Williams, had barely three weeks to live, represents the planting of a rather self-satisfied flag. Released in the same week, also on EMI, but only reaching number three, was Talking Heads’ final album Naked, on which Johnny Marr collaborated. Its air of colourful relaxation and engaging adventure contrasts rather starkly with Viva Hate’s determinedly monochromatic moonscape.


Robin Carmody said...

"Blurred photographs of pop songs" is right; the Smiths were an anti-pop pop group, one fundamentally ill at ease with much of the cultural dynamic and exchange on which the music depends. But they had countless other compelling aspects; there's a reason why their work is still loved by those not besotted and fixated on one personality and Morrissey's solo work, mostly, isn't, and you've nailed it here.

This would be his only solo album released in the previous century to spend more than five weeks on the chart (it stayed on four times that long, in fact) which confirms that it was his only solo album released when his cultural moment was still just about alive and therefore his only one that non-obsessive fans might have bought; by the time he finally released another studio album, Manchester had rejected all he stood for and experienced one of the most dramatic musical and cultural explosions concentrated in any British city, which had no more time for what Morrissey had become than Liverpool in 1963 had had for, say, Lance Fortune. As you say, this album contains all the germs (specifically, track four) of why that moment would pass and crumble; his was a talent that needed editing, control ... the one thing it didn't need was Being Morrissey as a sort of anti-artform.

And the total rejection of all 1988 stood for here invokes a lot of the same Old Left problems discussed by Lena re. "Build". His MM comments you allude to - made by Frank Owen, someone far more in the Mancunian tradition (Morrissey's attitude in this respect has always been more redolent of a South Yorkshire mining village, to me) - were wrong-headed and utterly inaccurate. Radio 1 at the time, certainly compared to Capital and probably other big-city ILRs, was ignoring most records by black artists which took off first in the clubs at least until they charted and often even then. They were charting because of an entirely different audience which stood outside that power structure; the NME pointed out, also in 1986, that Joyce Sims' "All and All" had never been played on Radio 1 other than on chart shows despite going Top 20, with John Mellencamp's "R-O-C-K in the USA" being played routinely on daytime over the same period, and Richard Skinner on Whistle Test made derisory comments about Cameo's "Single Life" and René & Angela's "I'll Be Good" and suggested that DJs should stop playing them. The more we know, the more laughable are the denials that Beerling's hierarchy had circulated a document specifically stating that these records should not be played. Paranoia about an imagined multicultural conspiracy is (and I have direct and recent experience of this) still around in certain parts of the remnants of the Old Left, and there are few more unpleasant sights.

But at the same time there is still - as you also say - a whiff of residual disgust at the repression of the past (his own it's-all-you-scum-deserve sec-mod education); there's still a clear awareness of how horrible this state of being actually was for the mass, which would be almost completely buried and obliterated as his solo career went on. And I agree that "Everyday is Like Sunday" isn't fundamentally the Betjemanesque song some people see it as; how could a Mancunian, for whom that was an important part of who and what he was, identify that closely with someone for whom Manchester simply wasn't Real England? That connection would soon afterwards be lost, and he would identify himself 100% with an idea of Englishness that has never fully recognised Manchester as such (and then there is the irony of his Irish ancestry, greater than with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka "Tommy Robinson" because, by the time the latter reached what passed for adulthood, the Anglo-Irish relationship was fundamentally changing and being normalised).

Robin Carmody said...

Crossroads, incidentally, wasn't shown on Granada until 1972; in that battle of two families of Jewish entrepreneurs, both determined to shake out Reithianism but with entirely different ideas of what should replace it, the Bernsteins saw it as all they didn't want to be associated with.

The thing about "Margaret on the Guillotine" is that all the fight seems to have been kicked out of it ("so tired" rather than a much more direct expression of anger), which I have no doubt expresses the effects of the 1987 election ... but, as you say, killing one person in itself wouldn't have shaken out the deeper reasons, the broader problems across all parts of society would still have been there ... and indeed they are, eight tracks earlier.

Robin Carmody said...

A comparison that I'm surprised isn't made more often is Morrissey as McCartney and Marr as Lennon, in terms of M&M having a fixation on a certain kind of Englishness and the two Johns rejecting it. Had they come from many other parts of England, I'd say that Morrissey & McCartney would have been the more normative in terms of their origins, but with those twin cities having strongly un-English and often anti-English identities (obviously influenced by their strong Irish presences and reinforced by their strong Remain votes, even if Salford did vote Leave) I'd say that the two Johns are more representative of the dominant strains where they were born and brought up. While I wish McCartney had made more albums like 'Chaos & Creation' in his late career - just as I wish Bowie had made more albums like 'Blackstar' and Keith Waterhouse written more novels and plays and fewer lazy Mail columns in their late careers, for all that you could argue that all three had earned what they largely chose to do - he has nonetheless done valuable things to distance himself from the Alan Titchmarsh wing of his fanbase, working with Kanye and endorsing Rae Sremmurd, and Brexit fanboy Morrissey is clearly now the more reactionary of the two in most ways. But in terms of differences between iconic creative partnerships that fell apart, I think it's truer than it isn't.

Robin Carmody said...

... and another great Northern city produced another comparable example: Alan Price as McCartney/Morrissey, and Eric Burdon as the two Johns.