On 18 September 1985 I took a train to Manchester for my first interview with Morrissey. The Smiths were riding high that year: Meat Is Murder had proved to be their most successful album. After the photos were done, we spent an hour or so talking in the Britannia Hotel, then I returned to London to file this piece for a short-lived weekly called The Hit.
Do you regard success as a form of revenge, Morrissey?
“Oh absolutely and entirely a form of revenge, yes I do.”
And is it sweet?
“Remarkably sweet. I like the taste, yes. More, please!”
But revenge for what?
“Well, for everything, on everybody. I’ve been kicked around and called a lot of rude things, and I’ve been stood upon. And that all fuels the anger. So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”
Some mistake, surely. Morrissey? Chuckling? Morrissey, the moaning magnate of Manchester miserablism. The man who sang, “I think about life, and I think about death / And neither one particularly appeals to me.” And wasn’t kidding. But chuckle he does, now and again. I even got him to tell me a joke. It took some persuading (“I never tell jokes. I never could. It’s a skill. I would never attempt it”) and, to be frank, it wasn’t very funny anyway. And it’s certainly too tasteless to print. But give the lad his due; he had a go.
In fact, Morrissey’s in rather a good mood today. A spokesman for The Smiths tells me the singer has been quite cheerful for several months, which is the longest anyone can remember. He does of course have some things to be cheerful about. This year the group released ‘Meat Is Murder,’ their third album, widely greeted as one of the best records of ’85. (I disagree – I think it’s the best.) It went straight to No. 1. And The Smiths have recently completed a successful American tour – to the surprise, relief and elation of all concerned. Yet into each life a little rain must fall. In Morrissey’s, some predict it’s about to start pissing down.
The problem? Basically, there’s a theory going around which says The Smiths have passed their best. Their last few singles (including ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ which Morrissey was especially proud of) have not set the charts alight, but merely singed the edges. Rumour has it the group blame this state of affairs on their record company Rough Trade – a small label famous for pioneering brave new music, though without the reputation for ruthless marketing skill that bigger labels are supposed to have. Whatever, The Smiths and Rough Trade have now signed a kind of truce, with each side trying hard to make their partnership a happy one. At time of writing, we don’t know the chart-fate of new 45 ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ (it doesn’t sound so sure-fire commercial to me) but we’ll see what we’ll see.
What will Morrissey do if it’s not a hit? “If this single isn’t a hit,” he proclaims, with typical theatricality, “I’m going to pack up my tent and rucksack and go into the Welsh mountains, and you won’t see me again. I can get a hint!”
Drastic. I await my postcard from Snowdonia.
Punctuating his every utterance with some flamboyant and vivid turn of phrase, Morrissey is the ‘Charming Man’ beloved of music paper headline-writers – in a shy, sly and nervous sort of way. His words can look grotesquely excessive in cold print; straight from the source’s mouth, however, they’re laced with gently self-mocking irony. He’s obviously more complex than the morose, mournful miserygob of common legend. What, for instance, are the things that make him happy?
Did you ever go in for sports, at all?
“Yes. I was quite classically good. I’ve got an array of impressive medals for various sports. Which is the last thing people expect me to say – they think I hid in the showers day after day. Which I certainly considered… I particularly liked running. But then, I had to be a good runner, for reasons I’ll leave unstated! I ran ferociously, everywhere.”
But you didn’t keep it up.
“I wanted to, but I began to move in circles where any kind of activity, or movement, was aesthetically illegal. So I had to choose one or the other, and I chose the other. Which I do regret now. I still have vague dreams of doing something strenuous. I like all manner of track and field events. Weight training? I wouldn’t mind, but one tends to shrink from the ‘gym cult’ thing. I don’t mind in hotel gyms when there’s nobody about, then I do lots of indecent things…
“The happiest day of my life? Hearing Sandie Shaw singing a Smiths song (‘Hand In Glove’), mainly because I had been so unsalvagably dedicated to her for years and years and years.” (Watch out, by the way, for an unrecorded Smithsong to be covered by Kim Wilde, and for Kirsty MacColl’s version of ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’.)
Who makes you happy?
“The other three group members, and friends like Pete Burns (Dead Or Alive). Other than that, forget it.”
I understand you’re a George Formby fan.
“He isn’t central to my standpoint by any means, but he was a tremendous figure. His songs were total innuendo. I hate anything that’s totally revealed. I like things that are hinted at. And George Formby was the master of that. And I like his blunt, naive Northern element – the clumsy awkward little bugger who found everything enormously difficult. That has tremendous appeal for me…”
Do you ever go out dancing, stuff like that?
“Good heavens no. I couldn’t do that. I’d die of embarrassment. I can only do it on stage in front of 3,000 people (laughs) . That’s the solution to everything.”
Pause For Thought. Great Social Issues Of Our Time, No 94: Why can’t you buy decently-cut men’s trousers anywhere in the British Isles?
“It’s so difficult. Trousers in England are a dreadful problem, I find. It’s unfathomable.”
Whose dress sense do you admire?
“Well certainly not Billy Idol.”
Do you think life has given you a hard time?
“Oh yes, I do. I’ve had more than my fair share. It doesn’t really matter now. Now it all makes some perverse sense to me. It was like a rehearsal, and now I can put everything into perfect practice. I feel quite well equipped.”
You say that people often want to shut you up. Why?
“Whatever you think of me, I’m not a pop pushover. I’m not in there with the ‘synthetics’. And that seems to ruin life for many people in the record industry – the fact that my words are thought over, that I should dare to say something of any value. A lot of people think I’m a troublemaker. Some have said that I’m far too clever. That confuses me, because it’s like saying that this industry is really only there for philistines and empty-headed goons. I get confused when the intellectual music press denounce The Smiths. Because if you say No to The Smiths, you’re just saying Yes Yes Yes to Madonna… I don’t want to write merry pop songs. I know that I write in a way that many people find totally unlistenable. I recognise that fact, I’m not deluded in any way. I don’t expect the entire universe to drop the minute I wave a syllable.”
So – are The Smiths past their best?
“Well everybody tells me that The Smiths have peaked. I don’t believe it, and I’m the one who knows. You probably won’t accept this, but really, if I felt there was a speck of truth in such a statement I would honestly admit it. There is no point just forcing your face on the British public. I quite sincerely believe that the best is yet to come.”
What could you do outside The Smiths?
“It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is knowing when your time is up, and getting out. Very few people do. I like to feel that I’ll know. Some people would say that time is now (laughs), but I don’t. I’m a mere child, really.”
You could go solo, write books, make films…
“I want to do everything eventually, but not at once. Surely it would be more than the British public could stand if I took on another career! No. Civilised measures of Morrissey are quite enough for anybody…”