Having pondered some kind of Morrissey Top Ten for a while. Because we talked about it down the pub. Because it sounded like a good idea at the time. Because it’s the music blog easy option; a stock character choice of format in which instinct and reflex are as important as thought, and no-one will be any the wiser should we make it all up as we go along (I mean; have you actually read the Guardian Music site of late? Or the clusterfuck known as NME.com? I’m not sure what comprises the target audience for the latter, but I’m guessing that it isn’t necessarily sentient…).
So; tweezing out a list of favourite Morrissey tracks is not only lazy but subjective to the point of arbitrariness. And with that agreed, if there is any interest to be gleaned from such an exercise, it’s the manner by which the canon has shifted over the years. A voice that’s grown into its baritone carapace. The undulations in dynamic between singer and his various musical foils. An evolution of narrative style beneath the lyrical alacrity. Take two tracks from differing ends of the solo catalogue – ‘Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, say, and ‘Istanbul’ – and the contrast in tone and texture, in mind and body and soul, is pronounced. Yet it isn’t necessarily straightforward to pick apart what those differences represent; so opaque is the character, so fascinating the songcraft, that it pays to immerse yourself deeply in the shimmies and shakes of what comprises his material (although I’m a Morrissey fanatic; I would say that).
I’m excluding The Smiths back catalogue from the below – should we fancy it, we can reconvene to debate relative merits of ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’ verses ‘A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours’ at a later date. Instead; my own take upon the solo stuff would look something like this…
Actually, who am I kidding? Selecting a definitive decalogue is pretty much impossible. I’ll be changing my mind on this tomorrow to include ‘November Spawned A Monster’. And ‘I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me’. And ‘It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore’ (the stand-out track on the otherwise disappointing Years Of Refusal). And ‘Boxers’; ‘Alma Matters’. And Jesus, this is so difficult; ‘National Front Disco’ is a corker of a tune, used as evidence of fascistic leanings by a music press long given over to irrelevance. Never mind the huge oxymoron at the heart of the title. Or that the narrative is third person. Music hacks adore Morrissey because he gives good copy – far be it for me to imply that the New Musical Express took an executive decision to hurl about dodgy insinuations in order to sell more copies of their tawdry rag… but – that.
The final track pruned from a long, long list: ‘Girl Least Likely To’, which first saw the light of day on the ‘November Spawned A Monster’ 12”. I’m already thinking this exclusion is a mistake…
Part one below; click here for part two.
#10 – Mute Witness (1991).
Kill Uncle is such the strange beast. Much of it written with Mark Nevin of Fairground Attraction, the themes feel unresolved, its textures tangled, off-kilter. Against which ‘Mute Witness’ stands in contrast; as with Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’, co-producer Clive Langer gets the credit for the music – keyboard cadences direct from some mid-seventies incident taking place around Elton John’s piano. Nevin’s guitar wails despondently in the background, bass punchy and resolute; it’s a song that for some reason always reminds me of the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of Springsteen’s ‘Blinded By The Light’ – despite sounding utterly dissimilar.
A significant number of words have been spent detailing how so much of the Morrissey attraction resides with his misfit empathy. I don’t mean that in a pejorative fashion; conformist opinion has always had an issue processing unorthodoxy in any of its guises – it’s why the word “normal” is so dangerous. By moulding the narrative around such disenfranchised perspectives – the voices we don’t usually hear from in popular music – there are layers of resonation that simply don’t exist in the material of others. Mute Witness is all dispassionate sympathy; a nod and a wink of judicial proportions, the protagonist of the title a wretched creature, her small arms flailing, right up until 4am, North Side Clapham Common, who knows what she was doing there? – when the story takes a dramatic shift. Innocents do not do Clapham Common at 4am – you’re far more likely to procure your slice of rough trade.
It’s feints such as these that underline the lyrical panache on display; that Morrissey uses a backing that whiffs a little of Supertramp, and manages to package it up into a kitchen sink urgency of multiple possibilities with but a flick of a wrist – it’s a sight to behold. Your taxi is here, my dear.
#9 – Piccadilly Palare (1990).
Sometimes a hit single delivers all that’s promised. Outsider camaraderie transposed across ribald attitude, at turns cocksure, caustic, contrite. A track the artist has subsequently poured scorn on – he’s wrong; there’s nothing flippant or throwaway about the scope of this, even with Suggs muttering away in the background like a Kentish Town drunkard.
For the record, I’m not looking to get sidetracked in the sexuality conversation, here – to tell the truth I find attempting to identify Morrissey as gay, straight, or something else tiresome in the extreme – but there’s no escaping a setting such as Piccadilly Palare (even if the specifics remain typically double-edged). This is song as novella, teasing out the details of a clandestine London subculture, back when a little recreational fellatio between chums could land you in Pentonville. The backdrop is neon-lit, very much Joe Orton in appearance. And as with Orton, this track emphasises Morrissey’s love of language; by using polari for the key passages – the lexicon of ageing queens down Old Compton Street – he creates an almost nostalgic snapshot of a city clique celebrating in the face of disenfranchisement.
So Bona to vada your lovely eek and your lovely riah (or: so lovely to see your lovely face and your lovely hair) – it’s pure Julian and Sandy of course, but as with the Kenneth Williams / Hugh Paddick skits, there’s a truth at the heart of the tale. We plied an ancient trade where we threw all life’s instructions away. And: You wouldn’t understand; good sons like you never do; these, ladies and gentlemen, are sentiments that require zero validation. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
#8 – ‘Disappointed’ (1988).
The b-side to ‘Every Day Is Like A Sunday’, and what might at first glance appear to be an idiosyncratic inclusion. Stephen Street’s production is far too clean (hmm; where have we heard that before?), the arrangement somewhat lacklustre, and vocal delivery failing to convey the urgency the song cries out for (the live version, included on the 1997 Viva Hate re-release, conveys a far greater seam of duplicitous intention). And yet if forced to select an item from the back catalogue that’s archetypical of lyrical depth and triumph, it’s this. Beneath a buzzy guitar lick reminiscent of Johnny Marr’s fretwork in the verses of ‘How Soon Is Now’: Our unsleepable friend gets the message on an ill wind – how’s that for the enigmatic, intriguing opening? It’s like a classroom of rained-smeared windows, and a line from some battered poetry textbook your stifling teacher would have made you interpret. “All your friends and foes would rather die than have to touch you” – an ill wind, indeed.
This is a tale of hazy motivation; multi-faceted, each line framing the agenda in a different light, so that the audience have to do much of the legwork. The cautionary asides, the flick in gender of whom he’s addressing; this world may lack style, I know, but each bud must blossom and grow – it’s saloon bar pontification writ large, crafty, with buried wit, the famous lines – Don’t talk to me now about people “who are nice”, ‘cus I have spent my whole life in ruins because of people who are nice – delivered in such as way as to suggest both tragic vitriol and the type of smirk announced with the palm of one’s hand over the mouth.
And if all that weren’t enough, ‘Disappointed’ features one of the greatest pay-offs in song I can think of. This is the last song I will ever sing (cue the cheers). No, I’ve changed my mind again – goodnight, and thank you. Pure Moz.
#7 – You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side
#6 – Glamorous Glue (both 1992)
And by some genuine quirk – honest – tracks one and two on Your Arsenal sit side by side on this list. Because if Kill Uncle is a little uncertain of itself, the follow-up is statement of intent, succeeding due to who Moz surrounds himself with, what with this being the first with the twin-engined pomp of Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte powering the music. For the first time since The Smiths era, the band implicitly understand how to accentuate their singer’s brio; how to create a platform for the strut, the preen, his confident swagger. The result is an opening salvo that never fails to grab the attention or dictate direction of travel.
‘You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side’ is actually written with the aforementioned Nevin – which kind of underlines how the magic lay in the execution as much as the bones of a song. The guitars here are ferocious. Full throttle. Churning up the landscape with savage blasts of texture, perfectly lit by Mick Ronson’s glam-touched production. And the vocal delivery sees Morrissey at his most waspish. An arm around the shoulder, a stab in the back. Someone kindly told me that you’d wasted eight of your nine lives – that line alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a track full of interplay, and hidden detail, leaping up off the turntable and making itself right at home in your lap. More of this sort of thing, please…
… which duly arrives with ‘Glamorous Glue’. Social commentary distilled to within an inch of existence, in which the riffs are equally as menacing, the disposition swaggering. Reading between the lines it’s easy to identify Morrissey’s love/hate relationship with the English condition here; parallels with ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ perhaps, an inbuilt frustration that crops up in the back catalogue again and again. The sing-a-long refrain at the heart of this – We look to Los Angeles for the language we use, London is dead, London is dead – has a petulance about it, but not of the gratuitous type; there’s a sense that Moz is singing here from the heart. Combine this with an Alain Whyte composition and delicious duelling guitars doing the heavy lifting, and the results are incendiary.
There are so many wonderful things to Your Arsenal, and as I age disgracefully I find myself turning to it more and more often. Very much a part of this is the one-two punch that kicks things off; it not only conditions the listener to album as functioning unit, but neither track is of the type that you can afford to lift your focus from – otherwise there’s always the risk that you’ll get bitten on the arse – a facet I very much enjoy from recorded sound.