There was a time not so long ago when Morrissey’s lyrics inspired fans to have them tattooed on their skin. Now Morrissey’s words are more likely to generate a sickening feeling in even the most die-hard Mozzerite. But for the length of this article let’s overlook his support of the far-right and his numerous racist comments and focus on what I think are his ten best songs, in chronological order, that can stand alongside his work with The Smiths.
“It makes me sound like a racehorse.”
Morrissey on being asked by Nick Kent if he minded being called ‘Mozz’.
Suedehead (Morrisey/Stephen Street), single from Viva Hate, 1988
The debut solo single which immediately allayed any fears the solo years would pale in comparison to The Smiths. It was released in February of 1988 and peaked at number five on the UK charts. Although even at this stage in his solo career there’s a dalliance with the far right. The title never uttered in the song, comes from Richard Allen’s 1971 novel of the same name. Allen was the pen-name prolific pulp writer James Moffat used for his series of ‘Skin books’ featuring the skinhead subculture.
“A suedehead was an outgrown skinhead,” Morrissey explained to Len Brown in Spin magazine in 1988, “but outgrown only in the hair sense. An outgrown skinhead who was slightly softer. Not a football hooligan. Back in ’71, when youth cults were on the rampage in Manchester, there was a tremendous air of intensity and potential unpleasantness. Something interesting grabbed me about the whole thing. I don’t think there were any good guys; everybody had several chips on several shoulders.”
The single was the first release on EMI’s HMV label since Joyce Grenfell’s ‘I Wouldn’t Go Back To The World I Never Knew’, 20 years before.
Everyday is Like Sunday (Morrissey/Stephen Street) single from Viva Hate, 1988
The second single, released in June of 1988, peaking at number nine on the UK charts. Now, had Morrissey sadly passed on sometime after this release his image would have been forever sealed as a beautiful, brave and inspired poet of a generation. Another sublime and perfect single.
Although he once denied it in print the line ‘In the seaside town/ that they forgot to bomb/ come, come, come Nuclear bomb,’ was inspired by John Betjeman’s poem Slough.
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Margaret on the Guillotine (Morrissey/Stephen Street), album track on Viva Hate, 1988
“Because people like you make me feel so tired/When will you die?” Margaret Thatcher inspired many protest songs during her reign as Prime Minister from artists ranging from Crass to Simply Red. Witness the numerous Spotify playlists. Morrissey managed to capture the feelings of many quite succinctly. He wasn’t the only singer imagining Thatcher’s death as around the same time Elvis Costello was writing about tramping the dirt down on her grave and Kitchens of Distinction were executing her by means of injection. It’s hard to imagine the current Tory PM could ever provoke today’s songwriters in quite the same way.
The chorus, repeated five times, is the plaintive, rhetorical question: “When will you die?” You realise all of this will cause you no end of trouble?
“Anything that’s very clearcut and very strong causes difficulty, doesn’t it? But why should it? I’m not looking for attention. In this case, attention is the last thing I really need. I don’t want to be in the Daily Mirror. There is something in this above controversy and outrage and all these over-familiar words. It’s too easy to be controversial.”
So you mean it? You’d like to see her dead?
In a cruel, bloody sort of way?
Would you carry out the execution?
“I have got the uniform, ready.”
Interview with Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, 12 March 1988.
I’ve Changed My Plea To Guilty (Morrissey/Mark E. Nevin), B side to My Love Life
This song had its first public airing on 10th December 1990 on Tonight with Jonathan Ross. Singing live Morrissey was accompanied on piano by the house band leader Steve Nieve, and a silhouetted guitarist. Jonathan Ross’s shows at the time were the kind of television where something exciting could unexpectedly happen — see Nirvana’s performance for evidence — so Morrissey turning up with a new song put quite the spring in the step of his fans. A few months later and the song was notably absent from the mostly unremarkable Kill Uncle album. That it was deemed only good enough as the B side to the non-album single My Love Life was puzzling.
I’m standing in the dock
With my innocent hand on my heart
I’ve changed my plea
I’ve changed my plea to guilty
because freedom is wasted on me
There is a Place in Hell For Me and My Friends (Morrissey/Mark E. Nevin), album track on Kill Uncle, 1991
Kill Uncle was, for me at least, filled with some trite tunes such as Sing Your Life, King Leer and Driving Your Girlfriend Home. By now Morrissey had parted ways with Stephen Street and was writing with the erstwhile Fairground Attraction guitarist Mark E. Nevin. A Place in Hell was the album’s closer. A morose sentiment of the kind Morrissey tended to get labelled with throughout his career this one felt like it had a little more substance than the majority of the record. ‘What could almost be a Broadway show tune,’ wrote Mat Snow in Q at the time.
Tomorrow (Morrissey/Alain Whyte), single from Your Arsenal, 1992
The Mick Ronson produced Your Arsenal was probably the first Morrissey album I connected with. It was a solid album full of strong songs like Glamorous Glue, Certain People I Know and Seasick, Yet Still Docked. It was also the point where the music press began calling him out in no uncertain terms over some of his lyrics. With the album containing The National Front Disco and Morrissey performing at the time draped in a Union Jack the word, ‘racist’ was liberally thrown in his direction. “He’s treading on dangerous ground with National Front Disco, considering his young following who’ll take everything at face value,” comedian Sean Hughes said to Select magazine at the time. “It reminds me of the misunderstood lyrics of The Clash’s White Riot. Lines like ‘England for the English’ worry me ever so.”
“Well I like to feel, in some small way, that I’m not actually restricted in anything I wish to write about,’ he told Adrian Deevoy in Q in September 1992. “People look at the title and shudder and say, Whatever is in that song shouldn’t exist because the subject, to millions of people, is so awful.” Deevoy followed up by asking him if he felt people were innately racist. “Yes. I don’t want to sound horrible or pessimistic but I don’t really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other. I don’t really think they ever will.”
Tomorrow was the album closer and was later released as a single. Studying film at college at the time I always liked the promo video featured on the VHS compilation The Malady Lingers On. It featured Morrissey leading his gang like band on a walk through Nice. What interested me at the time was it was filmed in one take with no cuts. The director was Zack Snyder.
Jack the Ripper (Morrissey/Boz Boorer), B side to Certain People I Know, 1992
The first time I heard this was on the 1993 live album Beethoven Was Deaf. Another example of chucking away one of his more interesting songs.
Now My Heart is Full (Morrissey/Boz Boorer), single from Vauxhall and I, 1994
Vauxhall and I is possibly Morrissey’s best album. Mick Ronson had again been intended to produce, but his death in April 1993 saw production duties fall to Steve Lillywhite, a collaboration Morrissey called ‘extraordinary’. In his largely turgid autobiography, he wrote, ‘Peace came at last with Vauxhall and I, streaming out in a lavish flow and leaving me stupid with smiles.’
Here Morrissey embraces his love of gang culture, or gang culture of an era long gone at least. Now My Heart is Full was the album opener. The names murmured in the song Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt seemed odd to me at first, until I learned later that they’re the mob in the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock.
“‘Now My Heart Is Full’ has a sense of jubilant exhaustion with looking over one’s shoulder all the time and draining one’s reference points. I mean, even I — even I — went a little bit too far with A Taste Of Honey. I have perhaps overtapped my sources and now all that is over, basically. I have a vast record and video and tape collection, but I look at it now in a different light. It’s no longer something I feel I need to be embroiled in night and day.”
Interview with Select magazine, 1994
Nobody Loves Us (Morrissey/Alain Whyte), B side of Dagenham Dave single, 1996
A song that shares its sentiment with …A Place in Hell…and another tucked away as a B side. Again Morrissey imagines a gang; outlaws against the world with no one to look out for them or care about them. Much like he models his own image.
Nine times fined
but never mind
things can only improve
we are just stood here
waiting for the next great wound
and we just can’t wait
to make more mistakes
and to fluff our breaks
and to stuff our faces with cake
Lost (Morrissey/Spencer Cobrin) /The Edges Are No Longer Parallel (Morrissey/Alain Whyte), B sides to Roy’s Keen, 1997
Both of these songs were the B sides or with CD singles now the prevalent format, supporting tracks. They were both head and shoulders above the daft, though catchy A side, ‘We’ve never seen a keener window cleaner.’ Oddly in 2009 a reissue of the Maladjusted album included both these songs and dropped Roy’s Keen.
They’re both chock-full of the self-pitying whimsy Morrissey is rightly or wrongly famed for. On the liner notes for the 2009 release of Maladjusted, Morrissey wrote of Edge, “I am amused when people talk of the law of averages, or says ‘what goes around comes around’ — both redundantly untrue.”
That’s it, that’s roughly my favourite ten or so Morrissey solo songs that can, but probably can’t really when you properly compare them, stand up to the best of The Smiths.
Why nothing from the 2000s and 2010s?
Perhaps that was the era when I checked out of listening to Morrissey, but I don’t think it really was. I just think the standouts became less and less with each new release. When I heard Spent the Day in Bed I thought back to the days of The Smiths where a song like You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby — leagues better — was thought of only as a bit of a filler. Yet this was now front and centre the best Morrissey had to offer.
We can’t expect our favourite artists to keep up the quality of the younger, hungrier days, few in any discipline can. Maybe we can expect them to tone down the out of touch racist rhetoric though.