Tag Archives: The Smiths

Morrissey: Autobiography

MorrisseyAutobiography

The tremulously awaited Morrissey autobiography is now with us and it’s everything you wished for and everything you feared. This is a door-stop sized dollop of full-on Moz, not ghost-written and I’d be willing to bet not even edited, a vast slab of melodramatic and self-pitying soul baring that would be almost completely preposterous and laughably self-serving if it wasn’t so saturated with wit and passion and sheer outrageous conviction. It’s pretty damn well-written too, even if the author has a somewhat cavalier approach to strict chronology (and even what tense he’s writing in) and clearly finds the notion of dividing one’s magnum opus into easily digestible chapters hopelessly pedestrian. While you sometimes find yourself craving a bit more detail on the nuts and bolts of making those extraordinary records it can’t be denied that Autobiography is several cuts above your average plodding rockstar career summary.

Or at least it is for the first half of the book. In these first 225 pages Morrissey achieves the tricky feat of tempering his relentless denouncements of the various establishment forces that he transparently feels are working round the clock to deny him fulfilment (you know, schoolteachers, record label bosses, meat eaters, people like that) with frequent flashes of self-deprecatory humour and turns of phrases that bolster his reputation as one of the greatest of lyricists. One of his teachers will “die smelling of attics”. Another is “a sexual hoax”. The release of the first Smiths single Hand In Glove shattered their staunchly alternative label Rough Trade’s afternoons of “wok rotas, poetry workshops and Women’s Hour”. David Bowie “feeds on the blood of mammals”. It’s bracing, hilarious, fiercely non-ingratiating stuff that cedes not an inch to the many commentators who dismiss him as a one-note miserabilist and the style couldn’t be mistaken for that of another human being on the planet.

And once you’ve acclimatised yourself to the style you get quite a bit of insight into the formative years of a sensitive Mancunian lad raised in the 1960s within an extended Irish family dominated by doughty women. If the young Mozzer’s chief sources of misery were school and the brutal attitudes of teachers and would-be teenage gang leaders alike his salvations were television, books and particularly 45 rpm records, which he collected and studied obsessively. Later he would fall under the spell of The New York Dolls, Jobriath and other strange, sexually ambiguous acts on the margins of rock music, but his tentative attempts to establish himself as either writer or singer didn’t come to much until Johnny Marr came knocking on his door in the early 80s. Morrissey conjures the whirl and creative flood of the early days of the group he’ll always be best remembered for with rare economy and flair: “The Smiths’ sound rockets with meteoric progression; bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish.” Autobiography captures the emotional highs and lows of the band’s stormy five-year lifespan brilliantly even if it leaves it up to the reader to remember or research some of the prosaic discographic facts (anyone wanting a more objective summary of these years is hereby directed to Tony Fletcher’s excellent A Light That Never Goes Out).

After the group breaks up however the book becomes considerably less essential as Morrissey’s sense of being wronged by the world in general and by a long list of former collaborators, judges and media figures in particular starts to colour everything. It’s still a more or less entertaining read but the dramatic tension is gone with the narrative flitting around between perceived slights that people have made against Moz’s character and, fatally, a fifty page account of the court action initiated by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in pursuit of what he claimed was his fair share of The Smiths’ earnings that ends with judge John Weeks finding against the singer and branding him “devious, truculent and unreliable.” Morrissey does not like this one little bit and goes into obsessive, nit-picking detail about the spuriousness of Joyce’s case, repeating himself and restating his unimpeachable arguments over and over and over again. Sometimes, the reader is forced to conclude, it’s better to just let something go.

To be fair though, the book is not all Morrissey railing at the world. There are some unexpectedly tender passages scattered here and there amongst all the disappointment and bile. The singer pays moving tribute to the much missed Kirsty MacColl and several other prematurely deceased friends such as producer Mick Ronson, manager Nigel Thomas and video director Tim Broad, and is constant in his devotion to members of his family. There are also one or two accounts of Moz helping injured and distressed birds and animals, another constituency that he’s always been a fearless defender of.

But in the end you can’t help feeling that the book, despite delivering a surface punch as powerful and witty as anyone could have hoped for, has missed its mark ever so slightly. It’s a shame, because without the court case section and with some judicious trimming and collation of the isolated, loosely strung-together events and impressions that make up the back end of the book Autobiography would have been a genuine instant Penguin Classic, worthy of the imprint that Moz insisted on as part of the publishing deal. As it is, it’s closer to something like The Kenneth Williams Diaries – an insight into a unique and unmistakable British recording artist who’s as incapable of mellowing with age as a neglected stub of camembert at the back of the fridge.

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Guest Blog! Nicola reviews Palma Violets at Cambridge Junction, March 20 2013

PalmaViolets

As covered in other reviews describing their tour to date, this band is shambolic.  On reflection I think it’s a studied and practised shambles, giving their set its air of spontaneity, of keeping it fresh for the audience. Not that these lads are trying to deceive.  They are a celebration of noise, youth and verve. And, they are a party. Judging by the keyboard player’s mighty fine collection of wrist bands, they must have had a great festival season last year and can’t wait to pick up where they left off this year.

The PV came on stage to The Damned’s New Rose.  A whole generation of music fans think of The Smiths every time they hear Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, so these little details are important.  Furthermore, it set the tone for their set and gave us their mission statement.  They had been very ably supported by Baby Strange, a Scottish Sham 69  (and nowt wrong with that.  Even if derivative, they played a strong and well-received set.  It was shouty but the band maintained the fine line of not letting it become noise. You know that those who weren’t there in the day will take to it like ducks to water.)

Back to the party…

Given the age of the band and that they look like they have just got back from several days at Glasto having had their tent and all their clothes stolen, and don’t know what a comb is for (they’re boys, for goodness sake!), it’s not surprising their bombastic delivery is based on the discovery that amps really do go up to 11 (in their heads their do!) and Sir has wandered off from the music room so they scratch away at their guitars and beat the hell out of their drum kit for all their worth.

The lyrics of the first two PV songs were indiscernible (in the spirit of the gig me working them out by a process of elimination would be, well, taking them, myself and this review too seriously).  Thereafter, they ripped through the up and coming generation’s seminal CD of tunes.  It won’t take a genius to work out that it was not a long set.

When the band and the audience’s reaction merge and feed off one another it becomes an event.  Okay, in this instance a mini-event – it was hardly Pulp at Glastonbury.  The audience went wild (one’s heart goes out to Johnny Marr and his fans last week who were denied this Cambridge audience and wanted some reaction – anything!  Instead of the quiet, considered appreciation of Cantabrigians).  The unified response quickly turned into pushing and shoving and on occasion spilled over into bad reactions to unsolicited jabs and trodden feet, as it had done with the support band, prompting an appeal from the band.  Whilst it looked like the majority of the audience were sixth-formers, there were some youngsters with cautious parents and those that had been there in the day with in-between generations hardly represented.  (We spoke to a ‘seen better days’ father and his daughter in the queue for the cloakroom after the gig.  It turned out the daughter was the nominated driver!)

The lads, their play list, the audience’s reaction all smack of zeitgeist.  Are they just capturing a mood and a ‘you had to be there’ moment?  Was the gig evidence of the up and coming generation’s reaction to ceaseless bad news and lack of prospects – who wants to live with their parents forevermore because they can’t afford to buy and rents are extortionate? Hence, the two bands’ material harking back to punk’s glory days and the audience being ready for it – needing it!

Having abandoned the guide to delivering a good set, it calls to mind the Blade Runner (mis) quote: ‘a light that burns twice as bright burns half as long’.  Certainly, the PV boys are having a blast but will it translate into more?  The lead singer has got a driven-in voice that smooths out any rough edges and won’t let them down as they progress musically.  And, the band are right behind him.

The party peaked with an encore of 14.  The PV mate’s had already been invited on stage to join in with some shouting in a mic duties at the end of the set.  This time he was joined by the support band. As the houselights came on and the Junction staff started to sweep up, the band’s mate swept through the crowd shouting, gathering people like the pied piper of Hamelin, insisting the party wasn’t over determined to take it elsewhere.

In a nutshell: the gig was a party and, the best bit, everyone was invited.

 

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is just lovely, the most successful and surprising re-invention of the American high school movie I’ve seen since Donnie Darko. It’s told from the point of view of the troubled Charlie (a brilliant and subtle performance from the appealingly-named Logan Lerman), who’s starting at a new school after a period of forced withdrawal following a family tragedy, and while the themes of not-necessarily-requited love and the struggle to find ease within oneself are fairly familiar they’re handled here with rare sensitivity and effectiveness.

Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (actually an adaptation of Chbosky’s own 1999 novel of the same name), Perks includes all the elements common to this kind of set-up (a shy but bright new-comer, a quirky group of outsider students, a sympathetic English teacher mentor, a stoner party, some bullying and family conflict) but somehow manages to make every significant encounter, confrontation and emotional turning-point ring true in a way that that had me totally unravelled. It’s probably to do with the careful understated manner that Chbosky draws his characters and has them interact – nothing here seems forced or overdone, and for once everyone on screen seems utterly believable and convincingly nuanced in their relationships with the world. Even Ezra Miller’s flamboyant and attention-grabbing Patrick, who comes across as a camp caricature to start with, is eventually shown to be generous of spirit and capable of getting hurt as badly as anyone else in the throes of post-adolescent self-discovery (a far cry from his satanic turn in We Need To Talk About Kevin). Emma Watson is pretty good too, with her new post-Harry Potter hairstyle and a passable American accent, as the close friend that Charlie finds himself forming what may be an inappropriate attachment to. I’m not too sure exactly what period the film is set in – the presence of mix tapes as an important signifier of personality suggests the 80s, but one or two songs on the soundtrack indicate that it’s probably a few years into the following decade – but it doesn’t really matter as its appeal is pretty universal. This is both a smart and in places a powerfully affecting film which captures the pain and joy of being a teenager without resorting to shock tactics or melodramatic plot twists. Go see it, even if you can’t stand The Smiths.

The Sound Of The Smiths (updated 30/7/2011)

Only the hottest cutting-edge bloggage here, friends – this entry is a review of a two and a half year old CD that I’ve only just got round to acquiring which is itself compiled from tracks recorded and released over twenty years before that. Why on earth would you review a compilation CD, particularly one featuring a band who have already been over-compiled to the point of exhaustion by greedy record companies (“extra track/and a tacky badge”)? And if you were enough of a nut to buy a CD composed solely of songs you’ve already got in your collection why not get it straight away? Well, it’s like this…

The thing about The Smiths on CD, as opposed to The Smiths on all those beautifully packaged and designed albums and singles that I collected obsessively during my teens, is that they’ve always sounded crap. I know a lot of people, including one or two whose judgement is otherwise pretty sound, will be taking the opportunity to righteously sneer and be wearyingly dismissive on reading that assessment (“they’ve always sounded crap to me too, mate”) but it’s nonetheless true – the albums available now are from the original CD masters, which were done in the 1980s, and they’re tinny and over-compressed and the music just doesn’t live the way it does when you hear it on a 12 inch record. This isn’t vinyl fetishism by the way, I haven’t got unusually sensitive ears for this kind of thing and I’m perfectly happy to listen to most things on CD or even mega-squashed MP3, but this stuff is just bad. And that’s just a little bit heartbreaking, given how many hours Johnny Marr in particular spent slaving over the amazingly intricate arrangements of subtly layered guitars and effects that are one of the reasons this band was so extraordinary. Morrissey’s vocals and lyrics are so arresting, and the songs generally so short and compact, that it’s easy to miss this stuff, but it’s true: many Smiths songs have a dozen or more separate guitar tracks on them. And most of them just get lost on CD.

So I’ve been waiting for a Smiths re-mastering programme for a while. And with the release of The Sound Of The Smiths I thought I was going to get it. The unique selling point of this collection, what it has over Best or The Singles or whatever other ropey round-ups there are out there, is that the tracks have for the first time been re-mastered for CD, with Johnny Marr overseeing the process to boot. I heard an interview with Marr at the time this came out in which he mentioned that he’d been involved in re-mastering all the original albums, so I started anticipating some class of boxset: the four studio albums, all the BBC sessions, the aborted first stab at the first album produced by Troy Tate, all the many and splendid B-sides, the live album…it could have stretched to ten discs, easy, with no barrel-scraping necessary. Surely, the new compilation was just a taster? I held fire on it, and waited.

And waited. Thirty months later there’s absolutely no sign of any Smiths reissues coming, and the rumour that Morrissey is refusing to authorise them because they would give estranged drummer Mike Joyce an income stream seems to have gained more credence. The Sound Of The Smiths is still out there, and finally curiosity has overcome me. Was it worth the ten quid it cost to get a bunch of old songs I already own?

Absolutely. The first big plus about this album is the sheer quantity of material on it. It was released in both one disc and two disc editions, with the first disc consisting mainly of tracks released as singles, both in the UK and elsewhere, and the second being a mix of B-sides, alternate versions and the odd album track, and it goes without saying that the two discer is the one to go for. There’s a total of 45 tracks here, with only one song appearing in two different versions, which means that close to two-thirds of all the songs recorded by the band are represented. No collection that still manages to omit Reel Around The Fountain, I Know It’s Over, This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Rubber Ring could ever really be called definitive, but it’s not half bad, certainly striking value for money, and if you’re only ever going to get one Smiths album this just about edges it over The Queen Is Dead.

The second justification for getting this is the inclusion of a handful of high quality rarities that haven’t ever been properly rounded up before. We get the jaunty Jeane and the mysterious Wonderful Woman from the B-sides of This Charming Man, the searing live take of Handsome Devil from the 7 inch of Hand In Glove, a cover of fellow Mancunians James’s What’s The World, which I think was only ever issued on a cassette single, a harrowing live Meat Is Murder, and the Troy Tate produced demo of Pretty Girls Make Graves. Oh, and there’s also the extended New York vocal remix of This Charming Man, which seems a bit of a liberty given that the band never authorised it and it takes up space that could be occupied by one of the omissions I’ve mentioned. While I’m on the subject of rejigged singles, it’s worth mentioning (because the sleeve notes don’t always) that some of the tracks on the first disc are specifically 7 inch versions, so no atmospheric intro on Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me here.

And to finish where I started, the third and best reason to get this CD is the improvement in the sound quality over the existing album versions of these songs. The remastering is just great – the songs sound bright, vibrant and punchy, with bass and high end coming over as they should, and the wealth of detail in the recordings can finally be heard clearly. For ten pounds it’s a steal. I may not be getting a Smiths boxset for Christmas just yet, but this will do nicely for now.

Postscript, 30th July 2011: Rhino records has just announced that they’ll be releasing an eight album set this October consisting of the four studio albums, Hatful Of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, Louder Than Bombs and the live album Rank, all re-mastered with the approval of Johnny Marr. The pedant in me recoils a bit at the fact that this is being marketed as a “complete” collection, but it looks like a must-buy, particularly at £35 for the standard release. There will also be a stupidly lavish limited edition containing LPs, DVDs, posters, prints, 7″ singles and probably Morrissey’s long-lost sense of his own ridiculousness, all for a somewhat higher price. ‘Bout bloody time.