Oops! … He did it again
Or did he? In today’s NME (above, left), Morrissey gives two interviews – one in person, the other a follow-up on the phone – in which his views on immigration to the country he used to live in chime very much with those of the Daily Mail and the News Of The World. Unsurprisingly, the spectre of Morrissey’s alleged racism has reared its ugly head. I feel I should comment, since I was part of the scheming cabal who sought to bring him down in 1992, when we did that (above, far right).
First of all, when, in August 1992, myself, Danny Kelly, Stuart Maconie, Gavin Martin and Dele Fadele knuckled down and filled five pages with our report and dissemination of Morrissey’s flag-waving behaviour at Finsbury Park’s Madstock gig, the NME‘s relationship with the great man was one of embarrassing adoration. If he moved, we put him on the cover. New Morrissey Express, they used to call us. But Moz always gave good copy, and his fans were as loyal as we were, meaning a Moz cover was a “banker”. However, disquiet had set in. He’d pulled out of Glastonbury, after his fans had bought their 49 quid tickets, and he pulled out of the second day of Madstock (another 20 quid down the pan). He’d been mucking about with skinhead imagery, and he’d said one or two odd things in interview (“I really don’t think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other”), and the lyrics to Bengali In Platforms (“It’s hard enough when you belong here” – implication: you don’t) had long rubbed liberals up the wrong way, even though he was simpy addressing what he’d seen around him in multicultural Manchester. Despite being a “news” paper, it was rare in those days of dinosaur printing presses that we actually ran “news” on the cover (the colour pages had to go off on a Friday, which meant that if anything happened between then and press day on Monday, it could only appear in the black-and-white news pages). To bin the planned Kylie cover (she still had the colour centre spread) and draw up a new one was thrilling indeed, but we felt, after a staff meeting, that the subject of Morrissey’s Union Jack dance to an audience certainly made up of a lot of fat, middle-aged skinheads was worthy of examination. That it was Danny, Stuart and I who did much of the leg-work was the ultimate irony – we were the paper’s biggest Morrissey fans. We felt he needed to answer his critics and deny racism, but he chose not to.
Interestingly, we never called him a racist, merely cautioned against the direction he was heading in. Even Dele, our only black writer, eloquently concluded, “For what’s it’s worth, I don’t think Morrissey is a racist. He just likes the trappings and the culture that surround the outsider element. He has some racist friends. And if he carries on this way, he’ll have thousands more.” The conclusion to the editorial went, “So why, at the end of all this, is NME bothering? Why are our knickers in such a twist? Well, there’s nothing new in this. In the past, when the likes of Eric Clapton, David Bowie and even Elvis Costello have dipped their unthinking toes in these murky waters, the music press have been equally quick on the case. And Morrissey, unlike, say, a bigoted idiot like Ice Cube, holds tremendous sway over thousands of fans in Britain and is generally regarded as one of our most intelligent rock performers. Therefore when he sends out signals on subjects as sensitive as those discussed above, there seems little room for playfulness, never mind ambiguity.”
Morrissey was “branded a racist” according to popular lore, which, although untrue, stuck. He declined to speak to the NME after this. In fact, it took 15 years, and a number of editorial regimes later, for the ice to thaw. (Key to remember though is this: when Danny, Stuart and I had decamped to Q, Morrissey never had any problems dealing with us there, which rather suggests that his beef, if any, was with the newspaper as a whole, and not with the specific people who challenged him. This makes it seem a bit more like an affectation than a boycott, doesn’t it? He is a drama queen, and a brilliant manipulator of myth, and it suited him to think that his argument was with the NME. Nobody ever asked him why he still happily entertained a magazine run by someone he had decided was his nemesis, even though Danny wasn’t.)
So now, here he is, interviewed in New York by Tim Jonze, and the world is very different. Morrissey is back on top. As a solo performer, he rides high once again, having put out two amazing albums in a row. The fans never really went away. He did. (I was once called names on a Morrissey forum for single-handedly driving Morrissey out of the country, but my answer was always: he seems so much happier in LA. And lately in Rome, where he looks as fit and handsome as he’s done for years. He misses England, it seems, but not the real one, only an imagined or fondly misremembered one.
The offending section of the Tim Jonze interview goes like this:
You live in italy now. Would you ever consider moving back to Britain?
Britain’s a terribly negative. And it hammers people down and it pulls you back and it prevents you. Also, with the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. If you travel to Germany, it’s still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden, it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are!
Why does this bother you?
It matters because the British identity is very attractive. I grew up into it, and I find it quaint and amusing. But England is a memory now. Other countries have held on to their basic identity, yet it seems to me that England was thrown away
Isn’t immigration enriching the British identity rather than diluting it?
It does in a way, and it’s nice in its way. But you have to say goodbye to the Britain you once knew.
That’s just the world changing
But the change in England is so rapid compared to the change in any other country. If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.
First thought: it’s not that shocking. It confirms that Morrissey has lost touch with his native country just like those salmon-pink, Sun-reading expats in Spain, who have a very fixed idea of when Britain was great and it’s circa 1945. Morrissey is from Irish stock, who arrived in this country in the 50s and 60s just as Poles and Romanians and Lithuanians are doing now. You might think Moz would have a more circumspect view of immigration, perhaps even a more compassionate one (not that it’s a given that one immigrant will have empathy for another). Then again, he doesn’t exactly say: “Enoch was right! Get back to where you belong!” – he merely laments the loss of British identity. I say: surely immigrants are part of the British identity and have been for decades. Moz does not take this view because a) he’s a bit older than me, and b) he feels no need to confirm his liberal credentials in public. Is he actually a liberal anyway? He doesn’t have to be; it’s not enshrined in showbiz law. The fact is, if you walk through Knightsbridge, which is a tourist trap anyway, you’ll hear every accent under the sun including British. But that image doesn’t fit his romantic argument.
Morrissey is not a racist today, and he wasn’t the last time. He’s a showman. He likes to cause trouble. Unlike 99% of all the other, younger bands interviewed in the NME, he is eternally interesting, and always comes up with something new to say. Morrissey has done what a lot of people who love this country do, and that’s leave it to go and live in another one. My guess is that if you live in Sweden or Germany, you’ll have noticed plenty of changes over the past couple of decades, just as we have. Again, it’s a romanticised view. But Morrissey is a romantic. Always has been. In the Smiths, he found romance in the grease in the hair of a speedway operator and as a solo artist he has found romance in a seaside town they forgot to close down, and in Latino gangs, and in being misunderstood. The one thing that seems to be true is that he was quoted in context this time, and there is less speculation based on behaviour and implication. He appears to have actually used the phrase, “England’s gates are flooded” (as quoted on the cover of the paper), which might have come from a Peter Hitchens column.
Morrissey’s manager seems to claim that he had an email from the journalist disassociating himself from the piece, but since his name appears on it, I don’t see how this could be true. The plot will probably thicken for a few days, but I doubt it’ll develop into another Jade Goody. Not enough people read the NME or – and I hate to say this – care about Morrissey.