What he said


Released: February 11, 1985

The Headmaster Ritual
Rusholme Ruffians
I Want The One I Can’t Have
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
Nowhere Fast
Well I Wonder
Barbarism Begins At Home
Meat Is Murder

Recorded: November-December, 1984, Amazon Studios, Liverpool and Ridge Farm, Surrey; mixed at Island Studios, London
Personnel: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce
Producers: The Smiths (except How Soon Is Now? – John Porter); engineered by Stephen Street

UK chart: 1
US chart: –

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.

That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

When they released their second studio album Meat Is Murder a few days shy of Valentine’s Day in 1985, The Smiths were aged 25, 21, 20 and 21, from Morrissey to Joyce respectively. Though Morrissey, having left school in 1976 to sign on, was getting on a bit, the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It is surely no slight to call the Smiths a student band (nor, obviously, does such a label preclude the sensitive soul in gainful employment or, like Moz, on the dole). For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s study bedrooms, draughty, Soviet-style halls and rented rooms in Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of top-up fees, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. Another Eden, protected from the outside world by subsidy, rebate and time, where you formed your political beliefs away from parental influence, coagulated as a human being, experienced the self-loathing of casual sex, and saw bands on the cheap in the union bar. Historians will need to go back to 1973 and wipe the resinous smudges off a used copy of Dark Side Of The Moon to find a record as beloved of the student class as Meat Is Murder.

The Smiths’ formative gigs were in low-ceilinged clubs and rooms above pubs, but in late 1983 they moved on to the college circuit: Warwick, Durham, Bangor, Kingston, Leicester, Portsmouth, North Staffs. As Morrissey noted of the band’s growing audience, “They don’t spit or gob, they bring flowers.” That’s because they could afford to – they were on grants.

Two years, a dose of mainstream success and a bit of trouble with the tabloids later, and The Smiths still held every safe student seat in Britain. Even though the Meat Is Murder tour would take them into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens, the students followed. And brought flowers. Support act James found themselves garlanded in prematurely-chucked gladioli, “Don’t waste them on us,” Tim Booth would humbly implore.

Is it any wonder that Meat Is Murder scored such a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency? For a start, it’s Morrissey’s vegetarian manifesto album. The seeds of his flesh boycott were sown in 1973, when McDonald’s opened its first UK restaurant in Manchester (“It was like the outbreak of war,” he said), but on the powerful title track – saved till the end – he throws down a political gauntlet to his followers (“it’s not natural, normal or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry”). It made veggies of thousands on the spot.

In tune with this militant tendency, Morrissey’s republicanism rears its lyrical head too: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen … the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.” How well this chimed with the sloganeering, NME-reading socialism of the student demo. (Moz attended an anti-Abortion Act march himself in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration.” This man could have got himself elected rector of any university in Britain by 1985.)

The album’s masterful opener The Headmaster Ritual – a much punchier affair than the first album’s Reel Around The Fountain, suggesting a new sense of drama and masterplan – was even set at a seat of learning (the unnamed St Mary’s Secondary School), another bullseye with those just putting the gym and playing fields behind them. It even tapped into trendy Vietnam-movie fetishism with an unusually doctored sleeve still from documentary In Year Of The Pig.

The abiding irony of the Smiths is that their deepest appeal tended toward middle-class kids, when Morrissey’s milieu is stoutly working class. Rusholme Ruffians, Johnny Marr’s nod to Elvis’s His Latest Flame, describes “the last night of the fair” in terms not of someone who’s been dropped off by his dad. The “tough kid raised on Prisoner’s Aid” in I Want The One I Can’t Have and the “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” in What She Said seemed like fictional characters to most Smiths graduates, but first-hand authenticity hangs heavy like a dulling wine. It was as exotic as the beat poetry of hip-hop to some pale studes.

Though it’s ultimately Morrissey’s triumph – what Smiths album isn’t? – Meat Is Murder is also a notably musical album. Marr’s on scintillating form, confidently moving between skiffle, heavy metal and whatever you’d call the freight train/wailing riff of How Soon Is Now? Only on the awkward funk of Barbarism Begins At Home do our boys come slightly unstuck, although hats off to an “indie” band countenancing a 15-second bass solo.

Their first and only, it went to number one here, supplanting Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA like an agitated Dad’s Army-style Union Jack triangle. Morrissey’s ubiquity in the press meant that like ’em or loathe ’em, you could no longer ignore The Smiths.

Crunchily produced, inspiringly ordered, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums), it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

(First published in a Q magazine Smiths Special Edition, 2004)

Do you expect me to talk?

This will not be a long entry about Celebrity Mastermind, which I filmed at MediaCity, Salford Quays, in Manchester, on Tuesday. I am under strict orders not to reveal anything about the show, for self-evident reasons. I have not even told my Mum and Dad how I got on, other than to say, it was fine. That’s all I will say. Having done this most surreal thing, what can I safely tell you? Well … they film four editions in a day, over three days, which is quite an endurance test for host John Humphrys and the producers, directors, floor managers, technicians, runners and caterers, not to mention the audiences who I assume sit there for the whole day, too. Because it’s shot in Manchester, it’s acting as a canary down the coalmine of the BBC’s financially-driven migration north, as are Blue Peter, CBeebies, 5 Live and various other TV and radio shows, including 6 Music’s Manc outposts, Radcliffe, Maconie and Riley, who only moved in this week.

MediaCity is vast, custom-built and labyrinthine, but then so was Television Centre. It’s clean, slick, digitised and freshly painted and thus has zero character – it’s more like the backstage part of a large arena venue – but it seems to work. Though the celebrities who take part very much occupy the full spectrum of “celebrity” – starting at me and Escape To The Country presenter Jules Hudson, and rising to the dizzier heights of, say, Jason Manford, Erin Boag, Sandie Shaw and cricketer Michael Vaughan OBE – all are treated equally. In this respect, it was fun for me to travel First Class to Manchester (not that I was truly able to relax and enjoy the journey as I was wracked with self-doubt and nerves), and to have a dressing room, and be escorted about the building by designated young men and women in headsets. When I met my fellow contestants – won’t spoil it by naming them, you’ll find out soon enough – I was fully aware that they probably didn’t know who I was, but that I knew who they were. This is fine. In many ways, Mastermind is a great leveller. You don’t score points for how many times you are recognised.

Here’s the weird thing. I was so nervous about the whole thing in the days leading up to Tuesday, and terrified when I woke up on the day. But once I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly and found my cab, the nerves started to dissipate. I think this was something to do with the inevitability of my fate as it got nearer. There was really no more time to revise. I had done all that I could. I had been using quiz books to “revise” general knowledge, and once I put my final quiz book in my bag around Macclesfield, I knew that I would not be needing it again. I liken the whole experience to my fear of flying. I don’t like flying, and yet I have flown a lot. What happens is: I get nervous and uneasy in the days leading up to a flight, and feel a bit sick when I wake up in the morning, but the closer I get to flying, the less nervous I become. Thus, my nerves dissipate when I travel to the airport, when I check in, when I go to the gate, and finally, when I board the plane, by which time, I am no longer nervous.

As we were introduced to the audience by warm-up man Ted Robbins and trooped to our seats (I was placed third from the left), I realised that there was no escape. It was happening. I was going to sit in one black leather chair and eventually be directed to sit in another one, there to be asked questions on my specialist subject for a minute and a half, and subsequently on general knowledge for two minutes. (I liked the fact that the two rounds were referred to by the production team as “SS” and “GK”.) Like all TV studios, especially ones you are used to seeing on TV, the real thing is oddly unimpressive and commonplace. I remember thinking this when I went to a studio recording of Have I Got News For You – the set looks like the pieces of wood it is actually made from, as opposed to being made of TV magic, which is what we expect. TV Burp is the same. With re-takes and pick-ups, Mastermind is no less real, but the one thing that isn’t faked is the answering of the questions: these take place in real time, by and large, and the buzzer actually sounds at the end. The main difference between watching it and being on it is that you are on it.

It was a treat to be recording on the same day as Justin Moorhouse, whom I haven’t seen since we lived together in Edinburgh last year. He kindly put me up for the night in his house, too, which meant I could hang around afterwards in hospitality and eat what amounted to three lots of catering, one after each show. It was only at the end of the day that John Humphrys turned up backstage, all relaxed and without a tie, to have a couple of cans of bitter. So we nabbed him for a photograph. I’m glad we did. Although, frankly, there will be enough visual evidence that I was on Mastermind in December. I’m such a star-struck passenger, I took the little insert from my dressing room door. More proof that this ridiculous thing actually happened to me. Now time to move on with my life.