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)


Books 2013: coming up for air

TraceyThornBedsitDQarmchair-nation  going-south

Ah, I can hear myself now, repeating exactly what I said last year. I haven’t read nearly enough books this year. And once again I blame – if “blame” is the apposite word – The New Yorker. On a weekly basis it floods my time with words that cry out to be read and processed, and I succumb. Sorry, books! That said, even though it’s not enough to even make a Top 10, I am delighted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of the following eight books, which at least cover a certain amount of ground and six of which were published in 2013. (Montague Terrace is a compilation of the Pleece Brothers’ sublime comic strips.)

Tracey Thorn Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago)
Morrissey Autobiography (Penguin)
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Going South (Palgrave/Macmillam)
Joe Moran Armchair Nation (Profile)
George Orwell Coming Up For Air (Penguin)
Gary and Warren Pleece Montague Terrace (Escape)
Mark Kermode Hatchet Job (Picador)
Christina Kallas (ed.) Inside The Writers’ Room (Palgrave/Macmillan)


I guess there’s a theme. Three of the new books were sent to me by publishers at the behest of their authors. In Mark Kermode’s case, he actually asked me for my thoughts on Hatchet Job at the proof stage and thanked me in the acknowledgments. I also provided a quote for Inside The Writers’ Room, which I believe was used for publicity, although I saw no publicity for it. (It’s a great book for TV writers, or aspirant TV writers.) I paid for Morrissey’s book and indeed went out and bought it from a shop on the day of publication, which is something worth marking in any year. I also bought Elliot and Atkinson’s readable if scattershot vision of economic apocalypse.

Perhaps the square peg is George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, first published in 1939. (Hey, it and Montague Terrace are the only fiction titles in my tiny list.) I had a meeting with the head of development at a major UK production company in April who recommended it to me. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I mentioned it on Twitter and none other than comedy critic Bruce Dessau offered me his secondhand copy. I remain grateful to both parties, as I really did enjoy it.

Oh, and not in the list but pictured above as this is a review of the year in books: the brand new 2013 edition of Still Suitable For Miners (Virgin) gets a mention as it was the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1997, and remains close to my heart. Not only that, it means I get to spend some quality time with Billy Bragg every three or four years, which I did at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. I love the new cover artwork, too. Publishers are not falling over themselves to publish a book by me, so I take comfort from the fact that, in the past, one of them let me write a book about Billy Bragg, and that they continue to let me update it.

No point in resolving in 2014 to read more books. Not while The New Yorker continues to publish weekly.

Writer’s blog: Tuesday

Day Two

Seemed to hit a stampede of Olympics people on my Tube journey up to King’s Cross this morning, but I think there may be some kind of road race on in Central London, so it’s to be expected. Frankly, if you commute in London, inhuman mobile squalor is the norm.

Soundtrack to my commute:
THE ORB Toxygene (7″ Edit)
KASABIAN Where Did All The Love Go?
TOM WAITS Swordfishtrombones
BATTLE Tendency
ADELE Hometown Glory
FOALS Spanish Sahara
KAREN O & THE KIDS Igloo [partial, as I arrived at the British Library here]

Because the Library’s opening hours have changed during the Games, I accidentally arrived half an hour early this morning and was forced – forced, I tell you – to have a coffee. I knew the Costa in St Pancras Station would be rammed, and the Starbucks (my least favourite of the chains) over the road from the Library has recently been cleverly redesigned so that there’s almost nowhere to sit (good work, everyone), and in any case, the queue was literally out of the door. My only hope without a long walk was the Costa that’s nestled beneath the Premier Inn. I used to frequent this one before I had a Costa loyalty swipe-card and didn’t care that, as a franchise, it didn’t have the technology to top up or take points as payment. So I stopped using it. Funnily enough, they now accept the cards, so I’m 10p closer to a free coffee which I will probably never achieve as Costa don’t have wi-fi, and for a professional writer without an office, this is no good to me. Bet you’re glad I decided to write a daily diary this week.

Here’s news: I watched the whole of the 400m final on the Olympics last night, including the preamble/build-up, and a bit of the debrief, during which John Inverdale almost generalised about black people being better at running, and Michael Johnson took serious-faced issue. (He’s always got a serious face, though, hasn’t he?) It’s a minefield. Ironically, the runners in the 400m final included two very white Belgians, so it was not the time or the place for that dangerous argument. In a Season One episode of Friday Night Lights, the assistant coach made a flippant remark to the press about his black players being natural running backs, implying that they are really good at running fast, like “junkyard dogs”, I think he said. The black players walked out. He was almost sacked. As I say, minefield. Especially when Team GB is so thrillingly mixed up, ethnically: whatever anthropological/geographical point you wish to make, the modern world makes it futile to generalise. It’s like saying men are better at reading maps. It simply can’t be true.

A bit of scandal erupted just before I went to bed (well, it probably erupted way earlier than that, but I was nowhere near a computer): Morrissey had posted an on-tour blog entry on the True To You website, the offending passage of which can – and should – be read in full here. (When I say “should”, you could just ignore him. He is, after all, an attention-seeker with an innate ability to push the right buttons in order be noticed; I am merely adding to his desired chatter by furthering the story’s lifespan.) This time, he’s reacted negatively to British Olympic fervour, wilfully misinterpreted “patriotism” as “jingoism”, and likened the flag-waving quasi-nationalist mood to that of “the spirit of 1939 Germany”. He does not use the N-word, by the way, although it is implied by the year.

I Tweeted before bed that people should read the statement in full before they start calling Morrissey names, rather than pick up soundbites through inevitably skewed news media coverage. Some aimed flack at me as if I were defending him. I wasn’t. I agree with some of what he says, disagree with the way he said some of it, but defend to the death his right to be a dick in public. Events in 1939 in Germany did happen, and we should not be afraid of mentioning that, or the name of the party that Hitler led. But it’s always risky business to compare anything less ethno-genocidal to that infamous period. I doubt that the current “jingoism” going on at Olympic Park and in living rooms up and down the land will result in David Cameron annexing any countries or rounding up any ethnic groups (as much as, in his dreams, he might like to – well, round up the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed, at the very least). Mind you, nor does Moz think that.

I caught up with the reaction this morning, and much of it was antagonistic. It seemed important to some detractors to object not only to what he said, but to how good or not he is at singing. (Typical of this: “Morrissey remains a pillock who hasn’t been musically relevant since The Smiths split.”) It’s a pity he feels the need to dress up what might be taken as valid points – such as the one about the way a population is controlled by promotion of brands, including the Royals and the Beckhams – with bald shock tactics, but hey, who’d notice otherwise? (Having, in the past, written things that have enraged, I know how bruising it is to mess with a consensus, but I operate on a very modest scale to Morrissey and his thousands of devoted disciples, and I seriously do not set out to shock.)

Incidentally, I don’t think the news media is that bothered about the story. It was on Sky News, and their website (note: helpful use of word “Nazi” – in quote marks – in the headline), but it’s nowhere to be seen on the BBC News site, nor in my morning paper. Maybe it will stay that way.

Had a massive rethink about the script that I wrote yesterday, and I’m about to tear it up and start again. Wish me luck.

So, many hours have passed since the last paragraph. I really did it. I really did tear up much of what I wrote yesterday. This is partly because I’d written 15 pages and hadn’t got anywhere near the halfway point in the story. So major surgery was required. I hacked it back to the first scene, and went off in a different direction. It really helped to clear my block. Again, I have no idea if it’s “any good”, what I’ve been writing since about 11am (four hours with a couple of screen-breaks to read the new Sight & Sound), but I’m certainly getting on top of the story beats this time. I realise all of this would be a lot more interesting if you knew what I was writing, and for which channel, but you know the rules. I think I wrote a good joke about a font, and it’s not every day you can do that.

Packed lunch: same chilli as yesterday. No complaints from me. I brought two of the homemade almond/dried fruit/espresso biscotti I made on Sunday, which have come out rather well, but they are exclusively for dunking in a coffee, and I am denying money to the Peyton & Byrne cafe in the Library at this particular junction by drinking their free tapwater. The biscotti can, in this instance, come home with me and be dunked in a non-machine-made coffee in front of the telly. I made 28 individual biscuits, and intend to eat no more than two a day. I’m disciplined like that. I would have made a good monk.

Talking of which, I realised today that I am too much of an idealist. I’m afraid I found myself genuinely shocked by reports that the Church of England is selling its £1.9m stake in News Corp, as a protest against its lack of contrition over phone-hacking. The Church? Shares? In News Corp? A helpful man on Twitter called Paul Harrison furnished me with the info that the Church of England costs £1bn per annum to run, of which three quarters is covered by fundraising and donations, with the shortfall plugged by the stock market. This still shocks me a bit. I must have really thought that churches were funded via the collection plate. What a quaint, unspoiled, John Major-like picture of England I must cling to!

That’s a little picture to remind me of Edinburgh. I always miss the Edinburgh Fringe when I’m not there, and I’m not there, while a large percentage of the people I follow on Twitter are. I’m happy to say that I shall be working at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival – or MGEITF as all the cool delegates are calling it – which happens between August 23-25. This coincides with the Fringe, so even though I will be hosting screenings and Q&As during the day (with the stellar likes of Charlie Brooker, Steven Moffat, Victoria Wood, Frank Spotnitz, Simon Bird and Robert Popper), I should be able to see at least a handful of shows in the evenings. I expect these will be shows by my friends, as I won’t have time to experiment. I am sad that I’ll be working when Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Podcast show is on, as I’m sure he’d be enthusiastic about having me on as a special guest!

Oh, I was quoted on Channel 4 News about the Morrissey sedition. Not the programme, the website, but it was an honour anyway, as they are the best news programme. You can read the report here. (Thanks to Anna for asking and catching me at a good moment.) Incidentally, I was asked to be on the Today programme this morning, but I had to say no, as my head’s mashed enough as it is with this script without having to get up early and think hard enough about war films to sound erudite and informed on a programme as important as Today. (I turn down a lot of chances to be on things, you know. I’m not quite the egomaniac you think I am.)

I packed up at 5.30 at the Library, happy with my progress, in that I’m at about the same point in word-length as I was yesterday, but much closer to where I need to be with the story.

My Olympics displacement this evening came courtesy of a very early screening for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a lowish-budget American directorial debut set on the coast of Louisiana that’s best described as a lyrical subsistence fable from the edge of urban living, starring two non-actors, one of them six, the other a baker from New Orleans. My interest was piqued by David Denby’s rave review in the New Yorker. You can read it in full, if you wish, but personally I’m going to hold back. Why would you want to read a review of a film that’s not out until October? I will say this though: it’s utterly unique, magical, surprising and captivating. I’m saying this now, too: it’s surely an Oscar contender for 2013.

More golds won while I was looking the other way (although Twitter is like a constant commentary, so I don’t feel too out of the loop). If we’re not careful, we’re going to get used to all this winning. We may have to buy back some of our playing fields in order to let future Team GB Olympians play sport on them. You know, the ones both Tory and Labour governments sold off. Bloody disgrace.