Donald Clarke: The game is up for Morrissey the reactionary
How did we Smiths obsessives miss the signs in the 1980s. Because they were there
Morrissey: a bit of an arse. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images
I was wrong about almost everything when I was young. Almost all young people are wrong about almost everything. Calm down. This is not one of those Irish Times columns that demonises a blameless generation. We’re demonising all generations.
Only old people have the proper perspective to tell that young people can’t get anything right. Only young people have the perspective to tell that old people are full of dung.
Warble the previous paragraph to a jangly sub-Byrds guitar. “I was wrong about everything when I was young. La dee dah!” If the tune is good you’re singing a Smiths song. If the tune is a dud you’re singing one of the endless neuralgic dirges that Morrissey has vomited up since the band split in the 12th century.
Apparently some reasonable, liberal people still regard Steven Patrick Morrissey as a hero. They didn’t recant when, in 2010, he referred to the Chinese as “a subspecies”. They waved away remarks made in 2007 concerning immigration. “The higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears,” he said.
That’s like becoming the world’s tallest basketball player or the must drugged-up professional cyclist
His comments concerning the UK Independence Party this week – he said the Ukip leadership election was rigged to ensure an anti-Islam activist did not win – were scarcely more offensive, but they seem to have pushed the last waverers over the edge.
There is a lot of Irish to this story. Morrissey, second-generation Mancunian-Irish, was broadcasting a live set on BBC Radio 6 when he paused to comment on the stuttering career of Anne Marie Waters.
Waters, who was born and raised in Dublin, but is now “proudly British”, has over the past year managed the impressive feat of becoming the standard-bearer for Ukip’s furthest right flank. That’s like becoming the world’s tallest basketball player or the must drugged-up professional cyclist.
Waters, cofounder of the UK branch of the anti-Islam Pegida movement, was, according to this newspaper, “considered the most extreme of the seven candidates” who stood recently for leadership of Ukip. “A lot of people need to be deported. Many mosques need to be closed down,” she has said. Suddenly Nigel Farage seemed cuddly.
Anyway, Waters proved too right-wing for Ukip members (yes, you are really reading these words) and the obscure, only moderately terrifying Henry Bolton was elected as leader. Just one indie act of the Thatcher generation seemed unsettled by the decision. It wasn’t The Comsat Angels.
The Smiths wrapped images stewed in postwar nostalgia around their 1960s guitar jangle
“I was very surprised the other day – it was very interesting to me – to see Anne Marie Waters become the head of Ukip,” Morrissey said at the Radio 6 event. “Oh no, sorry, she didn’t. The voting was rigged. Sorry, I forgot.”
How did we miss this in the 1980s? How? Where were the clues? In the era when hip-hop was transforming dance music and the synthesiser was bringing European sensibilities to pop songs,
The Smiths wrapped images stewed in postwar nostalgia around their 1960s guitar jangle. Here’s Terence Stamp in The Collector. Here’s Pat Phoenix in Coronation Street. It’s Avril Angers in The Family Way. The lyrics moped along damp canals and desolate hillsides to ivy-wrapped cemetery gates.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Morrissey was declaring that “all reggae was vile”. He later described the music as “an absolute total glorification of black supremacy”. Okay, maybe there were some clues.
The durable brilliance of guitarist Johnny Marr’s hooks was partly responsible for our inability to see the reactionary nose in front of our stupid faces. Then there was the fact that The Smiths appealed directly to independent-minded individuals who refused to go with any flow.
That’s a trick that pop culture has always used: encouraging conformity through a delusion of individuality
Attend a Smiths concert in 1984 and you’d see hordes of independent-minded individuals – each wearing interchangeable variations of thrift-store chic – chanting along to songs such as How Soon Is Now. “There’s a club if you’d like to go,” we bellowed. “So you go and you stand on your own. And you leave on your own. And you go home, and you cry and you want to die.”
Let’s all go and stand on our own as one massed group. Millions of people who weren’t like anybody else came together to celebrate their determination not to come together with anybody who wasn’t like they all were.
That’s a trick that pop culture has always used: encouraging conformity through a delusion of individuality. If we were as irresponsible as Morrissey we would point out that fascism does something similar. But we’re not. So we won’t.
The game is up on Morrissey. We can’t keep pretending he’s mischievously subverting expectations of the contemporary pop star. We should, for old times’ sake, do him the favour of believing that he speaks sincerely. Reactionaries can embrace him with enthusiasm.
The rest of us can remind ourselves that the only sort of heroes worth having are those who rescue babies from burning buildings or stand in front of invading tanks.
Put that to music.