Johnny Marr

JOHNNY MARR AND THE LONG SHADOWS

Into Paradise

courtesy of Fanning Sessions

 

Johnny Marr’s kept his Into Paradise hang-ups very quiet, hasn’t he ?

The Dublin band, who endured for the guts of a decade from the mid-1980s, were one of the first acts signed to Keith Cullen’s then-fledgling Setanta Records imprint and paved a path on many levels for a far better known slew who came after them. They were never the coolest or the most radical band on that label but were certainly one of its most complicated and, consequently, its most interesting. And they certainly generated no little blind devotion :- it’s just that there was never quite enough of it to help them pay their way.

 

 

David Long, the band’s formidable singer and leader, is easily among my favourite ever Irish songwriters and performers. For those who still haven’t converted, and history tells us that there may be a few, I respectfully suggest the band’s debut E.P. ‘Blue Light’ [1989], it’s 1992 single, ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’ and ‘Sleep’ [1991], Into Paradise’s own ‘How Soon Is Now’. That epic, seven-minute riff-song first featured as a b-side and was once played in its entirety on Irish national afternoon radio by Larry Gogan, a long-time champion of the band, as he was indeed of all new Irish music. And I recommend it as as good a starting point as any.

 

All three cuts – and I could have easily mentioned twenty-five – are fine representative aspects of the band’s more dominant personalities ;- serrated guitar pop, Crombie-cut indie and sulphurous rock music.

 

I’m happy to report that, although we’ve basically completed a full-on life swap in the twenty-five years since we last shared a bar tab, I’m still in touch with Long, even if its  irregular enough stuff.  He e-mails on links to his most recent work and general updates from his garret in An Ríocht and sounds, on the surface at least, like he’s keeping busy and well.

 

That once-furious, dense Into Paradise sound has been lazily characterised, diluted and transubstantiated over the years but I can still picture Long – with respect to Seamus Heaney and his gorgeous poem, ‘North’ – ‘hammering away at the curve of a bay with the powers of the Atlantic thundering behind him’. A vintage craftsman, whiling the small hours in an improvised studio, knocking out the riffs, whipping it up on the biscuit tins, sorcering out the tunes.

 

I’ve been thinking of him a lot over the last few weeks – him and the secular powers of the Atlantic – as I’ve lazily warmed to the new Johnny Marr album, ‘Call The Comet’. Which, like a lot of David’s own solo material – and at this stage there’s been quite a bit, even if you have to search hard for it – is another personable, breezy affair cut in the restless likeness of its creator.

 

 

Marr’s story is a remarkable one by any standards and although those who came of age during the 1980s with a love of music have long been familiar with the bones, I’d contend that its body lacked real meat until his first fully-blown solo album, ‘The Messenger’, in 2013, after which he finally cut loose. His fine memoir, ‘Set The Boy Free’, released three years later and in which he captured the topline aspects of a long, prolific and varied career, joined many of the dots. While beyond on the main stage, the stick-thin bridesmaid, long-time sidekick and flexible hand-for-hire, finally made it up the aisle and found a genuine voice and an escape route out of the shadow.

 

‘Call The Comet’ will almost certainly be troubling the All-Star selectors at the end of the season as they try and get the year’s best and most stylish fifteen releases into their best positions. Its certainly the most cohesive of Marr’s three solo albums to date, for sure. And even after almost forty years at the crease, there’s something perennially re-assuring about his work. Indeed it’s instructive to see it listed chronologically if only to remind oneself of its scale, spread and the diversity of it, and the easy command of the fundamentals that have long under-pinned it.

 

But he’s never been one to pause it on the past, either. Like the great Cork hurler, Christy Ring, he’s long known that better is always around the corner.

 

Into Paradise were never as overtly influenced by The Smiths as they were by two other Manchester bands, Joy Division and Magazine, the group founded by Howard Devoto after he left Buzzcocks in 1977. Like many other sussed young bands during that period, they certainly saw how The Smiths took a more lateral approach, not just in respect of their sound and demeanour but in how they related to the music industry itself. Even if  much of it was uncompromising to the point of being ultimately self-defeating.

 

And Into Paradise would have certainly seen merit and possibilities in there somewhere :- every half awake, semi-decent emerging group at the time did.

 

The band’s most dominant primary influence, though, was a relatively outlying band from South London called The Sound, founded and led by the late Adrian Borland, who subsequently produced the first two Into Paradise albums, ‘Under The Water’ and ‘Churchtown’. The Sound, whose positive critical notices never translated into either a broader breakthrough or good coin, were themselves a powerful cross-breed ;- a pent-up, new wave combo who took many of their lyrical cues from the cold simplicity of Joy Division and who sound, for the sake of reference, like a compound of the best of Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cure and even earlier U2.

 

 

The Sound were falling apart at the same time as The Smiths. Johnny Marr ended 1988 playing live with Bryan Ferry and was quickly co-opted into the ranks of The The while  Adrian Borland was recovering from a serious mental breakdown as his band – critically-acclaimed and a commercial disaster – had reached the end of its days. A world away in Dublin 14, meanwhile, Into Paradise were finally making hay, natural heirs on the move.

 

Several of their peers – Something Happens, The Stars Of Heaven, A House and especially their South Dublin neighbours, Blue In Heaven, with whom they’ve had a long-standing association – had already driven on, inked deals and were dropping quality wax. But Into Paradise were late bloomers in this respect – a recurring theme across the group’s career – and were never so much behind the curve as utterly unsuited to it, almost disdainful of it.

 

Its not that they were in any way less personable than any of their associates within the milieu at The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street ;- if anything, they were terrific fun and always great company. Its just they just lacked a simple signature dish. But quick wins and affable pop songs never came easily to them, and there was no ‘Snowball Down’, ‘Burn Clear’, ‘Widow’s Walk’ or ‘Across My Heart’ to remember them by. While others tied themselves to verse-chorus-verse-bridge-verse-fade, Into Paradise preferred to deal in texture, sound, nuance and fracture instead.

 

They sounded like they just wanted to implode live on stage, where they were genetically incapable of being as playful, flippant or fey as they were off of it. And they were also exceptionally straight – you could say they were dour, albeit smelling of cordite – and, both live and on record, just couldn’t do the light stuff. Which is to their credit, but …

 

Into Paradise aspired, instead, to the layered, grimly fiendish industrial sound pioneered by another late producer, Manchester-born Martin Hannett, at Cargo Studios on Kenion Street in Rochdale during the late 1970s. A sound that’s arguably best captured on early releases by the self-same Joy Division and Magazine, and perhaps also on key releases by Gang Of Four and Psychedelic Furs.

 

[As an aside, I don’t believe its entirely co-incidental that Into Paradise were so well got with another of their peers, An Emotional Fish. A meaty four-piece who, beyond their obvious pop songs, also traded in the same sort of depth. And much of whose later and more interesting material, especially that produced and engineered by Alan Moulder, is as curious and expansive, if not always as successfully executed, as anything that emerged from Ireland during the 1990s. And I include My Bloody Valentine here].

 

The Smiths were together for only five years, during which Johnny Marr was at his most prolific. He regularly reminds folk that he was 24 when the band split and that he’s now spent six times as long working for himself as he did as Morrissey’s writing partner. But even as a callow youth, he boasted a fine, broad frame of reference, from where he borrowed and lifted as he pleased.

 

Morrissey and Marr might well have invented indie – Marr also does a fine line in self-deprecation – but in as much as Morrissey routinely dipped into his own catalogue of favourite books, plays and films for couplets, one-liners and pay-offs, Marr too would infrequently pull a familiar riff or an old refrain from beneath his fisherman’s hat.

 

 

And he’s even borrowing from himself at this stage. One of the softer cuts from ‘Call The Comet’, ‘Hi Hello’, lifts its gut from two old Smiths numbers, ‘Half A Person’ and, particularly, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which itself pulls from Patti Smith’s ‘Walking Barefoot’. While over the course of its dozen other cuts, ‘Call The Comet’ is an anorak’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

 

A record that lyrically imagines a future where human values [must] trump commercial and economic ones, Marr moves wilfully from one past further into another, at several junctures all the way back to Rochdale. And at its most interesting, ‘Call The Comet’ summons the emerging, desolate sound of Manchester just before The Smiths. The titles alone – ‘My Eternal’, ‘New Dominions’, ‘Actor Attractor’ – nod to those two ground-breaking Joy Division albums, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’ that, perhaps above everything else, succeeded in capturing the mood and humours of the forlorn suburbs in which they were conceived.

 

Elsewhere, the raw popular mandate is served by the radio-friendly, souped-up opener, ‘Rise’, the fibrous ‘Hey Angel’ and the closer, ‘Different Gun’. While in the middle order, ‘Spiral Cities’ borrows a guitar strain from ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Killing Joke. No bad thing, either.

 

But I can’t listen to it without thinking of Into Paradise. ‘Call The Comet’ is awash with familiar David Long and Adrian Borland tropes :- the melodies are multi-layered and, lyrically, the world is presented as a daunting prospect, the future riven with fear. To trainspotters and long-time Into Paradise oiks, the record is flecked with familiar bits, riffs and progressions.

 

‘The Tracers’ – the first single could, for instance, be any one of a number of  Into Paradise cuts, but particularly ‘Burns My Skin’, from the band’s only major label album, ‘Churchtown’, released in 1991. And when Marr takes those lethal guitar solos – some of which are even up there with the magnificent lead lick on ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ – and then spoons on those production layers and the insulation – I’m reminded of that prime Into Paradise cargo. Much of which has long been ignored, still-born, derelict and forgotten.

 

I’m reminded of those greatest hits that never quite cut through :- ‘Here With You’, ‘Piece Of Paradise’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Bring Me Closer’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Red Light’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Stand Still’. And you’d be thinking of Long, squirreled away down in An Riócht, laughing away to himself against the sound of the Atlantic thunder.

 

 

But ‘Call The Comet’ is also the sound of contemporary technology, time and money, luxuries rarely afforded Into Paradise, and Marr’s grasp of production is as finely-honed and precise now as it was since he first began to formally direct the sound of The Smiths thirty years ago.

 

Into Paradise were never blessed with Johnny Marr’s gift for casually knocking out the  wonder so effortlessly and so prodigiously. But thirty years on, its interesting to hear their many ghosts, deliberately or, more than likely not, on one of the spikiest and most robust records of the year.

 

‘Call The Comet’ is a terrific Johnny Marr album, easily his best full-blooded solo elpee. But much of it, to these ears, is also the biggest and brightest sounding album Into Paradise never quite made.

 

Adrian Borland endured an adult lifetime of mental illness and took his own life in April, 1999, when he threw himself in front of a train in London. He was 41 years old when he died. A number of years previously, he arrived unannounced into Dublin and, for a while, was taken in and minded by Into Paradise. He was drinking heavily, was in a bad way and it required a real effort to have him repatriated with his family in London.

 

This aspect of his life is covered in depth and at length – as of course is his career in music – in Marc Waltman’s 2016 feature-length documentary film, ‘Walking In The Opposite Direction’.

 

His band, The Sound, were a primary influence on many bands, not just Into Paradise.  And perhaps, consciously or not, even Johnny Marr.

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MORRISSEY IN DUBLIN

 

Next week I’ll take the long walk down the quay to see Morrissey perform live for the umpteenth time. It’s more of a duty than anything else at this stage, I think :- like my annual subscription to the Resident’s Association here, none of whom I really know, whose purpose I don’t really understand and yet who, one day, may spring to my rescue when I most need them. So yes, I live in hope that, maybe once more for old time’s sake, Morrissey may discover his form in front of goal, keep his gob locked shut and pull himself up off the floor. Which isn’t beyond the contrary old street slugger, even if his recent formlines are far from convincing.

 

Indeed the last couple of shows he’s played at The Point Theatre in Dublin have captured much of his long solo career in microcosm. Uneven and disengaged affairs, by and large, with the odd dash of brilliance ;-enough to help retain an interest and to ultimately frustrate you. The impotence of Ernest, if you like.

 

The venue itself is a real problem. With its wide-open spaces, cold concrete finish and notorious sound traps, The Point is a depressing place to see any kind of half-interesting act ;- subtlety and lateral thinking are simply impossible there. And it certainly hasn’t been a happy setting for Morrissey for whom, as his audiences have become more selective and older, the place has just become too big. That the venue boasts all the charm of a working abattoir brings another layer altogether to his performances there.

 

A few of us still well up when we remember the night, back in November 1995, when Morrissey opened for David Bowie on a doomed double-bill that, in theory, was a dream ticket. But, plugging his atrocious fifth album, ‘Southpaw Grammar’ [diehards and disciples refer to it as ‘misunderstood’], he languidly ploughed through a dozen numbers,  struggling to stroke up the engine in front of a half-empty hall.

 

Morrissey despised that tour by all accounts – the idea that he might play second fiddle to anyone, even Bowie, was far less attractive in reality than it might have been on paper – and, from where we stood, just in front of the sound-desk, desperately trying to work up a thirst, that feeling was mutual. We lasted half an hour of Bowie’s set – he was promoting a misunderstood issue of his own – ‘Outside’ – and couldn’t wait to get back up into the familiar, welcoming arms of The Stag’s Head, where the porter and the loose talk took us well into the small hours. During which we cursed both of them long and hard.

 

It’s no co-incidence that Morrissey’s most magnetic solo shows in Dublin – from his very first in The National Stadium in April, 1991, when he was supported by a startlingly fresh-faced Would Bes – have gone off far from the hollow blow down in the docklands. To my mind he’s been at his most dynamic in The Ambassador [October, 2002], The Olympia Theatre [December 1999 and April, 2006] and Vicar Street [July, 2011] when, in good voice and injury free – and plugging his better material – he came alive at close quarters, making light work of the fourth wall as he ploughed head first through it.

 

 

Morrissey’s appeal – and to be fair, he can still clearly mobilise a crew and inspire a mania of sorts – has long been determined by the instinctive, direct-to-the-face connection he forges from author to reader, from stage to pit. Many of his live shows in this country, as has long been routine elsewhere, have been hijacked by those fervent loyalists who see them, not merely as concerts, but as semi-private novenas. Biding their time and scoping the geography, they’ll eventually take their chances with the security detail, mounting the stage and hoping for a quick touch of Morrissey’s relic before being escorted off.

 

However unpredictible he can be – on record, on stage, on tape, on the printed page – Morrissey is still a formidable concern when he’s fully fit. But into the veteran stage of his career now, it’s far more difficult for him to shake the routine knocks, many of which he inflicts himself. And the more he’s been unable to keep his mouth in check, the rattier and more dislikeable he’s become.

 

Reading some of his more bizarre – and dangerously loose – political views might lead long-time watchers to conclude that, perhaps, he’s just given up the ghost. Knowing that, on another level, the ghost – the media, the music industry, the marketplace – has long since given up on him.

 

It wasn’t always like that, of course. I was there on Saturday night, April 27th, 1991, on Dublin’s South Circular Road for what was, in effect, Morrissey’s first full-bodied live date as a solo performer. Pre-internet, pre-smart phone and when organised ticket swindling was far less sophisticated but no less an issue than it is now, that show sold out in less than an hour, during which he was the hottest – and most relevant – ticket in town.

 

The occasion – and it was very definitely an occasion – was every bit as raucous, chaotic, sweaty and scintillating as you might imagine, on a night when the partisan home end was swelled by a noisy travelling support, most of it male and pale and almost all of which had made it over to Leonard’s Corner on the ferry from Britain. And my sports analogies are deliberate :- much of the general hullabaloo that night had its origins on the football terraces and, from the off, the energy inside and outside the hall – one of the hearts of Irish amateur boxing – resembled that which you’d find at a feisty local lower-league derby or a decent card at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

 

As I made my way up past The Headline Bar, it was clear that Dublin 8 had been invaded ;- I’d never before seen such a range of spectacular quiffs, turn-ups, glasses, leather brogues and floral tributes. A terrific piece here documents in no little detail the fevered hoopla that surrounded that show, before and especially during it.

 

Morrissey has long been a moody and crabby tourist and both Johnny Marr’s biography, ‘Set The Boy Free’ and Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ paint unattractive, odd-ball portraits from both inside and outside of The Smiths camp of a performer prone to indecision, erratic behaviour, reckless decision making and routine hissy-fitting. And yet,  certainly at the beginning of his solo career, he seemed energised and re-focused – rested and finally in complete control, perhaps ? – and his good humour was reflected in many of his earliest live shows, some of which I saw at home and in Britain and most of which were electric.

 

Both the full-bodied quiffs – especially Morrissey’s own – and the floral tributes are long diminished now :- and much of the singer’s charm has wilted with them. He was in his creative pomp when his Trumper’s-tended wedge had the cut of an elaborate French stick but, like the rest of us, he’s struggled clearly for any real kind of elevation this last while. And I know this because I’ve seen that head close-up :- several years back I found myself sitting immediately behind Morrissey on a delayed British Airlines flight to London, days after he’d performed in Dublin on the ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ tour. And no, I didn’t reach out over the cold leather seats to touch it, much and all as I was sorely tempted to.

 

But he carries on regardless.

 

And he’s back in Dublin next week to plug his most recent album, ‘Low In High School’ which, like much of his solo material, is not without it’s moments – the first four cuts and the imperious, multiple phase ‘I Bury The Living’ take the laurels – although its nowhere near his best and most cohesive work. Which, for the sake of reference, and in order of appearance, I mark as ‘Your Arsenal’ [1992], ‘Vauxhall And I’ [1994], ‘You Are The Quarry’ [2004] and ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ [2006]. And like another increasingly frequent visitor to The Point Theatre, U2 – whose audiences [customers ?] have also become far more selective – there’s trouble afoot in the writing room.

 

 

Morrissey’s sound now mirrors his own physical shape and the depth of tone in his voice :- fuller, rich and scarcely recognisable from the nervy tenor he cut in 1983, when pitching up in tune was frequently beyond him. But far too often that production bulk just sounds like well-intentioned plodding around crudely-formed riff-making. Awash with keyboards and familiar lyrical tropes, too much of ‘Low in High School’ just sounds tired and incomplete, the ambitious ‘I Bury The Living’ the exception. In the anti-war lyrical tradition of Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’, it bedrocks the record in the middle-order and, in length and in spirit, resembles previous sinewy anchor tenants like ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ [from ‘Ringleaders’], ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’ [from ‘Years of Refusal’] and ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’ [from ‘Southpaw Grammar’]. All of whom stretch out, over time, beyond the obvious.

 

With the co-writing credits now shared more loosely around various members of his backing band, cohesion is an issue too and, again like U2 over the last decade, much of ‘High School’ just sounds forced and way less than the sum of it’s parts.

 

Indeed Morrissey’s best and most lucid record since ‘Ringleader’ is a compilation of odds, sods, the odd cover and assembled rarities released in 2009 – and honking of contractual obligation – as ‘Swords’. Eighteen cuts long, it captures some of his lesser known tracks recorded over the previous decade, ‘Ganglord’, ‘Teenage Dad On His Estate’, ‘Munich Air Disaster, 1958’, ‘Children In Pieces’, ‘Friday Mourning’ and ‘Because Of My Poor Education’ among them, as well as a meaty live take on Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’. And it has the not inconsiderable hand of Alain Whyte all over it.

 

 

Whyte might not be the most flamboyant and creative writer in recent music history but he’s certainly been Morrissey’s most ambitious and consequential partner since Johnny Marr. His songs buttressed the spine of every one of those solo albums from ‘Your Arsenal’ to ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ and he was a constant in Morrissey’s live retinue from 1991 until 2004. And, as with many of those who’ve worked so intrinsically inside the singer’s inner circle, he left the set-up under a cloud – how else ? – and was roundly disparaged, like a myriad of others, in the singer’s 2014 book, ‘Autobiography’.

 

While many of Whyte’s songs are as one-dimensional as the mercurial League Of Ireland wing wizard returned from England’s lower leagues, his credits – ‘Hold Onto Your Friends’, ‘Sunny’, First Of The Gang To Die’, ‘Life Is A Pigsty’, ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’, ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’, ‘Certain People I Know’ and a myriad of others – tell their own story. And he may, perhaps, have been far more central to Morrissey’s machine than the singer might otherwise concede

 

A considerable amount of water, record company spats, quality b-sides, bass-players and unseemly aggro have passed beneath the bridges in the many years since I first fell under Morrissey’s spell – mano a boyo – feet away from the stage at The Savoy in Cork in 1984. And in that time, I suspect I’ve become one of those hopelessly forlorn suburban cases, just keeping on keeping on, head down, that so dominate many of his songs. The sickly boyfriend who went down on one knee because, well, he only had one knee. And, when I fetch up next week in The Point, I’ll meet many more just like me. And worse.

 

Morrissey has consistently entertained me, appalled me, disgusted me, humoured me and, for many years, just obsessed me ;- for ages he was a conversation starter and a friendship former. We’ve been thirty-five years together now and, like many other couples who first got it on in secondary school, should probably have called it quits for good years ago. With the thrill far more irregular and the unquestioning lustre long worn, we’re doing it more for the kids than for ourselves at this stage. That and the promise, unlikely as it might be, of the occasional ride for old time’s sake knowing that, back in the day, when we were good we were, if not unstoppable, at least moderately compatible.

 

The odd time I hear the frankly preposterous notion that The Smiths were a) over-rated and b) not half as influential as history records them. This sort of half-baked pub argument is seen off quickly ;- the band was together for five years during which they were prolific, consistently challenging and when they profoundly turned popular music on its head. And there was a time too, difficult as it might be to believe now, when Morrissey, the solo artist, was just as important, provocative and relevant.

 

A number of years ago, a friend sneaked me a copy of Morrissey’s rider from 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ tour and, to be fair, it certainly lived up to, and on every one of it’s 28 pages greatly exceeded, everything I expected of the old tart – of Irish blood, English heart – in respect of his general demands and back-stage considerations. From a man who name-checks The Christian Brothers in one of his songs, how could it have been any other way ?

 

Apart entirely from the standard guff about clean towels, chilled water, toilets and executive travel to and from venues, I was especially taken by some of Morrissey’s demands for his own dressing room. And particularly his requests for Dubliner brand ‘organic mature vegetarian cheddar cheese’ and ‘Real Irish Kerrygold salted butter.

 

My father turned 80 last November. With a considerable quiff of his own that I can only but marvel at, he uses a basic mobile telephone that he never answers but on which he texts me irregularly. Usually using a stream of consciousness style, with no capital letters or punctuation, he’ll often prompt me about my mother’s birthday, various hospital appointments and the inadequacies of the Cork hurling teams.

 

Late one Friday night last October, he sent me the following message :- ‘mam says your friend Morrissey is on graham norton’. And I know that I will never, ever receive such a casually perceptive, subversive and pointed text again as long as I live.

 

Keeping it in the family, that’s us.

 

 

THE SMITHS IN CORK, 1984

It was shortly after midnight, early on Wednesday morning, July 29th, 1987, and it was Mark Cagney, host of ‘The Night Train’ on RTÉ Radio 2FM who, as serenely as ever, broke the news.

Home alone, and with the rest of my family off on holidays, I’d been in the habit of keeping the radio on longer and louder than usual ;- long enough, as it happened, to hear Cagney tell the nation’s more urbane taxi drivers, shift workers and anoraks that Johnny Marr had left The Smiths. And he more or less left it at that, light on detail, didn’t cite his sources and segued as seamlessly as he always did into his next track, which was more than likely a moderately left field, highly styled album cut, to which he was forever drawn. And, if I slept at all that night, I slept with my mouth open and my jaw hanging.

Cagney had one up on us. He’d either heard soundings of or had sight of that week’s issue of the London-based music magazine, New Musical Express, in which one of its senior writers, Danny Kelly, citing reliable sources in Manchester, revealed that Morrissey, The Smiths’ singer and Marr, the group’s guitarist and co-writer, had fallen out and hadn’t spoken in months. But while it was a terrific flyer, the story was vague enough on the future of the band and Kelly later admitted he may have ‘augmented’ his story with lines pulled from the back of his own head. The gut of the scoop was clear, though :- on the cusp of the release of their fifth album, all was not well with The Smiths. And this time it was serious.

Although the influential British music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – all regularly hit the streets around central London by lunchtime on Tuesdays, it was usually Thursday morning or later before those titles were available on the shelves in Easons, on Patrick Street in Cork, where I routinely picked up mine. And so I had an anxious wait before I finally got my hands on NME’s speculative exclusive, headlined ‘Smiths to split’.

History – and Johnny Rogan, the band’s forensic biographer – now tells us that, although The Smiths weren’t formally taken off of life-support by Morrissey until mid-September, 1987, Marr confirmed directly to Kelly within days of his initial splash that yes, he’d left the group he founded in Manchester barely five years previously. And so, in its issue dated August 8th, 1987, Kelly had his second back-to-back Smiths scoop, this time flush with quotes from inside the band.

For six weeks that summer, my first as a university student, would-be music writer, part-time laundry worker and full-time dreamer, there was really only one story. One which, under sustained scrutiny, was scarcely believable in the first instance and which was always likely to end badly ;- few groups have, I think, fallen asunder as carelessly and as needlessly as The Smiths, undone in the end by the lack of clear decision-making and delegation that had, since the group’s inception, characterised much of its off-stage activity.

I’ve written at length about The Smiths over the years, with varying degrees of success but with no little confidence, simply because they were the first band I so obsessively lived through and the first band I ever felt like I had shares in. I certainly spent enough on them and, because I’d invested so heavily in them in other respects as well, I  tended to defer to Max Boyce’s stock punchline when it came to analysing them :- I know because I was there.

And I certainly was there, if not at the very start, then certainly close enough to it, having had my head turned as soon as I heard The Smiths on both Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on RTÉ Radio 2, John Peel’s BBC equivalent and, bizarrely, having caught sight of them on late night television performing ‘This Charming Man’ on a one-off European music initiative featuring emerging music from across the continent. Captured alongside a feeble, long-lost British outfit, The Immaculate Fools, and a number of freakish cross-continental acts trying, as can often be the case, just a tad too hard, The Smiths stood out as a distinctive star turn simply because, in the abject normality that defined every single aspect of them, they were clearly anything but normal.

I was there too in the old Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played in Cork twice, on May 20th and November 18th, 1984 and when, within actual touching distance of them, they sealed the deal, almost face-to-face, as the most important and influential band of my generation.

Both of those shows took place as I was gearing up to leave secondary school and, with half an eye and two working ears on what was around the corner, fancied myself as a veteran of the local music circuit, having already been to all of one indoor live show and a couple of random outdoor events. But although I’d been squirreling and collecting for a number of years, back-filling the gaps in my developing ELO library, acquiring and swapping new material as regularly as I could and rowing in squarely behind Sindikat, a band from our school who’d done the unthinkable and formed under our noses, The Smiths were the first group whose releases, always flagged well in advance in the music press, I regarded as genuine events and to which I counted down.

And in this respect, the radio was another vital spoke :- Peel, and his long-time producer, John Walters, memorably hosted four separate Smiths radio sessions between 1983 and 1986 and, like Fanning, would play all of the group’s releases well in advance of their availability in the shops. For which you’d have a second or third-hand cassette on eternal stand-by in the old three-in-one in case either of them dropped an unexpected pre-issue, without warning.

 

 

It was Fanning, of course, who alerted us to those first Smiths shows in Ireland – I still consider this sort of carry-on to define the term ‘public service broadcasting’ – when he announced that they were on their way to play dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their debut album. And yet for all of the urgency that under-pinned the band’s recorded material, myself and my friend, Philip, didn’t really know what to expect when we fetched up outside The Savoy on a Sunday evening in May, 1984, in our long rain-coats, tickets in hand and mad for road.

But from early – and we were there very, very early – it was clear that The Smiths were much more than a little-known secret shared by a handful of us up on the northside. One of the more interesting aspects of the band’s history was how, throughout its career, it attracted fans from right across the social strata, much of it male-skewing and with a prominent contingent of hard shams in among the more introspective, centrally-cast indie-kids. Among whom was another friend of mine, Marc Buckley, another acolyte who arrived at The Savoy, as did numerous others, clutching a bunch of freshly cut flowers and wearing a considerable quiff.

Philip and myself soon found ourselves chatting to a pair of friendly girls we’d met on the tiled stairs and, for whatever reason, we told them we were supporting The Smiths a little later. And there were, of course, numerous similarities between ourselves and The Frank Chickens, the gobby Japanese lesbians who were actually due to open proceedings.

The Chickens, as with many of Peel’s more random curios over the decades, sounded far better in theory that they did in practice and, with their unsteady backing tracks, loops and high-octane, skittish twin vocals, failed to convince the locals, who’d started to assemble in numbers by the time they’d finished a quite bizarre set. They left the stage to the usual heckles and, responding to a not unreasonable suggestion from half-way back that they were, perhaps, not up to championship standard, replied – ‘We think you’re shit too’ – before beating a hasty retreat under a hail of gob, never to be seen in Cork again. A scene we’d witness again, in the same venue and in much the same circumstances, before the year was out.

But once The Smiths took the stage to the jagged, slash-cut opening bars of ‘Still Ill’, and Morrissey emerged from the shadows, his outsized shirt already opened to the navel, The Frank Chickens had been consigned to the footnotes of what was to become a spectacular history. Over the course of a sharp, frenetic and powerful sixteen song set, The Smiths just burned the house down :- in the long and diverse history of live shows in Cork, it is easily among one of the most lethal.

Because while that show has remained vivid in the memories of most of those who attended it, many of them left there that night intent on starting their own bands immediately afterwards, boldly going for it and  just taking their chances. And those among the audience that were already involved in fledging groups around the city, and there were many, left with plenty of food for thought :- if this was where the bar was now set, then what, really, was the point ?

The set-list for that first Cork show is widely available on all of the usual on-line resources and, of course, Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive ‘The Severed Alliance’ is incomparable in terms of context and background. But although Morrissey so physically dominated that Cork show – and I couldn’t believe how imposing he was, and how he so used his body for emphasis – neither could I get my head around how small and slight Johnny Marr was. And, of course, how his nimble hands made one guitar sound like three.

The songs were already well-known to anyone who’d bought the band’s unconvincing debut album, ‘The Smiths’, and who was familiar with the terrific additional content on their singles. But they also introduced one new number, a protracted, funked-up, bass-prominent beauty called ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, during which Morrissey baited the audience with flowers throughout the long instrumental passages and Andy Rourke stepped into the spotlight to reveal just how important his industry and frame of reference was to the band’s sound. And we were just learning all of the time.

 

 

The Smiths returned to The Savoy six months later, during which time they’d been sucked slowly in from the margins. But although the group would go on to regularly feature at the business end of the album charts, they never really enjoyed the consistent successes they craved with the shorter form, which was one of Morrissey and Marr’s primary ambitions for their group from the get-go.

Even so, the singer had already been rumbled by the tabloids who, picking up on the platinum-plated copy he routinely provided in interviews, had become as regular a freak feature in The Sun as he was on the hit parade, portrayed variously as a dangerous, anti-royal traitor, a sexual deviant and a macabre, terrorist-loving, tree-hugging weirdo. Or, if you like, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time.

The Denis Desmond/MCD-promoted, nine-date, eight-town tour of Ireland during November, 1984, took place less than one month after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the British Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, and during a particularly dark period in modern Irish history when loyalist and republican terrorism across the island routinely dominated the news agenda. And at a time too when many formidable contemporary bands just simply wouldn’t – or were advised not to – play in the north of Ireland.

With The Smiths on the road in support of their stop-gap, compilation album, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, Morrissey gave the London press a series of typically headline-grabbing quotes during the media campaign to promote it, one of the most notable of which referred to Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, and who had survived the Brighton bombing, which killed three people and injured thirty more.

‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing’, Morrissey claimed, ‘is that Thatcher escaped unscathed. I think that, for once, the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets’.

And it was against this backdrop, six weeks after U2 released ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and five months after Bob Dylan’s show at Slane Castle was marred by riots around the County Meath town, that The Smiths returned to Ireland. During which they played shows in Letterkenny, Belfast and Coleraine, as well as the usual stop-offs, fetching up in Cork for the second and last time on Sunday, November 18th, 1984, one week before Midge Ure and Bob Geldof recorded the Band Aid single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and a week after Madonna released her remarkable breakthrough album, ‘Like A Virgin’.

The mood inside The Savoy, second time around, was just as frenzied and excitable as it had been earlier that year, and maybe overly-so. The crowd itself was far bigger, as you’d expect, and the promoters had put an extra 50p on the price of the tickets [from memory, and I stand corrected on this, up from £6 to £6.50]. And, once again, myself and Philip were there, close enough to see the magicians work the stage, far enough away to avoid the on-going bash-ball inside the moshing zone. The support this time was provided by James, yet another fledgling and already highly regarded Manchester band [is there ever any other kind ?], who’d released a fine first record, the ‘Jimone’ EP, on the Factory label and who, during their formative years, enjoyed Morrissey’s very public patronage. For better and, possibly, for worse.

The Smiths’ set had changed quite drastically in the interim. And although they were ostensibly promoting ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, the band was also road-testing several of the tracks that would buttress its second studio album, ‘Meat Is Murder’. Taking their opening positions to the foreboding sounds of Prokofiev’s dramatic overture, ‘Romeo And Juliet’, they opened bravely with one of their more introspective cuts, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, which had featured as a quality b-side on their ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single earlier that summer, and into which they quickly segued.

Foremost among the clatter of new material was a frantic take on ‘What She Said’ and, close to the end, a bionic, souped-up ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, by which time the atmosphere inside the hall had turned sharply. Marr had become the unwitting target of a hail of spit half-way through, an unfortunate knuckle-walker’s pastime that many of us suspected, wrongly, had died after The Sex Pistols signed to a major label.

 

 

And after two audible warnings – at one point he arched his callow body back and looked like he was going to lash out – he eventually walked off just shy of the hour mark, taking the rest of the band with him. The Smiths returned, reluctantly enough it seemed to me, to do a two song encore, finishing on a high with ‘What Difference Does It Make’, but Marr had the last word :- he leaned into a vocal mic on the way off and told the crowd, not incongruously, how he’d ‘come to play and not to be spat at’, before leaving again, this time for good.

As the house lights came up around The Savoy, a section of the crowd, some checking their watches, began to vent, boo-ing initially – more, I suspect, in the direction of those who’d caused the walk-off than at the band itself – and then, once it was obvious that the show was over and that The Smiths weren’t returning, broke into a ridiculous chorus of ‘We want James’.

So while the Cork crowd was given an early flavour of some of the more sinewy cuts from ‘Meat Is Murder’, it also experienced the shortest Smiths set, by at least three songs, of that leg of the tour. But not before Morrissey, as the band set up for its encore, returned to the stage with a small sapling, which he wielded like a bicycle chain during ‘Hand In Glove’, and then deposited with gusto into the audience.

The Smiths certainly knew how to make an exit like they knew how to make an entrance. And they never returned to Cork again.

 

 

 

HOLY JOE CHESTER

One of the many memorable passages in Johnny Marr’s recent autobiography, ‘Set The Boy Free’, recalls a visit the author made to Matt Johnson’s London flat in 1982, back when he was still in his teens and his band, The Smiths, had recorded what would become it’s first single, ‘Hand In Glove’. Johnson was a couple of years older, just twenty-one, but had already signed a significant deal with a major label and, writing and recording as The The, had released two fine singles. The pair had crossed paths in Manchester the previous year and had formed a fledgling friendship.

 

Johnson’s girlfriend, Fiona, answered the door. ‘She showed me into the flat’, Marr writes, ‘where Matt was crouched on the floor, wearing headphones surrounded by equipment that was strewn all over the carpet. A Casio keyboard and a black Fender Strat and drum machine were all plugged into a little four-track cassette recorder, and there was an electronic autoharp lying around and some microphones, one of which was plugged into an echo pedal. I hadn’t seen anyone working this way before. It struck me as incredibly modern and innovative’.

 

And to an ambitious but wide-eyed young musician taking his cues from a pointedly traditional view of the industry, basic home recording might well have looked peculiar. Because even allowing for the legend of Brian Wilson’s ability to record his own group, The Beach Boys, using sophisticated techniques on unsophisticated machinery as far back as the mid-1960s, self-sufficiency was still largely regarded as a delinquent form. And while Johnny Marr was having his head turned and his eyes opened in Matt Johnson’s flat, Duran Duran were busy pressing the flesh in support of ‘Rio’, the record that, in terms of the hoopla that surrounded it, become yet another by-word for industry excess. Another snapshot from a period during which record companies couldn’t spend quickly or recklessly enough, both inside the studio and outside on the tiles.

 

But while it took many years for the process and the technology to fully develop into the commonplace, the core conceit behind home-recording – doing it, literally, for yourself – was marking another important line in the sand for the music industry. Removing, as it could, many of the impediments – some of them fanciful – that surrounded the recording process and making it far more democratic, in theory at least.

 

Reading those paragraphs in ‘Set The Boy Free’ I thought, rightly or wrongly, of Joe Chester, the Dublin-born musician and songwriter whose most recent album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, has just been released and who, on any given day or project, can work as sustainably or efficiently as the best of them. His five solo albums – and they are, to all intents, entirely solo projects wherein our hero takes on the bulk of the creative lifting – are but one aspect of a wide and varied career spent as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. Joe has long been as comfortable working alone as he is as part of a broader group ;- I first saw him in action many years back as one of Sunbear, an angular guitar band that regularly lit up many a dank evening in the belly of The Rock Garden in Temple Bar during the early 1990s. Someone who, depending on circumstance and mood, can pare it right back to the muscle too, as is certainly the case on ‘The Easter Vigil’.

Interestingly enough, my own copy arrived in the post after I bought it on-line from a record label based in Dublin 3, never previously regarded as a stronghold within the international music industry. Eight songs long, and softer and more spartan than much of Joe’s previous output, ‘The Easter Vigil’ is simply another chapter in a body of work that’s as impressive as that by any contemporary Irish artist. And the fact that he remains, outside of a small coterie of anoraks, fans and friends, a largely acquired taste, only adds to his lustre, of course.

 

Tall, thin and unlikely, he trades in uncomplicated, blue-chip songs that borrow their strokes from the best in show. His first album, ‘A Murder Of Crows’, for instance, features both Gemma Hayes on harmony vocals and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed To Love Her’ that, by so doing, pretty fairly reflects the crease into which he pitches. In every conceivable respect, he’s as far from Duran Duran as it’s possible to get.

 

I met Joe once, very briefly, back when I was producing a tidy music television series for tweens called ‘Eye2Eye’ and onto which we’d invited Gemma to play a short live set to an audience of forty twelve year olds and to answer some of their questions. And she was as decent and elegant as usual, unfussily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Joe, to her right, camera left, played her reluctant foil, buried deep in the half-light and uneasy anytime he was caught unwittingly in the glare. They populate each other’s work freely but even so, I was still struck by the ease with which they so instinctively sat in concert.

 

 

It’s a rare and remarkable gift, this, and one I’ve been fortunate enough to see close-up over the years in pairs as diverse as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Conall and John from We Cut Corners and Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott. And that Friday afternoon we spent in Studio Two in Montrose was every bit as visceral as it was heart-lifting :- my abiding hope was that, beyond the smoke and mirrors of television, the performers’ alchemy had rubbed off on some of the kids and that they left the campus more rounded than when they entered.

 

I’d been turned onto ‘A Murder Of Crows’ the previous year by Tom Dunne, the Something Happens singer who, back in the mid-2000s, hosted an excellent early-evening music show on Today FM. And not only was he wearing the record to within an inch of it’s life but he was using the title track – with it’s chintzy keyboard swivel – as a regular ident throughout his programme. My wife and myself had recently become parents for the first time and, on those many evenings spent stuck in the slow torture along The Coast Road in Sandymount and over onto The East Link, Tom’s impeccable play-lists would help me home to Dublin 3 and back to the general gormlessness that tends to be family life for first-timers. And for many months thereafter, I’d drive my daughter to crèche in the mornings to the sweet, sweet sounds of ‘A Murder Of Crows’ ;- it became an unlikely soundtrack and vital mental support to life as a bewildered new parent.

 

I’ve kept a keen eye on Joe’s various activities in the years since. And, as our family increased in size along the way, so too did the ambition and the wonder of his records. And it’s been onwards, upwards and varied ever since ;- in between various stints working as a hired hand with Sinéad O’Connor and The Waterboys, or as a producer du jour for practically every Irish act worth it’s salt, Joe would infrequently fetch up and quietly leave out another essential calling card of his own.

 

And by any stretch, ‘The Tiny Pieces Left Behind’, ‘She Darks Me’ and ‘Hope Against Hope’ represent a formidable decade of work, carefully hand cut, delicately produced albums that wear their influences openly and boast their impacts clearly. Each of them made, for the most part, by one man and his help, working discreetly to small budgets, off-Broadway, cost-effectively and without the fanfare.

 

It’s been five busy, varied years since he last released a long-player and ‘The Easter Vigil’ finds Joe in a reflective and sombre humour ;- in part a concept album of soulful reflection and mature observation that, thematically, is back-dropped by the Easter tenets of sacrifice, re-birth and renewal.

 

To anyone with even the most passing interest in the emotional power of music, religion can often be a bountiful – if unlikely – source. The Easter Vigil itself is one of the staples of the Roman Catholic calendar and, as a drama, is a remarkable affair, big on pomp, staging and imagery. The single most important celebration within the Christian faith, Easter’s third act sees Jesus Christ rise from the dead hours after crucifixion on a cross on Calvary on Good Friday. And as such, it has provided numerous writers and musicians with ample symbolic ammo over the centuries.

 

Even as a non-believer, I’ve long found the use of music during the Easter ceremonies to be particularly impactful and just as interesting as the narrative it supports ;- as with most great films or stage shows, the soundtrack bulwarks the storyline and delivers several key punctuations and sub-texts across a week of ceremonials. As of Holy Thursday night, for instance, all instruments are de-commissioned and put beyond use and all music, until the resurrection during The Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday night, is plain and unaccompanied. Good Friday ceremonies, like The Stations of The Cross, are stark and wistful, powerful performance pieces played out in churches that stay dark and unadorned until faith is restored after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After which, in simple terms, normal service[s] resume.

 

And in several respects, Joe’s album endures a similar catharsis using the same sort of dramatic tension. Only in reverse. From the peppy opener that takes place on ‘Spy Wednesday’ to the magnificent closer, ‘I’m Not A Christian Anymore’, located on Easter Sunday, the record’s central figure concludes a passage from confident believer [‘I know that my Redeemer lives’] through self-doubt, uncertainty and onwards into disbelief. When, over the album’s concluding bars, Joe sings ;- ‘that night in the sleeping house of God, I was a phantom walking in the corridor. I was a Christian then, I’m not a Christian anymore’.

 

But it had all been so different back at the beginning, seven songs earlier. ‘Spy Wednesday’ has an innocent Waterboys feel – appropriately enough, it could sit easily on ‘A Pagan Place’ – that springs to its capstone off of a saxophone solo by Anthony Thistlethwaite. Another packing considerable Waterboys history, Steve Wickham, lends the violin and viola parts while cellist Vyvienne Long decorates the room with deeper tones throughout. Elsewhere, ‘Dark Mornings’ – a first-class graduate from the Matthew Sweet/Ryan Adams/Lindsey Buckingham finishing school – is still the closest concession to the all-out, Cars-inspired finish that’s distinguished much of Joe’s previous work. And after that it’s just the magic of the soft hush ;- and it’s beautiful. Because for all of it’s allegory and bespoke references [‘the feast of Corpus Christi’, ‘Swastika Laundry’ and ‘the valley of tears’], Joe still finds the real wonder in the smaller, far less abstract moments.

 

The first single, ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’ is about exactly that, a chance encounter with the French actress Juliette Binoche as she makes her way across Meeting House Square in Central Dublin. While for all the swagger on ‘Dark Mornings’, the song ultimately – and maybe invariably? – finds itself dissecting matters of the heart as Joe points out that he’s ‘just looking out the window, waiting for you to wake up’.

 

And that’s where his gift lies. The devil may indeed always lurk amidst the detail but it takes the confidence of a master to allow the magic flourish deep inside the quiet.

 

CODA :- ‘The Easter Vigil’ is available in decent shops and on-line via Bohemia Records.

http://www.bohemiarecords.ie/#/joe-chester/

 

Joe is playing a handful of live dates in Ireland in support of ‘The Easter Vigil’. Róisín Dubh in Galway on April 23rd, The Unitarian Church in Dublin on April 28th, The Spirit Store in Dundalk on May 4th and Crane Lane in Cork on May 27th. So do yourself a favour.

 

 

 

 

MORRISSEY AND MARR AND ROGAN

 

 

Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ was the first in-depth biography of The Smiths and, consequently, generated much reaction, not least of all from Morrissey, its loudest central character. Published in May, 1992, five years after the band split on the eve of the release of its fifth studio album, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, the book was launched during a peculiar period in the singer’s solo career. With Johnny Marr long gone free-lance, most visibly alongside Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant as part of Electronic, Morrissey had released his third – and, at that stage, easily his best – solo album, ‘Your Arsenal’ and had finally started to make commercial inroads into the American market. A market where, for multiple reasons, The Smiths had failed to generate traction. But in early August, 1992, he was forced off-stage at London’s Finsbury Park during a factious live show while supporting Madness and, not for the first time, faced suggestions that he was toying, deliberately or otherwise, with dangerous, racially-loaded themes and images.

 

Ten days after that show, the front of the New Musical Express carried a spectacular shot of Morrissey taken at Finsbury Park, in a gold lamé shirt, draped in a Union Jack and in front of a huge black and white backdrop featuring a striking image of two female skinheads ;- ‘Morrissey – Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?’, the supporting text asked while, inside, the magazine rolled out several of its brightest and best writers and went in hard and high. At the core of the argument – a recurring one ever since Morrissey claimed that ‘reggae is vile’ during an interview in 1985 – was one of the songs on ‘Your Arsenal’. ‘The National Front Disco’ tells of a young man, David, who fore-goes his friends in favour of more extreme right-wing company :- ‘Where is our boy? We’re lost our boy’, Morrissey sings. But it was the line ‘England for the English’ that provided the song with its most questionable edge, in much the same way as one of his earlier solo songs, ‘Bengali In Platforms’, had done years previously with the line ‘life is hard enough when you belong here’. The singer refused to speak to the N.M.E. for the guts of a decade thereafter and, in his own book, ‘Autobiography’, published in 2013, makes the not unreasonable claim that he had been deliberately targeted by the magazine which, at the time, had come under new editorial management. And he goes on to robustly defend himself too, something he chose not to do at the time.

 

 

And so it was against this curtain and to this soundtrack that ‘The Severed Alliance’ was published. The Smiths had enjoyed an almost exclusively positive relationship with the music press during the band’s momentous five year history and often the raw devotion of some of the writers at the inkies mirrored that of the group’s support base, much of which was slavish. The band, only ever together for five years, was prolific, prodigious and panned gold at a furious rare. In support of its releases, off-stage and on, Morrissey gave sensational copy and, as a cover star, had become an enormous draw ;- the music magazines couldn’t get enough of The Smiths and even the most passive press releases from the group’s publicists were given serious news currency. And yet, even by 1987, little of substance was known of them – and of Morrissey, especially – outside of the carefully tailored narrative that had been spun out since the band first blazed into public view. Indeed one of the more interesting aspects of the story of The Smiths – and it is, even now, an incredible story – is how the band so carefully controlled its own story, especially when, in almost every other respect, they were clearly unmanageable. I can’t recall another group from 1980 onwards about whom so much was written but of whom so little of real substance was ever given away. Most music fans – and many more non-music fans, it seemed – had an opinion on The Smiths supported, one way or another, with either leggy clichés or the party line, and no more than that.

 

morrisseypointticket

 

And I, like many of my peers, was one of those. I was a devoted Smiths fan, the band who, to all intents, changed the way I listened to music forever. In fact, for years, they were more than just a band ;- its glib to say so now but there was a time too when The Smiths were a genuine lifestyle choice and, for five glorious years, I obsessed over them. I’ve regularly trotted out the line that they were, for the post-punk generation, what The Beatles or The Clash must have been to those who went immediately before us ;- incendiary, liberating, vital, all-consuming. And I saw that manifest directly in the cross-demographic nature of their audiences :- around Cork, The Smiths’ appeal transcended the usual parameters of class, gender and creed and their two live shows in The Savoy on Patrick Street attracted punters of all hues and from all arts and parts. Which is why I found ‘The Severed Alliance’ so absolutely compelling. Here, for the first time, I thought, was a profile of one of my favourite groups that went in where few had dared, finally putting real body on what had, in the ten years since ‘Hand In Glove’, been a finely-curated skeleton. The book clearly and comprehensively confirmed what many of us had long suspected, and which I’d heard around the gossipy fringes of the London set at the time :- that Morrissey was an obsessive and abrasive character who, often giddied by money, had still to get over the wonder of himself.

 

The book is especially strong on the personal and social backgrounds of the primary cast of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, the almost fairytale aspect of much of the group’s early career and is particularly effective when dealing with the band’s demise in 1987. The popular narrative at the time of the split was that, in the familiar traditions of popular music, the group simply fell asunder as its constituent parts grew apart. And there is no doubt that, on one level, this was indeed the case. But, using a wide breath of core interviewees – Morrissey was the only one of The Smiths who declined the offer to take part – and three years of forensic research, Rogan gets deeply in under the bonnet. And in doing so, got spectacularly on Morrissey’s wick.

 

It is to Rogan’s credit that he fairly wires into much of the mythology – plenty of it created by Morrissey and Marr – that surrounded the band, concluding that, far from being the last great gang in popular music, four like-minds shaking the world in unison, there was a point where The Smiths were really just another business construct too. And as was revealed subsequently through the British courts, the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were, essentially, no more than salaried session players. In delivering his verdict in a High Court case brought by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr in 1996, Judge John Weeks tellingly described Morrissey as ‘devious, truculent and unreliable’. Which more or less tallies with Johnny Rogan’s summary in ‘The Severed Alliance’.

 

And yet for all Morrissey’s disdain – he dismissed the book before and after its publication, despite claiming to not have read it and launched a coquette-ish personal assault on Rogan – its long struck me that, had the book been released nine months earlier, much of the fall-out from Finsbury Park would have been, if not wholly averted, at least diluted. Given how meticulously Rogan delves into Morrissey’s own background, it would at least have provided far more of a substantive context to much of the singer’s social and cultural peccadilloes.

 

morrisseystadiumticket

 

Like all four members of The Smiths, Johnny Rogan is an English-born child of Irish emigrant parents who, from where I stood, sounded like a pretty compelling character in his own right. I liked the cut of his jib and his approach to his work ;- ‘The Severed Alliance’ was his tenth book and, backed by a store of knowledge and a wide breath of reference, he was never going to be unduly intimidated by Morrissey or blinded by the sparkle of the tidy one-liner. Unlike, it has to be said, many of those who’d encountered him over the years and rarely went too far beneath the surface, myself included. And I alluded to that in my Melody Maker review of the book, which originally appeared in the edition dated May 9th, 1992 and which we’ve re-produced below.

 

The following year, I brought Johnny Rogan to Cork and interviewed him at length for the ‘No Disco’ television series. He gave us formidable copy and, once we’d stopped recording and put the camera gear aside, I walked him across The South Mall and took him for a long lunch in The Long Valley, a regular ‘No Disco’ perk that reflected the extent of the programme’s entertainment budget. Over door-step sandwiches and mugs of coffee, he held court for ages and went into fine detail on some of the key, and most contentious, passages in ‘The Severed Alliance’ and, for good measure, told a host of anecdotes he couldn’t, for various reasons, include in the book. But we spoke too about a couple of his other favourite bands – and subjects of some of his other books – notably The Byrds and The Kinks. And, at one stage, I think he even removed his shades.

 

MORRISSEY AND MARR – THE SEVERED ALLIANCE

[Omnibus Press]

 

Morrissey doesn’t like ‘The Severed Alliance’ much. He has wished motorway death on its author, Johnny Rogan and would, apparently, rather lose the use of his limbs than pick it up and flick through it. All of which adds some kind of strange allure to this, Johnny Rogan’s tenth book, one born of frustration, fascination and a belief that : ‘The Smiths were the most important group of the Eighties. Rogan originally slated 15 months for this book. And now, three years later, it’s here.

 

‘The Severed Alliance’ is a wonderful love story. About two young men desperately in love with records and pop music and fame and style and themselves. Two young men who just knew that they were going to do something. Along the way, starry-eyed bit-players like Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke pop in, a bus-full of managers say hello and we get to meet the ‘belligerent ghouls’ who ran Morrissey’s schools. We meet lots of women in Morrissey’s life [Linder, his mother, his aunts, Jo Slee, Gail Colson, Caryn Gough and Sandie Shaw], and there are some great photographs. This is very ‘warts-and-all’. And why not?

 

Rogan turns over lots of stones. He digs deep, reads Morrissey’s juvenilia and he dares to question the man’s motives, sources and opinions. But it is Johnny Marr that provides the central slab here. For almost the first time ever, here he is talking about The Smiths songs, about guitar lines and recording. Here he is, the pragmatic street-wise, cocky kid with a guitar, a pop-zelig who always knew where to draw the lines and who always played to his strength. The kid with the quiff who rescued Morrissey, handed him a vat of fame and some of the best songs ever and who, ultimately, created both the band and the singer as focal point and mouthpiece.

 

The story of The Smiths is a charming one, filled up with naivety, downright stupidity, lots of laughs, loads of contradictions and some frightfully important pop music. Sometimes it’s cold, often pitifully sad, but always pinned through with an air of utter romance. The Smiths were Morrissey and Marr. Even at the very end, amid confusion and despair and bitterness and the court-room, there is an on-going respect. The Smiths, strangely, remain guarded and gang-ish, still very respectful of what they had and what they did and who they were.

 

‘The Severed Alliance’ paints a wonderful picture of all that and it’s a bloody marvellous book. There is, of course, more to life than books like this, you know. But this week, at least, well …. Not much more.