The last great pop eccentric

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The Independent Culture

'Ridicule," Adam Ant once sang, "is nothing to be scared of." As a succinct expression of the rock-star credo, it still takes some beating. From Elvis onwards, what has defined the best musical icons has been their borderline ludicrousness.

'Ridicule," Adam Ant once sang, "is nothing to be scared of." As a succinct expression of the rock-star credo, it still takes some beating. From Elvis onwards, what has defined the best musical icons has been their borderline ludicrousness.

But these days, unfortunately, ridicule has become the chief rock-star anxiety. Lad culture is to blame: where once things were a riot of feather boas, androgyny and outrageous opinion, we now have an endless parade of cagoules, sour-faced inarticulacy, and fretting about the folks back home calling you a puff. Liam Gallagher began his career thus: "Oasis," he would parrot, "aren't a bunch of performing f----in' monkeys." Interviews with this year's biggest rock act, Stereophonics, are peppered with one telling phrase. Good things, almost without exception, are enthusiastically described as "down-to-earth".

Next month, however, into the midst of all this conformity comes a decidedly alien presence. Morrissey, missing since 1997, is returning to the British stage on a 12-date tour. There is no accompanying record, and the PR operation on which he once depended has been wound down. The singer is cagily dipping his foot in the water. With the possible exception of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Steven Patrick Morrissey - who turned 40 in May - can lay convincing claim to being the last great pop eccentric. But is 1999 really the right place for him?

When The Smiths tumbled on to the music scene in 1983, they were self-styled refuseniks, voicing gleeful opposition to the groups who were colonising the charts. Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were pop's arriviste élite, dating models, shooting their videos in South Sea archipelagos, and standing as exemplars of the Thatcherite myth. From their name onwards, The Smiths took no part of this. Formed in Manchester by Morrissey and guitar player-cum-melodicist Johnny Marr, they spurned almost every trapping of Eighties pop celebrity. For most of their career, they refused to make videos. Even when the pop aristocracy rallied round for the starving millions, they were nowhere to be seen: "Band Aid," Morrissey said in 1985, "is the unmentionable."

And, in the eyes of his followers, such a stance only heightened his appeal. Morrissey was at odds with stereotypical pop star behaviour on all counts. Most importantly, he claimed to be celibate. Drink and drugs were anathema. Interviews would pivot around improbable passions - Oscar Wilde, Pat Phoenix, Sixties films like A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar - and such off-beam topics as the alluring smell of stationery shops. As of 1985's Meat is Murder album, he also began a crusade for vegetarianism. To promote the LP, Morrissey appeared on the cover of Smash Hits, clutching a baking tray on which was perched a tabby kitten. The cover line was "Would you eat this?" Those words alone must have caused the sudden rejection of a thousand Sunday roasts. For a Smiths follower, doing as Morrissey did was the whole point.

He was the kind of figure who couldn't truly be understood in isolation from his devoted cult - and by 1986, the year of The Smiths' masterpiece, The Queen is Dead, every town in Britain had its own branch. One week, Smithsdom would be in a lather about authors like Alan Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney; the next, attention would be focused on some unforeseen crush like George Formby. What united these minor icons was a place within a far-flung, musty-smelling England - all sticky café tables, trysts in darkened parks and chip-shop violence. My archetypal mid-1980s memory is of dancing at the Haçienda in Manchester, surrounded by Morrissey clones. The song was about the scuzzy allure of the British funfair. It was called "Rusholme Ruffians".

The Smiths broke up in 1987. Such have been the changes that have befallen pop music ever since, their demise now seems like something from long, long before. The key change was wrought by acid house, the youth cult whose garish hedonism decisively supplanted Morrissey's dour bookishness. And the boom in club culture also produced a new kind of star, embodied by Shaun Ryder - a Mancunian, like Morrissey, but the kind who had rejected walks in the city's cemeteries in favour of the altogether racier temptations of petty crime and drugs. In turn, Ryder was one of the original icons of the lad culture that stamped on Smithsdom's dying embers. Small wonder that in 1991 Morrissey was moved to squeal: "Dance music has ruined everything." Though he seemed aware that the image he had sculpted in The Smiths was in dire need of change, his efforts were rapidly overshadowed. By 1992, he had recruited a backing band made up of tattooed rockabillies (some of whom will accompany him on the upcoming tour), and his physique had mutated from the emaciated form of the Smiths years into a something altogether chunkier. Unfortunately, there was also the small matter of a concert at London's Finsbury Park that climaxed with Morrissey dancing with a vast Union Jack.

Back then, the puritanical outlook of the Eighties Left still pervaded music criticism, so any use of the flag by a musician was guaranteed to provoke seething outrage. Besides, Morrissey played at Finsbury Park in front a vast mural of two Seventies skinheads. In addition, he was already subject to criticism regarding two songs called "Bengali in Platforms" and "Asian Rut", and had made a habit of hurling the odd questionable comment at journalists: "To get on Top of the Pops these days, one has to be by law black," and "Reggae is vile" among them.

That summer, he turned in an album - Your Arsenal - that contained evidence of both a creative renaissance and an alarming new-found set of lyrical themes. "We'll Let You Know" was a backhanded homage to football hooligans that contained the line "We are the last truly British people you will ever know"; "National Front Disco" told the knockabout tale of a teenage lad in thrall to the political sect of the title. One of its more worrying passages found Morrissey half-mumbling "England for the English".

Clarification was demanded; none was forthcoming. Fuel was dripped on the fire by two more ill-advised quotes: one suggesting the Powellite belief that black and white would never truly get on; another, made two years later, claiming that violence by racist organisations was a consequence of their political stonewalling. You could sense the hurt felt by large chunks of Morrissey's Eighties constituency - made all the more painful by the fact that it was hard to characterise all this as a baffling aberration. Smiths fans looked, once again, at that world of George Formby, sticky café tables and visiting fairgrounds. It was a vision founded in the monochrome expanse of an England before drugs, the Pill and - oh yes - large-scale immigration. So it was that the canon of one the UK's best rock groups became regrettably sullied.

Morrissey could have staked a claim to being one of the spiritual parents of the Britpop upsurge, which, after all, marked a return of exactly the arch, Anglocentric worldview he had pioneered. But his baton was snatched by Jarvis Cocker - a new Morrissey by dint of his gawkiness, articulacy, and fondness for a very English kind of squalor. Pulp's songs contained lines like "Hey you in the Jesus sandals - wouldn't you like to watch some vandals?" It was The Smiths reborn, their focus shifted from post-war Manchester to the threadbare Sheffield of the Thatcher years.

But by the time of Cocker's rise, Morrissey had moved into a new orbit. An accomplished 1989 single entitled "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" had served notice of a burgeoning interest in the Sixties gangster milieu; the sleeve of "Your Arsenal" featured a picture of gangland luminary Charles Richardson; and in 1995, Morrissey sent flowers to Ronnie Kray's funeral. The gloriously fey wallflower of the 1980s seemed a world away. Morrissey was now given to posing with knuckledusters and talking about his love of boxing. It seemed forced, stupid, and really rather sad.

In 1996, Morrissey joked to an American magazine that he was "a former Eighties pop idol". The following year, his saintly façade was decisively fractured by one Judge Weeks, finding against him in a case brought by the ex-Smiths Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Morrissey, he said, was "devious, truculent and unreliable". However, in spite of everything - not least a solo career whose musical standards have varied wildly - his comeback is an uncomfortably enticing notion.

The chances of his successful rehabilitation are deservedly slim - but it's a crushing indictment of the pallid universe of cagoules, babies called Lennon and Stereophonics albums that we actually may need Steven Patrick Morrissey more than ever. Who, really, would have thought it?

 

Morrissey's 12-date British tour begins at Nottingham Rock City (01159 588484) 9 November. Credit card bookings for all dates: 0115 912 9000

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