Musical differences: Bigmouth strikes again

Is Morrissey a racist? That's the question that has troubled his fans since he gave an outspoken interview to the 'NME'. But now the singer claims he is the victim of a vendetta. Ciar Byrne reports

For so many bedsit-dwelling Loners in the harsh urban landscape of the 1980s, Morrissey was something close to a cardigan-clad deity. With his NHS specs, unfashionable high-street shirts and hearing aid, he gave voice to the youthful angst and isolation of the age; of poetry recited at cemetery gates; of the Moors murders, which cast a long shadow over the Manchester in which he grew up, the son of working-class Irish immigrants.

The son of immigrants. Or as he puts it in one of his most successful recent songs, "Irish blood, English heart". So why should Morrissey, of all people, have become embroiled in an extraordinary and increasingly nasty confrontation with the country's best-known music magazine on the subject of racism?

A recent interview which Morrissey gave to the New Musical Express, in which he acidly discussed the changes caused on British society by immigration, is now the subject of legal action and dispute. The NME splashed the story on the cover of its latest issue, along with the Smiths' song title, "Bigmouth strikes again". In large type, Morrissey is quoted as saying: "The gates of England are flooded. The country's been thrown away." Many of his overwhelmingly liberal and left-wing legions of his fans are questioning whether their hero, a committed vegetarian of ambiguous sexuality and avowed celibacy, has crossed the line that separates mere eccentricity from dangerous provocation.

Billy Bragg, the singer-songwriter and author of The Progressive Patriot, said yesterday: "I think what he said is inflammatory. He just doesn't realise he's playing with fire. I can't help feeling there's a certain wilfulness in talking to the NME and bringing these things up.

"Do I think he's a racist? No. Do I think he's foolish to say these things? Yes I do. He's someone who used to be able to articulate an Englishness that's attractive and charming. No, he's not a racist, he's a bore. And to the old Morrissey, that would have been even worse, and I speak as a Smiths fan."

But Mozza is fighting back. He has fired off writs against the NME and its editor, Conor McNicholas. In a statement on his website, he states: "I abhor racism and oppression or cruelty of any kind and will not let this pass without being absolutely clear and emphatic with regard to what my position is. Racism is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society."

So how did it come to this? The NME said it had gone into the interview expecting to talk about Morrissey's music and status and an icon, as well as his views on the modern world. Yet while the interview itself was attributed to the writer Tim Jonze, in an unusual move, the accompanying article was credited simply to " NME". Morrissey's camp interpreted this to mean that Jonze was unhappy with the way his words had been twisted, but the writer insists he stands by all of the quotes.

The interview took a dramatic turn from the standard pop profile when Jonze asked Morrissey, who now lives in Italy, after spending several years in Los Angeles, whether he would ever consider returning to the UK. The singer replied that Britain is "a terribly negative place", adding: "Also, with the issue of immigration, it's very difficult, because although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears."

He added: "England is a memory now. The change in England is so rapid compared to the change in any other country. If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won't hear an English accent. You'll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent."

In his statement, Morrissey accused the NME of being "devious, truculent and unreliable", words that were once used about him by a High Court judge, following a bitter legal battle with former bandmates.

He said he believed the magazine had "deliberately tried to characterise me as a racist... in order to boost their dwindling circulation".

And he blamed the souring of relations between him and the NME on their mutual history, conjecturing that the magazine was out to get him after he twice "politely refused" to accept its "Godlike Genius Award".

We have been here before. The music magazine fell out with the singer in 1992 over racism. To understand the enmity between singer and publication, it is necessary to go back to August 1992, when Morrissey appeared in a concert in London's Finsbury Park, supporting Madness. The backdrop to his act was an image of two young skinheads, and the former Smiths frontman wrapped himself in a Union Flag and danced, matador-like, around the stage.

The NME ran a cover-story asking, "Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?" querying Morrissey's use of nationalistic imagery. An angry Morrissey retorted: " NME have been trying to end my career for four years and year after year they fail. This year they will also fail."

But there were question marks over the lyrics of some of his songs, including "Bengali Platforms", which contained the lines: "Bengali, Bengali/ Oh, shelve your Western plans/ And understand/ That life is hard enough when you belong here." Another song, "The National Front Disco" contained the refrain "England for the English".

Morrissey's relationship with the NME was not always so bitter. As a teenager, he wrote to the magazine's letters page praising the Sparks album Kimono My House. In 1978, Paul Morley reviewed Morrissey's first band for the weekly, and five years later, a Smiths gig at Manchester's Haienda earned the group their first positive NME live review. For a time, the magazine and the singer were so chummy that it was dubbed the "New Morrissey Review".

Born in Davyhulme, Manchester, in 1959 to a hospital porter father and a librarian mother, who later split, the young Morrissey worked briefly for the Inland Revenue, before going on the dole. A fan of the US punk band The New York Dolls, his first band was a punk outfit called The Nosebleeds. But it was The Smiths, the band he formed with Johnny Marr in 1982, that was to bring Morrissey fame.

Signed to the independent record label, Rough Trade Records, the post-punk band captured the spirit of disillusioned 1980s youth and was soon championed by John Peel.

Songs from the Smith's self-titled debut album, such as Suffer Little Children about the Moors murders were bleak, but there was also a redeeming sense of humour about Morrissey's lyrics, accompanied by Marr's intense music. With the band's second album, the 1985 Meat is Murder, the political outspokenness of its vegetarian front-man became clear. More than two decades later, Morrissey remains true to the animal rights cause: last year he condemned Oxford as "the shame of England" for housing a new animal research laboratory and warned lab workers: "We will get you".

The Queen is Dead, the group's third album, makes regular appearances on greatest album lists, but by the time of its release in 1986, cracks were beginning to show. Bassist Andy Rourke was allegedly sacked from the band by a Post-it note on his car windscreen signed by Morrissey, although he later returned. But it was the musical differences between Morrissey and Marr that killed off the Smiths.

Morrissey would later comment: "I would rather eat my own testicles than re-form the Smiths, and that's saying something for a vegetarian." The singer's first solo album, Viva Hate, released in 1988, was critically acclaimed, as were 1992's Your Arsenal and 1994's Vauxhall and I. Kill Uncle in 1991 was a flop, and the later albums Southpaw Grammar (1995) and Maladjusted (1997) were also poorly received.

A vocal critic of Margaret Thatcher, one of the songs on Morrissey's first solo album, "Margaret on the Guillotine" prompted an official police investigation, with officers searching his home. More recently, he has lashed out at the Bush administration and the Iraq war, all causes that sit well with his fan base.

In 1996, Mike Joyce, the former drummer with the Smiths, brought a High Court case seeking redress for having only received 10 per cent of the band's earnings. Judge John Weeks found in Joyce's favour and soon after, Morrissey left Britain for Los Angeles, where he lived on Sunset Boulevard in the house that Clark Gable had bought for Carole Lombard.

For five years, he was not signed to a record label, but he has recently seen a return to form. In 2004, he released You Are The Quarry on Attack Records, followed by Ringleader of the Tormentors in 2006, which debuted at number one in the UK album charts. The album also appeared to reveal an end to Morrissey's famed celibacy, with the track "Dear God, Please Help Me" containing the lyrics, "And now I'm spreading your legs/With mine in between."

In 2008, Morrissey is releasing a solo best-of album, as part of a new deal with Decca Records, which will also see him record a fresh album next year.

Paul A Woods, the editor of Morrissey In Conversation, a collection of interviews with the singer which has just been published in paperback, said the row with the NME invoked "a strong sense of djà vu".

He added: "Morrissey is very careful to state his case, that he doesn't have any racist ideology. He's not expressing animosity towards a particular racial group." Describing Morrissey's nostalgia for a lost England, Woods said: "It's a remembered England, and in some places in his own lyrics a miserable England. Suffer Little Children about the Moors murders is absolutely black; it's a lament, a dirge. 'The Last of the Famous International Playboys' (Morrissey's third solo single), which name- checks Reggie Kray, is more romantic, a eulogy towards a Britain that didn't exist."

Morrissey in Conversation makes clear that whether they have been taken out of context or not, the singer's recent remarks in the NME are nothing new. In 1991, in an interview with Stephen Daly, he said: "England is not England in any real sense of the world. It has been internationalised, and that's screechingly evident wherever you look around the country. The English people are not strong enough to defend their sense of history. Patriotism doesn't really matter any more. So I think England has died."

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