Secret Meeting score: 84
by Philip Moss
In 1987, The Smiths were at the absolute peak of their powers and Morrissey was the most revered crossover star in popular music. But after a power wrangle with co-writer, Johnny Marr, the group diverged.
Stephen Street, who had just finished working with Morrissey and The Smiths as producer on their final record, Strangeways, Here We Come, had seen no signs in the studio of the band and in 2012 told journalist, Paul Sinclair, that he “thought it was a bit of a tiff and a flexing of political muscles between Johnny and Morrissey.” Assuming that the band were on hiatus, Street sent Morrissey a cassette of demo ideas and asked if they’d be considered as b-sides for the two final, contractually obliged Rough Trade singles. But the split was final and after hearing the cassette, Morrissey had grander plans in mind.
Now, stepping into Johnny Marr’s Clarks’ Wallabees is an enviable task. And that was what Morrissey requested of Street. To be his co-writer and his right hand man on his new project – a solo album and a first offering under his own name. So, in an intense three-month period, starting that October, Street replaced one half of the best songwriting partnership since Lennon/McCartney.
The album would be Viva Hate. A record that would see the start of his romanticism for ‘vintage’ pop labels after encouraging parent company, EMI, to put the record out through the defunct His Master’s Voice (HMV) imprint.
The record was released just six months after The Smiths split and reached number one in the UK charts. It turned 30 year’s old this week, so how has it aged? Is it the best record of Morrissey’s much maligned and adored solo career?
Over a cacophony of swirling guitars, howling backing vocals and groove filled bass, Alsatian Cousin (its title taken from Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On) kicks off Viva Hate with a soundtrack that every bit matches the album’s title as Moz, seemingly the observer, documents a sordid homosexual relationship. The music is more ballsy and the lyrics – still with that astute eye for life’s microcosms of personal drama – are more collaged and spontaneous, while ‘that’ voice is exactly as was.
Initially, Morrissey had enlisted both Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce of The Smiths to be a part of the Viva Hate sessions. But after changing his mind – it was, after all a fresh start – he settled on Bucks Fizz session percussionist Andrew Paresi and (ex-Factory Records) The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly. Both star on the wonderful Little Man, What Now? as Paresi’s sampled drum loop and Reilly’s resonating guitars back a prototypical Morrissey lyric that tracks ‘a star at eighteen and then-suddenly gone… but I remembered you’. It’s a beautiful kitchen sink vignette, and at just one minute and 45 seconds is one of the most underrated moments in the Morrissey canon.
To many, Viva Hate is best known for its two top ten-charting singles, Suedehead and Everyday Is Like Sunday. The former, which predated the album by six weeks, gave Moz obsessives their first taste of the new Morrissey/Street songwriting partnership – and is every bit the quintessential Morrissey track. Lyrics that present him as the juxtaposed outsider. Check. Glorious guitars (written by Street and performed/elaborated upon by Reilly). Check. A groove you just can’t help but swing your ‘air gladioli’ to. Check. And a superb video that sees Morrissey head to his hero James Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Virginia for a spot of sightseeing. While Everyday Is Like Sunday is the ultimate ear worm and live favourite that ironically pays tribute to – and wishes the worst upon – the seaside towns of his misspent summer holidays as a youth- ‘Come Armageddon… come, come nuclear bomb!’ And despite the accompanying video being shot in Southend, one assumes the actual ambiguous inspiration is likely to be closer to his Lancashire roots in Rhyl, Morecambe or Blackpool.
Like Strangeways, Here We Come, Viva Hate was recorded at The Wool Hall, Bath and in many ways a number of its tracks carry on exactly where their final record left off. As the album’s centrepiece, Late Night, Maudlin Street is a dark and dense – part metaphoric, part autobiographic – look back to his childhood. Lyrically, the song opens with Moz saying ‘goodbye’ to his childhood home- ‘I was born here and I was raised here, and I took some stick here’, before reflectively weaving in one of the most special lyrics ever to leave his pen- ‘when I sleep with that picture of you framed beside my bed- oh it’s childish and it’s silly, but I think it’s you in my room.’ A song that has clear links to Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me (the venerated centrepiece of Strangeways), both in its teenage angst-filled imagery and its melancholic tone.
Like Little Man, What Now? and arguably one of the greatest songs ever put out by The Smiths, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, the guitar less, chamber squall of Angel Angel Down We Go Together is also sub-two minutes and was one of the tracks first given to Morrissey by Street on the demo cassette that convinced him that Street could be the new co-writer he was looking for. Dubbed ‘the orchestral one’ by Morrissey, he has since stated that it was directly written about Marr and the lack of appreciation shown to him by the music industry – ‘But when they’ve used you and they’ve broken you and they’ve wasted all your money. And cast your shell aside. And when they’ve bought you and they’ve sold you and they’ve billed you for the pleasure… I will be here’. Further fuel for the fire to those who believe Strangeways’ final track, I Won’t Share You, was inspired by the same source.
Perhaps the most beautiful and Smithsian piece of music on the record carries its most understood and critiqued lyric. Bengali In Platforms been much maligned for potentially racist connotations due to its controversial and ambiguous verses – ‘Bengali- oh, shelve your Western plans. And understand that life is hard enough when you belong here.’ But like any piece of poetry or literature that tackles subjects that are potentially moot, one quote in isolation can be twisted to say whatever one wants it to say. Particularly those among the press that view Morrissey as cantankerous, obnoxious and stubbornly contrary. In an interview with Louder Than War, Stephen Street disagreed with this view and set the record straight from his perspective – ‘I never thought it was a racist song. I felt it was a song about being an outsider, because of ones colour in the same way Morrissey has wrote about people being outsiders because of, say, their homosexuality’. When viewed in context with the earlier verse of ‘he only wants to embrace your culture and to be your friend forever’, Street is most probably correct.
As a non-musician himself, Morrissey placed a huge amount of trust in him as musical director and credit must be given as it’s the most eclectically mixed bag of Morrissey’s career. There are a number of near misses – not least, the forgettable, throwaway jangle pop of I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me and the brilliantly titled, but rather average, Margaret On The Guillotine. However, the record is held together by some flashes of stupendous songwriting and faultless vocals. So where does it rank in the big picture of Morrissey’s solo career? Well, in my opinion, it’s probably a decent bet for the bronze medal, worthy of the essential title and contains some of the finest moments not just from his post-Smiths’ output, but his career full stop.
Love Moz’s early albums, but not checked out his new record, Low In High School? Have a peek at our thoughts on it here.
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