A small boy, big ideas, you must please remember that I was nobody’s nothing.
Shortly before the nineties began I fell head over heels into the world of Morrissey. It all started in 1989 when a friend had gifted me a tape with Westworld’s “Where The Action Is” on one side, and The Smiths “The World Won’t Listen” on the other. I didn’t know who The Smiths were, I had specifically requested that my friend record Westworld for me, I was convinced that “Sonic Boom Boy” was the final world in popular music. Maybe it was.
But after I had listened over and over to “Where The Action Is”, I decided to flip the tape and find out who, or what, The Smiths was. It was over before it really began. “Panic” converted me, like Paul on the road to Domestos. Before I really understood what was happening I was falling, and laughing, headlong into a world that I still haven’t fully escaped from.
The story is old, you’ve heard it a million times.
I was sixteen, clumsy and shy. I had acne, a girlfriend who “went to another school”, an obsession with Adrian Mole and Oscar Wilde, I spent my Saturday afternoons watching “Carry On” films, and I was partial to adopting the position of lonely loner. How could I not have become a disciple of the cult of Morrissey?
Even when Britpop started and I discarded my rockabilly clobber, turned to skinhead and Mod culture, lost myself in the thrills, and spills, of dizzy London, and all the brash, outrageous, and free people I found there, I was still, somewhere deep within myself, utterly in love with Morrissey. Lots of the Britpop bands I most adored felt the same way, had been similarly changed by The Smiths; Suede, Gene, Strangelove, Marion, The Longpigs, Echobelly…even the likes of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp all owed something to the Pope of Mope.
As Britpop succumbed to the trad rockin’ beats, as the whole thing began to collapse under the weight of its own success, and mythology, I travelled from Edinburgh to London, not to wander aimlessly around Camden Market (as had been the case for so much of the nineties), but to see Morrissey at Battersea Power Station. You can see me leaping onto the stage during the encore of “Shoplifters of the World Unite”, my jacket ripped from my shoulders by security, shortly after I had kissed the nape of His neck. It remains my finest moment, and proudest achievement.
In the nineties, it was still possible to listen to, to adore, Morrissey without any real need to justify it, to excuse it, or to explain it. Even the broo-ha-ha of Finsbury Park seemed to be nothing more than a concerted effort by the music press to shift their marketing strategy, to distance themselves from the old ways, and to position themselves as “relevant”. Goodbye Mozzer, hello Northern Uproar.
There is a conversation to be had about…you know, but maybe it isn’t my story to tell? Whatever.
Morrissey released five studio albums in the nineties, and they tell an interesting, if not exactly fascinating, story about the decade, the rise and fall of an icon, and the nature of being Morrissey.
Following the success of his first solo project in 1988, “Viva Hate”, an album that owed as much to the talents of both Stephen Street (not just as producer but as songwriter) and Vini Reilly (Durutti Column). It spawned the monstrous singles “Everyday Is Like Sunday” with its borrowings from John Betjeman, and the magnificent “Suedehead”, with its nods to the world of Richard Allen’s controversial skinhead “Joe Hawkins”. That album bridged the gap between The Smiths and Morrissey, but it wouldn't be until 1991 that we would see Morrissey tour, and release new music.
A three year wait for…”Kill Uncle”.
At the time, and often in the years since its arrival, people decided that “Kill Uncle” wasn’t very good. One music magazine even cited some of the lyrics from the album as being among the worst in pop music history, mind you that same article also took a pot shot at “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam. This was the first Morrissey studio album to be released after I discovered him. I had bought the compilation album “Bona Drag” on release, I had a copy of “Viva Hate”, but after the fact, but “Kill Uncle” was the first collection of new Morrissey material I could lay claim to as my own. These was my songs, and them was rotten days.
Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had worked with Bowie, Madness, Dexys and too many other iconic British musicians to mention, it marked a genuine departure from the legacy of The Smiths in ways that “Viva Hate” hadn’t managed. It felt like a real pop record, an attempt to step outside of the narrow confines of being that bloke from The Smiths and to release an album that was, whisper it, fun?
If he wasn’t feeling it, he’d listen to old rock’n‘roll records in his room for 20 hours before reappearing with something great. If he was excited, he’d get you back in late at night. I love Kill Uncle – a great record that was out of time because it came out around Madchester. (Clive Langer, Classic Pop, September 2022)
In a music scene where everyone was madferit, or a mad ferret, the delicate charms of “Kill Uncle” were always going to be a difficult pill to swallow. No swirling hammond organ, no melons to be twisted, this was, instead, soaked in the rockabilly sounds that were beguiling Mozzer at this point. Hanging around at the Camden Workers Social Club, Morrissey was approached by a handsome young guitarist, Alain Whyte, with a tape of some of his songs. Suitably impressed Morrissey brought Whyte and a gaggle of other largely inexperienced young musicians, Gaz Day, Spencer Cobrin, and the former Polecat Boz Boorer into the fold, and under his wing, to become his de facto band. “Kill Uncle” was already in the can, recorded with Fairground Attraction’s Mark E. Nevin on guitar, Mark Bedford on bass, Andrew Paresi on drums and with backing vocals provided by his friend, and icon, Linder Sterling. Where these seasoned professionals gave the album a pop sheen, the new band were about to help propel Morrissey from indie icon to bona fide rock ’n’ roll star.
The first single, “Our Frank”, was released shortly before Valentine’s Day. How appropriate. How inappropriate? I bought my copy from Sleeves, the only record shop in town, and jumped on the bus to Dave’s house. All great musical moments in my life at this moment happened at Dave’s house. I heard The Stone Roses for the first time in his bedroom. He gave me a copy of Marc Almond’s “The Stars We Are” for my birthday in that same room. He also exposed me to the delirious delights of the New Fast Automatic Daffodils. As I say, important musical moments.
Listening to “Kill Uncle” now, it is difficult to understand why it was greeted with so little enthusiasm. It’s a funny, light, breezy, easy-peasy, album…littered with great melodies on tracks like “Mute Witness” and “Sing Your Life”, stuffed to the brim with the sort of high drama that he does better than anyone else; “I’m The End Of The Family Line” being a perfect example. Even those lyrical flourishes that had caused riotous laughter from music journalists, now seem to be, quite obvious, jokes; “Your boyfriend he, went down on one knee, well could it be, he’s only got one knee”. Come on, that’s wonderful stuff! The high point though comes with “There’s A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends”, a rallying call to the faithful, devoted, box room rebels, who had pledged their loyalty to him…their reward, to join him in Hell.
It isn’t all pop thrills and cosplay miserablism, by this point in the Morrissey story there were already people who were more than a little uncomfortable with some of his pronouncements, and lyrics, relating to race. “Reggae is vile”? “Bengali In Platforms” with its “life is hard enough when you belong here”? Now, on “Kill Uncle” came “Asian Rut”, the title alone was enough to have some people shifting uncomfortably in their seats. But unlike “Bengali In Platforms”, this seemed to be more carefully thought through, telling the (imagined) story of a young Asian boy who takes revenge on people who have murdered his friend. It’s a moving, and affecting, song.
Morrissey is clearly in character, and he manages to be sensitive to the plight of the boy at the heart of the story. That same care wasn’t present on “Bengali In Platforms”, that song seemed, lyrically, to be clunky at best, and insensitive/offensive at worst. The rest of that story needs a book of its own.
A UK tour was announced in support of the album, starting at the Dublin stadium in April, before heading to Europe, and then arriving in the UK for 3 Scottish dates. I managed to secure tickets for the second and third nights in Scotland, Dundee and Glasgow, and I don’t know if I had ever felt such a rush of emotion in my life. Standing outside of the Caird Hall in Dundee, gladioli in hand, and with my friend Colin by my side, I found myself pondering whether our decision to arrive almost seven hours before the doors opened had been a mistake. It was a grey and miserable day, are there any other days in Dundee? What was there to do but wait? Nothing. In a very un-Morrissey moment, we retired to a nearby McDonalds to get warm…we had also arrived without coats, figuring that they would simply get in the way of any attempt to climb on stage during the show. In the fast food shack/murder factory, we met two other disciples, Stan and Heather. Stan was from East Grinstead, a place I knew well…which surprised him, until I told him I was a Mormon and had spent many hours on overnight buses heading for the nowhere that is East Grinny to enter the Mormon temple. Curiously the headquarters of Scientology in the UK are also to be found in the same place…you do the math(s).
Finally, after too many hours, frozen to the bone, bored to the core, and aching for the warmth of the crowd, we found ourselves inside the venue. In front of me was a beautiful boy wearing a vintage denim jacket, across the back was a home made patch which bore the text “I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death, and I need to cling to something”. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but I was home. These were my people. We were each other.
Before Morrissey we were introduced to Jewish, lesbian, folk singer, Phranc. What a thrill she was. Sharp lyrics, great melodies, and an ability to turn the roars of “Morrissey - Morrissey - Morrissey” into fuel for her own performance. I loved her instantly. The next day I bought a copy of her single, “I’m Not Romantic”. It is a thankless task supporting someone like Morrissey, the crowd are impatient, they want the main event, that can make them boorish and boisterous. I saw some incredible bands supporting him, Gallon Drunk, Elcka, Sons And Daughters, Marion, Franz Ferdinand, and so many more. One of the best were Sack, a band that nobody now remembers, but whom everyone should revere, they were fabulous. Nowadays Morrissey doesn’t bother with a support act at all, instead a series of curated video clips are played, like his own personal YouTube channel, MozTube? It’s not the same. How could it be.
The gig was astonishing, a riot of limbs, songs, hopes, desires and melodies, all colliding inside the confines of a venue with a capacity of about 1500 people. There are photographs from the show in Linder Sterling’s “Morrissey Shot” which capture something of the mania. But being there, being so close to someone who had, in a very short space of time, come to mean more to me than any other living thing, was like a religious experience. I know, I know, “dial-a-cliche” or what. But I don’t know how else to explain it. Will Self, speaking in the Channel 4 documentary, “Introducing Morrissey”, talked about the phenomenon of young men, and it is mostly young men, flinging themselves onto the stage at Morrissey gigs, and suggested that they were hoping that touching him may heal them of the “scrofula of loneliness”. He was right, I felt that sense of longing for healing from the myriad boys, and some girls, who clambered onto the stage that night. I didn’t, I was stuck to the spot, gazing at the stage, hoping that I was connecting on some deeper level. Silly boy.
I attended an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Self several years ago. When it came time for questions from the audience I reminded him of his comments on Morrissey and asked him, “But I don’t know what scrofula means, and so I am unsure as to whether or not my touching the hem of His robe has healed me of it…can you tell me what it means?” He seemed to quite like that. Which was nice.
It was all over before it was over. A throat infection saw the show ended after ten songs. We had been warned by Phranc that Mozzer wasn’t feeling well, but that he was going to do what he could. Nobody felt cheated, nobody was angry. There was too much love in the room. I would have made the journey, spent the money, if he was only going to perform one song. I was in love, we do anything for love. Even that. What did Meat Loaf know.
On the drive home, Colin and I stopped in a lay-by and pulled some daffodils out of a roundabout, then we drove to a beach near our homes, and tossed the flowers into the sea.
Goodness, I don’t know why. It seemed like a very romantic gesture, or something. Maybe the flowers were meant to represent us? Tossed on the wild sea of life? Flashes of light, swallowed by the dark of the ocean? Of course, we might just have been a couple of pretentious little tossers. It would be a stretch to describe Colin and I as great friends, I’m still not really sure how it was that we ended up at such a pivotal moment in my life together. It would have made more sense for it to have been a solo endeavour. Maybe it was. Maybe I just inserted Colin into this in order to make my life appear less tragic. Maybe Colin didn’t ever exist.
The next night I was meant to see him perform in Glasgow at the Royal Concert Hall. The gig was cancelled. Then he was off to the States where the reaction to his arrival matched that of the one afforded to the Drab Four. One of those concerts was filmed, and later released as “Live In Dallas”. It captures, quite wonderfully, the mania, the fervour, and the chaos of the entire thing. The band looking better than they sounded, which is always important, Morrissey as beautiful as he ever had been, or ever would be, the crowd losing their collective mind.
Then in July I found myself clambering on board the overnight bus to London from Edinburgh, this time on my own. I hadn’t ever been to London before, it was terrifying and thrilling. I had secured a ticket for Morrissey at Wembley, and for the following night at the Brixton Academy. Stan, the boy I had met in Dundee, had offered me a place to stay and, incredibly, my parents were perfectly relaxed about the whole affair.
This time there would be no tickle in the throat to truncate the set, instead we were all treated to nineteen songs. All of them his own, nothing from Der Schmidts. This was a Morrissey concert… oh, he did, almost inevitably, perform two cover versions; “Trash” by the New York Dolls, “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam. Nods to his own inspirations? This is one of the great joys of being a fan of Morrissey, the way in which he is constantly introducing you to new people; actors, writers, musicians, characters, and icons. In these early days I read books about the likes of Edith Sitwell, the works of Delaney, the angry young men, watched “The Leather Boys” and “The L-Shaped Room” on a loop, became obsessed with Kenneth Williams and Yootha Joyce, and developed an even greater obsession with Cilla Black. I regret nothing.
The Royal Concert Hall show had been re-scheduled for late July and, despite having also seen several other dates on the tour by that point, I was still ready, willing, and unstable enough to see him again. As I took my seat in the upper circle of the venue, I glanced along the row and saw, to my surprise, a girl I knew.
Once a year the Mormon Church organised a Scotland wide youth convention at a place called Aberfoyle. A sort of outdoor retreat. Camping but with cabins. It started on a Friday night, carried on over the Saturday with “fun” activities, and ended on the Sunday with a spiritual fireside where children aged between 12 and 17 would stand up and declare, with increasing surety, how they *knew* the Church was true. Nobody was there for the activities, and absolutely nobody was there for the Church bit. No, we were all there for one reason…the Saturday night disco.
God help us.
Whatever you think they played at a disco for 100 or so celibate, socially awkward, adolescent, Mormon teens…is better than what they actually played. At some point in proceedings a brother and sister team from Dundee took to a makeshift stage and started lip-syncing to “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers, wearing “kilts” fashioned out of towels wrapped around their waists. Rather than being chased out of the room and beaten up, they were showered with wild, ecstatic, applause.
But that night something wonderful happened. I met my first serious girlfriend, and fell in love.
I don’t know how we first started talking.
But somebody must have said something.
During the disco we managed to spirit ourselves away to the swings, and there, in the dark, we talked about this and we talked about that. I liked her. I thought she might like me. She had beautiful hair, cut into a perfect bob. She was a bit odd…not dragging a vacuum cleaner around and telling everyone it was called Michael, odd, but still odd…eccentric? I thought she was great. She was wearing a watch that was made out of a sort of Lego brick thing…maybe a Swatch? You could make the strap longer/shorter by adding sections to it. I thought it was ace. We must have swapped numbers because I called her the next week. I still know the number off by heart. She told me she liked Cud. I didn’t know who Cud were. But I told her I liked them too, and then when the call was finished I rushed out and bought “Elvis Belt” and “Leggy Mambo” so that I could talk to her about them.
We “dated” for a bit. Can you date someone who lives on the other side of the country? Sort of. Letters. Phone calls. Kids stuff. Then it ended. I can’t remember how. I would have done something awful. I usually did. Maybe I found someone else? Someone closer? Someone new? I dunno. But it ended. And now here she was again, sitting on the same row as me at a Morrissey concert.
Up against my will.
First came talking.
Then came calling.
Then came a long love affair.
I was selfish and a bit of a prick. But from July 28th, 1991 all the way through everything else that came next, right up until the collapse of Britpop…we were each other. The end isn’t the important thing, the important thing was all the nonsense, all the passion, all the firsts. Do you remember the first time?
By the time Christmas arrived I was a different person.
I had lost my name, I wasn’t Paul.
I was “Elder” Laird.
I didn’t live at home.
I had left home two weeks before Christmas to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Think “The Book of Mormon” but without the laughs. Or the songs. Or the ability to enjoy it with your friends and family beside you.
A Mormon mission was a severe, austere, experience.
I was allowed to call home on Christmas Day and Mother’s Day.
I could write letters home once a week.
I wasn’t allowed to read any books that were not the scriptures.
I wasn’t allowed to watch television, or go to the cinema.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to any music other than Church hymns.
I wasn’t allowed to be on my own unless I was in the toilet.
I had to share a bedroom with my “companion” to ensure that nobody tried to have a wank.
I lived in a series of depressing bedsits across the South East of England….Bury St Edmunds, Shepherds Bush, Grays, Wickham Market, Great Yarmouth. Pounding the streets from early in the morning until late at night. Wake up was at 6:30, we had an hour of “companion study” where we read from the Bible or the Book of Mormon together, then a period of personal study, then we could get washed and dressed before leaving our digs by 9:30 at the latest. We couldn’t come home, other than to eat (and even that wasn’t encouraged) until 9:30 at night, then it was more study before lights out at 10:30 p.m.
“Hello, my name is Elder Laird and this is Elder Bumba (seriously), and we are missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We are coming around sharing a…”
Another door slams.
I was a missionary.
Spreading the good news.
I was miserable.
Shortly after I arrived in England word reached me that Morrissey was going to be performing a track from his forthcoming album (Your Arsenal) on a Channel 4 television show celebrating the 30th anniversary of Amnesty International. Pop music was forbidden on my mission. I didn’t care. I managed to arrange a visit to the home of a family we knew at the same time as the broadcast. I had my dictatphone in my bag, loaded with a blank C90 tape. The mother in the home was in on my plan and she made sure the television was on when we arrived. When the presenter announced Morrissey, I slid the recorder out of my bag and hit “record”.
Lying in bed that night I put on my headphones and lay listening, over and over, to the song. I was crying before the first play was over. I wanted to be at home. With my mum and dad. I wanted to be at home. With her. I wanted to be listening to this with someone else who would love it, not in secret, not accompanied by a gnawing, nagging, guilt that God was furious with me for breaking His rules.
It was three days after Christmas, the first time I had been away from my family at that time of year, and still the only time, I had been a “missionary” for two weeks. I had been cold, lonely, upset, frightened and confused for the majority of that time.
Every day I was told to “fuck off” more than once (I don’t really blame people, who wants someone blabbering about Jesus knocking on their door when Coronation Street is on?), I had been physically assaulted, I wasn’t allowed to call home, I spent 24 hours a day in the same physical space as my companion…a thoroughly obnoxious 21 year old from California who had stapled an American flag to the ceiling of our shared bedroom so that no other flag could fly higher than it. No, I’m not joking.
I had to have the volume on my Walkman turned down almost as low as it would go so as not to alert him to the fact that I wasn’t listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the end of the recording I had captured the roar of the Morrissey fans in the audience who had managed to secure tickets for the recording of the show. I thought about how happy I had been travelling from Dundee to Humberside, from London to Glasgow, traipsing all over this Sceptic Isle just to hear Morrissey. I had found community and belonging in a way that my own faith had never afforded me.