PORTRAIT OF THE SOLO ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
By Elizabeth Street ~
Upon the departure of guitarist Johnny Marr just weeks before the release of, Strangeways Here We Come, The Smiths called it a day at the height of their popularity.
Morrissey was now an I, and the path he would tread from that moment on was that of the solo artist. While staying aboard the Smiths’ U.S. label Reprise,
Morrissey would leave Rough Trade to sign on with Parlaphone in the UK
Within six months following the Smiths’ final album, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate, in March 1988. Working with former Smiths engineer and producer Stephen Street, Vini Reilly (Durutti Column) and Andrew Parisi, the Viva Hate sessions proved fruitful for Morrissey. Accompanied by singles “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” which both landed in the UK Top 10, Viva Hate reached the top spot on the UK Albums Chart upon its release. The album was certified Gold by the RIAA. Viva Hate was originally going to be called Education in Reverse, and in Australia and New Zealand some LPs were released with that title.
As with the Smiths, Morrissey’s output continued to be prolific, releasing singles “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” “Interesting Drug,” “Ouija Board, Ouija Board,” “November Spawned a Monster” and “Piccadilly Palare.” These singles along with the bulk of the B-sides would make up Bona Drag, a compilation of Morrissey’s from 1989-1990. Both “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” and “Interesting Drug” would reach top 10 in the UK, while “Piccadilly Palare” and “Ouija Board, Ouija Board,” both reached #2 on the Modern Rock chart in the U.S. Bona Drag was certified Gold by the RIAA.
Kill Uncle, released in March of 1991 found Morrissey working with guitarist Mark E. Nevin of Fairground Attraction as his musical partner. Alan Winstanly and Clive Langer who have their own impressive resume working Elvis Costello, Madness, and Lloyd Cole were charged with producing Morrissey’s second album. Though treading new territory both professionally and sonically, Morrissey was able to deliver singles, “Our Frank” to the #2 spot on the Modern Rock chart in the U.S. and “Sing Your Life” into the top 10 for His Master’s Voice and EMI.
Kill Uncle also ushered in the one element that Morrissey had been lacking since the days of the Smiths, a tour. Nearly five years removed from the final Smiths show, Morrissey recruited Boz Boorer (The Polecats) and Alain Whyte, who would both go on to serve as Morrissey’s co-songwriters for the next string of albums. Boorer assembled a line-up that included other musicians from the London rockabilly scene, Gary Day and Spencer Cobrin. Together the five would tour to sold-out shows across the UK and the U.S. where Morrissey’s star was shining brighter than the Smiths in terms of popularity.
Upon completion of the Kill Uncle tour and following Morrissey’s penchant for keeping busy, the new band joined Mick Ronson (ex-Bowie guitarist) in the studio to commence recording on Your Arsenal. Keeping with Morrissey’s feverish pace, the album was released in 1992. Four singles were released, “You’re the One for Me, Fatty” and “Certain People I Know” in the UK along with “Glamorous Glue” and “Tomorrow” in the U.S. “Tomorrow” would reach #1 on the Modern Rock chart in the U.S., while Your Arsenal was nominated for a Grammy. Appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live thrust the cult of Morrissey and the legend of the Smiths into the international spotlight.
Another wildly successful tour, this time in support of Your Arsenal, found Morrissey breaking arena records for sell-outs throughout the US and the UK, and solidifying Morrissey’s place on top of the Indie/Alternative mountain. The seed had been planted with the Smiths and now just a few years removed, a new generation of fans emerged from their bedrooms to pay homage to their champion. Sadly, less than a year after the release of Your Arsenal, Mick Ronson passed away.
Hot on the heels of Your Arsenal and the world tour that followed, Morrissey flanked by Boorer and Whyte join producer Steve Lillywhite in studio to create Morrissey’s second number one album, Vauxhaul and I. The single, “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” reached #46 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is the only song by Morrissey or The Smiths to garner mainstream airplay in the U.S. and peaked at #8 in the UK. Widely hailed as a masterpiece and voted amongst Q magazine and NME’s Top Albums Ever (not just for 1994), Vauxhaul and I found Morrissey at his ironic and introspective best. He would later confide that he expected the album to be his last.
To the relief of many fans, Southpaw Grammar found its way onto record store shelves in August of 1995. Again with the aide of Boorer and Whyte, the album shot up to number four in the UK charts despite the two singles, “Dagenham Dave” and “The Boy Racer” failing to crack the top 20. In a true departure from form, Southpaw Grammar stands apart from its predecessors. Although not short of pop tunes and Morrissey’s ever-impressive writing, the album contained two songs clocking in over the 10-minute mark and was limited to eight tracks in total. Though unique in both style (drum solo introductions, Shostakovich samples, etc.) and length, Southpaw Grammar is at once dynamic, forceful and a brave departure for an artist who refuses to take the easy road when it comes to his work.
With the 1997 release of Maladjusted, Morrissey, along with Boorer and Whyte, had now outlived the Smiths in term of time served. And with that, the band delivered a return to form harking back to Vauxhaul and I and Maladjusted was ushered out into the world. With the single “Alma Matters” leading the charge into the UK top 20 and follow up singles, “Roy’s Keen” and “Satan Rejected My Soul” representing the fruits of the Maladjusted sessions, this would be Morrissey’s final release for seven years.
Seven years can be a lifetime. For an artist of Morrissey’s prominence, this time served as a visible void in the topography of the music world. As an artist known equally for his quality of work and regimen with relentless touring and recording, the layoff was remarkable and provoked fear and unrest from his most staunch supporters that they might have seen the last of Morrissey as a recording artist. While catching the odd show as the band dotted the map with shows throughout the world, fans were introduced to new unreleased songs.
You Are the Quarry was released in spring 2004 on revived label Attack Records (Sanctuary). Upon returning, Morrissey (still co-conspiring with Boorer and Whyte) released an unabashed and vital collection that was praised by fans and critics alike, which further cemented the singer’s place as a true one-of-a-kind. With his absence now a thing of the past and single “Irish Blood, English Heart” receiving substantial airplay in the US and landing at #3 in the UK charts, You Are the Quarry just missed the top spot on the UK charts settling in at #2. In total four singles from the album reached the UK top 10 and Morrissey was back and more popular than ever.
With long time musical director Boz Boorer at his side and the looming departure of Alain Whyte from the fold, Morrissey enlisted guitarist Jesse Tobias to join the ranks. With the release of 2006 Ringleader of the Tormentors entered the UK charts at #1. Recorded in Rome with Tony Visconti (Bowie, T-Rex) and a guest string arrangement written and conducted by the legendary Ennio Morricone, the album revealed a power and lushness that rarely appears within the same collection of songs, as well as four more singles, “You Have Killed Me,” “The Youngest Was the most Loved,” “In the Future When All’s Well” and “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy.”
Once again picking up the pace that is wholly Morrissey-esque, winter of 2007 caught the man and his band back in the recording studio with legendary producer Jerry Finn, who had also produced You Are the Quarry. Years of Refusal was the outcome and despite poor support from labels Decca and Lost Highway, Years of Refusal reached #3 in the UK charts and #11 in the US upon its release in 2009. Singles include “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” and “Something Is Squeezing My Skull.”
Morrissey has stated he has an entire album of material ready to be released with the proper label backing, as well as indicated he might retire in 2014. In either event or both, Morrissey and his place in music history will continue to grow beyond the legendary status that has already been bestowed upon him. His work both as a solo artist and with The Smiths will find a new audience with each passing year and the importance of his will be celebrated and acclaimed for generations to come.