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2014

Singles and Swindles: Morrissey

Morrissey's voluminous non-album tracks have been inadequately reissued for much of his post-Smiths career. Things started fine: the first Morrissey-solo singles compilation, Bona Drag [1990], includes 12 of the 20 tracks that, to that point, were only available on singles, excluding ‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name’, ‘Oh Well I'll Never Learn’, ‘Sister I'm a Poet’; ‘Michael's Bones’, ‘East West’, ‘Girl Least Likely To’, ‘Get Off the Stage’, and ‘At Amber’. Discographical affairs soon got more complicated; indeed, two messy singles compilations, World of Morrissey [1995] and My Early Burglary Years [1998], only reflect an overall sad state of affairs, released as they were at a time when the Mancunian singer's career, after the critics' high point of Vauxhall and I [1994], suddenly turned rudderless. Two of those eight songs that did not make the Bona Drag cut, but arguably just as good as an average Morrissey track, ‘Michael's Bones’ and ‘At Amber’, were both released on Burglary. ‘Sister I'm a Poet’, which easily could have been an A side, unsurprisingly was given pride of place on World of Morrissey; then again, so was ‘Girl Least Likely To’, perhaps Morrissey's worst song, which any unbiased estimation must conclude was an unfinished track: the non-vocal contributions seem to be a basic backing track awaiting overdubs and Morrissey's tune is... tuneless, soundling more like a scratch vocal. As if to warn his fans to expect to be ripped off, and ripped off again and again, ‘Sister I'm a Poet’ was repeated on My Early Burglary Years. And one of Bona Drag's tracks, ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’, was repeated on World.

In recent years, Morrissey has gone far beyond floudering when merely crafting singles compilations. For, he has also presented re-sequenced versions of three studio albums, Kill Uncle [1991], Southpaw Grammar [1995], and Maladjusted [1997]. As amusing as I find putting together alternate versions of an album, for the artist himself to do so comes across as a pathetic re-writing of history. Granted, as the dates given above suggest, Grammar and Maladjusted were the critical and commercial flops that derailed Morrissey's career, leading to a seven-year period without a major album release. Many of his fans were glad to see those albums get reworked; even as the results (discussed below) did little to help. But what were the artist's bold ideas to revive Kill Uncle, an album that got a mixed reception critically but which led to a wildly-successful solo tour the year of its relase? Adding one of those aforementioned eight B-sides (‘East West’), which is from an earlier sessesion with the same producers (Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley) but still barely fits in; adding a later B side (‘Pashernate Love’) that was not recorded at the same sessions or by the same musicians; and substituting an alternate version of ‘There's a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends’ (from the Live at KROQ E P) for the original studio version (this again means the former version was not played by the same musicians, because Morrissey's band debuted as a live act, had not played on Kill Uncle). Morrissey even tampered, if only slightly, with his greatest solo albums, Viva Hate [1988] and Your Arsenal [1992]. The latter, when reissued in 2014, found its concluding track, ‘Tomorrow’, in its original form replaced by an inferior remix originally released as a single in the U S only. The former, when reissued in 2012, found one track, ‘Ordinary Boys’, entirely replaced by a out-take from the sessions, ‘Treat Me Like a Human Being’—this track having already been released as a B side of a pointless 2011 single release of ‘Glamorous Glue’ (from Arsenal) timed to promote a “greatest hits” compilation with a grammatically-troubled title. Very Best of Morrissey? Perhaps it should have been called Very Best of the Morrissey for full effect. Shockingly (actually, not shockingly at all), this collection included ‘Girl Least Likely To’, meaning that any novice listener approaching this particular "greatest hits" as a sampling of Morrissey's finest recorded work is likely to conclude that the guy cannot even fill up a single album.

In the meantime, there was a (mostly) thorough compilation of Morrissey's early singles, The H.M.V/ Parlophone Singles '88-'95. Fans were left hoping that a sequel of sorts to this compilation would surface at some point; it could cover his recent years more thoroughly than the fourth singles compilation, Swords [2009], which, on the upside, is at least comparable to Bona Drag in focusing on a particular period: namely, the Sanctuary comeback years, 2004-2009. However, that three-disc Singles box, first, should expand to make room for the Maladjusted singles of 1997 and the few U.S-exclusive tracks that unfortunately were excluded: ‘Let the Right One Slip In’, the alternate U.S versions of ‘My Love Life’, ‘I've Changed My Plea to Guilty’, and ‘Tomorrow’ (even as, noted above, this version has ridiculously become the official Arsenal version), and two of the three At KROQ tracks (the aforementioned ‘Place in Hell’ had also been a B side). Writing in 2021, nearly seven years after that Arsenal reissue—and a similar expanded version of Vauxhall and I; that album thankfully was not messed with—such a hope seems laughable. Morrissey, whose inability to make peace with any of the Smiths' managers led to that band's dissolution, in the last decade or so has wrecked one record deal after another, canceled one concert after another, made one ridiculous pointless sociopolitical comment after another, to the point that his loyal fans are relucant even to mention his name in public.

Morrissey's declining popularity and record-label troubles has at least had one positive outcome: fewer singles released since 2009 and thus less discographical sloppiness. His 2014 album, World Peace Is None of Your Business impresses at times, but was largely ignored upon its release. Too many had been disappointed with his Autobiography, especially the hysterical final section about Smiths drummer Mike Joyce's successful effort to force Morrissey and his Smiths co-composer, guitarist Johnny Marr, to pay him a higher royalty rate (Morrissey and Marry were wronged in the judge's decision, but we do not need to read a rant about the case that mindlessly repeats itself and ruins the entire book). Also, as soon as the album came out, the label that released it dropped him; no singles were released except as digital downloads. The albums since, released on a vanity label via one of the major music conglomerates, have been supported merely by 45s. In contrast, the Sanctuary singles tended to come in the form of two different C D versions. These made Morrissey a latecomer to the Nineties-Aughts trend in European markets of releasing singles in multiple formats, with purchases of each version all counting towards the one single's official sales tally. One good thing about the C D era coming to a close has been this trend falling away.

All of these discographical concerns inform, at least to a small extent, my selection of tracks for a single L.P of Morrissey's “greatest hits” from the first phase of his solo career, through 1997. It is a long single L P, perhaps ideally extended to double size. But if Miles Davis can have vinyl sides be 30 minutes, why not Morrissey, whose attention to sonic fidelity has often been neglible? (One must assume that credit for Your Arsenal's unique sound goes to its producer, Mick Ronson). No Southpaw Grammar or Maladjusted tracks make the cut, though ‘Reader Meet Author’ from the former came close; ‘Southpaw’ is a great song, or rather starts out great: the extended instrumental outro that comprises much of the track is a bore—tastes like... leftover U2 demos? The only track of any lasting value on Maladjusted is the opening, titular track, a song with no refrains, yet a propulsive feel, and plenty of discordant guitars; it leaves the rest of that paltry album behind but still cannot be said to be essential. (Maladjusted, to be clear, saw Morrissey reach an artistic low point; as much as some critics will try to convince you otherwise, he has not sunk to such a depth since, though I could argue that his covers album, California Son, comes close. In retrospect, the album seems like Morrissey and his co-composers, Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer, trying to fit it with the bland Oasis-inspired "Noel Rock" of the late Nineties.) The live version of ‘Jack the Ripper’ from Beethoven Was Deaf (also included on both World and Burglary) is listed here, not the inferior studio original. If we were to attempt to make this playlist online, we would quickly reach some roadblocks; the aforementioned reissue of Viva Hate not only supplanted one track, but shortened ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’. That track, likely composed, at least in part, with Durutti Column guitarist Vini Reilly (though Stephen Street is officially the co-composer of all of the Viva Hate tracks, Reilly has credibly described his significant involvement) is masterfully paced, taking its time to build momentum and reach a cathartic peak; abridging it is the last thing any one would want to do. And that's exactly what Morrissey did. And the U S version of ‘Tomorrow’ has usurped the original not only on the aforementioned reissue of Arsenal, but also was favored for the 2001 Best of Morrissey, making it increasingly difficult to find online except via old-fashioned digital piracy. Such is the mess that Morrissey has made of his recorded work. The non-album tracks listed can all be found on Bona Drag.

A:
‘Suedehead’ [Viva Hate]
‘The National Front Disco’ [Your Arsenal]
‘Certain People I Know’ [Your Arsenal]
‘The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get’ [Vauxhall and I]
‘Interesting Drug’
‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’
‘Sing Your Life’ [Kill Uncle]
‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ [Viva Hate]
B:
‘Jack the Ripper’ [Beethoven Was Deaf]
‘Such a Little Thing Makes a Big Difference’
‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’ [Viva Hate]
‘Tomorrow’ [Your Arsenal]
‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name’
‘Glamorous Glue’ [Your Arsenal]
‘Billy Budd’ [Vauxhall and I]
‘(I'm) The End of the Family Line’ [Kill Uncle]

‘Such a Little Thing Makes a Big Difference’, originally on a B side, was put on Bona Drag. The studio cut of ‘Jack the Ripper’ was on a B side, but, as hinted above, was significantly altered for live performances, resulting in the Beethoven Was Deaf appearance. What other abandoned B-side tracks warrant similar attention? First, let's remind ourselves that the popularity of Bona Drag relative to the later singles compilations, we could say, has already elevated several songs originally released on B sides to "A-side" status. For American buyers especially—less inclined to buy singles than their U K counterparts—Bona Drag has always been simply the second Morrissey solo album. Strictly speaking, though, in addition to ‘Such a Little Thing’, the Bona Drag tracks ‘Hairdresser on Fire (also included on U S versions of Viva Hate), ‘Disappointed’, ‘Will Never Marry’, ‘Lucky Lisp’, ‘Yes I'm Blind’, and ‘He Knows I'd Love to See Him’ were all B sides. Such a large number of excellent B-side tracks derived from problems in Morrissey's relations with Stephen Street that led to the latter's exit and the inability of Morrissey and varied musicians he was working with to develop enough material in late 1989-early 1990 for a full album of new material, leading to Bona Drag's release. That is to say, Bona Drag excels as a singles compilation because it includes non-L P A-side tracks from the period after Viva Hate (‘Interesting Drug’, ‘Last of the Famous’, and ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’) and tracks originally intended for a studio album but which ended up as only singles (‘November Spawned a Monster’ and ‘Piccadilly Palare’). Morrissey would go on to work with Mark E Nevin, from the band Fairground Attraction, on most of Kill Uncle's tracks.

‘I Know Very Well How I Got My Name’ stands alone both in its simple yet exquisite beauty and as the only B-side track in the playlist not readily available. One must find it either in its original form or, as recommended above, on The H.M.V/ Parlophone Singles. Like a similar track also serving as a ‘Suedehead’ B-side, ‘Oh Well, I'll Never Learn’, it can be thought of as a miniature song. Whereas ‘Girl Least Likely To’ is a plodding fragment calling for additional material, these two songs work perfectly with the minimal accompaniment that they received. At several times throughout Morrissey's discography, short songs like this have worked best when treated with such delicacy, most obviously the Smiths track ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’.

As Morrissey returned to an emphasis on albums from Kill Uncle onward, material only released on singles became less voluminous. Even so, noteworthy music was hidden away on obscure releases, and even several non-L P singles, increasingly a rarity in the trade, were released: namely, ‘My Love Life’, ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’, ‘Interlude’, ‘Boxers’, and ‘Sunny’. ‘Pregnant’ and ‘Interlude’ have not been placed on any of the singles compilations, instead were featured on Suedehead: The Best of Morrissey [1997]. The other three tracks are all on either World or Burglary; ‘Boxers’ is on both, because?—maybe Morrissey hoped for a related "tacky badge." The six B-side tracks included on the three singles drawn from Maladjusted offer no highlights. When Morrissey revised the album in 2009, he removed two tracks and added all six of these B sides. Apparently in an effort to make it both awful and interminable.

Thankfully, Morrissey's return to the studio in the Aughts was more fruitful. The Sanctuary B-sides, both those included on Swords and not, offer a pleasant alternate view of those years, characterized most of all by shameless promotion and Las Vegas-style concerts. While one of the three Sanctuary albums is Morrissey's late classic, Ringleader of the Tormentors [2006], the other two, You Are the Quarry and Years of Refusal, when compared to these B-side tracks are no better or worse. In fact, given the relative eclectism of the material on Swords, a clear argument can be made that it ranks higher than those two studio albums.

Summing up, if one counts The H.M.V/ Parlophone Singles, only a few stray tracks from the singer's early solo years are hard to find: ‘Let the Right One Slip In’ most of all. In this century, the Sanctuary-era B sides not on Swords (‘Mexico’, ‘I Am Two People’, ‘No Can Hold a Candle to You’, ‘Slum Mums’, ‘The Public Image’, ‘Noise Is the Best Revenge’, ‘Human Being’, ‘A Song From Under the Floorboards’); and the smaller number of B sides from recent years (some of which were included on a double-C D reissue of Low in High School, his 2017 follow-up to World Peace) need to be collected. Instead of a successor to any of the singles compilations, the ideal solution at this point, given Morrissey's misguided adulterations of five of his studio albums, would be a box set of his complete solo work, as it was originally released, track by track, including all alternate or live versions, instead of the singer or his handlers mucking up things any further.

–Justin J Kaw, February 2021


Extra! An essay originally published at 2009: The Blog/ Blob, an offshoot of the website/ anthology, Sweet Pea, revised slightly for inclusion here.

2009

Remember Me as You Like To: Morrissey in the Later Aughts

Years of Refusal, the new Morrissey album, fails to attain the peaks of its predecessor, Ringleader of the Tormentors, but like many out there (especially in this nation, as compared to this native England) I would listen no matter what. Actually, I'd really want to listen if such a “what“ ever does happen.

Ringleader nearly ranks as highly as Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, and Vauxhall and I in Morrissey's solo work: a surprise at the time. ‘I Will See You in Far Off Places’ ends with a scene straight out of an early Atom Egoyan film about America's “Global War on Terror,” nevermind that such a thing could never exist. ‘You Have Killed Me,’ ‘The Youngest Was the Most Loved’, and ‘In the Future When All's Well’, like ‘The First of the Gang to Die’ on You Are the Quarry, Morrissey's big "comeback" released in 2004, are jovial rockers that compare favorably to similar recordings from the halcyon years when his solo band first appeared, 1991-1992, like ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’, ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’, and ‘Certain People I Know’.

One understands the notion that Years of Refusal marks a return to form, though the same kind of critic made the same kind of remarks about Ringleader and Quarry. The by-the-numbers Rock backing music more precisely recalls the period between the recording of the Smiths albums The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come. New songs came quick then, and yet petty differences between the band and Rough Trade Records delayed the release of Queen. There was little time to concoct elaborate frameworks to house Morrissey's vocals (a couple tracks from that period were B B C radio recordings instead of proper studio sessions). Here too the listener gets the impression that one song is coming quickly after another, the band barely keeping up.

Though, to give credit where due, Morrissey's methods have not changed much since he and Johnny Marr began their five-year collaboration in 1982. His, or others', choice of collaborators has changed, and has made the difference. In other words... if you really want to know why, say, Viva Hate still ranks higher than most of its successors look here now: Vini Reilly. With the accompanying music at least partially composed by this unique guitarist whose fate differed from Morrissey's fundamentally—an early member of the Factory Records roster, who unlike Morrissey did not need others to help him make music, ultimately relegated to the sidelines of common histories of the city's post-Punk scene—Viva Hate, its lyrics bearing an overwhelming foreboding nostalgia, has accidentally come to attain a position primary to that of the Smiths. By which I mean, the album may be what you need to hear first, along with few key Smiths tracks, to begin to grasp what this singer is droning on about. It was not so much the beginning of a solo career, but a concise recapitulation of the themes of his songs so far, a look back at the social malaise and personal languor that characterized his life, pre-Smiths.

Back to Ringleader... there's ‘Dear God Please Help Me’: a song with a verse from a (most likely) heterosexualist position, a verse from the (most likely) homosexualist position covering the bases in the best Glam-Rock fashion, and after, of course, a statement of basic sexual fact: those “explosive kegs.” The ambiguity of the song—taking place in Rome (where the album was recorded) is its narrator a Catholic priest apologizing for indiscretions? A sex tourist reflecting pompously upon his prey courting him?

....And ‘Life Is a Pigsty’, recalling Viva Hate's ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’ in its length and its stereotypical Morrissey “miserablism,” except that it lacks the humor that pops up at times during ‘Maudlin’. Indeed, ‘Pigsty’ is the “maudlin” affair compared to most of Morrissey's work. As with those Rockabilly-esque tracks of 1991-92 noted above, composed alongside the likes of ‘We'll Let You Know’ and ‘The National Front Disco’, the jovial moments have passed, death is not a far-off event but instead an ever-present state of mind, and the visions of transcendence, of love, perpetuated by the likes of Morrissey, by Rock music broadly speaking, turn into the hopeless mutterings of the sickly, or the boring protestations of the depressed, of which ‘Pigsty’ offer plenty.

These two examples are the album at its thematic and musical extremes, but still capture Ringleader's success and failure. Much-needed ambition, but too much for its own good. It never could have been a Your Arsenal, but with better editing (especially the removal of two lesser tunes, ‘The Father Who Must Be Killed’ and ‘I Just Want to See the Boy Happy’) it could have been a Vauxhall and I.