Morrissey as the voice of Post-Thatcher Northern England

The mercurial poets of longing, The Smiths, defined an era of British music.

Their lyrical impassioned blend of kitchen-sink realism and idealism melded to create the sound that shaped the outlook of hundreds of angst-filled adolescents, revolutionary minds, and the bitterness of post-industrial Northern England. Their frontman, one of the most gifted poets Britain has ever produced, was an amalgamation of contradictions; a working man’s poet, a celibate heartthrob, and a superstar who longed for normality. He was well-read in feminist literature and idolised Oscar Wilde, and this influenced his music just as much as his love for Coronation Street and A Taste of Honey as television depictions of working class life in Manchester. This antithesis to a Rockstar, this cerebral figure, wearing traditionally feminine clothing impacted the British psyche through his surreal, aggressively revolutionary lyrics and spoke for a generation of disillusion in post-industrial Northern England. 

The Smiths released their eponymous first album in 1984. A tumultuous year in the history of Manchester, as the socialists tried to reshape local government whilst battling with colossal Tory budget cuts. This first album denounced what Morrissey perceived as the abandonment of the North of England and the resulting struggles. His influences are, as always, a mixture of observations of everyday life alongside a wide scope of reading and cinematic influences. He denounces materialism, regarding it as a trope for nulling the brain: 

Why pamper life’s complexities

When the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?

 Money and respectability are rejected in an Epicurean analysis of the world and a refusal to act, or judge people by a societal norms:

No, I’ve never had a job

because I’ve never wanted one

I’ve seen you smile

but I’ve never really heard you laugh

so who is rich and who is poor?

I cannot say.

Their rejection of social norms went deeper than their songs. Morrissey explicitly planned the packaging of their first single ‘Hand in Glove’. This featured a photograph of Margret Walter’s collection The Nude Male. The homoeroticism and unabashed presentation of the male form as art was a direct challenge towards traditional standards of masculinity and perception of homosexuality in British culture. The artist placed themselves in an ambiguous position. Unlike the later musical prophets of revolution, Public Enemy, Rage against the Machine, Against Me or the earlier Punk movement, The Smiths’ messages were not attacking the listener. Revolt, anger, and a deep hate of authority were hidden behind the soaring guitar of Marr, the constant bass of Rourke and the wavering baritone of Morrissey. 

The singer saw Manchester as city abandoned by the Tories and Thatcher and spewed his vitriol in images of desolation and abandonment. The 1987 song ‘London’ paints it as a far-off metropolis that will swallow immigrants but still promises more hope than the forgotten North :

You left

Your tired family grieving

And you think they’re sad because you’re leaving

But did you see Jealousy in the eyes

Of the ones who had to stay behind?

Manchester could only promise a mundane life, one in which the struggles merely to live quashed dreams and resulted in an existence devoid of meaning and drowning in tradition. His fear seems to have been that his northern compatriots had not the time to be concerned about anything, losing themselves (as stated above) in a mere cycle of consumption as wage-slaves. 

How can you stay with a fat girl who’ll say:

“Would you like to marry me

and if you like you can buy the ring”

she doesn’t care about anything.

When Manchester itself is mentioned by name, it is often the place that has let others down and cannot justify the atrocities committed in its shadows. The most obvious case of this is ‘Suffer Little Children’, a song about the 1965 Moor murders and how Manchester failed the youth:

Lesley-Anne, with your pretty white beads

Oh John, you’ll never be a man

And you’ll never see your home again

Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.

The youth was let down from the start and this could be blamed on the flawed education system that pervaded Britain. In a system that discouraged free-thinking and creativity, any inclination of independence was interpreted as threat and squashed.

If anything, this is the most pervading factor in the entirety of The Smiths and Morrissey’s solo work. In 2017 Simon Goddard summarised the politics of The Smiths as being pro-working class, anti-elite and anti-institution. Because his comments are not consistent with any one political agenda it confuses people, especially on the left. The rebellion of Morrissey is to elevate the unexpected into heroes. The stars of his poetry are the everyday working-class heroes, people like Roy Keen, the Busby Babes or the generic ‘Boxers’, who incarnate the ability to escape the humdrum of a life spent struggling in a factory built in the shadow of London through one’s sporting ability. 

The crowd call your name

They love you all the same

The sound, the smell, and the spray

You will take them all away

Yet, the same voice that celebrates this traditional masculine paradigm is expressed in gay slang, referencing numerous gay bars and clubs across the country. Alongside boxers and footballers is the elevation of literary and artistic figures such as Pasolini and references to Shakespeare and Wilde. Northern female pop singers like Dusty Springfield are a clear influence and demonstrate Morrissey’s clear fascination and dependence on the northern vernacular and women who shaped his art. 

Morrisey’s hate of authority was perhaps most obvious in the infamous 1988 release ‘Margret on the Guillotine’. This song resulted in him being investigated as a member of a terrorist organisation bent on the assassination of the former PM, Margret Thatcher. In 2017, the same thing happened in the United States, based on similar comments regarding Donald Trump. Politics, as we have touched on, was an important feature of The Smiths’ music. Their strong views on animal rights shaped the album Meat is Murder, encouraging vegetarianism and a progressive reform of the schooling system of Britain. The Cold War was made a domestic issue as much as an international one. It was seen as diametrically opposed to the goodness of human nature and nuclear war or world peace was one of two ways the human race would end up.

In ‘Every Day is like Sunday’, international and domestic politics fuse to further isolate the North and push the issue of abandonment and loss of prestige and status. I personally interpret this with the idea of Britain becoming like the North of England on a world stage (i.e. a former industrious hub reduced to a shadow of former self in the face of new superpowers).

This is the coastal town

That they forgot to close down

Armageddon—come, Armageddon! Come, Armageddon! Come!

This extract hints at the isolation on a domestic level, the former fishing ports, mining villages, factory towns now so irrelevant that the Tory government have even forgotten to shut them. In the same song the focus shifts to the international stage and hints at the Cold War’s silent omnipresence, and that even a nuclear attack, and potential death, is better than a life of numb nothingness: 

In the seaside town

…that they forgot to bomb

Come! Come! Come—nuclear bomb!

The Cold War, of course, was a clash between ideologies. Morrissey’s bile is spewed at capitalism and consumerist culture.  ‘Shoplifters of the World’ is a call for revolution and a tirade against the double standards of government being able to commit crime whilst denying that right to their citizens. The United States is perhaps recognised as the figurehead of capitalism, and its culture of consumerism is something that Morrissey battled against. He saw it as a hypocritical force of oppression, one that policed the world whilst proclaiming freedom and equality whilst promoting none of these virtues. 

You’ve got nothing to say to me

To help me believe

In America.

The greed of capitalism worldwide is denounced, and he traces many wars back to lust for wealth. 

An interesting example of this is the song ‘Panic’ which can be interpreted two ways. The line ‘the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life’ could mean that the American music focuses on idealistic themes that are not applicable for a child of Manchester, and because of his listing of other, primarily Northern cities, means that life has slipped away from the standards of fiction in American pop culture and even the American dream. However, another legitimate interpretation is that the focus on Morrissey’s ire is Thatcher’s government and his calls to ‘Hang the DJ’ are a call to violently revolt against a government whose policies are for the South and thus alien to the artist and his Northern heritage. The Royal Family also find themselves the victim of his wrath. In the ‘Queen is Dead’ he denounces the Royals and once again incites a call for a Republican revolt:

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marches

Hemmed in like a boar between arches

Her very Lowness with her head in a sling

I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Morrissey, and by extension, The Smiths, were an incredibly contradictory counter-culture movement. They denounced capitalism, commerce, and the music industry whilst being one of the most successful bands of all time. Whilst naming themselves for the ordinary person “it was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces”; referencing the heartbeat of industrial Manchester through footballers, boxers and workers; they also opposed  traditional values, rejecting traditional gender roles, referencing homosexuality, revolution and the arts throughout their work. They claimed to uphold the traditional values of Britain whilst attempting to push down many of the columns on which it stands.

In short, Morrissey attempted to give the North of England a voice in a Britain that had forgotten it. His dark humour, rebellious undertones and lamentations drew attention to the undercarriage of Manchester and drowned the listener in a tide of melancholy. He described himself as the heir of nothing —but reminded us that hope springs eternal, and that in and of itself is a light that never goes out. 

By Asa Williams

Illustration: by Sohaib Hassan

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