Following the recent news that Morrissey has postponed all this month’s UK and European tour dates amid a racism row, I couldn’t help but recall this piece I wrote at the end of last year, pondering only slightly prematurely if Moz had finally gone too far even for his notoriously devoted fanbase… (originally published in The National).
Is Morrissey actively trying to alienate his fans? Never a performer known for his public relations charm, the singer’s recent conduct has been so unashamedly prickly, belligerent and conceited, it’s easy to imagine the former Smiths frontman is getting a crabby kick out of biting the hand that feeds.
His notoriously devoted fanbase is well used to healthy doses of eccentricity and antagonism, but one wonders if, after 30 years as a solo artist, 2017 is the year Morrissey pushes the boat of narcissism too far into the ocean of contempt. Among the numerous controversies littering recent months, Morrissey was denounced for tasteless comments in the aftermath of the Manchester bombings, while an official T-shirt had to be pulled from virtual shelves for seemingly racist connotations.
On November 4 Morrissey cancelled a concert in – apparently because he was cold – and at some that went ahead he banned the sale of all meat. In a new campaign alongside PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Morrissey is now even taking target at his fans’s festive lunches with the slogan “Holidays Are Murder For Turkey”.
Then there’s the small matter of new album Low in High School, the cover of which depicts a boy outside Buckingham Palace, the United Kingdom’s royal residence, brandishing a hatchet and a sign reading “Axe the Monarchy”. Wit, poise and irony and a stinging turn of phrase are, after all, what we all love most about Morrissey – or should that be loved?
As any supporter of the walking contradiction born Steven Patrick Morrissey will know, many of these righteous crusades – animal rights, republicanism – and habits – cancelling concerts, courting controversy – are recurring themes in Morrissey’s uncompromising world. But there’s a fervour and frequency to the way his disagreeable antics are being reported almost daily which risks exhausting audience goodwill – the result of relentless online headlines and alerts.
Worryingly, despite slamming the 24-hour news agenda on new single Spent the Day in Bed – claiming the media seeks to “frighten you… make you feel small and alone” – Morrissey is now stepping into the fray himself, recently joining Twitter for first time. One wonders how much offence the blue-tick verified @officialmoz can cause in the recently expanded 280-character offerings.
Social media isn’t exactly a hobby you might expect Morrissey to sign up for, and the move might fuel the idea that what’s driving all the questionable behaviour of late is in fact a deliberate, shrewd bid to command clicks and garner publicity for an eleventh solo album in an era where record sales have dwindled to a trickle.
In showbusiness there is, we’re repeatedly told, no such thing as bad news. Outrageous demands and egotistic posturing traditionally do little to harm a rock star’s commercial viability. Yet there’s a nastiness, a jagged arrogance, which sets Morrissey apart from, say, the buffoonish attacks of Liam Gallagher, who managed to score record-breaking success for last month’s debut solo outing As You Were by spending the preceding months saying mean things on Twitter. If Morrissey is trying a similar approach to his fellow Mancunian, then he may have squarely underestimated his own fanbase.
The wave of antipathy crested when Morrissey cancelled that concert in central California, on November 4, apparently for no other reason than it was a little chilly. After fans had assembled in the Vina Robles Amphitheatre, some poor lackey was reportedly forced onto the mic to blame an “inoperable heating system on stage”; many present held the opinion the singer could perhaps consider donning a sweater when temperatures dipped slightly below 10C in the venue. “Forget that drama queen. Never again. Rot in hell,” opined one Twitter user.
Morrissey is renowned for pulling out of concerts – music website Consequences of Sound counted 124 cancelled or postponed shows since 2012, which in fairness included an entire axed 2014 tour following a cancer battle, dwarfing other cited causes including food poisoning, lack of funds and issues with his support band and management.
Earlier in 2014, Morrissey axed the seven remaining dates on his Italian tour after an encounter with a police officer who drew his gun, which the singer branded an act of terrorism. He brushed with authorities again a year later, filing a sexual assault complaint against a security guard at San Francisco International Airport, which the Transport Security Administration found no supporting evidence to act on.
Terrorism is a subject Morrissey might have learnt to leave well alone following the international headlines sparked when he spoke out in the aftermath of Manchester Arena suicide bombing which killed 22 and injured more than 500 in May. In a widely condemned Facebook rant he slammed the Queen and declared politicians “are never the victims”, less than a year after MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right extremist. Meanwhile he claimed Sadiq Khan “does not condemn Islamic State”, suggesting that as a Muslim the London Mayor – who has condemned the terrorist organisation on several occasions – has a special responsibility to state the obvious.
As if to punish the offended fans, for his recently announced upcoming United Kingdom tour Morrissey pointedly snubbed his hometown, with no concert scheduled in Manchester in 2018. It really is personal: Last year he released a list of the cities he felt “most appreciated by” on his last tour – topped by Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Hong Kong – with his hometown only making to number eight, a place below laidback Helsinki. You read that right: It seems Morrissey feels comfortable in rating the enthusiasm of the people who have paid to see him.
With the same arrogance, Morrissey banned the sale of meat at his recent Hollywood Bowl weekender [November 10-11]. As a practicing vegetarian, I fully support Morrissey’s morals, but wouldn’t demand that guests at my birthday party refrain from eating meat – let alone dictate the diet of strangers paying to squint at me on a stage.
Then there is the questionable T-shirt which was hurriedly pulled from Morrissey’s website in March following widespread condemnation, which featured a headshot of the black author and civil rights activist James Baldwin alongside the slogan “I wear black on the outside / ’cause black is how I feel on the inside”, quoted from The Smiths song Unloveable. The same worryingly xenophobic undercurrents are present in the new song, Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage which appears to address the UK’s immigration policy in the increasingly bitter post-Brexit fallout. “Scene two, everyone who comes must go,” he sings. “Scene four, it’s blacker than ever before/ Scene six, this country is making me sick.”
Morrissey has been persistently dogged with accusations of racism, beginning as far back as the 1984 when he declared “all reggae is vile”. During an explosive interview with poet and celebrity fan Simon Armitage in 2010, Morrissey dismissed the entire Chinese race as a “subspecies”, because of the country’s lack of animal cruelty laws.
Morrissey’s strict vegetarianism and animal rights views are alarming and well documented. In 2011 he outrageously compared fast food chains to Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, and in an online fan Q&A three years later voiced the explosive opinion that there is “no difference” between eating animals and paedophilia, adding “They are both rape, violence, murder. If I’m introduced to anyone who eats beings, I walk away.”
Likewise, Morrissey’s attacks on both Britain’s politicians and royal family are nothing new. Many consider third album The Queen is Dead as The Smith’s masterpiece – Johnny Marr told me in a 2009 interview Strangeways, Here We Come was the band’s greatest achievement, and I’m inclined to agree – and Morrissey once declared that “the only sorrow” of the October 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, which killed five people, was “that [Margaret] Thatcher escaped unscathed”.
Such comments undoubtedly divided the general public – but it’s important to remember that the then-Prime Minister was already a deeply divisive figure herself, and the kind of people who embraced the bookish neuroticism of Morrissey’s lyrics were rarely likely to be Tory voters.
But times have changed. The sad truth remains most people typically become more politically conservative as they age and take on greater responsibilities. Morrissey needs to face up to the fact that while his adolescent antagonism has been unwavering, his audience might have grown up a little.
In the same way, the public perception of the royal family has evolved since the divided class warfare of the 1980s. Recent years have seen a flowering renaissance of affection for the royals, the result of a cumulative public fervour greeting the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a royal wedding, two royal babies – and a third on the way – all within the past six years. Morrissey’s sloganeering no longer chimes with the era.
More than anything, it just all feels a bit tired. A young trendsetting band proclaiming the Queen dead in the mid-1980s feels very little like a cranky iconoclast, cynically provoking outrage by plastering “Axe the Monarchy” on the front of an 11th solo album, more than 30 years later.