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Reappraisal: Morrissey got better after The Smiths broke up

Morrissey was expected to fail after Johnny Marr left The Smiths - but what followed was the artist’s most fascinating period. And he’s still capable of greatness, as World Peace is None of Your Business shows.

Ask people which chapter of Morrissey’s career represents his peak artistically and most would confidently make a case for his time in The Smiths, a band that produced four magnificent studio albums in the space of four years and set the standard for a generation of musicians. The Smiths rarely made a bad track and left behind a near-perfect legacy in terms its quality, yet were taken from us at their peak when guitarist Johnny Marr - seemingly exhausted with taking charge of the day-to-day running of the band - left to spread his wings musically. It’s one of the most pored over chapters in music history, ensuring Morrissey’s place in the pantheon of music greats is secure, with The Smiths’ influence still keenly felt across music and beyond.

For others, though, it’s the early part of his solo career which remains his most fascinating period, a story less well-told told in the British music press but one deserving of attention. What happened was quite remarkable. The man expected to fail without Marr’s brilliance to fall back on became an icon in the United States and charted higher than he had ever done as a member of The Smiths, garnering a following so loyal he has continued to survive as a solo artist ever since despite record labels doing their best to marginalise and silence him.

Contractually obliged to release more material after his band’s split, Morrissey was forced to go solo, with his debut, Viva Hate, still seen by many as his stand-out career record, released just six months after Strangeways Here We Come, the final Morrissey-Marr collaboration. Former Smiths producer Stephen Street was enlisted as chief songwriter after sending a speculative tape of rough demo recordings that Morrissey saw great beauty in, and in came the irrepressible Vini Reilly on guitars to add the technical brilliance Street knew he wasn’t capable of. Joined by Andrew Paresi on drums, together they produced a stunning piece of work that entered the UK charts at number one, with lead single “Suedehead” reaching number five, Morrissey’s highest charting single of his career at that point. 

The follow-up session saw Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke and Craig Gannon, all former Smiths members, return to the fold, with “Interesting Drug” and “Last Of The Famous International Playboys” both entering the UK top 10, but Morrissey, as has always been his way, makes surprising decisions and suddenly felt a completely new approach was needed. Street was ditched as his songwriter, despite the success they had achieved together, and the singer moved on to work with other people.

After recording Kill Uncle - an album which was received a lukewarm reception and is considered to be an unloved child by Morrissey himself - he put together a touring band for the first time since The Smiths. Aside from a one-off gig in Wolverhampton in December 1988 alongside Rourke, Joyce and Gannon, Morrissey had so far failed to play live or settle on a definite line up that could be called his own.

In came Boz Boorer, Alain Whyte, Gary Day and Spencer Cobrin and “Morrissey” as a live entity was born. Despite the band’s obvious limitations, huge success followed, with his US tour in 1991 proving a remarkable career-high. Tickets sales were extraordinary, as “sold-out” signs hung over some of the country’s biggest and most historic venues in record time as he broke box office records set by artists such as Madonna and Michael Jackson. Morrissey fever gripped state after state, each night ending in pandemonium as fans risked serious injury to be on stage with their hero. It was the kind of passionate atmosphere every artist craves but very few, if any, achieve, and it was all done with very little self-promotion, the Morrissey juggernaut seemingly powering itself as disaffected young fans who felt pushed to the outskirts of society suddenly had something to make them feel alive. Morrissey has always made an art out of taking the very ordinary and glossing it with romance and beauty, elevating those who feel decidedly average and making them feel worthwhile, and the adulation he was receiving was reward for the way his words were touching and healing those who needed it.

Madison Square Garden, a 20,000 capacity venue, sold out in a few hours, faster than The Beatles had managed, and merchandise sales on the night of the gig eclipsed the record set by U2 in 1987. He played a total of 34 North American dates that year, all as frantic and chaotic as each other, with police escorts and road closures needed to manage the frenzy. Morrissey himself has descrIbed the tour as “ a fantastic pinnacle,” saying: “I wasn’t being a whore about it, I wasn’t pushing myself forward, it just seemed to happen very naturally”.

Anyone who has seen the footage will know of the pandemonium. In Dallas, he was forced to leave the stage during “Everyday Is Like Sunday” as young adults flung themselves from the stalls onto the stage to touch their hero. Night after night he would make a quick dash out of the back of venues to avoid the hoards of fans desperate to embrace him. Whyte, who would continue as Morrissey’s principal collaborator for years to come, later said: “people treat it like a religious experience. It’s crazy”.

In November of that year, during the second leg of his US tour, 48 people were injured at Pauley Pavillion in LA after Morrissey urged fans to "get up out of your seats" and "come down here". Brian Murphy, who promoted the gig, said afterwards: “The show was going along wonderfully up to that point. This was a crowd that really idolises the artist. I think they would have done whatever he asked ... So when he said come on forward, that's what they did."

He had organically garnered the most loyal fanbase in music, yet, soon after, back home in England, his stock appeared to be falling. No longer was he adored by the music press and was instead treated with suspicion, culminating in a vicious NME article in 1992 entitled "Flying the Flag or Flirting With Disaster?". It was a bizarre attempt to suggest Morrissey was, in some way, racist, linking the lyrics to National Front Disco, a song written in the third person, to his own world view, and suggesting his use of the Union Jack during a show at Finsbury Park was some kind of show of nationalism. A few years later, of course, the Britpop generation exploded and the Union Jack was once again an acceptable prop to be seen with - hypocrisy still lost on many to this day.

For all his faults - and there have been a series of comments in recent years which have disillusioned even his most ardent of supporters - Morrissey has remained interesting throughout his long and varied career. He steadfastly refuses to alter his position on a number issues he feels are important, including his defence of animals and his hatred of the royal family, garnering him a reputation as a “big mouth” in comparison to his contemporaries. As he himself admits, it’s incredibly easy to appear outspoken and controversial when very few other artists say anything of any note.

And now, with his tenth studio album released this week, he returns from another enforced hiatus with a superb record to silence those who doubt his ability to remain relevant. World Peace Is None Of Your Business provides moments of real beauty. His band have rarely sounded so good, his voice is the best it’s ever been and the production is remarkably fresh. The intellectual force of his writing remains strong and, when he does finally hang up his microphone, he will leave behind an incredible legacy of songs which are both poetic and deeply personal. Very few can touch him, even now.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard