I gave up on Mozza years ago - Morrissey: Live is proof that I was right to do it

As far as Morrissey concerts go, the one immortalised in his latest film Morrissey: Live isn't the best. It saddens me to say it, but my love affair with Mozza is well and truly over.

A few times a week, I pass the UCKG (United Church of the Kingdom of God) building on Kilburn High Road, and I usually glance up at its plump dome and feel a teensy bit nostalgic. Before it was a church, it was the National Ballroom, a thriving music venue for decades (it closed in 1999). Nirvana played there in December 1991, but the gig to which I think back when I pass the building took place a few months earlier that year.

It was Morrissey—the second time I had seen him on his 1991 Kill Uncle tour—and my companion and I had arrived in Kilburn early enough to catch a glimpse of him being chauffeured away after soundcheck. It would be factually incorrect to say that we chased his car. It was a more a moderate hotfooting than an actual chase. We made it to the side street just as he was pulling away, and snapped frantically at the vehicle’s window with our cameras. The pictures came out well. You could see clearly it was Morrissey: aloof as a queen, smug as a cat. He was smirking, as he often is. Was it at the thought of the gold foil-effect shirt he would wear later that night on stage? How I loved that shirt.

And how I loved Morrissey. This confers on me no particular distinction. “I Was a Teenage Morrissey fan” is a revelation to file alongside other popular adolescent confessions such as “I was insufferably pretentious” and “I had acne.” But—and I’m sorry to break it to you so brutally if you had not already heard—Morrissey and I are over. Finished. I’m never going back. Not after what he did to me. What did he do? Well, his music went off and so did he.

It was nice while it lasted. And it lasted 20 years. I was a shade too young to be in on the Smiths from the start but by the time The Queen is Dead was released in June 1986, I was hanging out with some cool older kids who clued me in. Morrissey and I went all the way. All the way, that is, from 1986 to 2006, when the release of his eighth solo album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, coincided with a frosting of my affection for him. I can’t say whether the feeling was mutual; you’ll just have to contact him for his side of the story.

And it wasn’t so much that album that killed off our relationship—it’s at least half-brilliant, and far more nuanced than what followed. But what he was saying and doing away from the studio began to interfere with the music. There was always a prickly arrogance about him to offset the self-flagellation in his writing; that was part of the joy of his persona. But now there was an air of social and cultural intolerance in his proclamations which was no longer about defending the outsider—it seemed to involve lashing out pointlessly at anyone whose perspective deviated even mildly from his, or slighting entire races (“You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies,” he told the Guardian in 2010.) By the time he was ranting about Kate Middleton’s admission to hospital last year, insisting that she was swinging the lead, I found myself in the unusual position of feeling sympathy for a member of the Royal family. My 16-year-old self would have thrown up at that.

Then there were the pompous dispatches he had begun issuing through the uncritical portal of the fansite true-to-you.net; they were like a Private Eye pastiche of rock-star delusions. He had also become a strikingly poor writer. This, from a recent 1,500-word, single paragraphdiatribe against Thatcher, will make any sane person reach for the red pen: “The coverage by the British media of Thatcher's death has been exclusively absorbed in Thatcher's canonization to such a censorial degree that we suddenly see the modern British establishment as an uncivilized entity of delusion, giving the cold shoulder to truth, and offering indescribable disgust to anyone unimpressed by Thatcher.”(Not quite “Margaret on the Guillotine,” is it?)

I should probably confess that the blame for my cooling can’t be laid entirely at Morrissey’s feet. I think you know what I’m saying: yes, there was someone else. Another man, younger and livelier and so much more innovative than Morrissey. Ariel Pink is his name, and I realized when I heard his album Worn Copy in 2006 that he had the playfulness, wit and passion that had been missing from Morrissey for the longest time. What can I say? He’s good for me.

I didn’t leave Morrissey a goodbye note, a Dear John letter. I guess in some ways, this is that letter. But now he has left me one: his concert film Morrissey 25: Live (so named because it marks the quarter-century point in his solo career). It’s a terrible film, depressingly conservative as an example of the concert movie genre as well as a harsh indictment of its subject’s complacency and declining creativity. Helpfully, it only confirms to me how right it was that we went our separate ways. It was a hard decision. But, as he once put it, that’s how people grow up.

The film includes the full concert he played in March this year at the Hollywood High School. The set-list perversely scrapes the barrel of his solo career: the inclusion of “Alma Matters,” “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” and “You’re the One For Me, Fatty” suggest he was going in his contrarian way for a Greatest Misses effect. Any fine songs in his repertoire—from solo numbers like “Everyday is Like Sunday” to the Smiths’ “Still Ill” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”—tend to be massacred by his increasingly callous band. The low-point of the movie shows Morrissey handing the microphone to a selection of front-row fans who compete to give the best impressions of lobotomy patients (“Thank you for living,” says one).

We can’t blame them, though. It’s Morrissey who disgraces himself by fishing for their compliments using an industrial trawler. His egotism can only undermine the sincerity of a song like “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” released in 1984 but performed here in an overwrought new arrangement. To hear him sing “For once in my life, let me get what I want” after several fans have done everything short of offering themselves up to him for sacrifice is ungrateful at best, disingenuous at worst.

I’ve seen good Morrissey gigs and bad ones. I went to more than 20 shows—one for each year of my infatuation—and I cherish the great nights (Wembley Arena 1991, Battersea Power Station 1996, Royal Albert Hall 2002, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre 2004) as much as I wince at the lacklustre ones (Bournemouth 1991, Ilford, east London, 1996). Unless the transfer from stage to screen has been especially harsh, my Moz-memory tells me that the performance we see in Morrissey 25: Live is not one that merited conserving. But at least it has helped bring closure for me to this relationship. I know I will still gaze up at the old National Ballroom building and get goosebumps. But I know also that I can move on. I only hope the same is true of Morrissey.

Morrissey 25: Live is in cinemas from Saturday.

Mozza glances down at the groundlings at the Hollywood High School. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser