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Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance - review

Back to the old house.

Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance – 20th Anniversary Edition
Johnny Rogan
Omnibus Press, 584pp, £14.95

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates “is not worth living.” But then Socrates never had to suffer the attentions of an unauthorised biographer. (Plato and Xenophon waited until after he’d drunk the hemlock before getting to work.) Socrates’s dictum may hold if it’s oneself who’s doing the examining; or a lax fan bent on hagiography, perhaps. For most reasonable people, however, the notion of a forensic, impartial, microscopic dissection of one’s past is surely as terrifying as it is flattering; the follies of youth, the minutiae of acquaintance, the deeds done and not done, the laundry lists and love affairs, the ill-advised utterances and haircuts, all scrutinised by a stranger committed to the truth, the whole truth and the cross-referenced, indexed and annotated truth. Even the arch-narcissist of our age, Simon Cowell, has recently quailed and railed at such attention.

Long before Johnny Rogan turned such attentions on the Smiths, the ur-indie, Mancunian group who lit up the moribund pop scene of their era, one A J Weberman was trawling through Bob Dylan’s garbage (literally) in search of deeper truths about His Bobness’s opaque 1960s ditties. For The Severed Alliance – still a terrible title, suggesting a Tolkien pastiche written by a prefect – Rogan never quite gets around to rooting through Stretford’s wheelie bins but according to the introduction, as well as never having owned a credit card, stacked a dishwasher or downloaded a song, he has “a late-afternoon routine of scouring local supermarkets in search of out-of-date food at bargain prices”. The effect sought is high-minded and reclusive genius. The effect achieved is mildly disorganised Luddite tramp.

What emerged back in 1992 from this unenviable lifestyle is still an extraordinary work two decades on. Concentrating on the creative core of the group, Rogan sought out family, friends, enemies, classmates and colleagues and chased every lead he could – no mean feat in the pre-internet age – to produce a book that astonished most with its Herculean endeavour, yet had one very vocal critic. Morrissey hated the book, while pausing to say that naturally he hadn’t read it, but he did add, with characteristic easy-going equanimity, that he hoped Rogan perished in either an M3 pile-up or a hotel fire. More soberly for once, the NME review of The Severed Alliance (reproduced in this anniversary edition) said that it was “the most controversial book of the year . . . treading a fine line between academic rigour and breathless fandom” and “a major achievement”. Twenty years after writing those words, I see no reason to change my mind. Rogan’s remains the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times.

Rogan is exhaustive on both singer’s and the guitarist Johnny Marr’s family histories and childhoods. Some may find it exhausting, too. Yet no other pop performer has so mined his own youth and adolescence for material, so mythologised his upbringing and early life and to such magnificent, absurd, delirious effect as Morrissey. So it behoves Rogan to adopt this kind of detailed, palaeontological approach to the Smiths’ prehistory and he tackles it with gusto. Morrissey’s (and indeed Marr’s) childhood in an extended, Irish, working-class, Catholic family in Hulme and Moss Side is richly evoked – a shared cultural soup of aunts and uncles, football and school, JFK, vinyl singles, George Best, Dr Who and, of course, the Moors murders.

These days, there is a stolid predictability to Morrissey’s scandalous utterances that makes him more Ann Widdecombe than Che Guevara. Rogan reminds us of how genuinely subversive the Smiths were at the time, both musically and ideologically. Back in the 1980s, Morrissey’s glum, misanthropic asexuality was more profoundly radical, in many ways, than the louche hedonism of Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Madonna. In his owlishly dysfunctional attitude to sex, he was more Larkin than Boy George. In his many pronouncements on, to name a few subjects, celibacy, CND, Live Aid, vivisection, the Brighton bombing and the royal family, Morrissey was often so shocking (“One dead butcher isn’t such a great loss,” he said after attacks on meat traders by animal rights vigilantes) that it is rather pathetic what the conservative news media of the day chose to be scandalised by. Based on a half-arsed, second-hand misreading of the lyrics, perhaps after a good lunch, the Sun’s Nick Ferrari claimed that the Smiths’ eerie paean to victims of the Moors murderers, “Suffer Little Children”, was a leering hymn to paedophilia and a minor witch-hunt ensued. The details, like that of every other facet of the band’s story, are painstakingly recounted here.

Rogan is stronger on detective spadework and fact-finding than artistic appreciation. He tells us that the Smiths were his favourite band of the 1980s without offering a great deal in the way of explanation for his ardour. That said, he is insightful and terse on musical analysis without straying into the “sonic cathedrals” school of rock criticism. And he is first-rate about Morrissey’s lyrical touchstones and influences, not just the oft-noted debts to Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney but also to George Eliot (“How Soon Is Now?” begins with a flourish borrowed from Middlemarch) and Victoria Wood, whose “Fourteen Again” forms the basis of “Rush­olme Ruffians”. Wood’s reply – “Morrissey and I have been married for 11 months, though due to touring commitments we have yet to meet” – is the purest Morrissey. It was catching, it seems.

Two of Rogan’s chapters are entitled “Money Changes Everything” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, named after Smiths songs. The Smiths’ tortured, arcane financial arrangements underpin the whole narrative. After their first gig, supporting Blue Rondo à la Turk at the Ritz ballroom in Manchester, Morrissey and Marr drafted a letter to their original manager, Joe Moss, asserting: “We hereby claim the rights to the name the Smiths . . . and reserve the right to dismiss other additional members” – that is, fellow founding members, the drummer Mike Joyce and the bassist Andy Rourke. Typed by Morrissey, it shows a startling degree of hubristic swagger. It was also, as a judge was later to point out, legally worthless.

It’s a telling detail, illustrating how filthy lucre and the getting of it, often ruthlessly and incompetently, loomed large in “Smithdom”, which had seemed the very epitome of artistic detachment and indie innocence. Not a bit of it; there is much that reads like accountancy here and many a page given to bank statements, receipts and the labyrinthine ways that the money was (unevenly) split between the members. In 1996, the Smiths’ story ended in the High Court (Rogan was there every day) when Joyce and Rourke claimed a legal right to a greater share of the group’s earnings. Morrissey held up a copy of Rogan’s book and indicated the two names on its cover: “Not Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce,” he pointed out. He had, it seemed, read the jacket at least.

In a memoir called Cider With Roadies, I devoted an entire chapter to my youthful devotion to the Smiths. Mike Joyce read it (gratifyingly) and once said to me, “You know how you felt about the Smiths? That’s how I felt about them.” Knowing this, and having read Rogan’s colossal work and many others, it occurs to me that nothing I have read about my favourite group has made me love them an iota more than the moment I did when I first heard “This Charming Man”. If you’re a Smiths fan, you will close The Severed Alliance sadder but certainly wiser. Later this year, we are promised Morrissey’s own version of his life, the long-awaited autobiography. It will be fascinating to have a second opinion from a writer even more obsessed with Steven Patrick Morrissey than Johnny Rogan.

“Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 8pm)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future