It was London that Morrissey excelled in romanticising during the first two decades of his career – more so than his home city of Manchester. He lived round the corner from Alan Bennett in Camden, and on songs such as “Come Back to Camden” and “Hairdresser on Fire” used the city’s Victorian grandeur as a backdrop to his constantly reshuffled themes of isolation, sexual repression and English nostalgia.
On Tuesday night (11 October), the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy is sold out, though the room is far smaller than the O2 Arena or Royal Albert Hall at which the singer – now primarily a resident of the US – has tended to play when he’s back in the capital.
In the past five years, Morrissey’s far-right sympathies – the subject of press speculation since at least the 1990s – passed beyond the border of plausible deniability, a border often busily patrolled by his fan base. He has voiced support for the minor right-wing groupuscule For Britain, which is led by the doomed Ukip leadership challenger Anne Marie Walters. The bewildering obscurity of his nationalist affiliations appears to be a point of pride.
“It’s very difficult to reconcile,” said Lottie, an 18-year-old English literature student from Colchester in the queue for the Brixton performance. “I don’t think he has said anything racist, I just think he has different opinions on national identity to everybody else, and I respect it. I don’t agree with it.”
Others are more strident. “Leave Morrissey alone!” Juliet, a Londoner in her late 50s, told me. “He’s a tender, kind guy. What he’s thinking about is the forgotten English people. It’s fine for us here, watching foreign films or going to foreign restaurants, but he’s defending them.”
Flanked by his five-piece band, Morrissey strides on to the stage in a black tuxedo with dickie bow and Royal British Legion poppy. “Welcome,” he said in an arch, ironic tone, “to an evening of free-form jazz and open debate.” His croon is still deep and rich, with enough technical ballast for material four decades old to land with its intended power, like the gothic bombast of opener “How Soon Is Now”. The past, in Morrissey’s art, is always the place to be, and fittingly tonight’s set is close to that of a heritage act. Three new songs aside, very little of the past 20 years of his career is showcased.
Though the singer was once a byword for a kind of literate, fey outsiderdom, much of this performance circles around another Morrissey trope: that of the tough, rough and misunderstood geezer. During the 1992 track “Jack the Ripper” (“this song reminds me of Pentonville Road”), he slashes the air with his microphone as he growls over a protagonist whose “face is as mean as your life has been”, while the greasy, glam stomp of “First of the Gang to Die” and closer “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” glorify this archetype.
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This heavy machismo is underlined by the singer’s backdrop, a rotating slideshow of mostly male icons including Frank Sinatra and George Best, as well as pictures of Manchester terraced streets from the 1950s and 1960s, before subsequent developments – and, perhaps, demographic shifts (Morrissey has complained that “you’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent” on London’s streets). When women do appear on the backdrop, they are exclusively Coronation Street matriarchs.
“Many people are too polite or too British to talk about the subject of this next song,” warned Morrissey, as the venue audibly hushed, “but I’m not.”
“Bonfire of Teenagers” is a new and so far unreleased song about the 2017 Manchester Arena bombings. “All the morons sang ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’,” intoned Morrissey of the impromptu singalong that defined Manchester’s public response to the attacks, “but I will look back in anger until the day I die.”
Morrissey has written about tragedies that have defined the north before – the first song he wrote with Johnny Marr was about the Moors murders, beginning a lineage that includes his 2004 song “Munich Air Disaster 1958”, referencing the Manchester United air disaster. Though he is at his most animated during “Bonfire of Teenagers” – finger-pointing and accusatory against the chilly piano accompaniment – its imagery of children saying goodbye, later “vapourised, vapourised” feels lumpen, in a song that is both slight and crass. “Go easy on the killer”, is its repeated refrain, vastly misaligned with real events. Given what we know about the singer’s political affiliations, there’s a sense too of a man pulling his punches, of implications he is not prepared to make explicit.
I do not think that the grieving people who sang “Don’t Look Back in Anger” in St Ann’s Square, Manchester after the bombing were morons. It was an expression of solidarity and resilience that did not obscure the tragedy but gave people a popular civic language to commemorate a horrific atrocity. Earlier this year, I watched Pet Shop Boys perform at Manchester Arena on the five-year anniversary of the attacks. Neil Tennant spoke in clear, certain terms about the attack being a “hate crime” and dedicated “Being Boring”, a gorgeous and mournful song about lives that do not get to grow old, to the 22 victims. That felt more affecting for the audience than “Bonfire of Teenagers” did last night, though the hall applauds as it ends.
“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”, aired late in the set, is the Smiths classic that feels hard to dim even by association. The waltz’s grandiose melancholy terrifically betrays the Irish parentage of its two songwriters, Morrissey and Marr. Like so much British pop of the postwar period, it was the product of immigration and changing cities. That’s something its singer now wants to deny to future generations, happier instead to walk backwards into comforting, fanciful and false visions of a bygone England.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency