How Morrissey outran The Smiths (and why his critics will never admit it)

Morrissey on stage

There’s an emergence of voices rising from the rotting grave of political correctness lately, in a feeble attempt to somehow make Morrissey’s art into nothing more than a shadow of The Smiths. In reality though, to many, he was the beating heart of the much-loved 80s quartet and unlike his bandmates, he became so much more.

There are many voices online using the tired old trope, “I won’t listen to Morrissey because I don’t agree with his views, but I’ll always have The Smiths.” If this sentiment were limited only to the dull echo chambers of anonymous social media users, it might not be so bad. Yet it does not stop there.

I don’t think Marr should be held back because of Morrissey, so I don’t regret it.” That was The Killers lead singer — Brandon Flowers — own response when asked about his decision to cover The Smiths song This Charming Man live on stage in 2020, as if somehow, performing the song needed justifying at all. It’s a great track, so why shouldn’t it be covered and celebrated?

In an article for Far Out Magazine, writer Joe Tayson couldn’t resist listing the accomplishments of Johnny Marr without needlessly adding “Marr has played with some of the most incredible talents of the last 40 years … and doesn’t have questionable politics like certain former bandmates of his.”

In October 2019, journalist Fiona Sturges wrote a feature for The Independent, in which she outlined the reasons why The Smiths “still pump” in her veins, but believes Morrissey should be ignored.

The truth is, whether those tied to such opinions acknowledge it or not, without Morrissey, The Smiths would not have become the band they so clearly and publicly adore. There would be no This Charming Man, no Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now or The Queen is Dead. The two — Morrissey and the band — are irrevocably twinned, and it is asinine to attempt to separate them.

There are very few who would dare to contend that another voice, another lyricist, could have brought to life some of the more miraculous moments in the pop group’s active years. Whether it’s the achingly raw melancholy of his delivery in Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, or the jarring, almost hypnotic mood he rouses in Meat Is Murder, Morrissey brought something so unique and distinct to the table that no other artist could have ever replicated it.

Morrissey evidently possessed that extra “something” even back then, and whatever that remarkable and indefinable quality was, he carried it with him to his solo career, where he eventually burned much brighter than he did during those dream-like days of his former bands history.

Releasing a total of four albums between the years of 84–87 before their subsequent split (The Smiths, Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways Here We Come), The Smiths were very brief in time yet built to last in the annals of popular music history. Nobody can deny the genius of their body of work — few bands have enjoyed a legacy as enduring and cross-generational as The Smiths. But perhaps it was their brevity that gave the band their almost myth-like status? After all, many people often cling to, and long for, beautiful things that have passed.

Morrissey was the face of the group, and the voice of a jilted generation. To minimise his relevance is to re-write history in the most absurd and wholly disingenuous way.

In the initial aftermath of their split, many worried what could possibly come after to rival what had once been. Yet they needn’t have been concerned. Morrissey himself didn’t just survive it — he outran the legacy and he went one better. So the question is this: why do his harshest “woke” detractors often say they won’t listen to Morrissey, but continually profess their continued worship of The Smiths, as if they do not realise that — with all due respect to the gifted musicianship of Johnny Marr — Morrissey has proven he was the key to the mass appeal of the Mancunian ensemble?

It is undeniable that it was Morrissey who gave The Smiths their edge. If the band had not had such an intelligent, opinionated and charismatic frontman, there would certainly have been great music from the band, but the group would not have become the adored icons of their generation in the ways in which they have. It was Morrissey’s mind and soul that conjured the sobering beauty of morality in Meat Is Murder, and created the poetical landscapes glimpsed in the words of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. It was Morrissey who pushed the boundaries, who stood firm as an anti-establishment figure, penning politically charged tracks at a time when — much like now — to be outspoken and controversial was a huge risk.

The Smiths, icons of the 80s and beyond.

Regarded as one of the all-time greatest wordsmiths — and even compared to Oscar Wilde — Morrissey has moved generations of listeners with the stories and narratives in his songs. The very thing which sets Morrissey’s songwriting apart is his view of the world and the unique ways in which he expresses himself. Anthems for the lonely, for the outcast — the artist’s lyrics have become salve for his listeners.

Morrissey’s style, temperament and outspoken views made The Smiths an exciting and unexpected phenomena, somehow pushing the group to the fringes of acceptability — and yet launching them to the centre stage of the music world. After the demise of the much loved group, Morrissey catapulted to levels of popularity and commercial success not even seen by The Smiths themselves in their heyday.

Morrissey understood that the shadow of The Smiths loomed long and large when he decided to embark on a solo career. Speaking of that time, Morrissey said, “Recording Viva Hate was very difficult owing to the enslaved echo, coming from virtually everywhere, that told me I could never possibly be as good as The Smiths.” Whilst this was patently not true (and time has demonstrated so), it appeared that he had to wait for his audience to catch up, and they did, in droves.

If his releases as a man going-it-alone proved anything, it was that Morrissey’s voice, lyrics, image and persona clearly engaged on an almost primal level with his audience, who were some of the most die-hard, loyal and ardent to be found. There were scenes in his solo live shows that were reminiscent of Beatlemania, with throngs of people surging forward, arenas thundering with deafening screams, faces full of desperation to see this unique, hard-to-define idol.

In total — so far — Morrissey has unleashed an impressive twelve solo studio albums, alongside several sold-out world tours, compilation albums and concert DVDs. He has sold in excess of 12 million albums worldwide. Every single solo album he has produced has reached the top 10 in the UK album charts.

Whether it was the critically revered Your Arsenal, with sales in excess of 350,000 in the US alone, the heavier, garage-rock melodies of Years of Refusal, or his stunning covers album, California Son — so uniquely readdressing songs from the past that it feels almost wrong to call them “covers” — Morrissey has proven himself again and again as one of the most important faces to emerge from the British music scene. These collective accomplishments surely prove who was the driving force behind the band that they claim to love.

The truth is, if you listen to The Smiths, you are listening to Morrissey, for how can any listener divide the genius of the artist’s latter day work and refuse to see its embryonic reflections in his earlier releases with the band?

Morrissey is the magnet that brings it all together.

A number of critics and detractors may try to steal or edit Morrissey’s accomplishments because they do not agree with his views. This is clearly nothing to do with the music, and more to do with their own mindset and cognitive limitations.

If those who profess to listen to The Smiths are pretending it is not because of the power of Morrissey’s art, then we should examine where the other band members are now that are supposed to be drawing them in. Johnny Marr, of course, is undeniably a gifted and nuanced guitarist. He was clearly an important part of the magic of the band, but the truth is, he has not released anything that has genuinely rivalled that of the legendary frontman of The Smiths in the ensuing years. Has Rourke worked on anything as powerful as You Are The Quarry, Vauxhall and I or Years of Refusal since?

As genuinely talented as all the band members may have been, as much contribution as they made to their legendary canon of work, they evidently did not possess the element that sets Morrissey apart. The artist’s talent for creating melody lines that make the hairs stand on the back of the neck, the lyrical genius of his work and that unique voice — that rich high baritone which pierces his listeners with its heavy, emotional punch — all goes so much further than his detractors dare credit him for.

Morrissey himself appears to trust in the strength of his solo work as much as his fans do. Unlike many less creatively-engaging artists and bands who rely heavily on nostalgia to sell tickets to their shows, Morrissey limits his setlists to only a small scattering of songs by The Smiths, focusing a vast amount of his energy on stage to his solo work. When you factor in that Morrissey is an arena act the world over, it’s an undisputed fact that The Smiths are not the main draw for the fans paying to see him in concert today.

Morrissey moved on from his former band by focusing on the future. Writing with many gifted collaborators over the years — such as Boz Boorer, Jessie Tobias, Gustavo Manzur and Alain Whyte — Morrissey forged his own sound distinctly separate from that of his past band. Looking at his journey from Viva Hate to I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, we have heard the evidence with our own ears: Morrissey gave The Smiths the edge and lyrical magic that helped them become icons.

Morrissey’s current band

One need only look to the succession of endless artistic successes for the singer. This speaks a truth far more than anything else can, and it cannot be diminished, no matter how certain critics try to distract us from it, no matter how they ignorantly praise The Smiths yet publicly ignore the beauty to be found in Morrissey’s solo work. It is clearly a stubbornness on the part of his critics. They cannot deny the greatness of his solo music, so it is easier to ignore it, downplay it or mock his views. Distract, distract, distract.

In reality, Morrissey remains the same outspoken, frank and witty provocateur now that he was back at the beginning. Perhaps the people who bemoan how they can’t align themselves with Morrissey due to his political convictions are actually the ones who have changed. Maybe age has dulled their capacity for independent thought? Perhaps the spirit of free-speech and rebellion they once admired in Morrissey now frightens them, as they scroll through social media to inform them what pre-approved cultural narratives they should be endorsing on any given day.

But make no mistake, it is not Morrissey who has changed. That young twenty-something who took centre stage on Top of The Pops to perform The Boy With The Thorn In His Side is the same unique artist who penned Everyday Is Like Sunday, Life Is A Pigsty and Something Is Squeezing My Skull.

In this world full of clones and bores, let’s not overlook great art when we have it — or neglect to credit those making life a little more beautiful in these trying times.

Freelance writer and published author.