Ringleader in Reflection: A Look Back at Morrissey’s 2006 Album, Ringleader of The Tormentors

Images by Fabio Lavino/Sourced from @Morrissey_Etc via Twitter

This week the much loved album turns 15 (on the 3rd April 2006, to be more precise) and it is not an exaggeration to say that Ringleader of the Tormentors is considered an all-time fan favourite from British legend, Morrissey. Just two years previously to the release, the artist had unleashed the seminal You Are The Quarry, which had been an epic success for the Mancunian. Many critics wondered if Morrissey’s subsequent album would be able to match Quarry, let alone top it. They needn’t have worried.

It was late August 2005 when singer Morrissey grouped together with his bandmates — Boz Boorer, Alain Whyte and Jesse Tobias on guitars, Matt Chamberlain on drums and Michael Farrell on piano — to record Ringleader of the Tormentors. The choice of venue was the Forum Music Village recording studio, which sat snugly in the shadow of the beautiful Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (a church built in the late 1880s). In the centre of Rome, Italy, Forum Music Village had once been the eyes and ears of many classic recording sessions, and the latest arrivals would prove one of the true highlights of the recording facilities impressive history.

It was amazing to breathe in Rome’s rich history and vibe… to see Caesar’s tomb was just crazy,” musician and songwriter Alain Whyte said, when I asked him about that time. It was almost as if Rome was as much a part of the album’s production as the musicians themselves.

It took three months to record and was produced by music legend Tony Visconti (who worked with David Bowie and T-Rex, amongst many other significant names of the industry). “I was excited to work with Visconti, a wonderful man and complete legend,” Whyte said, recalling the producer’s impact on the project. Visconti himself later went on to describe Ringleader as “one of the best albums” he’d ever worked on in his career.

There appeared to be a new direction to this Morrissey release, with Billboard describing it as having a more “rock-driven sound” than his previous albums. This may have, in part, been due to the new addition of guitarist Jesse Tobias, who joined Morrissey’s line-up at this time. Tobias- who had worked with Red Hot Chilli Peppers and was Alanis Morissette’s guitarist on the Jagged Little Pill tour- brought a new-found edge to the band along with the much-respected long-timer Boz Boorer. This was to be the beginning of a long working relationship between Morrissey and Tobias (who remains with the artist to this day, having taken part in all of the icon’s releases since).

Ringleader of the Tormentors went on to become one of Morrissey’s most significant records, a true giant in his back catalogue of work. Reaching number 1 in the UK and in Sweden, Malta and Greece, Ringleader swiftly made a huge impact. It wasn’t long before it was certified Gold.

The first single from the album was You Have Killed Me — a dramatic, catchy, rock track. Co-written with Tobias, Morrissey said of the single that it would introduce the “marked difference” in sound brought about by the new guitarist’s influence. That influence could be clearly seen and felt through the record, with Tobias co-writing several tracks, including The Youngest Was The Most Loved and On The Streets I Ran.

Morrissey and his band — photo by Travis Shinn

The record was brimming full of Morrissey’s unique lyrical take on the world, as well as with his booming, rich, baritone. His voice has always captivated his audience, and it’s not hard to see why on this record.

His powerful vocals were the driving force of the tracks, with his voice beautifully bringing to life some of the treasures of the album, such as To Me You Are A Work Of Art. There was a classical, orchestral feel to some of the songs, including Dear God Please Help Me, with its intimate lyrics and smooth, haunting strings. A truly sombre delivery from Morrissey gives the listener the feeling that they are a fly on the wall at the singer’s confessional.

Some of the rockier, edgy numbers, such as On The Streets I Ran and The Father Who Must Be Killed give Ringleaders it’s sharper edges, with unforgettable hooks and — unexpectedly — an incredible backing from an Italian children’s choir.

The crowning jewel of the album, Life is a Pigsty, serves almost as an anthem for the realists amongst us. The track is cloaked by enchanting strings and glorified further by the epic drumming of Chamberlain. Morrissey’s poetic lyrics appear deeply personal and full of despair, melancholy and longing.

“To watch Ennio Morricone conduct a whole string arrangement to Dear God, Please Help Me was mind-blowing. Something I’ll remember to the grave,” Whyte added when recalling the evolution of the track.

This song is almost always listed as a firm fan favourite amongst Morrissey’s diverse audience; its beauty and appeal seems to cross the borders of all ages and backgrounds — as all great and enduring art does.

The album is a phenomenal ride from beginning to end, with twisting vocals, a smooth as silk enchanting violin score and grinding guitar work. At this point in his career, Morrissey had more than proved his weight as a solo artist (his output even exceeding the glory days of The Smiths). The impact of Ringleader took him one step further, impressing not only his large body of fans across the globe but even some of his staunchest critics, of whom almost all reviewed the album favourably and with high praise.

Whilst fans of the music legend have followed him through his journey from frontman of iconic band The Smiths, to the undeniable greatness of his later work, such as I Am Not A Dog On A Chain and Low In High School, Ringleader (even after all these years) still stands out as a true testament to the immense and unrivalled talent of Morrissey, and reminds us why he has become of one of the most culturally significant lyricists of the music world.

Freelance writer and published author.