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Morrissey will never be cancelled Forty years on, his prickliness is why we still love him

Morrissey had a proto-woke sense of underdoggism. Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images

Morrissey had a proto-woke sense of underdoggism. Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images


May 4, 2022   5 mins

You, me, everyone loved The Smiths. Yet love them as much as we did, The Smiths were still one of those bands where you know that after rehearsals or shows, none of its members ever went out for beers. They ended up playing together as a band because the want-ad gods of 40 years ago cobbled them together semi-randomly. I doubt that these days they communicate from one decade to the next. How odd, to have had that performing intensity for several years and then nothing.

People try to interpret their breakup as some dramatic conflict, but it was maybe more like the moment in your own life, when you realise that your family members are just random human beings trapped in a house together, and the sooner you’re out of it, the better.

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Johnny Marr is a genius, and so is Morrissey. There had to be a moment somewhere in the initial sequencing of The Smiths’s DNA when one band member said to the others about Morrissey, “But mate, he’s like so incredibly, you know, um, how shall I phrase this, different. What are we supposed to do with him?” And then the other two probably shrugged and then decided to just run with it.

No offence to the other two, but, having been pulled from the want ads, they probably were a little bit replaceable/generic. And it must have been very rankling, indeed, for Morrissey and Marr to have to pony up £1 million to pay off the drummer who retroactively sued for back-royalties when he found out he was only getting 10% of the profits. Morrissey and Marr got 40% each. In his autobiography, Morrissey spends an astonishing amount of time describing that lawsuit and his incremental realisation that he was likely going to lose. That had to hurt on a few levels. Decades later, nobody even knows the drummer’s name or cares.

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What I like about The Smiths is that they mixed corny with cool. Contrast How Soon is Now with Frankly Mr. Shankly. They were all over the map, but then so were The Beatles, and even The Smiths’s crap B-sides were better than most bands’ singles.

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The Smiths to me represented a kind of revenge of the suburbs, where the children raised in Milton Keynes and Pasadena got back at society for coddling them, like in J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild. There was this moment in the late Seventies and early Eighties when a hundred million young people worldwide collectively decided to leave home — no, flee home as quickly as they could. The hippies were dead to them. Punk was a dead end. New Wave meant an actual new wave of being that was a rejection of the state and false utopian thinking.

There is a toughness to people who came of age in that era, a wariness of all systems that organically flowed from being a certain age and watching all forms of order implode or decay while “the answer”, the peace and love of the hippies, was utterly useless. “Hang the DJ” was like a battle cry when the Lord of the Flies children decide to kill Piggy.

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The thing with Morrissey is the nagging feeling you get when you think back to how he was right about so many things back in the past, things like vegetarianism and veganism, as well as his proto-woke sense of underdoggism. I draw the line at saying prophetic, but he was definitely ahead of his time.

Morrissey expressed his essential Morrisseyness inside of what was still a music world filled with rock normative prejudices. His utter alienness was his protective coating. People were so busy trying to understand what was actually going on inside his head that they didn’t think to simply punch him. But it seems as though, as the years rolled on, people took less and less time to think about what he was doing, and the urge to punch him became almost instantaneous.

The Simpsons did an episode about The Smiths (“The Snuffs”) which was astonishingly cruel to Morrissey. It really went way too far: shame on them. Sure, Morrissey’s a dick, but he’s always on brand when he’s a dick, and that prickliness is why we love him.

But then there’s his racism which is at such odds with his peace love and understanding persona, yet people tend to cut him some slack and chalk it up to the same gene that makes our parents crank up the racism in their late fifties. That’s right: Morrissey is old, which means you’re old, too. So, in a weird way, Morrissey (I hate it when people call him Moz) is cancel-proof. Like Donald Trump, he inhabits his own universe, and he genuinely doesn’t care.

Credit: Doug Coupland

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Can you even imagine what a flaming radioactive mess a Smiths reunion tour might be like? It’s like contemplating the square root of negative one, or dark matter. There’s just no point.

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I did my only interviewer gig ever with Morrissey in Rome in 2006. I’d been heavily using the sleep drug zopiclone for the first time ever in the days leading up to the interview. Meanwhile, the record company had been so paranoid about interviewers bootlegging an advance of Morrissey’s new songs that they only sent me CDs that were so heavily watermarked that they wouldn’t play in any device in the US or Canada. When I got to Rome, the company let me listen to the new album on some weird sound system that was like something out of the former DDR. And then, six hours early, they rang my room to say that Morrissey was bored and wanted to do his interview right then.

As he walked into the hotel’s basement bar where the interview took place, my zopiclone massively kicked in and I remember seeing Morrissey’s head balloon in size like a Christmas parade balloon in New York. Then I blacked out and suddenly it was another six hours later, and I was on the phone with my agent in New York, when I snapped out of the zopiclone blackout and said: WTF just happened? There’s no real moral here. But if they’d just given me the fucking album a week earlier, I could have written something a bit better about the whole cosmic clusterfuck of an experience in Rome.

Which is all to say that nobody ever compares Morrissey’s solo albums to The Smiths’ albums. But the solo albums are really, really good, and Morrissey doesn’t get enough credit for that. Viva Hate (1988) was astonishing, and Kill Uncle (1991) was excellent. With Your Arsenal (1992) his bus started to veer towards some nearby cliff, but then a few albums later, Ringleaders of the Tormentors (2006), the album I was in Rome for, showed great song writing and performing talent once more. Solo Morrissey is a boutique listening experience, albeit one that will endure.

In my mind The Smiths were 75% Morrissey, 24% Johnny Marr and 1% the others. I hear Johnny Marr has done great stuff since the band split. I assume it’s excellent and wish him well. But the sum of the band’s isolated solo efforts isn’t greater than their whole. So many of us miss The Smiths and we always will. Missing The Smiths is like missing that Christmas dinner where everyone screamed at each other and behaved appallingly and damaged crockery and said untakebackable things, and yet ever since all other Christmas dinners seem listless and fake and dull. What a shame, and so needless, to miss them while they’re still here. It’s like they ghosted all of us when they ghosted each other.


Douglas Coupland is an award-winning Canadian writer and artist. He has published 13 novels, and his latest book is Binge, a collection of 62 short stories.

DougCoupland

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Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

Andy Rourke and Johnny Marr were very close school friends and spent a lot of time together playing in various bands as teenagers so your “Want Ad” theory, much like the rest of this piece, is frankly incorrect.

Robert Quark
Robert Quark
2 years ago

Terrible article, which is so full of inaccuracies and misapprehensions that I am caused to wonder whether he is even the fan he purports to be.
To cherry-pick just a few absolute howlers…
[N]obody ever compares Morrissey’s solo albums to the Smiths albums.” Yeah, if you’ve read absolutely nothing to do with him/them in the past 33 years that may be true.
“His racism which is at such odds with his peace love and understanding persona.” His what, now?
Then to pose the question, how odd that they probably don’t even communicate with each other from one decade to the next, only to state the answer further down, that the drummer sued them for £1m… kind of answered your own question there, Dougie…

Last edited 2 years ago by Robert Quark
Michael J
Michael J
2 years ago

“…he was right about so many things back in the past, things like vegetarianism and veganism, as well as his proto-woke sense of underdoggism.”
You what?

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael J

‘Underdogging’ surely ?

Robert G
Robert G
2 years ago

Bizarre for an author to write an opinion piece on a topic of which he knows so little. A simple bit of online searching would have revealed some of the inaccuracies.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

“His racism”? Because he doesn’t love the religion of peace? Jesus. I had high expectations for an article written by a writer. I was wrong.

john barry
john barry
2 years ago

So the drummer was out of order after not getting his (tiny) fair share of the money? Even after years of heavy lifting and helping the singer and guitarist become famous. That’s the music industry for you.

Andy Salo
Andy Salo
2 years ago

A disappointing article which shows an astonishing lack of research.
The Smiths were not cobbled together from Wanted Ads as you’d expect any fan to know. Especially a fan deciding to write about how the Smiths formed! Also, to simply assume that someone is a racist without even examining the matter is journalism at it’s irresponsible worst. The feeling you get is of an article quickly cobbled together (the phrase may have been understandably on his mind) in the final hours before a deadline. Perhaps after another zopiclone blackout Or, to echo his own style: Douglas Coupland wrote this after a zopiclone blackout.

cecil mccclintock
cecil mccclintock
2 years ago

This article is 10 minutes of my life I will never get back. A total load of cobblers and full of inaccuracies too many to list. Why can’t we just enjoy Morrissey and his wonderful lyrics.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago

Well thats 5 minutes I won’t get back, totally wasted, unless I use it to ensure I avoid anything written by Douglas Coupland. Life can be cruel, Doug (see the comments) but to write that an episode of the Simpsons was ‘astonishingly cruel’ to the singer takes the biscuit for the most banal, egregious and mawkish thing ever to appear in Unheard. Why is Unheard floating such drivel?

Stephen Boyle
Stephen Boyle
2 years ago

What utter rubbish! Morrissey was, at best 45% of the band. Without Marr’s genius, The Smiths would never have become The seminal band of the 80s.
You sir are an idiot!

DH Saunders
DH Saunders
2 years ago

He’s right about the Simpsons. That episode was cruel & inaccurate. ALL of The Smiths were vegetarian/vegan, not just Morrissey.
He’s wrong about the racism. I think people use that tactic in order to misrepresent/smear Morrissey & his true message of animal rights as a personal/ political act . This has always been his humanitarian message & it has never wavered in 40 years. He was and is a visionary. He has also been a key influencer to millions for decades & thus to his haters he is still dangerous.

Last edited 2 years ago by DH Saunders
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago

I love Morrissey ( discovered him very recently) but this is a silly banal article by ‘an award winning Canadian writer and artist ‘

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Caspian Prince
Caspian Prince
2 years ago

This is dreadful. If you grew up loving the Smiths and were mortified when they split up, you will know that this is full of inaccuracies, irrelevance and stupidity.

Last edited 2 years ago by Caspian Prince
Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

I’ve never had the pleasure of reading anything by Coupland before. Is this how he usually writes?
Who uses the term ‘to pony up’ – even in Canada? I suspect Coupland has been watching too many Guy Ritchie films from the 90s.
As for ‘everyone’ loving The Smiths. Again, perhaps in Canada, but I’d say they were as equally loathed as loved (I am a fan BTW). A certain well known Radio 1 DJ never hid his contempt when introducing anything by the band.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

He’s the man who wrote Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and thereby made ‘Generation X’ a thing. (It’s also the name of one of Billy Idol’s bands, so it may be that the term had some currency before the book came out.) But he pretty well defined it there. By the way, plenty of people in Canada loathed The Smiths, too. I think there were rather more Canadians who disliked Coupland than The Smiths, starting with all the members of Generation X who weren’t losers living in their parents basements, blaming the boomers for having gotten to everything first, and who didn’t like having this person annointed as the spokesman for their generation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

I read several of his books. I can’t justify why I did it. By the second book (Infoserfs) I hated the characters. But I plough through his “œuvre”. I was young and stupid.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago

What next ? The Stones world tour without Mick Jagger ?

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

Maybe so, although speaking to youngsters today I get the impression that they wish they were growing up in any decade than than the 2010s or 2020s. Music today, the musicians, the club’s, the concerts … seems to have lost that innovative and exciting edge. It is very corporate and all about the money, with the odd exception, who would have been a success no matter which decade they were in.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Gawd how I loathed the Smiths music, and especially Morrissey’s singing style.
But I love that he’s proven to to be such an ornery individual, with strong opinions. Proper oyster grit.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
2 years ago

Disliked the Smiths intensely. Quite partial to Morrissey’s solo stuff. Punchy rockabilly, glam rock, misfit Americana….Ringleader of the Tormentors was a tremendous effort. Saw him live a few years back – energetic and powerful show. Really pushed the animal rights activism. I enjoyed it a lot. Intense performer.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

“I’d been heavily using the sleep drug zopiclone for the first time ever in the days leading up to the interview.” Is this good English? I’m not a native speaker, so I ask.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

No. It’s poor English, badly structured. I’d put “In the days leading up to…” at the start to improve the sentence flow. And I suspect the drug is a trade name so should be Zopiclone.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

it’s a bit clumsy

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

I wasn’t going to read this article, not being interested in pop musicians, but I dived in belatedly when it popped up in the Unherd email. Lucky I did, or else I would have missed out on the terrific comments slamming the article.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

My totally innocent comment with six upticks vanished too. What is going on?

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

Tell that to Gary Glitter.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

Why did my innocuous comment vanish? Unherd’ seems to be moving towards a censorship regime that the CCP would be proud off.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

I think it is just dodgy technology. I have had innocuous ones vanish and punchy ones get through.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

Great songs unfortunately his voice does not work for me.

Amani Sofia
Amani Sofia
2 years ago

What a poorly written article. So many inaccuracies. Yes Morrissey has fallen very far. There are legions of Smiths fans,myself included, who would never pay to see his concert now. You left out the part where he is such a diva he cancels shows for no reason. Johnny Marr should just get together with the other band members and maybe Brandon Flowers and do a world tour. I would pay big money to go to that. Also the square root of -1 is actually i. Ask anyone that took an algebra 2 course.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Amani Sofia

Wouldn’t that be like a Stones world tour without Mick Jagger ?
Do you find ‘writing frightening verse to a buck toothed girl from Luxembourg’ problematic ?
And is ‘frightening’ anyway a ‘transferred epithet’ from the girl to the verse ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Amani Sofia
Amani Sofia
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Mick Jagger hasn’t turned into a total racist a-hole. You tube Brandon Flowers singing smiths songs. He does a pretty good jobs. At Glastonbury he was even accompanied by Johnny F***in Marr and it was amazing. In that moment you can see the potential of a Smiths tour without the boorish Morrissey. Like I say I would pay good money to see that, I may even fly across the pond to catch the show.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Amani Sofia

Well they will have to pay Morrissey to use his songs so let’s hope he donates some of it to his favourite ‘new’ political party .
Aren’t you worried about your effect on Gaia ‘flying across the pond’ to make a crass anti -racist point ? Or are you so woke you’ve grown wings ?

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
2 years ago

I thought it was great article

Ingrid Nozahic
Ingrid Nozahic
2 years ago

I can’t think of many characterising aspects of the 80’s I disliked more than Morrissey. However, clusterfuck has become my word of the day