Heaven Knows it’s Morrissey

Steven Patrick Morrissey, who would go on to be known simply as ‘Morrissey’, was born in Manchester on the 22nd May 1959 to Irish Catholic parents who had emigrated from Dublin. He spent his early years living with his parents and his older sister, Jackie, in the inner-city area, Hulme. His father, Peter, was a hospital porter and his mother Elizabeth, a librarian. The family moved to a three bedroom house in the Manchester suburb of Stretford when large parts of Hulme were demolished in 1969. In childhood, Morrissey developed interests in television and literature, becoming a fan of Manchester based soap opera Coronation Street, Hollywood actor James Dean and writer Oscar Wilde.

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A young Morrissey in a school picture

Morrissey often describes his teenage years as a period where he was often very lonely and depressed. During adolescence, he began taking prescription medication in order to combat the depression that would later follow him through life. He attended a Catholic secondary school in Manchester, St Mary’s Secondary Modern School and later, Stretford Technical School. He passed his exams and left school with three O levels, including one in English Literature. However, he took the decision to ‘go on the dole’. During his late teenage years, Morrissey developed a fascination with pop music and ‘pop stars’. He frequently wrote letters to music magazines such as NME and Melody Maker, offering his opinion on various bands. He was taken by his father to see bands such as T Rex and New York Dolls play in Manchester.

By 1978, Morrissey had decided that he wanted to make music as a career and became frontman of punk rock band The Nosebleeds, still using his forename, Steven. The Nosebleeds guitarist, Billy Duffy had encouraged Morrissey to make his singing debut and introduced Johnny Marr to the guitar, long before the two had met. Morrissey and Duffy wrote several songs together such as ‘Peppermint Heaven’, ‘I Get Nervous’ and ‘(I Think) I’m Ready For The Electric Chair). However, none of them were recorded in the band’s short career which ended the same year.

Following a failed audition with a new band ‘Slaughter and The Dogs’ with a record label in London, Morrissey decided to call it a day on his music career and venture into writing. He began writing about music, television and film and had 3 books published with Babylon Books between 1981 and 1982. They were titled ‘The New York Dolls’, ‘James Dean Is Not Dead’ and ‘Exit Smiling’ which was based on obscure actors in low-budget films.

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The original copy of Morrissey’s book ‘The New York Dolls’

In 1982, Johnny Marr knocked on the door of the house in Stretford where Morrissey had been living with his divorced mother. Marr was a uniquely talented 18 year-old guitarist and was looking for a vocalist to form a band with. It was said that he had an unrivalled knowledge of Manchester street college of any Mancunian his age and wanted the chance to work with Morrissey having seen him perform with early punk rock line-ups around the city. People who knew the pair said their peronalities did not match; Morrissey was shy and had few friends and Marr was very outgoing and seemed to be on first name terms with everyone in Manchester. However, Morrissey said: ‘we got on absolutely famously. We were very similar in drive’. They immediately became friends and formed a song writing partnership- one which would go on to be hailed as one of the best in rock history.

Morrissey and Marr recruited future Fall drummer, Simon Wolstencroft, and wrote and recorded several demos. In autumn of that year, they replaced him with Mike Joyce. They also added Marr’s friend, Andy Rourke, as a bass player. They signed to the now famous London-based independent record label, Rough Trade Records as ‘The Smiths’ and released their first single, ‘Hand In Glove’, in May 1983. It was championed by the longest serving BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel but it failed to break into the charts- despite going on to become one of the most loved The Smiths songs by their fan base.

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Morrissey performing with The Smiths at the Bath Moles Club in 1983

Their follow-up singles ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ were more successful, reaching numbers 25 and 12 in the UK Singles Chart. Aided by support from music magazines and a series of live sessions for John Peel and David Jensen at Radio 1, they acquired a dedicated fan base.

1984 was a busy year for the band, releasing two studio albums; self-titled ‘The Smiths’ which reached number 2 on the UK Album Chart, and compilation album ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, as well as two non-album singles; ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ and ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ which gave them their first UK top ten hit.

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The video for the single ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ The Smiths depicted the idea of fandom through teenage boys cycling around Salford wearing their hair in Morrissey style quiffs and prescription glasses

Early in 1985, The Smiths released their second album of new material, controversially titled ‘Meat Is Murder’. The band had grown more musically adventurous, with Marr and Rourke taking influence from funk music. And Morrissey had grown more politically adventurous, using the album to critiscise, Band Aid, the Thatcher government and the meat trade. With the title track ‘Meat Is Murder’ slamming meat-eaters and advocating vegetarianism and animal rights. During the time after the album’s release, Morrissey supposedly forbade the rest of the band from being photographed eating or buying meat in public. The album shot to the top of UK Album Chart. The B side to the 1984 single ‘William It Was Really Nothing’, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was featured on special editions of ‘Meat Is Murder’ and was also released a single, reaching number 24 in the UK Singles Chart.

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The cover of The Smith’s controversially named album ‘Meat Is Murder’ featuring an altered picture of Vietnam War corporal who wrote ‘Make War Not Love’ on his helmet

Through 1985, the band went on a lengthy tour which saw them play sold-out shows across the UK and America, while they were recording their next studio album ‘The Queen Is Dead’. The album was released in June 1986 and it reached number two in the UK Album Charts. However, the band’s roaring success had taken it’s toll on the relationships between its members and Rough Trade. A legal dispute between the label and the band had delayed the album’s release to seven months after it had been completed. Johnny Marr complained of being exhausted by the band’s hectic recording and touring schedule. Also, bassist Andy Rourke was dropped when Morrissey and Rough Trade found out about his use of heroin. He was replaced by Craig Gannon but reinstated just 2 weeks later.

The Smiths recorded and released two more singles; ‘Panic’ and ‘Ask’, which reached 11 and 14 in the singles chart before going their separate ways with Rough Trade. They later signed to major record label EMI- a decision which drew criticism from some of the band’s fan base for leaving the independent label. Despite continued success with singles released on EMI such as ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ and ‘Sheila Take A Bow’, there were growing tensions within the band. The relationship between the two founding members became strained when Morrissey became annoyed with Marr’s tendency to work with other artists and Marr with Morrissey’s ‘musical inflexibility’. By the time of the release date of what would be their final album, The Smiths had split. The album peaked at number 2 in the UK.

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The name of the album ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ was taken from the phrase ‘Borstal, here we come’ from the novel ‘Billy Liar’. And the artwork features actor Richard Davalos, who starred alongside Morrissey’s beloved James Dean in the film ‘East of Eden’

Morrissey didn’t hang around after the end of The Smiths era; His first solo album, ‘Viva Hate’, has released eight months later in March 1988. Recorded with former The Smiths producer Stephen Street and former ‘The Nosebleeds’ drummer Andrew Paresi, it went straight it at number 1 in the UK Album Chart and went gold in the US in 1993. It featured the hit singles ‘Suedehead’ and ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’.

Morrissey went on to find further success from his solo career, releasing several more hit albums such as ‘Bona Drag’, ‘Kill Uncle’ and ‘Vauxhall and I’. Morrissey decided that 1994’s Vauxhall and I would be his last album, noting that he thought it was his best solo album and that he did not believe he would ever be able to top it.

Morrissey performing in April 1993

Morrissey performing in April 1993

In 1996, former The Smiths drummer Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Johnny Marr to court for a legal case which accused the pair of not giving Joyce his fair share of royalties. Morrissey and Marr had been receiving 40% each, whereas Joyce and former bassist Andy Rourke had been receiving just 10%. The High Court ruled that Morrissey and Marr pay Joyce over £1 million in back pay and that Joyce receive 25% of royalties from then on. Andy Rourke settled for a smaller lump sum of back pay and continued receiving 10%. The judge for the case described Morrissey as ‘devious and unreliable’. Morrissey’s appeal against the ruling proved fruitless. This incident undoubtedly shattered fans’ hopes of a future reunion.

Newspaper article about the court case

Newspaper article about the court case

In 1998, with no record deal, Morrissey headlined California’s Coachella Festival and played an extensive Mexican and South American tour.

Morrissey made a comeback in 2004, releasing his seventh solo album ‘You Are The Quarry’ which peaked at number 2 in the UK Album Chart. It received strong reviews and sold over a million copies. Morrissey released a ‘Greatest Hits’ album which was released in 2008 and ‘The Very Best Of Morrissey’ which was released on EMI in 2011. He also performed at Glastonbury Festival in 2011, stopping in the middle of his set to criticise David Cameron for trying to block the ban on animals performing in circuses.

In January 2013, Morrissey announced that he had been diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and several tour dates had had to be re-scheduled. In March of that year, he was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour. During his recovery time spent in Ireland, Morrissey watched the Republic of Ireland football team play Austria in the company of his second cousin, professional footballer Robbie Keane.

Morrissey with his second cousin Robbie Keane at ROI vs Austria

Morrissey with his second cousin Robbie Keane at ROI vs Austria in 2013

In October 2013, Morrissey released his autobiography titled simply ‘Autobiography’. It was published by Penguin Books under the label ‘Penguin Classics’. The book received mixed reviews with The Daily Telegraph’s 5-star review calling it ‘the best written musical autobiography’ and The Independent slating its ‘droning narcissism’. 35,000 copies were sold in its first week on the shelves.

Morrissey’s tenth solo studio album, ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’, was released on the 15th July 2014. The following month, he revealed, to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, that he was suffering from an unspecified form of cancer. He said in the interview: ‘If I die, I die. If I don’t, then I don’t’. However, he went ahead with his scheduled two-month European tour at the end of the year.

Despite continued health concerns about his cancer, pneumonia in 2013 and a persistent throat condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, Morrissey has vowed to continue to work hard. He said: ‘I will save relaxation for when I’m dead’.

Poster for Morrissey's 2015 UK tour

Poster for Morrissey’s 2015 UK tour

The beauty of Morrissey is that the appeal to the teenagers and young generation of the 80s has never faded away, he still has a massive teenage fan base today. His timelessly relatable songs have been enjoyed for decades. The Independent said ‘he has a rare ability to tap into the teenage physche’, singing about sexual and social confusion, isolation and loneliness. He is considered an icon in music, fashion, vegetarianism, animal rights and general pop culture. Morrissey is widely regarded as one of the most important innovators in indie and rock music. NME called him ‘one of the most influential artists ever’, while The Independent said ‘Most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status he has reached in his lifetime’.

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