Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was a wonderful celebration of British popular culture from the last five decades, from the Stones, Kinks and Beatles through to the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal. Appropriately enough, there was a good showing for London-based music, with the Jam, the Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Underworld and Prodigy all getting their spot in the limelight.
While Miranda Sawyer in the Observer today picks up on the surprising omissions of Oasis and the Stone Roses, the other Mancunian band that was missing for me was…. The Smiths. I’m fairly certain that Morrissey would have cringed to have been anywhere near the setlist, but arguably his contribution to British popular music has been at least as significant as any of the above.
There was a certain piquancy therefore to hear that Morrissey played his home city of Manchester last night, the day after the Olympic ceremony, the only UK date on a world tour that stretches from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles. (According to one review, he told the audience last night that he “hadn’t been invited to the Olympic opening ceremony because my smile is too sincere”.) I’ve recently written an essay for a book on music, health and geography, exploring the different geographies at stake in Morrissey’s music. Specific places often feature in his songs, even as his emotional landscapes transcend territorial and ethnic boundaries (he has a significant following among Latino populations, for example). There are even tours of Morrissey’s Manchester, where fans can explore for themselves the settings for the early Smiths songs.
|Morrissey in a humdrum town|
The depressed landscapes that feature in Morrissey’s oeuvre – iron bridges, disused railway lines, out-of-season seaside towns, rented rooms in Whalley Range – might have fitted well into Danny Boyle’s choreographed social history of the British experience. Far from being health-inducing, however, I argue that these places are deployed as a form of anti-pastoral, with a depressing effect on mind and body. The early song, ‘Jeane’, for example, is a kitchen-sink drama worthy of A Taste of Honey or any other 1950s and 60s bedsitter tableau:
‘Jeane/The lowlife has lost its appeal/ And I'm tired of walking these streets/To a room with its cupboard bare…’
‘There's ice on the sink where we bathe/ So how can you call this home/ When you know it's a grave?’
Morrissey is not known for being an Olympic-style picture of health and efficiency. More often he is associated with misery and depression – being ‘The Pope of Mope’ or ‘Prince of Wails’. Not for nothing did he encore his show last night with Still Ill (‘Under the iron bridge we kissed, and although I ended up with sore lips, it just wasn’t like the old days any more’). So much so that it came as a surprise to me when I first read in Johnny Rogan’s biography of the Smiths, The Severed Alliance – recently reissued - that Morrissey was in fact highly athletic in his youth – a fact that he alludes to on his first solo album (‘Captain of games, solid framed, I stood on the touch line….’)
For Morrissey, music was the great salvation from the industrial grime and murkiness of the landscape of his youth. As he was once quoted as saying:
‘In the history of my life the high points were always buying particular records and hearing records and being immersed in them, and really believing that these people understood how I felt about certain situations. So that’s the richness of records.’
This might well have been the overwhelming message of the Olympic ceremony too. We might have blighted our green and pleasant land with the chimneys of industrialisation, but at least we have produced some of the greatest popular music of the last five decades. Sadly, though, the Olympic Torch did not stop at Salford Lad’s Club when it passed through Greater Manchester in June – a venue that even David Cameron, before he became Prime Minister, found time to visit.
|PM, with Morrissey in background|
PS Fascinating to see Morrissey making a public statement about the Olympics the other day. Somewhat predictably he adopts a stance that flies in the face of the public mood...