A bitter office quarrel — the so-called the ‘HipHop Wars’ — had been making life at the NME miserable from some time. At issue was the current and future direction of the paper — how to give the readers what they wanted to read, week on week, while staying abreast of music’s future trends — so when the Smiths released ‘Panic’ in late 1986, it crystallised everything. “Hang the DJ!” sang Morrissey: “Burn down the disco!” Those who cared for black music at all — future and past — were appalled: to them it was very clear who this talk of burning and hanging was aimed at. His supporters scrambled for a less ugly reading: not that kind of DJ! Not those discos! Much was made of Steve Wright following a news report about Chernobyl with a Wham! song. Concluding statement for the defence: He’s not anti black musicians, he’s anti bland music — and that goes for us all, surely?
Over at Melody Maker the singer explained himself to Frank Owen (it’s wrongly dated at the link). Reggae he describes as the “most racist music in the entire world… an absolute total glorification of black supremacy”, firming up an earlier throwaway elsewhere (footnote 1). While he doesn’t have “very cast-iron opinions” about “modern” black music, he “detests” Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson: “I think they’re vile in the extreme.” He then launches into a highly ridiculous conspiracy theory. He’s perhaps half-kidding when he begins, with a deliberate exaggeration to make a point about music and meaning and secret censorship and the charts as a battleground of values, but by the end, like so many in love with their own taboo-busting daring, he’s convinced himself.
In retrospect what honestly strikes you first is how weak the critical writing and thinking about black music was becoming in the music papers by the mid-80s. Up until 1980, Melody Maker had had a storied relationship with jazz and soul, but management meddling and disastrous editorial judgment had broken this thread, driving away some of its best senior writers and scholars. In my memory, Owen was by 1986 one of the paper’s few younger contributors at all well acquainted with and well disposed towards any kind of African American expression. With little to lose, MM was at this point playing catch-up largely by goading its better-selling rival, which had become self-serious and uncertain in the shadow of a better past. Owen has a good nose for a story, and was possibly keener to exacerbate the tensions in NME editorial (2) than to push back on behalf of “other anonymous Jacksons”. As it happens, this was the year of Janet’s third LP Control, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It is not a difficult record to be cogent or and positive about. Yet such defence as Owen makes, of black pop in general, is just absurdly feeble: “It’s hard to verbalise,” he writes (ffs Frank, no it’s not, this is your job). Admittedly the singer is manoeuvred into taking full ownership of the word “conspiracy” — but the not-much-more robust case Owen makes on behalf of rap leaves Morrissey merely contemptuous and dismissive.
Loudly pluralist by editorial choice, the NME had somehow to defang such opinions to justify its strong support for Morrissey. The Wham-Chernobyl-Panic first-line defence required we treat a songline’s inspiration is the whole and all of its meaning. Not only is this a pretty impoverished critical position, it’s one in direct conflict with the invocation, in nearly every NME interview, of Oscar Wilde — from his socialism to his sexuality to his arch epigrammatic derision. The word “charm” comes up a lot. As a troll avant le lettre, Morrissey’s less palatable opinions were nervously being re-spun as jokes, as irony, as ambiguous melodramatic provocation.
So it’s interesting that Wilde goes unmentioned in the long 1988 Melody Maker essay by Simon Reynolds, a position statement that would become the opening chapter to his 1990 collection Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock. Instead citing George Formby, this essay insists there’s much too much humour present in The Smiths, while the camp continuum is declared an irrelevance. Excavating moods and modes and feelings and stances underserved elsewhere in pop, Reynolds is looking to decouple rock discourse from its attachment to and reverence for black music and the clichés of its discussion, and to celebrate in Morrissey precisely this unpalatability: this narrowness, this hardening, an energetics of truculent resignation as a kind of quasi-political revolt.
By 1988, the Smiths had in fact split — as indeed had NME. The paper’s management had decapitated the soulboy faction, and black music and leftish political coverage was now sharply diminished. Morrissey was releasing his first solo LP, and Reynolds made much of its contrasting elements: on one hand, the delicate drift of some of the songs, in voice and sound and topic-treatment, and on the other hand the abrupt title Viva Hate. The combined effect, of petulance as a kind of refusenik aggression, is wary of politics as ordinarily then understood, in and out of pop, and yet by no means entirely anti-political (Thatcher gets head-chopped in the final song).
So here is a sensibility perhaps newly salient in the story of rock. In any case, Reynolds wanted it taken absolutely seriously — not least because of its usefulness against critical pluralism. True pop, he insists, never negotiates — though not his own preferred sound, he approves indie’s commitment to sweeping out the chart imposters in favour of a remembered perfect pop (at that time a term you read often). “Fanaticism,” he declares, “is the true experience of pop, not discrimination and broad-mindedness.” Morrissey’s anathemas fold into a Reynolds diatribe against yuppies and suburbia and humanism. In the 60s the Rolling Stones had injected R&B sexuality into UK sound to goose the normies — except that, as a highly ironised appropriation, a song like ‘Satisfaction’ mocked the very idea that satisfaction was achievable. Not so 80s soul, it seems, and this passage climaxes with a genuinely arresting phrase: the “travesty of healthy sexuality that black pop degenerated into.”
As it happens, I think as soon as you actually listen to it, almost any mid-80s black pop gives the lie to this misprision, Sade as much as Prince. But let’s stick with Morrissey’s bugbear: other Jacksons. Bad came out in 1987, and even then the MJ project was as dense a package of wilfully perverse anti-sexuality, strange childish pain and refusal, as ever went over everyone’s heads in the UK critical community. Hiding in the plainest sight, here was someone ringing the changes on performative oddity and manipulative perversity and anti-serious dark play, increasingly threaded with real-world self-doubt and self-loathing (by 1990 he would have been through some 10 plastic surgery procedures). His expression of desire was an unreadable vortex, while his music flipped in and out of romantic swoon, techno-goth horror-posture, self-lacerating sentimentality, unhappy celebrity pathology — and, always, the sheer unmatched physical joy and release of this superbly poised, deeply damaged dancer-singer.
In other words, here was an intimate, neurasthenic parade of symptoms — loneliness, self-disgust, performed melancholia, deep self-isolated Incel resentment — very much not located in the white (80s, English-Irish) body. Here were journeys aplenty through the tribulations of fame, the poetry of pain, the refusal to grown up and make peace with the mere suburban real. Of course MJ no longer now gave interviews, good or bad, so no dialogue was possible re subtext or intention. Which may actually be what Frank Owen was gesturing at with his “hard to verbalise” — certainly the consequence was that white pop, however obscure or mediocre, was routinely afforded a far subtler range of against-the-grain readings than black pop (3).
Late in the essay, Reynolds tentatively unpacks the LP’s title, Viva Hate. What if only bigotries can make sense of the world? What if we need an illiberal side-taking, a (his words) “new order”? I’m less interested in Morrissey’s reply — these days I find his in-interview persona as exhausting as it’s trite — than the fact that the fourth song on Viva Hate is ‘Bengali in Platforms’, a song that goes undiscussed and indeed unmentioned in this essay, and this charged context. When Cornershop burned the singer’s image a few years later, a concrete demonstration of the wounds such songs left on his Asian fans, we would hear the same old weak-sauce excuses. It’s about a person Morrissey once met, just the one unnamed person — as if, again, a songline’s anecdotal inspiration is the whole and all of its meaning, even an anecdote deliberately kept as vague and unconcrete as this one.
Of course one way to create an entryspace for the voices outside your privileged circle is, precisely, a framework of broadminded critical tolerance, encouraging experimental or exiled or outsider contributions to to emerge without straightaway being slapped back down. This probably does also encourage lazy habits: in contrast to the gleeful jargons dreamt up at Melody Maker to champion the music they felt was under-regarded, much too much of the language used elsewhere to celebrate, explain and justify black music was flattening it out and distorting it, especially for newcomers. And pop’s blander imposters have always been very easy — far too easy — to stir up impatience against.
In regard to impatience, at this distance it’s clear that the NME’s soulboy faction and MM’s pale-theory crew were hostile mirrors of one another, twins in all but taste (and lol fashion-sense). Both were militantly futurist: what’s good in the past must be mobilised to take us forward; the stupid present must be swept aside. The former organised their intransigence against the racism they intuited everywhere in white-rock talk — but then perhaps too patly nudged every next new pop-cultural trend they embraced into line as a part of the resistance. The latter organised their primary intransigence against this same often-brittle mod moralism — and then developed a bad trick of not really engaging with the music on the far side of it.
I haven’t dug it out to reread (I suspect it’s not that great), but sometime in late 87 or 88 I wrote a piece for NME called something like ‘Images of England in Rock and Roll Music’ (an unearned reference to the subtitle of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train). In it The Smiths and Madness were compared with The Fall and found wanting (for being backward-looking: I too was a futurist). But I also remember that I was very taken by the Smiths title ‘A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours’. There was a revolutionary vigour to it, and I guess it didn’t then occur to me who besides plutocrats Morrissey had a mind to be driving off his lawn and out of his country.
Because being in denial was general. After all, most of the Morrissey stans at NME loved soul and reggae and African pop. Even the badboys at MM — who enjoyed ruffling their rival’s earnest PC demeanour for the sake of naughtiness and clicks — were transgressing largely within the countercultural penumbra: where pop was not only “against the system”, but in its very bones anti-racist and multicultural. Breaking with these rockwrite pieties, only the soulboy faction had demurred. And despite their prescience about house and hiphop, ragga and dancehall and the mid-90s renewal of R&B, this likely ensured their defeat within and exclusion from the discussion after 1987.
As for Morrissey, I’m not sure I believe he’d gone full alt-right quite yet. It was still all games and flirting and deniability at this point: making waves and thinking out loud, to an audience that ooh-ed and ah-ed uncritically. Yes, he already fully loathed the Jacksons, but the Wilde exemption held firm: irony as get-out clause, even to himself. Even when he draped himself in a Union Jack at Madstock a few years later, it was still partly testing the limits of (as we used to call it) semiotic free play — his Siouxsie-in-a-swastika moment, in other words. Only as nearly a decade’s rock-hack soft soap turned belatedly into articulated dissent did he begin throwing the tantrums that would harden into full-on bigotry and bullying.
From the outset he had been a creature more than usually bound up in fascination with the music press — and given this shared language, once we encountered him we enthusiastically returned the favour. But if the flattery was two-way, the projection wasn’t. Because so much pop writing is fan-fic, its tragedy is that its delusions ever smash into a reality-correction. Sex-gods are revealed as creeps, pranksters as arseholes, charmers as bores. Morrissey’s shtick was charismatic dreamy parochialism, a stubborn narcissist weaponising cultural incuriosity — “Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life” — so the lurking reality shouldn’t have been the nasty surprise it seems to have been.
(1) The totemic quote is “All reggae is vile”, but I’ve found it hard to track to source. I’ve seen it dated as 1984 and 1985, and found Johnny Rogan via Google Books saying that it was part of a poll response for the NME.
(2) There’s an element in this history that hasn’t been been made enough of. NME editorial firmly discouraged its writers from returning incoming MM sniper-fire, and from even mentioning rival titles and their wack theories. We had to behave as if we were the only serious commentary in existence. Apparently drawing attention to our rivals would encourage readers to switch to them — in retrospect surely an admission of self-doubt.
(3) I wrote more fully about black pop-stars being denied full artistic agency by white critics in ‘“What About Death, Again?” — The Dolorous Passion of the Son of Pop’, an essay collected in The Resistable Demise of Michael Jackson (zer0 books, 2009).
(4) I should affirm that I don’t believe that any of these pro-Morrissey writers shared his budding racism at this time. They were naive about it — the phrase “white privilege” would certainly be used today — precisely because it seemed so hard to imagine that someone so key to our general sphere didn’t at all share the general countercultural assumptions. Pop’s continent was cracking up — and we were too many of us merely seizing on favoured fragments and trying to recast them as stand-ins for the whole, to recognise what ugly matter was beginning to flood up between the cracks…