After my look at my Top 5 Beatles songs, my plan was to follow up with a similar list of songs by The Smiths. However, trying to isolate 5 tracks by The Smiths is like trying to choose my 5 favourite heartbeats, or my 5 favourite breaths.....simply a task too far. So I've decided instead to attempt a scrutiny of my Top 5 songs from Morrissey's solo years to date. Whilst only marginally an easier task (I've already changed the list three times), it's fair to say, and with no disrespect meant to Morrissey, that his solo output has never had the mercurial, life altering wallop of his previous muse.
Whilst The Smith's oeuvre can clearly be seen as one whole, Morrissey's solo work is altogether fractured, bewildering and yet still magically powerful and compelling.
Once again, the songs are not in list of preference, but purely in chronological order.
And we begin with one of his most obscure tracks of all....
'Tony The Pony'(1991)
I've never understood Morrissey's choice of singles, especially while studying what he puts on the B-Sides. All the way back to the earliest days of The Smiths he's put spectacular songs on the flip of an underwhelming A-side; the most obvious case in point being that he put both 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want' and 'How Soon Is Now?' on the reverse of the decidedly average 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. Seriously?? Or 'Rubber Ring' and 'Asleep' on the B-Side of the lumbering 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side'!
And so it continues into his solo career, and from the troublesome 'Kill Uncle' period he shoves one of his best songs on the B-Side of possibly his ropiest ever single, 'Our Frank'.
I've always felt that 'Tony The Pony' was something of a kiss-off to The Smiths. It would be the last time he would release anything that sounded like The Smiths, or upon which he sang like 'Morrissey Of The Smiths'. With 'Kill Uncle', Morissey had never sounded so out of step with the rest of Pop music. As Baggy melded with Dance music, and Grunge seeped across the ocean, an air of communal hedonism prevailed. Hardly a time for Morrissey to release an album that conjured up George Formby, Ealing comedies and 1970s cultural traits. It was an album that finished off a large number of his less devoted fans, yet oddly it has grown in stature now we are 20 years on since its release.
Hidden away as the extra track on lead-off single 'Our Frank', 'Tony The Pony' is a pure slice of what Morrissey does best; over a Smithseque shimmer, his voice captures that melancholic twilight feel that made The Smiths eponymous debut album a thing of great beauty. Still seemingly harking back to his adolescence("Still drinking on the corner// Well, just don't say I didn't warn ya// Always nagging big brother// He's only looking out for ya"), the song is bathed in the gloaming light of late teen years, and the mix of sighed vocals coupled with the occasional lapses into falsetto remind of why I fell under Morrissey's spell at such a transitional age.
The song also contains some of my favourite moments in Morrissey's solo work; "You're drunk quicker// And you're sicker even quicker// Well something heavy is gonna fall on you//Aaaooooo//Aaaooooo", and the hilariously drolly sung "I will never say I told you so// Oh how I knew that something bad would happen to you// I don't wanna say I told you so// Oh but Tony.....I TOLD YOU SO!"
The song also marks (as far as I'm aware) the only time Morrissey has used the F-Word in a song("There's a free ride on fucked up Tony"), and yet coyly he still distorts his vocal to make difficult it to hear!
A triumph then....and the last time he would ever sound like this.....
'I've Changed My Plea To Guilty'(1991)
In the immediate aftermath of the critical mauling dealt out to 'Kill Uncle', Morrissey ditched the session musicians and roped in ex-Polecat Boz Boorer to whip up a touring band to get back on the road and re-connect with his audience. In 1991, it was five years since he had last toured and the cabin fever was beginning to tell.
Early fruits of the new band were passable to say the least. First single 'Pregnant For The Last Time' was okay, but 'My Love Life' saw a familiar pattern arising where Morrissey seemed to believe that simply repeating the title of the song over and over again somehow counted as lyrics (see 'You're The One For Me, Fatty' and 'We Hate It when Our Friends Become Succesful'). But once again Morrissey put a fantastic song on the B-Side of a very average single!
'I've Changed My Plea To Guilty' is one of the best songs from that whole troublesome period where he seemed musically and culturally out of step. And yet....it's not actually the officially released version that I've come here to praise. No, for me the best versions of this song are the live versions from the time. Probably my favourite version of the song is the one found on the 'Higher Education' bootleg album which is a recording of a concert in Utrecht. There's a moment in the second verse, during the lines "Outside there is a pain// Emotional air-raids exhausted my heart", where, just after the word 'pain' he does this kind of two second melodic hum, and it's tiny moments like that which he actually dots throughout all his live concerts, that have kept me collecting bootleg recordings of his career for almost 30 years now. These little inflections, that he somehow refuses to do on recorded versions of the songs, accentuate the emotional punch of the songs and are what makes listening to his live work (regardless of how badly recorded) so compelling.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find the Utrecht version online to demonstrate what I meant (although the whole concert recording can be found on Youtube), but this version from an appearance on an old Johnathan Ross show will suffice. And, while people still bang on about his matinee idol good looks today, it's almost shocking to see that he was once this beautiful! (Griff: Are you sure you consider your status to be 'happily married'??)
'Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning'(1994)
One of the biggest criticisms I've always heard against Morrissey by non-believers is that they can't stand his voice. Many see it as flat, droning and (yawn) depressing, and part of that stems from the fact that he doesn't seem to like recording his vocals. In concert he always seems much more vocally animated and seems to actually enjoy singing. Not something you always get from the records (take the "In my life" lines from 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' as a case in point....notoriously flat on the record, sparkling on any live version!).
So when Morrissey deliberately alters his voice, or sings in an atypical style, the results are often startling. None more so than on this under-appreciated gem from the 'Vauxhall & I' album.
Morrissey's voice on 'Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning' is so far removed from his usual practise that it's positively miraculous. Against a similarly atypical backdrop of Jazz bass and woodwind, Morrissey's voice hovers like an argent cloud, like someone trying to whisper a scream and illuminates beautifully the tragic tale unfolding in the lyrics.
A young girl, desperate to catch the attention (and heart) of the handsome lifeguard, swims too far out and slips beneath the waves while the lifeguard dozes unknowingly.
Morrissey's solo career has often been criticised for never being overly adventurous, and when you hear a track so against the norm as this, you can merely concur....
'It's Hard To Walk Tall When You're Small'(2004)
After back to back underwhelming albums ('Southpaw Grammar' and 'Maladjusted'), 1997 saw Morrissey begin seven years of silence. That's even longer than John Lennon's legendary 'Lost Weekend' or the wait for The Stone Roses' second album. Thankfully his profile was kept high by both the Internet and his decision to keep playing live, despite no new product to promote.
When he returned in 2004, new album 'You Are The Quarry' was hailed as a critical and commercial success. But for me it still wasn't the real deal....not only were there too many plodding, dull tracks('The World Is Full Of Cashing Bores', 'How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel'), but also, and stop me if you've heard this one before, he was putting out superior songs on the B-Sides of the accompanying singles! When he sang 'Oh Well, I'll Never Learn' on the B-Side of 'Suedehead', I didn't think he meant it literally.
There, on the B-Side of lead off single 'Irish Blood English Heart' was another hidden classic. 'It's Hard To Walk Tall When You're Small' kicks off sounding like it's going to be The Clash's 'Tommy Gun' and then features a guitar run that sounds not unlike 'Babylon's Burning' by The Ruts. Morrissey has often been seen to attack Smiths drummer Mike Joyce both in print and in song, and this looks like it may be another dig at his former bandmate. The whole lyric is about someone not having enough clout to mix it with the big boys, and the refrain "Hey Ringo, It's sad though" seems a blatant reference to his ex-drummer.
I've always loved Morrissey's use of falsetto in his songs, all through his career, and this song is no exception; "I burst into public bars// And I throw my weight around// (falsetto)And no one can even see me// No one can even see me", and then in the breathtaking finale, working himself up into a frenzy, "So compadre please do this for me// Compadre please weep for me// Compadre, compadre// Please....weep....for me!"....
'Life Is A Pigsty'(2006)
Quite astonishing! An incredible EIGHTEEN years into his solo career and he releases, for me, his greatest ever solo song!
'Ringleader Of The Tormentors' was everything I had hoped 'You Are The Quarry' would be, and I think it may be his greatest solo work. At the time, Morrissey had decamped to Rome and the influence of the city and of film director Pier Paolo Pasolini is all over it. On first single 'You Have Killed Me', Morrissey even claims to be Pasolini, although why he would feel any affiliation with a homosexual Marxist I'll leave up to you, dear reader. There's also the fact that sometime Pasolini collaborator Ennio Morricone arranges the strings on 'Dear God, Please Help Me', and then there's 'Life Is A Pigsty', possibly referencing Pasolini's 1969 film 'Porcile'('Pigsty') which features a young man who kills his own father. The album has a song called 'The Father Who Must Be Killed' .
Like the film 'Pigsty', 'Life Is A Pigsty' is split into two sections. The first is a lumbering, pulsating groove coated in artificial rain which features one of my favourite opening lines of his entire output, "It's the same old S.O.S// But with brand new broken fortunes// And once again I turn to you". This continues for a few minutes before the song slows down with only keyboards and the rain, and then a strummed guitar ushers us into the next section with Morrissey repeating the song's title with increasing drama. Then the song builds upon crashing cymbals as Morrissey declares his undying love before crying out in a voice at the zenith of it's emotional power, "I can't reach you// I can't reach you// I can't reach you anymore!" The whole effect is startling, and when Ray and I went to see him at the Albert Hall in Stirling on that year's tour, this was the undoubted highlight. I'd go as far as to say it was the highlight of his now 24 year solo career.
For me it was a valediction, proof that despite a few mis-steps, Morrissey still had the gifts to surprise, enlighten and move me. Proof that he was THE songwriter, not just of my generation, but of my lifetime. And while I admit that I tend to slip into 'gush mode' when discussing Morrissey (Griff: To put it mildly!!), then I offer no apologies but find myself wondering if Bono or Chris Martin elicit the same emotions from their listeners.
Somehow I doubt it!
Choosing 5 Morrissey tracks wasn't quite as hard to do as I imagined, as the 5 songs I've chosen I do view as the high-water marks of his solo years. The songs practically chose themselves. And while I appreciate that there are a lot of fine songs I've left off the list, these 5 are the ones I simply couldn't imagine life without.
And the good thing is that 'Life Is A Pigsty' proves he may yet have more classics up his sleeves to come!
One can but hope.....