.In 1988, Morrissey left The Smiths to pursue a solo career. His first step out as a soloist, Viva Hate, was flawed but frequently stellar. Much like the man himself. Promising so much, would Moz be able to deliver?
As detailed last year, Manchester marvels The Smiths came to a shattering and stunning demise in 1987. A year later, frontman, mouthpiece and wordSmith Morrissey emerged with Viva Hate, a debut that had the undue pressure of having to out-Smiths The Smiths. Moz was up for the challenge, delivering a solo debut bereft of self-doubt, retarded ambition or rust. But what did Viva Hate foreshadow? Was Viva Hate just a collection of songs orphaned when The Smiths irrevocably disintegrated? Was Viva Hate Morrissey’s one last blast of songwriting euphoria before a dramatic flameout? Who knew then whether Moz would emergence as a prolific soloist or flounder into obscurity, discarded both by the press and the fan base that had sycophantically obsessed over his work for much of the previous decade?
As Viva Hate commemorates its 27th anniversary, it is tempting to look at Morrissey’s career today and pass harsh judgment. The acclaim and media attention has dwindled considerably since 1988, as have the spat of famous, or even infamous, singles. Morrissey, until recently label-less, has been reduced to tabloid fodder and made his biggest waves with the release of Autobiography, his memoir, in 2013. Although he retains a loyal fan base, his releases have been sporadic, including a 7-year exile between 1998 and 2004.
Since his 2004 return, (the strident, tuneful You Are The Quarry) Morrissey’s releases have been stalwarts of rock, with his lyrical flair, rancorous tongue and political leanings untouched. He remains the Oscar Wilde of the post-punk era, and he’s achieved some kind of revered elder status. But how does this package of work measure up to Viva Hate? (This is the fairer question than a side-by-side analysis to his albums with The Smiths as that band now exists only as a footnote to history.)
Viva Hate sounds marginally like The Smiths. The voice is the obvious constant — as are the lyrical tropes, titles and permutations. But the sonic presence of the music is quite different. Vini Reilly and Stephen Street have the unenviable task of replacing Johnny Fucking Marr as Morrissey’s guitarist and music writer. No easy feat given Marr’s melodic invention, layering technique and his unerring knack for chord arrangements. Reilly and Street face the task the best way possible: a fearless, headlong surge into the tidal surge like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. They do more than hold their own, producing signature (read Smiths-ish) arpeggios on the albums two stone-cold classics: “Suedehead” and “Everyday is Like Sunday.”
Even without the rest of the album, Moz’s status as a solo artist was guaranteed with this one-two power punch. Equal to even The Smith’s top 1 per cent, these singles would define Morrissey for future generations of fans. As well, old-school fans took comfort knowing their pop hero had no discernible expiry date. These songs remain the most acclaimed, and arguably the best, moments of Morrissey caught on record.
From the outset Viva Hate upends expectations. The Metal-like scrounge that opens “Alsatian Cousin” is a harsh rejoinder for anyone anticipating more ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’-style pop. The truth is, however, that Viva’s sum is mightier than its parts.
“Late Night, Maudlin Street” is not so much a 7-minute misstep as a victim of sequencing. As a middle-album track, it is a leaden choice: drowsy and repetitious, a song only Morrissey could get away with.
“Little Boy, What Now?” is a minimalist ode to a once-famous ATV television personality remembered solely, albeit fondly, by the narrator. A strummed guitar figure over a looped whip-like drum sequence, the song evokes yearning and punishment. Is that the whip of self-abuse or a regimental beating coming down from on high at ATV? ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ is fantasy-cum-admonition towards the Iron Lady, a song that warranted a visit from British agents who wondered if the songwriter was an actual threat to the head of state. “Margaret …” is not a glam-thrash punk ode to nihilism, but a withering dressing down of Ms. Thatcher. “When will you die,” Morrissey intones incessantly before the sound of the sharp chop silences the album.
There is fodder throughout (“Break Up the Family”, “I Don’t Mind if You Forget Me” and “Bengali In Platforms”) but these tracks serve the mood even if they do not enhance it. “Dial-A-Cliché” is more throwaway than keeper. And “Hairdresser on Fire” has been whitewashed out of existence. Originally a US-only bonus track, it was included on a subsequent re-issue only to be belatedly (permanently?) dropped. It’s either the most flamboyant error Morrissey ever recorded, or a ludicrous hook-filled gem.
Morrissey has produced a flood of Top of the Pops hits, near-hits and wide-of-the-mark-non-hits. Viva Hate and the subsequent UK #6 hit “Last of the Famous International Playboys” were only drops in the waters. Bona Drag (1989) continued to mine Moz’s singles territory, a compendium of sides and oddities to make a sibling release to The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow. His productive streak would not slow down until 1997. For someone who had been writing, recording and releasing singles nonstop since 1982, it’s not surprising songwriting flood receded. There are few songwriters from the same era who can boast the volume and or quality of songs as Morrissey.
Decline is natural but Morrissey’s recent albums still reverberate with the sheen of Viva Hate. Musically, the albums are spurred on with more muscle than finesse. The humour, still dry and self-deprecating, has sharpened. With a new label and an album and tour due this year, it will be good to hear Moz again. We’ll see if his latest batch of material stacks up to his previous work. But from Viva Hate to Your Arsenal, “November Spawned A Monster” to “I’m Throwing my Arms Around Paris” the man has set a ridiculously high bar for himself.
Watch the video for ‘Suedehead’