‘These small black discs are the first things that are truly mine; my choice, paid for with my own scraps of cash, reflecting my own stubbornness. In a dream, I watch them spin and spin, calling out, pointing the way. These are the days when very few people collect records, so therefore whatever they might buy defines their secret heart.’ – Morrissey, Autobiography
I blame Morrissey.
An ordinary school morning on a Friday in the year before I took my A levels. I am confronted on the turn of the stairwell by the deputy headmaster. Lately my hairstyle has become increasingly extravagant and upright, held aloft by blue Naturelle gel, chemically incendiary hairspray, and sometimes even soap; it seems this morning we have reached the tipping point. The deputy head, whose face, grey curls, glasses, suit and tie I remember, but whose name I now forget, says, ‘Comb it down, or I’ll have to suspend you.’ Emboldened as I had been by the effects of styling my hair in a way that in those days and in that part of the world was taken as a challenge and an affront to authority – girls had for the first time taken notice of me – I refused, and so was stood down from active schooling, if only for the day. (Rather more meekly I returned the following week with a less gravity-defying hairstyle, and so authoritarian wrath was assuaged.)
Although it might have been over the most superficial thing, I had learnt how to say no, and though there were many contributing factors influencing that act of defiance, Morrissey was certainly among them.
More than once in the early pages of Autobiography, Morrissey puts forward the proposition that a collection of seven inch singles is essentially a psychological (or perhaps even a psychiatric) profile. Of course he’s not wrong, but the singles he mentions in the telling of his upbringing, and the ones he chooses not to, will inevitably have been as selective as my choice of 45 45s has been here. I’ve weighed a number of old favourites and found them wanting, both in terms of doing less for me now than they did when I bought them, and in that some have not allowed me to present the self I want to present, or tell the stories I want to tell. Indeed, some just don’t seem to have a story associated with them at all, are just songs that I love, or like, or liked.
And then there’s ‘This charming man’, and its immediate effects on both my exterior and my interior. I was fifteen years old when it was released, when I saw Morrissey flailing around the Top Of The Pops stage for the first time. It was for me and many others a defining moment in British pop music, just as T. Rex and David Bowie’s first appearances on TOTP had been for Morrissey and his contemporaries. Paul Morley talked about ‘This charming man’ as one of half a dozen key songs illustrating the greatness and (im)perfection of pop in his 2008 TV programme, Pop! What is it good for? That vision of a gladioli-wielding handsome devil fronting a band playing perfectly melodic pop was instantly transformative. In just under three minutes, I became a Smiths fan, simple as that. As an admirer of the Jam and the Style Council, I had, I think, already chosen sides, but Morrissey’s appearance – call it an intervention if you like – seemed to make the battle lines harder, and faster. He polarised. (That at least he had in common with one of our mortal enemies, Margaret Thatcher.) And Johnny Marr’s guitar playing was as dazzling as Morrissey’s persona and wordplay. In Autobiography, Morrissey writes of his excitement and sense of destiny once his and Marr’s paths have crossed – ‘It is a matter of finding yourself in possession of the one vital facet that the other lacks, but needs.’ While that sounds like an arranged marriage, in Morrissey’s hands their relationship subsequently reads much more as an undying friendship than the (severed) alliance Johnny Rogan suggested it was in his, the first book about the Smiths.
I may have come to be dazzled by Morrissey’s wordplay, but of course, when I first heard ‘This charming man’, I don’t think I had much if any immediate sense of what he was on about – the sly, faux-innocent homoeroticism – but I definitely responded instinctively to him on both conscious and subconscious levels. I became a follower in a way I have otherwise rarely allowed myself to be, assiduously exploring the literary, political and pop cultural leads that his lyrics and interviews suggested.
Growing up in rural Suffolk, it was Morrissey’s difference that was key more than his sexuality. He egged on me and my best friend on to dare to be different too – to wear more flamboyant clothes, to gel and spike up our hair, and so on. In a small town whose only notable and noticeable outsiders were a handful of punks and skinheads gathering outside Woolworths on market days, it really did feel like it was us (weirdo freaks who liked the Smiths and/or goth music) and them (everyone else). The differences may or may not have been superficial; we were young, and our sensibilities (not to mention our grasp of sexual politics) were decidedly at the formative stage. Morrissey led me by the nose, but at least he lead me somewhere, allowing me in time to swim clear of the prevailing currents.
Coming on top of all Morrissey’s yearning for a significant other (whether male or female), the celibacy and asexuality angles confused and counteracted whatever remained of the sexual revolution in the early eighties (with the equally asexual Thatcher in power), leaving me and no doubt others in an ambiguous sexual middle ground; desperate for sex and love but cripplingly introverted, our oddity and shyness validated by the powerfully charismatic and necessarily extrovert presence of Morrissey. These are issues brilliantly covered, contrasted, and indeed contested from a female Mancunian perspective in a piece on the Mancky website called ‘The Smiths in 1983’.
A quiet, petite girl in the year above me at school taped me the Smiths’ first LP, and it was only later – too late – that I realised I might have made something more of that, had I been less secretly obsessed with girls blatantly out of my league. As soon as Hatful of hollow it was released, I bought it from a record shop in Newmarket (after an afternoon playing snooker with a friend, uncharacteristically enough for a Smiths fan, showing that I was still in the process of changing from being a boy whose main preoccupation was sport into a youth who lived for and through music). Today, listening to Hatful in particular, I feel the same adolescent ache for the life yet to come as of old. It’s somewhat unnerving to find myself back there, to feel that Morrissey’s words and Marr’s music still have the power to return me to that state. I spent my twenties shrugging off the last vestiges of the Morrissey worldview – which at decade’s end I believed to be nostalgic to the point of backwardness, extremely introverted, randomly intolerant, and a mental straitjacket not only for his fans but the man himself. In as much as it has softened that critique, a reading of Autobiography has also confirmed my opinion of the Morrissey worldview. But for all his negative impact on my attitudes as a young man, and despite the fact that he is now as much laughing stock as icon, I continue to admire his wit, wordplay and all-round oddity, and remain thankful for the whirlpool of excitement and possibility which he and Marr generated, which is of course the reason why I ended up calling this web-based resurrection of my hard-copy fanzines A jumped-up pantry boy.
- The Smiths – This charming man
- Paul Morley and Simon Armitage dissect ‘This Charming Man’ on Pop! What is it good for?
For his BBC 4 programme Pop! What is it good for?, Paul Morley asked Simon Armitage to dissect the lyric of ‘This charming man’, one of six songs chosen as a handful to illustrate the greatness and (im)perfection of pop (the others were ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, ‘Ride a white swan’, ‘Lola’, Adam Faith’s What do you want’ and ‘Freak like me’) – a first draft for the slot on Desert island discs that he may never quite receive as due reward for years of service to the BBC.
Armitage described the line ‘this man said it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care’ as ‘glittery and swanky and luxurious’. Sadly the lit crit stopped short of the borrowed line which gives this blog its title, so issues of quotation and allusion weren’t discussed. I chose the line because it extends the sequence of titles of fanzines I wrote in the eighties, but also for something like the same reasons PM chose ‘Ride a white swan’ – for the transformational impact it had on my life. I can’t claim that A jumped-up pantry boy is consistent with any of those three adjectives, but hey, even a writer with spartan tendencies has time for a little glittery luxury in his blogging life.
PM’s enthusiasm for his subject, spinning off from the six chosen songs into many others, made me want to catch up with Words and music: a history of pop in the shape of a city, the book in which I guess some of these ideas were first espoused: pop as ‘a sensational metaphysical adventure’; ‘all great pop songs are great because you can imagine them sung by Elvis’ (a notion backed up by a half-decent impersonator giving three of the songs a go). But he could have tried a little harder not to engineer the subject of the Art of Noise being brought up if he was going to be so bashful about it. Nevertheless the programme is well worth catching via one of the many repeats BBC 4 content gets (the next is 1.10 a.m. on Sunday 13th January) or the BBC’s iPlayer.