by Elliot Davies
Watching Morrissey live in 2015 is one of those pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-it’s-really-happening sort of events. Not only because, hey, it’s Morrissey! A legend in the minds of many! There’s also the small matter of his ailing health, and his tendency to cancel gigs at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, in the week leading up to tonight’s show, Morrissey cancelled a gig in the Netherlands – one that had already previously been cancelled and rescheduled. Things do not bode well. It’s a tense few hours before the Capital FM Arena’s doors open, as I obsessively refresh his website, lest there’s a last minute cancellation announcement. I can see tomorrow’s headlines already: they all choose to run with a variation of the old “Still Ill” trope.
But no. The show does go on. And what’s more, Morrissey is looking and sounding fantastic. Alive, energised, revitalised, note-perfect, and in a playful, almost gleeful mood. He takes to the stage with a shouted “tie me up in KNOTS” – or was it “NOTTS”? – and regularly looks as though he’s having the time of his life.
In lieu of a support act tonight, we’re treated to a collection of what appears to be some of Morrissey’s favourite YouTube videos. We get The Ramones, The New York Dolls, Jefferson Airplane, Visage, Allen Ginsberg, some stunning flamenco dancing, and – to the audible delight of the crowd – the pairing of Ding Dong The Witch is Dead with footage from Thatcher’s funeral.
Eventually, the screen drops and the band walks on to a Klaus Nomi dirge. They open with The Queen is Dead; the band perfectly replicating the Joyce/Rourke rhythm powerhouse and Johnny Marr’s weird, weird chords; the audience supplying the unearthly moans. It’s about as compelling an opening as it’s possible to get, but what follows is even better. The bittersweet, breezy, jangly Suedehead is a song I never thought I’d see live. I’m enthralled.
But after that, the trepidation sets in. Morrissey’s approach to setlists is similar to that of The Fall and Animal Collective, in that the back catalogue is generally ignored in favour of fresher, newer tracks. The last time I saw Morrissey was in 2004. Promoting the sprightly and triumphant You Are The Quarry made for a sprightly and triumphant show. Morrissey’s latest, though – World Peace Is None of Your Business – is one of the darkest and most misanthropic collections of songs he’s ever recorded. I’m expecting a gloomy evening of mean-spirited spite. But what actually happens has happened so many times it’s surprising that it still surprises me – the songs that are slightly underwhelming on record are utterly electrifying live.
It starts with Staircase at the University, the sort of tragicomic character study at which Morrissey excels. This one’s about a young woman who succumbs to academic pressure. It’s a very sad story set to a truly infectious tune. The chorus goes like this:
Staircase at the university
She threw herself down and her head split three ways
“If you don’t get three As,” her sweet daddy said
You’re no child of mine and as far as I’m concerned, you’re dead
Literally no other artist could sing such a chorus to such a large and adoring crowd, in a song that ends with a flamenco guitar solo. And I suppose that’s why people love Morrissey. He does things differently; and if you like what he does, many other things will pale in comparison.
Even better is Istanbul. It’s a moving tale about a father searching for his missing son, set to a brooding guitar that grooves on just the right side of funk metal. It’s one of the finest songs he’s ever written. I’m Not A Man is equally as stirring, in that it presents an excellent solution to the perpetual crisis facing masculinity: If you don’t feel like being a man – if the notions of manliness upset, alienate, and disgust you – then you don’t have to be a man. You can be something so much better. It’s wonderful to hear.
Unfortunately, I’m sat in the company of three men for whom a Morrissey show is only as good as the Smiths songs he plays. The long stretch of “new” material performed makes them squirm in their seats and loudly proclaim their displeasure.
I can see where they’re coming from. Of the 20 songs performed tonight, 11 come from the latest album, and one is a b-side from 1989. By no means can this set be described as “crowd-pleasing”, so the frustration of these men is understandable. But that said, it quickly becomes exceedingly irritating to hear almost every song greeted by a loud chorus of “Oh no“, and “play something we know, you tosser”.
Luckily, the restless tourist contingent of the audience is placated by a one-two punch of familiar favourites in the middle of the set. The rapid-fire Smiths classic What She Said is followed by the exquisitely miserable Everyday is Like Sunday. Listening to the crowd bellow every word back, I concede that these men have a point: A greatest hits set really would be something.
But then comes Meat is Murder.
This song is as clumsy and heavy handed as most protest songs, but it’s probably created countless thousands of new vegans and vegetarians since 1985, and it’s likely that many more were converted tonight. Because, not content to simply bombard us with his words, Morrissey also subjects us to extremely graphic abattoir footage.
I am nauseated and appalled, and I see some things that will never leave me. The music is punishingly intense, and Morrissey sounds absolutely livid.
The venue tonight has been made meat-free in preparation for his visit – insert your own comment here about whether arena food actually qualifies as meat – but they couldn’t do anything about the giant KFC billboard outside. It’s perhaps for that reason that the lyrics are, at one point, adapted into a direct attack on Colonel Saunders and all he stands for.
During this horrorshow of grim mechanised death, one of The Disdainful Three with whom I’m sat proclaims, glumly, that he’s done. “Unless he plays anything by The Smiths, I’m just going to sit here.”
THIS IS THE SMITHS YOU TEDIOUS WANT-WIT.
The song ends with blinding red strobes. The footage gets bloodier, the music gets unbearably oppressive, and Morrissey crouches at the back of the stage with his head in his hands. It’s a vision of hell, and it’s one of the single most powerful and harrowing live performances I’ve ever seen. Once it’s all over, I’m stunned and speechless. Yet astoundingly, the crowd erupts into an appreciative cheer. Are they not as shocked as I am?
It’s such a heavy moment that it serves to break the momentum of the set. I wonder – how the hell is he going to follow that? But Morrissey has a plan. He allows, briefly, for the animals to take their revenge.
In The Bullfighter Dies, to the delight of everyone, a matador is gored to death by a bull. Even those who disagree with the idea that meat is murder seem to agree that bullfighting is pointless and barbaric, so to follow the descent into hell with this catchy little ditty provides a much needed moment of levity. It’s a genius move, and an excellent palate cleanser for what’s to follow.
We get one more Smiths classic – Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before – and, for the encore, the song that might well be Morrissey’s masterpiece – Speedway. Whilst the confrontational The Queen is Dead made for the perfect opener, I can’t imagine a more perfect parting shot than this defiant statement of intent.
All of the rumours
keeping me grounded
I never said that they were
and all those lies
written lies, twisted lies
well, they weren’t lies
Morrissey live can be an engaging and enriching experience. It seems criminal that the majority of the press only reports on him when he’s cancelled a show, or when he’s said something controversial. It’s even more of a pity that, with his ailing health, opportunities to see Morrissey may become increasingly rare.
However, the video introduction gave me a great idea. Morrissey should have a show on Sky Atlantic on which he shares his favourite videos. It would be just like Adam Buxton’s Bug, but instead of the hysterical comment readings, he could sing a few songs – new songs, old songs, covers, the lot. If touring continues to affect his health, a TV show would give him an easier and healthier way of sharing his music and his various obsessions with the world.
Or at least, the parts of the world that are willing to listen.
Photo by Kevin Cooper of the Nottingham Evening Post.