Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

Former Smiths frontman Morrissey is alleged to have made reactionary comments in an interview for NME. But what’s new about that?

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

The former Smiths singer Morrissey has threatened the New Musical Express (NME) and journalist Tim Jonze with a libel suit for allegedly misquoting Moz in a front-page interview. Apparently, the journalist reported that the 48-year-old singer made hostile remarks about mass immigration into Britain, saying that the country was ‘unrecognisable’. Jonze was incensed that the NME toned down the piece to make it PR friendly, while Morrissey’s lawyers are using this as proof to press for defamation against the NME after the magazine refused to publish an apology.

Jonze has hit back on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site by insisting that ‘every single quote attributed to Morrissey is 100 per cent correct, there was no provocation at all’ (1). Now, whether it is Morrissey still blathering on about Little Englander fantasies, or the NME getting upset and righteous over ‘unacceptable views’, we’ve been down this road many times before. The struggle to choose between such headlines as ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ and ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’ is as grimly predictable as Morrissey’s recent albums.

Although The Smiths were a strikingly original and creatively potent outfit back in the Eighties, Morrissey’s views were always profoundly reactionary and conservative. At the time, it was only NME journalists and impressionable teenagers who believed that Moz’s witterings on animal ‘rights’, ecology, hatred of the modern world and victimhood sensibilities appeared somehow ‘radical’ or insightful. Such misanthropic drivel was considered, to use Eighties argot, ‘right on’ by journalists then and now. It is only on immigration and, by implication race, where Morrissey is suddenly ‘exposed’ as being a bit backward.

Morrissey, though, has been on a loop about immigrants for nearly two decades now. Central to The Smiths iconography was a lament for the decline of the post-war consensus in Britain. It was ironic that while Morrissey championed the kitchen sink dramas of the Sixties (A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Billy Liar etc) as a forlorn counterpoint to garish Eighties Britain, originally these dramas bemoaned the changes of 1950s Britain and were already nostalgic for a mythical ‘Old Britain’ themselves. While many leftish journalists indulged such twaddle, the logic of this tunnel-visioned, Little England outlook is to start bemoaning changes brought about by mass immigration, too. And that, of course, is precisely what Morrissey started to do.

Leaving aside Moz’s infamous ‘reggae is vile’ jibe from 1985, the first major controversy was around the track, ‘Bengali In Platforms’, from his 1988 debut solo album Viva Hate. But it was the furore surrounding his appearance at Finsbury Park supporting ska band Madness, wherein he waved a Union flag in front of a montage of skinheads, that caused the NME to ask on its frontpage ‘Flying The Flag or Flirting With Disaster?’ back in August 1992. Unusual at the time, but the debacle also made headlines beyond the music press. The mainstream media’s engagement with the controversy was a sign of how ‘anti-racism’ was starting to be used to create new moral codes in wider society.

Although the left’s stern ‘acceptable/non-acceptable’ codes in the Eighties (which often meant referring to people or ideas as ‘ideologically sound/unsound’) were routinely ridiculed by the Tory tabloid press, by the early Nineties this kind of thinking was gradually being co-opted to forge a new conformist etiquette and behaviour code. The year after the Morrissey/Finsbury Park debacle, the BBC started promoting ‘anti-racism awareness’ on Radio One and the NME publicly backed the re-launched Anti-Nazi League and their populist ‘Anti-Racist’ music festivals.

Since then, the NME has been at the forefront of the new conformism, as they have revealed during the latest Moz ‘controversy’. ‘We’re really nice people, we’re committed anti-racists, you know?’ seems to be the NME’s chest-puffing response to it all. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t pop stars – generally not known to be the brightest bunch – often spouted ill-informed garbage? Who can forget boy band Blue’s belief that dolphins were now sadly neglected because of all the ‘fuss’ over 9/11 fatalities? Or, my particular favourite, female grunge outfit L7, who argued that men go to war because ‘it’s their way of emulating female menstruation’? And then there is the long documented flirtation with Nazism that David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle and Keith Moon would use to generate headlines and record sales.

Back in the 1970s, the daft and sometimes dark ideas that pop stars entertained obviously aroused controversy and anger, but it wasn’t used to draw lines in the sand and denote who was a ‘worthy’ conformist and who wasn’t as it is today. By all means journalists should question and challenge duff opinions, but it shouldn’t be used as moral self-aggrandisement or, worse, to justify an even more censorious public climate. What’s surprising is that, with Morrissey’s track record on this matter, why any journalist would be ‘shocked’ that he equates Britain’s decline with mass immigration.

Nevertheless, Morrissey’s response to the NME’s published interview is even more vile and reprehensible. Calling in the lawyers and the libel laws to silence the press has always been the rich man’s form of censorship. Far from being an outspoken maverick, even the hermetically sealed-off Morrissey probably understands that flirting with racist sentiments is now the equivalent of championing paedophilia, as he once did in his first set of music press interviews back in 1982. The difference then is that whereas music journalists saw through Moz’s posturing as ‘darkly comic theatre’ and ‘grimy rock’n’roll’, today they’d be demanding he’d be jailed for such comments and put on the Sex Offenders Register. ‘I Know it’s Over (if this allegation sticks)’, as it were.

Once, the music press could be replied upon for caustic comments and Establishment-baiting brio. Today, they’re the harbingers of unthinking, unblinking conformism. Forget any Morrissey-sponsored panic on immigration. The censorious climate of public discussion is surely a clear example of Britain becoming a ‘worse place’.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at the Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport looked at British bands The Horrors and The Libertines. Shirley Dent argued that Glastonbury is only rock-and-roll while Alex Hochuli interrogated the wisdom of Noel Gallagher. Or read on at spiked-issue Music.

(1) Morrisey, NME and Me, Comment Is Free, 30 November 2007

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Topics Culture


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