Morrissey’s September 1986 interview with Frank Owen in the Melody Maker created four scandals –
- Reggae is vile – conflated with a joke answer to a questionnaire in the NME in February 1985.
2. Reggae is racist – he’s racist for saying that reggae can be racist, despite it being influenced by Rastafarianism whose principles were defined (1977, Leonard Barrett) as including: the White person is inferior to the Black person, Jamaica is hell; Ethiopia is heaven, in the near future Blacks shall rule the world.
3. That he thinks there’s a ‘black pop music conspiracy’ to stop white Indie bands getting on Top of the Pops – actually all he was saying is that television and radio producers (almost none of whom were black in those days – or even now) prefer escapist music.
And – 4. that Morrissey hates black music.
Frank wrote: “Pop has never been this divided,” wrote Simon Reynolds in his much-lauded, recent piece on the indie scene, referring to the chasm that now exists between indie-pop and black pop. The detestation that your average indie fan feels for black music can be gauged by the countless letters they write to the music press whenever a black act is featured on the front page. It’s a bit like the late Sixties all over again with a burgeoning Head culture insisting that theirs’ is the “real” radical music, an intelligent and subversive music that provides an alternative to the crude showbiz values of black pop. Morrissey has further widened this divide with the recent single, Panic – where “Metal Guru” meets the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop. (There is no evidence for Frank’s assertion that’s it’s about hanging black DJs, and he’s being cavalier if thinks hanging imagery would only be widening a musical divide.) “Hang the DJ” urges Morrissey. So is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?
Morrissey said: Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world. It’s an absolute total glorification of black supremacy… There is a line when defence of one’s race becomes an attack on another race and, because of black history and oppression, we realise quite clearly that there has to be a very strong defence. But I think it becomes very extreme sometimes… But, ultimately, I don’t have very cast iron opinions on black music other than black modern music which I detest. I detest Stevie Wonder. I think Diana Ross is awful. I hate all those records in the Top 40 – Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston. I think they’re vile in the extreme. In essence this music doesn’t say anything whatsoever.”
Frank wrote: But it does, it does. What it says can’t necessarily be verbalised easily. It doesn’t seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level – at the level of the body and the shared abandon of the dancefloor. It won’t change the world, but it’s been said it may well change the way you walk through the world.
It was music journalists who framed it as an Indie v. Black issue, as if no black person could ever make Indie music, and as if they (or any artist) can have total control over the direction of their art at every stage of their career.
80s Whitney Houston wasn’t happy with her music:
“Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.’” This was Whitney Houston, reflecting on the first significant setback of her career, when she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards.
Mariah Carey wanted to break free:
I always resisted their push to make me fit in a neat adult contemporary category… I created an alter-ego artist… I was playing with the style of the breezy-grunge, punk-light white female singers who were popular at the time. You know the ones who seemed to be so carefree with their feelings and their image. They could be angry, angsty and messy, with old shoes, wrinkled slips, and unruly eyebrows, while every move I made was so calculated and manicured… I wanted to express my misery – and I also wanted to laugh. (The Meaning of Mariah, Mariah Carey, 2020)
Prince thought Morrissey had a point:
I like what Morrissey said about how, isn’t it funny how all the acts go to number one? They go on the cover of Rolling Stone after one release. It took me four albums. The record companies, they have become like carjackers. (Prince, The Independent, June 2011)
And while Morrissey could be sniffy about Prince’s music in the past, when he thought Prince’s veganism was being censored, he wrote a robust defense of his life and work:
Despite his over-the-top fury at the Queen’s press – his main point has always been – that the culture is curated and he doesn’t like the process:
There are no bands or singers who become successful without overwhelming marketing. There are no surprise success stories. Everything is stringently controlled, obvious and predictable and has exactly the same content. We are now in the era of marketed pop stars, which means that the labels control the charts, and consequently the public have lost interest. It’s rare that a record label does something for the good of music. We are force-fed acts such as Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, which at least means that things can’t possibly get any worse. It is sad, though. There’s no spontaneity and it all seems to be unsalvageable. (Morrissey, Thrasher, July 2015)
It wasn’t about black music v. indie – it was about art v. commerce.
He was treating 80s black pop stars as peers, loving/hating their work the way he did with everyone’s work.
It’s often insulting, but there’s no racist pattern:
You were chosen to compile a new Ramones compilation. But didn’t you write a letter to Melody Maker in 1976 where you said they didn’t have much talent?
Morrissey: No, I didn’t say that! I said they had NO talent! Once I had posted the letter I went home and played the album again and it hit me like lightning. It’s great to be wrong occasionally. When Melody Maker printed the letter I felt so disgusting. I should have been killed in a canoe accident. So ashamed! I deserved a spike in the forehead». (Morrissey, La Repubblica, October 2014)
Do you like jazz?
“It’s boring. I like something spirited.”
Something like gospel?
“‘Oh Happy Day’ sung by hundreds of people who are living in dire poverty in Birmingham, Alabama? No thank you.”
“Even soft metal I find repulsive, because it completely bypasses the cranium for the loins. The loincloths. I don’t like anything that insults the intelligence.”
Have you ever been to a rave?
“Rave is the refuge of the mentally deficient. It’s made by dull people for dull people.”
“I have a lot, but I don’t understand a great deal of it. I don’t understand the musical terms, but I’m learning. I think it’s something I’ll manage to perfect over the next thirty years. Right now I like Jaqueline Dupré – she’s a cellist. But I like anything that’s basically sad.” (laughs) “I don’t like marches.” (Details, December 1992)
“It is actually fraudulent, and the exact opposite of erotic. Edith Piaf was seven inches high, always wore a modest black dress, and sang without stage sets or lights, and her voice roared above the wind, with the most incredible powers of communication. I’d like to see McDonna (Madonna) attempt that.” (Billboard, July 2011)
The Face: “If I put you in a room with Robert Smith, Mark E. Smith and a loaded Smith and Wesson, who would bite the bullet first?”
Morrissey: “I’d line them up so that one bullet penetrated both simultaneously (chuckle). Mark E. Smith despises me and has said hateful things about me, all untrue. Robert Smith is a whingebag. It’s rather curious that he began wearing beads at the emergence of The Smiths and (eyes narrowing) has been photographed with flowers. I expect he’s quite supportive of what we do, but I’ve never liked The Cure… not even ‘The Caterpillar’.” (The Face, July 1984)
“Fire in the belly is essential, otherwise you become like Michael Bublé – famous and meaningless.” (Billboard, July 2011)
Alternative Nation: You’ve talked about American politics quite a bit before, but your music focuses on politics in the UK and that region. Do any politically-charged songs made in America really connect with you and bring your spirit into this country? Morrissey: Of course there has been a great deal of rousing political songs about the American condition … most famously Buffy Sainte-Marie singing “Moratorium”, Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s they Are A-Changin’”, Edwin Starr singing “War”, Joni Mitchell singing “here in good ol’ God Save America / the home of the brave and the free / we are all hopelessly oppressed cowards “… bits of Melanie Safka I thought were very cutting, Phil Ochs, Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit … and of course I’m not inspired by rap but I can see how ‘Fear Of a Black Planet’ or ‘Mamma, Don’t You Think They Know?’ jumps ahead with everything Nina Simone was doing with ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’… I think rap has scared the American white establishment to death, mainly because it’s true. James Brown once sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud”. No pop artist would ever be allowed to say that today … they’d be instantly dropped from the label. If Billie Holiday approached Capitol Records in 2015 they wouldn’t entertain her for a second. Also, yes, I feel that I bring my spirit to America, and I feel very much a part of it and I’ve played in most cities big or small. America has been so important to my musical life, and the audiences have always been incredible. I’ve always felt privileged even though I know I’ve been locked out of mainstream considerations. That’s life! Me and Billie Holiday, good company, at least. (Morrissey, Alternative Nation, June 2015)
The Frank Owen interview is still selectively quoted, conflated paraphrased, and used to attack him.
One complaint is that he never apologizes – but most of these scandals are slow-burners, by the time they’ve reached their final tagline, it’s years later and they’re wildly out of context.
It’s peculiar to keep harking back to insinuations from 1986 esp. if an apology is enough to make a person acceptable even for using direct slurs.
For a while it was believed Morrissey had dissed Stormzy via a video on Central (July 2919) – nothing came of it; we don’t even know if he knows about it – but while Twitter was anticipating a feud and taking Stormzy’s side, no one felt the need to mention the 3 years Stormzy spent using homophobic language.
Later, when British Somali feminist and social activist, Nimco Ali, tried to use him as an example of excused bigotry, while she was being condemned as a homophobe for accepting a job as a government adviser on violence against women, she was dismissed:
It would seem more performative and tribal than anything else.
As if Morrissey’s real crime is not chatting to journalists down the pub.
On a side note – Stormzy’s effective PR distressed fellow Grime artist, Wiley, so much that he accused his own manager of being part of a Jewish plot to replace black artists in their 40s with black artists in their 20s. This mid-life crisis – and actual conspiracy theory – received support from newspaper The Voice.