In 1986 The Smiths were interviewed by Frank Owen, an ex-musician from Manchester.
Frank was interested in hip-hop and house music by then but couldn’t get any of the music press in England to cover it, ‘they’d say, “What do you want to write about all these grungy Negroes in there?”‘
The main thrust of his article would be an attempt to get Morrissey to talk about the punk-gay-disco scene they’d both been part of and to get him to come out as gay.
The music journalist Simon Reynolds had split pop into Indie and Black. Indie was ‘intelligent’ and Black was ‘crude showbiz’.
Frank seemed unaware that Simon was tapping into the racist trope that black people are all about the body.
Worse, he claimed, with absolutely no evidence and no sign of disapproval, that Morrissey was singing about ‘hanging black DJs’ in the song Panic, which was about Radio 1 playing a chirpy band like Wham after announcing the Chernobyl nuclear leak.
But the question he put to Morrissey was ‘so is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?’ (Green Gartside was the lead singer of Scritti Politti.)
Moz defended Indie by saying:
“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.”
He accepts that reggae has to be strong, just thinks it might be extreme sometimes.
And there does seem to have been some concern about it in the 70s, in the same way that Skins and Punks were a concern.
In 1978 the NME journalists Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, in their book The Boy Looked At Johnny, had said about Reggae:
The 1979 sociology book Rastaman by Ernest Cashmore, explored elements of racial superiority, homophobia and sexism in Rasta youth culture.
Morrissey’s use of the word ‘vile’ is a camp affectation but he had a habit of being airily scathing about nearly everything that wasn’t his fierce love of the moment.
Frank countered with, black music is more subtle because it works on the body via the dancefloor, Moz wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t think there’s any time anymore to be subtle about anything, you have to get straight to the point. Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black. I think something political has occurred among Michael Hurl and his friends and there has been a hefty pushing of all these black artists and all this discofied nonsense into the Top 40. I think, as a result, that very aware younger groups that speak for now are being gagged.”
The ‘by law’ was a joke /hyperbole. He’d previously used it about himself.
Well, I wouldn’t stand on a table and should, ‘I’m a feminist’ or put a red stamp across my forehead, but if one tends towards prevalent feminist views, by law, you immediately become one. Likewise, if you have great sympathy with gay culture you are immediately a transsexual. I did one interview where the gay issue was skirted over in three seconds and when the interview emerged in print, there I was emblazoned across the headlines as this great voice of the gay movement, as if I couldn’t possibly talk about anything else. I find that extremely harmful and I simply don’t trust anyone anymore. (Morrissey, The Face, July 1984)
And his ire was aimed at Top of The Pops producer Michael Hurl, who is not black.
Frank put it in terms of black and white, ‘You seem to be saying that you believe that there is some sort of black pop conspiracy being organised to keep white indie groups down.’
Moz, not picking up on it, kept it about escapism and real life, and is still blaming (white, male) producers:
“Yes, I really do. The charts have been constructed quite clearly as an absolute form of escapism rather than anything anyone can gain any knowledge by. I find that very disheartening because it wasn’t always that way. Isn’t it curious that practically none of these records reflect life as we live it? Isn’t it curious that 93 and a half percent of these records reflect life as it isn’t lived? That foxes me! If you compare the exposure that records by the likes of Janet Jackson and the stream of other anonymous Jacksons get to the level of daily airplay that The Smiths receive – The Smiths have had at least 10 consecutive chart hits and we still can’t get on Radio 1′s A list. Is that not a conspiracy? The last LP ended up at number two and we were still told by radio that nobody wanted to listen to The Smiths in the daytime. Is that not a conspiracy? I do get the scent of a conspiracy. And, anyway, the entire syndrome has one tune and surely that’s enough to condemn the entire thing.”
Frank asks him if he finds Black music macho, Moz says it isn’t his world, and adds:
I don’t want to feel in the dock because there are some things I dislike. Having said that, my favourite record of all time is “Third Finger, Left Hand” by Martha and the Vandellas which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression.
Frank accuses him of being a nostalgic luddite (later journalist Tony Fletcher will accuse him of not wanting black people to prosper in the present), Moz is unconvinced about technology.
‘Hi-tech can’t be liberating. It’ll kill us all. You’ll be strangulated by the cords of your compact disc.’
Frank asks him about the violence in Manchester and the lyrics of Never Had No One Ever and Morrissey explains they’re about how confused he felt about not feeling at home where he was born because his parents were from Ireland.
“It was the frustration that I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn’t feel easy walking around the streets on which I’d been born, where all my family had lived – they’re originally from Ireland but had been here since the Fifties. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt ‘This is my patch. This is my home. I know these people. I can do what I like, because this is mine.’ It never was. I could never walk easily.”
And the article ends with Morrissey reminiscing about his time on the gay scene.
“If the Perry’s didn’t get you, then the beer monsters were waiting around the corner. I still remember studying the football results to see if City or United had lost, in order to judge the level of violence to be expected in the city centre that night. I can remember the worst night of my life with a friend of mine, James Maker, who is the lead singer in Raymonde now. We were heading for Devilles (a gay club). We began at the Thompson’s Arms (a gay pub), we left and walked around the corner where there was a car park, just past Chorlton Street Bus Station. Walking through the car park, I turned around and, suddenly, there was a gang of 30 beer monsters all in their late twenties, all creeping around us… The gay scene in Manchester was always atrocious. Do you remember Bernard’s Bar, now Stuffed Olives? If one wanted peace and to sit without being called a parade of names then that was the only hope... 1975 was the worst year in social history. I blame ‘Young Americans’ entirely. I hated that period – Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes, Limmy and Family Cooking. So when punk came along, I breathed a sigh of relief. I met people. I’d never done that before… I never liked The Ranch. I have a very early memory of it and it was very, very heavy. I never liked Dale Street. There was something about that area of Manchester that was too dangerous.”
Frank would throw in some homophobic language, ‘You big jessy, you big girl’s blouse, Morrissey. But he’s right. It was dangerous and, with the increased media visibility of punk, the violence got worse. You see, punks were not only faggots, they were uppity faggots as well‘, and an insinuation about cottaging that Morrissey found upsetting. In his 2013 autobiography he said,
“Because of the public-toilet disparagement, there are of course legal grounds to take action against Melody Maker, but Rough Trade are now making useful inroads with the press because of the Smiths, and they don’t want to cause a fuss, and I am still too green around the gills to ignore their reluctance. I could attempt to tackle Melody Maker myself, but without the label behind me, I am at sea.“
Most people – ignoring that Morrissey had more or less confirmed that he was openly gay, had said he didn’t feel at home because his family were immigrants, and was afraid of violence and the parade of insults he was subjected to – considered this article to be a major racism scandal – with Morrissey accused of thinking black people were conspiring against him, him disliking modern black music being equated with hating black people, and Frank’s wrong assertion that Panic was about hanging black Djs taken as fact.
Johnny Marr, who never strays from the safest of safe showbiz political opinions, was furious,
“next time we come across that creep, he’s plastered. We’re not in the habit of issuing personal threats, but that was such a vicious slur-job that we’ll kick the shit out of him. Violence is disgusting but racism’s worse and we don’t deal with it.” (NMW, February 1987)
Tony Fletcher, in his 2012 book about The Smiths, A Light That Never Goes Out, has nothing to say about the leading questions or the homophobia. In fact he seems to think Morrissey deserves the homophobia, putting Morrissey’s ‘no sex’ agenda in quotes, saying Frank dared suggest in writing that in years to come, Morrissey would be into “fisting and water sports”, accepting this explanation:
“Morrissey is the biggest closet gay queen on the planet and he felt that I was trying to ‘out’ him by bringing this up.
‘If he wanted to play coy, that was his prerogative, although with Thatcherite policies coming down increasingly hard on homosexuality, many other artists had decided to “come out” in response. As Len Brown wrote, “It was a time when everyone—artists and journalists—seemed to be asking the question (politically and sexually) ‘Whose Side Are You On?’ To which Morrissey insisted on being individual … a card-carrying member of nothing but his own cult of personality.”‘
He took out Morrissey’s meandering qualifications and made it sound as if Panic was about a detestation of black modern music so strong that he wasn’t ‘content to leave it there’ even though he was only replying to Frank.
Not content to leave it there, Morrissey went on to express how much he detested the “black modern music” of Motown descendants Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, and Diana Ross, stating, per the lyrics to “Panic,” that “in essence this music doesn’t say anything whatsoever.”
He also ascribed Frank’s comments about NME and Melody Maker readers to ‘Morrissey’s thinking’, while accepting the racist assumption that Black music is about the body, pretending that British youth hadn’t danced before rave, took Morrissey’s joke about the law seriously and thought it was ridiculous that escapist music gets more airplay than morose Indie music – OF COURSE IT DOES!
Owen claimed to understand this thinking. “When NME and Melody Maker started putting black acts on the cover,” he recalled, “there was a huge backlash to it. I used to get letters all the time. And it wasn’t explicitly ‘We don’t want blacks on the cover,’ it was more like ‘This is our scene and what do blacks have to do with it?’ ” And so, in his Melody Maker feature, as a response to Morrissey’s own response, Owen tried to answer that question: “What it says can’t necessarily be verbalised easily,” he wrote. “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.” Within a year or two, as acid house exploded (the kindling lit on the Haçienda dance floor) and the rave movement emerged in its wake, a large section of British youth would come to share Owen’s sentiment, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr and New Order’s Bernard Sumner among them. In the summer of 1986, though, Morrissey was still the voice of his generation, which was perhaps why he then dared issue the most ludicrous comment yet of a continually outspoken career: “Obviously to get on Top of the Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black,” which he followed up with an equally ridiculous claim of personal persecution.
He also thought it was suspect that Morrissey liked a sexist song that was released when he was seven years old.
Even the singer’s attempt to restore proceedings mid-interview sounded suspect. “My favourite record of all time is ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’ by Martha and the Vandellas,” he said, citing a (black) Motown single from 1966, “which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression.” And yet this was as stereotypically romantic, conventionally sexist, and thereby nonfeminist a song as had ever been written. It would have said nothing about Morrissey’s life when it came out, and said even less about his life and that of his fans twenty years later. He was in essence employing a double standard, based on what Owen correctly referred to as a “nostalgia … that afflicts the whole indie scene.”
And thought that Morrissey’s comments were a defence of ‘Panic’ rather than in response to Frank’s questions about Indie. Frank himself is blind to the racist assumptions that shaped the division of pop into Black and Indie and thinks that it’s Morrissey who caused the problem to ‘wind people up’.
As it turned out, Owen wasn’t particularly put out by Morrissey’s comments in defense of “Panic.” “I never thought Morrissey was a racist,” he said. “I always thought it was just a big put-on, that it was just a way to wind people up, the same way that punks wore swastikas.”
In 2018 music journalist Pete Paphides, gutted the interview to claim that Morrissey had ‘always’ been repugnant.
He accused Morrissey of ‘trolling’ for using the Attack reggae label in 2004 – nearly 18 years after this interview, and 12 years after the homophobic abuse Morrissey received at Finsbury Park was misrepresented as Morrissey waving the Union Jack in support of racist English nationalism.
Having failed to see that Morrissey talked about his own experiences of being from an immigrant family, that Frank was mainly trying to get Morrissey to talk about his sexuality and that Morrissey had said that black people had a history of oppression, Pete claims to have always kept the door ajar in case Morrissey’s views about race and identity were more nuanced.
but he can’t listen to most of Morrissey’s work because of what he was and continues to be.
Considering that some journalists have been entirely blind to their own prejudices while spending nearly 40 years scrutinizing every word Morrissey says for racism, crafting every distorted violation into a litany – the thing that Morrissey was and continues to be that bothers them so much is probably, ‘humasexual’, asocial and sardonic.