Between 1963 and their arrest in 1965, Manchester serial killers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, kidnapped and murdered at least five children – Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans – and buried them on Saddleworth Moor.
In 1984 the Smiths released Suffer Little Children, a song about the murders, as a b-side to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, creating outrage in the press, which was defused by Morrissey meeting the mothers of the victims to reassure them that he wasn’t mocking or glorifying their deaths.
Some of the reports in newspapers in Portsmouth and Hartlepool – all the places that really count – some of the reports were so full of hate, it was like I was one of the Moors Murderers, that I’d gone out and murdered these children. Some of them were so full of hate that one just had to do something, but not read them. It was incredible.” (Morrissey, Melody Maker, March 1985 )
An interesting thing to note is the level of tone policing that Morrissey is subject to. There is huge anxiety about whether he’s ironic or sincere. His peer group can write ghoulish songs about crime – he has to be sincere. Any pop star can enthusiastically hold a Union Jack – he has to be ironic.
The Smiths would appear to be degenerating into an effete, mincing version of The Pretenders on this evidence, and I reckon M should take another tip from Chrissie and do the decent thing by Sandie soon. Anything to at least partially halt the collapse of the band into the annoying, silly, blubbering, infantile mess on display tonight… The common-or-garden Smiths – lots of flim-flam, lots of skullduggery, no great shakes. (Adrian Maddox, Melody Maker, May, 1984)
On the 5th September 1983 the Sun ran a story with the headline, “Ban Child Porn Song Plea To Beeb” that accused Morrissey of writing songs that were pro paedophila.
The NME hyped the drama, but was on his side.
Following allegations made by overweight Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens (described by Private Eye as the “Lothario of the dancant”) that ‘Handsome Devil’ was a song explicitly about child-molesting, Mancunian four-piece The Smiths were reportedly under scrutiny by the BBC. However, the claim, reported in The Sun by Nick Ferrari, turns out to be totally unfounded. Asked to comment, Scott Piering at Rough Trade said that he viewed the allegations “seriously”: “Morrissey made it clear that none of the songs were about child-molesting, and Ferrari accepted this, and then he went and wrote it anyway.” Added Morrissey, “this piece makes me out to be a proud child-molester and I don’t even like children. ‘Handsome Devil’ is entirely directed towards adults”… (NME, September 10th, 1983)
Sounds wanted him banned.
Singer Sandie Shaw worried that he’d harm her baby.
‘Morrissey would die to meet you’. At that point I was unaware of Morrissey’s penchant for melodrama and that Geoff was talking literally… The following day a hysterical story broke in ‘The Sun’ saying that the Smiths were releasing songs based on iffy subject matter: ‘Reel around the Fountain’ was supposed to be about child molesting or something, and another, ‘Suffer little children’, to be about the Moors Murders. I rang Geoff to cancel. ‘I can’t have a pervert in my home with my kids’… ‘Look, I’ll come with him to chaperone’… I uncancelled the appointment… I scrutinized Morrissey. He didn’t look like a child molester to me. Amie seemed to feel otherwise, and again I began to question my wisdom in meeting him. All my worst nightmares vied with the sweet angelic vision seated before me. As soon as he managed to mobilize his mouth and speak, all my fears subsided. He was the perfect gentleman… (Sandie Shaw, The World At My Feet, HarperCollins, 9 May 1991)
The BBC removed Reel Around the Fountain from a show.
However fatuous and fantastic The Sun article was, it did succeed in its dirtying The Smiths name (for reasons unknown). It also ensured that the session, which wasn’t being “investigated,” was censored and that a six minute version of “Reel Around The Fountain” was removed. According to Mike Hawkes, the producer for David Jensen’s show, the specially commissioned track was removed purely as a precautionary measure. (David Dorrell, NME, September 24th 1983)
The scandal burned out, but left a lingering sense that there was something sinister and sick lurking in Morrissey’s lyrics.
This was a era when gay or “sexually ambiguous” men were considered a threat to children. The gay age of consent was 21. And legislation was introduced to stop homosexuality being mentioned in schools.
It was also an era when underage girls were sexualised. Glamour model Sam Fox posed nude while still at school. The Police had a number one hit with a song about a male teacher having an affair with a female student. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones dated 13 year old “wild child” Mandy Smith.
I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom… I’d done teaching practice at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them! How I kept my hands off them I don’t know. (Sting, L’Historia Bandido, 1981)
The prejudice resurfaced when a contingent and provisional conversation with Der Spiegel was reported as a robust defense of sex offenders.
Which stirred old stereotypes.
And slid unquestioned into the idea that parents had to protect their children from his music.
On July 29th 1992, Nicky Crane – National Front skinhead and Skrewdriver roadie; who featured in the same Nick Knight photo essay as the V-flicker on a Morrissey t-shirt – came out as gay on the UK Channel 4 documentary, Out: The Skin Complex, that explored gay skinhead subculture.
On August 22nd 1992, the NME spent 5 pages denouncing Morrissey as a racist for playing 1 of 2 planned gigs with headliners Madness, at Finsbury Park, where he was heckled by a homophobic crowd (Select reported hearing them shout ‘poofy bastard’) while whiplashing a Union Jack flag (for less than 2 minutes before throwing it away) in front of a Derek Ridgers art print of 2 skinhead girls.
Despite lead singer, Suggs’s, skinhead past and old Skrewdriver connections, Madness was deemed ‘unfortunate’ for attracting the racist crowd. Derek Ridgers worried that Morrissey had demeaned the skinhead girls, who WERE racist imagery. And Flowered Up, another band on the bill, thought Morrissey had asked for trouble by ‘prancing around‘.
Most of the National Front supporters were outside Finsbury Park to oppose a march for a cause Morrissey supported; British troops out of Northern Ireland. Morrissey’s from an Irish Catholic family – it wouldn’t be impossible for him to join the National Front, but it’s unlikely given his obvious queerness and his mother’s keen interest in Irish history.
It just goes to show that nationalism and homosexuality do not fit in together, because Nationalism is a true cause and homosexuality is a perversion. Nicky Crane left, and I think that it was the best thing he could have done, but he should have left a hell of a lot earlier. He was living a lie for all of them years. I’ve got no respect for the bloke anymore. (Ian Stuart Donaldson, lead singer of Skrewdriver, 1992)
Even the idea that musical subcultures can be linked to fascism is dubious – The National Front’s most violent organiser, Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair was a fan of reggae band UB40 and his paramilitary loyalist gang would kill Catholics while listening to rave.
But still the NME lied that Morrissey was a British Nationalist, that his imagery was racist, that he was fanning the flames of race-hate, that Bengali in Platforms was a diatribe against assimilation, that it was supportive of (ex-Tory) Ulster Unionist MP, Enoch Powell, that it incited calls for immigrants to be deported, that he wanted a pre-immigration green and pleasant Little England, that he wanted an English ethno-state, that he was provoking genocide, and – in a technique that now dominates his coverage – they cobbled together so many snippets of lyrics and interviews spuriously branded racist that to refute them all would look demented; no fire without all THAT smoke. Even his quiff was racist for being a 1950s style. The past being ipso facto racist as if black and Asian people only came into existence in 1987.
And, taking their cue from The Skin Complex, they speculated that he had a sexual fetish for racism, that he was getting vicarious skinhead thrills, that he was using real men, like skinheads, The Angelic Upstarts, as a cover; and noted that ‘Richard Allen’s skinhead chronicles are full of sickening accounts of violence against blacks. And for that matter, homosexuals’.
And for that matter, that was their real point.
Someone must have watched it, got excited, thought OH THAT’S WHAT HE’S UP TO and decided to disguise their usual prurient, repressed homophobic obsession with his sex life beneath a heap of lurid faux righteous anti-racism.
Dr Dinesh Bhugra, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, speaking on Skin Complex, the Channel 4 programme to be screened on Wednesday, argues that gay men adopting the skinhead image is not surprising. In a society that is producing a tremendous amount of homophobia, you have to try and protect yourself by whichever means you can and if, in order to do it, it means you are identifying with the oppressor then people will do that in order to survive. (Independent, 26th July 1992)
Let’s not forget that the adolescent Morrissey used to be chased through the streets of Manchester at night by leering beer-boys, some of whom may have held NF sympathies, simply for being ‘different’. And he definitely spent a lot of time in Whalley Range, a multi-racial area. Is he now identifying with his former oppressors? Has he changed from the persecuted to the persecutor? Or, is he fascinated by the idea of racism, by the look of violent skinheads, to the extent of being oppressed so much he falls in love with his oppressors? (NME, August 1992)
Or both – Sire had sidelined the Smiths in America after Rolling Stone labeled Morrissey gay.
A piece in Rolling Stone claimed Morrissey was gay, completely contradicting his stand against sexual roles and their divisive consequences. “That brought a lot of problems for me”, he recalls ruefully. “Of course I never made such a statement”, Immediately their American record company, Sire, recoiled from supporting The Smiths. “They were petrified”, he remembers with disgust. “I thought that kind of writing epitomised the mentality of the American music press. That sicking macho stuff. After it appeared in Rolling Stone it ran rife through the lesser known publications, which to me was profoundly dull”. (Melody Maker, November 1984)
In 2001, Andrew Collins thought Dele Fadele being their only black writer justified the homophobia. The publicity around the C4 documentary had mentioned some gay black men being angry that it was hard to tell a gay skinhead from a violent skinhead. Morrissey’s quiff & gold lame shirt – as well as the description of him as ‘prancing’ & the fact he was attacked by the homophobic crowd – wouldn’t cause thatproblem.
(Also the irony of Andrew denouncing an Irish Catholic 2nd generation Immigrant for being a cultural tourist by holding a Union Jack – the UK’s national flag – for less than 2 minutes after the NME accused him of bile for the line ‘life is hard enough when you belong here. Morrissey doesn’t belong here?)
‘The skinhead look is a dominant one in the gay scene at the moment,’ according to Harvey Gillis, fashion editor of Boyz magazine. ‘It’s a fashion statement not a political one.’ Some black gays oppose the trend because of the difficulty in separating violent fascists from the simply fashion-conscious. (Martin Wroe, the Independent, 26th July 1992)
Sadly Dele died in 2018, and in a 2020 obit in the Guardian, the homophobia is written up as his greatest achievement.
[Dele summed up] the dark side of Morrissey... famously helped persuade the magazine’s staff to run its Flying the flag or flirting with disaster? cover story, which called out their most bankable star Morrissey’s dalliance with the far right for the first time. (The former Smiths man refused to talk to the paper for more than a decade after it was published; his reputation remains tarnished to this day.)… It was in 1992, though, that Dele played his most pivotal role. He had attended Madstock in Finsbury Park, the now-notorious gig in which support artist Morrissey draped himself in the union jack, a move some saw as a move pandering to the crowd’s skinhead element…Dele was appalled by what he’d witnessed… “It was Dele’s finest hour,” recalls Andrew Collins… “He wrote from the heart – and, uniquely among the staff – from an actual vantage point… It was a turning point for Moz’s provocations. Dele… gave urgency and weight to an otherwise hand-wringing situation” (Tim Jonze, the Guardian, September 2020)
Morrissey was saved by the success of 1994’s, Vauxhall and I, but battered by record company, legal, personal and management issues; and excluded by the music press from Britpop, he moved to LA and built an audience of equally excluded Chicanos.
In 2002 the NME mournfully accused him of giving the illusion of intimacy while never discussing his sexuality, and of being – ambiguous, unambiguous, brutally upfront and distastefully infatuated, with racism.
In 2004, You Are The Quarry, gave him a brief respite.
… excised from the hearts of many, horrified by the messy “flirtation” with racist imagery. (VS, NME, November 1999)
… nevermind the shaky accusations of racism… all those years of being Mother Teresa for the clumsy and shy and suddenly he was being reviled for crimes he’d never committed. (VS, Mojo, May 2004)
But his shyness, difficulty with social norms, and outsider art meant the press soon fell back on ridicule, demonisation, inflammatory headlines and witch-hunts.
And (for a spell) his public image has fused with the forgotten Nicky Crane – a bad gay; toxic, shunned, unwholesome; his empathetic solo work unbelievably conflated with Skrewdriver.
Side Note: Nicky Crane’s Showbiz Career
NAZI FARTSY : Earsay’s snippets (Channel 4) on Genesis P-Orridge et al featured an unexpected guest – a certain Nicola Crane. Crane, the neo-Nazi who by a series of errors made the front cover of ‘Strength Thru Oi’, turned out to be one of the ‘stars’ of a Psychic TV video film. Let’s hope the media are as quick to condemn this obviously deliberate airing for Crane as they were with that accidental airing three years ago. (Sounds, 22nd September 1984)
Side Note 2: Before the NME’s false allegations, the issue at Finsbury Park was Morrissey’s masculinity.
…to the gold lame flounce of Morrissey, who, having replaced The Farm, was accorded the proverbial ‘mixed reaction’ for his trouble. But then, Morrissey has never been exactly the most blokeish of performers. (Andy Gill, 9th August 1992, The Independent)
Side Note 3: Nicky was on the gay scene from 1984, made gay porn films, attacked a benefit gig that had the Smiths on the bill & drank in a gay pub, The Bell, in Kings Cross that Morrissey also frequented. The video for Our Frank, directed by gay filmmaker John Maybury, used skinhead extras & was shot around Kings Cross.
Side Note 4: the NME’s claim they were just as hard on Eric Clapton, David Bowie & Elvis Costello is untrue.
Eric sailed past an anti-racist letter appealing to his better self into 1980s rock aristocracy while still supporting Enoch Powell. The worst it got for David Bowie was the NME faking the picture of a Nazi salute that became gossipy rocklore (although it might be significant that he dropped his gay alien persona for something more hetero). And the NME refused to believe that Elvis Costello could mean it when he called James Brown a “jive-arsed n——” and Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant n——.”
Side Note 5: The Union Jack is ubiquitous in UK culture – at no point in our history has it ever been a clear signal of fascism or has it needed to be reclaimed from the far right, nevermind from Morrissey. Some comrades on the hard left hate it as a symbol of the British Empire, but that’s a minority opinion.
Skinheads were a working-class subculture that spanned the political spectrum and listened to Reggae, Punk and their variants. They had widespread coverage in the press, including in the NME.
The NME’s coverage of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland: