The Smiths: Meat Is Murder; The Associates: Perhaps

MORRISSEY OF The Smiths is still the unlikeliest pop star of all. Watching him jerk and flounder about on Top Of The Pops last week, I was struck anew by his physical oddness, his contortive pulling at himself, his habit of exposing and rubbing his tummy. He is like a sulky schoolboy trying to annoy the grown-ups.

It is this gauche and petulant youth who gets kneed in the groin by teacher, wants to drop his trousers to the Queen and finally drives us to distraction on Meat Is Murder (Rough Trade). The second album by the Manchester quartet is another public airing of Morrissey’s dirty socks and soiled memories. One song into the album and he is already griping about “mid-week on the playing fields” when “Sir thwacks you on the knees” and “does the military two-step down the nape of my neck”. It might be Rik Mayall’s lisping punk rocker if it wasn’t so solemn, if Johnny Marr’s cleanly layered guitar riffs didn’t give the lines such powerful credence. ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is a working-class If.

Even when his cinematic eye for details is at its keenest – observing “the last night of the fair” in ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ – he comes over as a reproachful, overgrown baby. Here the entire scene seems to be arranged to highlight his walking home alone, excluded, but with his “faith in love still devout”. (Morrissey can turn sanctimonious and still be mistaken for saint: in real life the disconsolate killjoy of ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ would be intolerable.)

Part of The Smiths’ initial attraction lay in simplicity and economy of their songs. Morrissey’s plummy serenading of his boyhood self was couched in irresistibly perky tunes that stood out in pop’s sea of bombast and overproduction. The impression one obtained was of an ostracised and sexually uncertain person letting out a long-repressed cry of defiance and making up for his awkwardness with a resilient kind of narcissism. Anger found its vent at last in the swooning ‘Hand In Glove’, the sneering ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ – hard folk-rock songs of dense splendour.

The suspicion is that there is no more real passion where those cries came from. The elaborately mounted songs of Meat Is Murder ring hollow. It is as though Johnny Marr had designed these ambitious crafts to discover that their only passenger is the wind. Morrissey does not engage with the music, he merely drifts over Marr’s glistening rocky melodies as though humming to himself. Only the delicate ‘Well I Wonder’ suggests any cohesion.

As for economy, all the pathos of quiet, careful vignettes like ‘Girl Afraid’ or ‘The Night Has Opened My Eyes’ has been sacrificed to over-complicated build-ups and intros and fade-outs. The blustering seven-minute ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ is a waste of time and energy and even the disconcerting title track – a mournfully self-righteous indictment of meat-eating – is spoiled by being cluttered up with sound effects.

It would appear that as Morrissey’s weirdness has become accepted, so in turn it has become aloof and self-important. A less flighty urchin boy wonder is Billy Mackenzie of the Associates, a small and stocky Scot who keeps whippets and sings in a frantically operatic post-Bowie tenor to the accompaniment of lush synthetic symphonia. The Associates’ Perhaps (WEA) is his first album in two and a half years. For the most part of this time he has done precisely nothing, his reputation sustained by a besotted cult of worshippers who have hung on his every move since The Affectionate Punch album of 1980.

The reputation is merited, indeed, since Mackenzie’s best moment – 1982’s Sulk and a string of wired and wonderful singles on the Situation 2 label – are peaks of glorious excess, huge confections of glassy keyboards and delirious strings that soundtrack his artificial paradise of glamour and romance. He is certainly the only decent Bowie derivative British pop ever produced.

Perhaps disappoints in comparison, confirming the mediocrity of the singles that trailed it. With the departure of Alan Rankine has gone the giddy sense of Sulk’s scale, the fairground whirl and swirl of ‘Skipping’ or ‘Club Country’. The restless drumming of John Murphy has been replaced with a deadeningly metronomic disco beat. Everything that was so ripely exotic about the Associates now sounds clinical and efficient.

It’s not enough to gift-wrap the inner sleeve in chintzy blue crepe or seduce us with “mouthfuls of sour grapes” and “stains on gorgeous dresses”; not enough to make convincing John Barry movie-theme noises with pianos and strings. These are not sufficient when the fever of Mackenzie’s art has paled to a mildly flushed cheek.

© Barney HoskynsNew Statesman, Spring 1985

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