For all his frequent courting with controversy, you’d be forgiven for believing that the former Smiths singer is trying to halt a downward spiral into irrelevancy.
But for everyone that attended a panel discussion at the Cornerhouse Annexe yesterday, Morrissey is still a radical and influential figure.
Goldblade vocalist John Robb chaired the discussion, ‘A Gospel According To…’, which ties in with an art exhibition of the same name in the Holden Gallery.
He was joined by the curator and CUBE Creative Director Jane Anderson, visual artist Declan Clarke, and drummer Si Wollstonecraft who is famous for having ‘turned down the chance to join the Smiths’.
Ms Anderson’s exhibition celebrates The Smiths’ 30th anniversary by presenting works by a range of European artists who have utilised aspects of The Smiths in various ways, including Lucienne Cole’s tap-dancing performance to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and Lars Laumann’s video Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana.
When asked if Laumann really believed that the lyrics for ‘The Queen is Dead’ foreshadow Princess Diana’s death, Ms Anderson said: “Well…watching it, you can hardly be sure. It’s quite intense. And there’s also the flipside that it’s quite humorous. God knows how he came up with the idea for it, but he does it fantastically.”
She added: “All the art show how seriously artists take the Smiths, while also being very humorous. I think Morrissey really wanted to be taken seriously.”
This fanaticism for Morrissey quickly became more central to the discussion than the Smiths’ influence on the arts (particularly the Young British Artists movement). For many, Morrissey’s autodidactic dandyism has an inspiringly political dimension.
When responding to female fans both on the Panel and in the audience discussing Morrissey’s feminised image, Mr Robb said: “It’s kind of feminine but not camp. It’s a different way of being rock and roll, isn’t it?”
He added: “There was a lot of talk at the time that Morrissey was another gender. He kind of made people think about what genders were.”
Morrissey is still known today for his contentious persona. His comments in interviews are often as unabashedly outspoken as his 1960s-tinged songs and album covers were nostalgic. Most notably, he claimed that current immigration policy has resulted in a ‘disappearance’ of British identity, and last month that the Falkland Islands ‘belong to Argentina’.
Mr Clarke, who grew up in Dublin, said: “For Morrissey to turn his own education and culture into something very important – it inspires many artists. He came out of working class Manchester at a time when the government was doing everything it could to annihilate any sense of pride you could have in your own culture.
"Of course he grew up in England, but Margaret Thatcher had no great love for Ireland either. So when someone like that encourages you to read a lot of books and create your own culture, that’s incredible.”
The Panellists made comparisons between the British political-economic climate of the 1980s and today, hoping that there might be ‘a new Smiths’ to depict the inner strength and freedom of individuals to rail against authority. But some were unsettled by how The Smiths’ music had been so subsumed into pop culture that even Prime Minister David Cameron described himself as a fan.
“I don’t know what’s worse: the idea that they pretend to like The Smiths, or they actually like them and don’t listen to the words,” said Mr Robb.
Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr said last year that he ‘forbids’ Cameron to enjoy his band.
‘The Gospel According To…’ exhibition is being held at the Holden Gallery until May 5. It also showcases an archive of Smiths photography by Stephen Wright and a ‘Bootleg Booth’ featuring footage of early live performances.