Why would anyone think it?
Morrissey is one of pop’s greatest iconoclasts. Standing apart – and almost alone – from the mainstream rock traditions of sex and drugs and noise and barely-literate lyrics, his persona has beguiled and repelled millions since he first hit the charts in the early 80s with The Smiths.
Down the years he has courted controversy in both his lyrics and interviews, expressing views that have often shocked. In 1988, he was the subject of a police enquiry over his lyrics for Margaret on the Guillotine – a song that apparently called for the murder of Margaret Thatcher. He was also excoriated by The Sun for two of his early songs. Suffer Little Children dealt with the Moors Murders, long a touchstone for the paper. And somehow, Reel Around The Fountain was taken as a coded reference to paedophila.
So no stranger to controversy. However, one claim that has been made perhaps more times than any other about the singer is that he is racist – or at least prepared to flirt with racist sentiments. The claims first arose during the 90s but still carry on clinging to his reputation today. This page will take a quick look at the evidence and hopefully prove useful to anyone wondering about Morrissey’s attitude to race.
Morrissey’s lyrics often tackle subjects that are way, way out of the mainstream. Whether it is disability, pregnancy, religion or bisexuality, Morrissey archly confronts his subject
Bengali In Platforms
One lyric in particular is produced as evidence of Morrissey’s racism. In this song from his 1988 solo album Viva Hate, he includes the following lines:
“Shelve your Western plans because life is hard enough when you belong here”
“He only wants to embrace your culture and be your friend forever”.
The National Front Disco
One of Morrissey’s most memorable tunes is also one of his most controversial. The album which contained the track – 1994’s Your Arsenal – did not, unusually for a Morrissey album contain printed lyrics. Taken in that context, lyrics such as these became hotly debated as the racist accusations reached their peak.
“You want the day to come sooner when you’ve settled a score”
“England for the English, England for the English”
Morrissey as an artist often writes in the third person, and it is clear to most people who read the lyrics in full that this is a the case in this song. Whilst even placing yourself in the shoes of a member of the NF might be a bridge too far for many artists, it is Morrissey’s willingness to explore the alienation of almost any situation that makes him unique among songwriters.
In 1992, Morrissey took to the stage in London’s Finsbury Park to support Madness – on the comeback trail after their split in the late 80s. During the show, he played against a backdrop of a huge photograph of a skinhead and literally wrapped himself in the Union Jack onstage.
To some, this was playing dangerous games with the iconography of the far right. So much so that even as he performed, some of the concert-goers pelted the stage with bottles. There was an element of history at play here. Madness themselves had been unfairly associated with racists during their early career – largely because of their skinhead uniform.
The ignorance of the charge should have been evident from the fact that skinheads had existed as fans of black ska and reggae music for decades before the look was appropriated by the likes of the National Front.
Nonetheless, Madness fans still bridled at the association and some thought that Morrissey had no place to dally with nationalist emblems.
It was a thorny time for the singer and prompted the NME to make its first accusations of racism against him.
As in his lyrics, Morrissey often walks a fine line in interviews. To some, he appears to be revealing a great deal about himself, but most readers come away unsure how much of the things he says are actually reflective of his real personality, and how many are merely witty extemporisations.
At the height of the “Morrissey is racist” storm in the mid 90s, various quotes were dragged up in support. Perhaps the most ridiculous was his 1981 assertion that “reggae is vile.” Almost anyone else would see that as a simple statement of musical choice, but the witch-hunt against Morrissey meant it assumed huge significance.
Against that backdrop, it was amusing to see Morrissey chose to release his 2004 ‘comeback’ album You Are The Quarry on the famous ‘Attack’ record label – that was home to many reggae artists. No coincidence, I’m sure!
In 2008, he hit the headlines again, saying he wouldn’t live in Britain again because of the “immigration explosion“. As is so often the case, his reported comments were extremely divisive. However, Morrissey began court proceedings against the NME within days, saying that his quotes had been distorted and taken out of context.
It is true, however, that in today’s climate concerns about immigration are often a cover for mere racism. The BNP, for example, is careful to decry immigration rather than race in order to claim legitimacy for its views.
In many ways, Morrissey could be said to be a little out of his time – a fact he alluded to in his comments, where he said that he “no longer recognised” England as a result of immigration. However, it is a stretch to use that as proof of racism. Morrissey offered free space at all venues on his subsequent tour to Rock Against Racism to emphasise his point.