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Another day, another spat in the music world. On Monday, it was Taylor Swift and Damon Albarn who had a very public contretemps. On Tuesday, it was Neil Young and Spotify (the streaming platform has since announced it is removing Young’s music). And yesterday it was Morrissey and Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths.
The two bards of Eighties bedroom melodrama locked horns after Morrissey published an “open letter” on his website asking Marr to stop using his name in interviews “for clickbait”. In reply, Marr gave his former bandmate short shrift and accused him of being out of date and out of touch.
Morrissey’s letter urged Marr to “leave me out” of interviews. “The fact is: you don’t know me,” the 62-year-old wrote in his letter, published on the Morrissey Central website. “You know nothing of my life, my intentions, my thoughts, my feelings. Yet you talk as if you were my personal psychiatrist with consistent and uninterrupted access to my instincts.” He accused Marr of pandering to the British press’s desire to print “cruel and savage” remarks about him.
Marr hit back on Twitter with a withering reply to Morrissey’s official account. “Dear @officialmoz. An ‘open letter’ hasn’t really been a thing since 1953, it’s all ‘social media’ now. Even Donald J Trump had that one down. Also, this fake news business… a bit 2021 yeah?”
There’s clearly no love lost between the pair who, as the creative core of The Smiths from their formation in 1982 to their split in 1987, crafted some of the most enduring indie pop songs ever written. From This Charming Man and Bigmouth Strikes Again to There is a Light That Never Goes Out and How Soon is Now?, the duo composed the romantic, erudite, vulnerable, jangly, witty, unforgettable soundtrack to countless teenage lives.
Dear @officialmoz . An ‘open letter’ hasn’t really been a thing since 1953, It’s all ‘social media’ now. Even Donald J Trump had that one down. Also, this fake news business…a bit 2021 yeah ?#makingindiegreatagain
— Johnny Marr (@Johnny_Marr) January 26, 2022
Morrissey and Marr – the band’s singer and guitar player respectively – have been on different trajectories since the band split. Morrissey is the cantankerous solo artist who has been prone, particularly in recent years, to make controversial comments about immigration, race, meat-eaters and politics.
Marr, meanwhile, is the serial collaborator (The Pretenders, The The, Billy Bragg, Electronic, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and Hans Zimmer and Billie Eilish on the latest Bond score) who went on to become a solo artist and has an almost Dave Grohl-like reputation for being a nice guy. But this very public argument blasts any differences wide open. As one Twitter user put it, “this disagreement is a true nail in the heart for us fans”. So what’s behind the animosity?
Morrissey’s letter appears to have been sparked by a recent interview that Marr gave to Uncut magazine to promote his new solo album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. In the interview, Marr talks about his collaborators. “It won’t come as any surprise when I say that I’m really close with everyone I’ve worked with – except for the obvious one. And that isn’t that much of a surprise because we’re so different, me and Morrissey,” Marr said.
In his letter, Morrissey called Marr a “rent-a-quote” when the press required an “ugly slant” on him. “It’s as if you can’t uncross your legs without mentioning me,” the singer wrote.
On a purely empirical basis, Morrissey has a point. I randomly picked out 10 print interviews that Marr has given over the last decade: he mentions Morrissey by name in around half, references him without naming him in others, and in one interview “does everything in his power to avoid the word ‘Morrissey’,” according to the writer. This latter quote almost proves the point.
But this is hardly Marr’s fault – he’s simply answering journalists’ questions because he’s a professional. And the journalists are asking these questions because The Smiths and Morrissey (and, by extension, the things he does) are woven into Britain’s cultural fabric. It’s daft of Morrissey to blame Marr for other people’s perfectly valid interest in their lives. They built the temple. They can’t expect pilgrims not to visit.
But I’m not sure this spat is really about mentions in articles. Not at its heart. As with many arguments, the animosity is deeper rooted than would initially appear. I would suggest that this falling out boils down to three things: the acrimonious break-up of The Smiths thirty-five years ago, Morrissey’s ever-more preposterous statements in recent years, and The Smiths’ legacy going forward. The first one still festers, the second one regularly astounds, and the third one remains unresolved.
The Smiths broke up in the middle of 1987 when they were on the cusp of releasing their fourth studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come. Big things beckoned. They’d just switched from indie label Rough Trade to major label EMI for future releases, and mainstream global fame – beyond the underground success they’d enjoyed – was a genuine prospect.
However, frustrated with what he saw as Morrissey’s increasingly inflexible music tastes and the singer’s no-show at a video shoot for the single Sheila Take A Bow, Marr took a break from the group that June. He was also fed up with the presumption that he’d take on managerial duties after their manager Ken Friedman was frozen out. Marr left the band permanently the following month after a piece appeared in NME under the headline: “Smiths to split”. The article stated that a “personality clash” between Morrissey and Marr was to blame. Marr wrongly believed that Morrissey had planted the article.
“There was no way forward,” Marr said in a 2016 newspaper interview. “I was waiting for someone to fix it and make it so it didn’t have to happen.” But no one did fix it. The band found a new guitarist, devastating Marr.
Things weren’t always thus. Marr and Morrissey had met at a Patti Smith concert in 1978. But it was in 1982 that they decided to form a band. “It felt totally natural,” Marr wrote of their early friendship in his autobiography Set The Boy Free. “Although [Morrissey] was a few years older than me there was an immediate understanding and empathy between us.” For his part, Morrissey thought Marr was “quite obviously gifted and almost unnaturally multi-talented,” according to his own autobiography.
Just five years later, Marr was being blamed for the band’s break-up. “I don’t think anyone’s ever had such a hard time about the end of a band as I have, besides Yoko Ono,” he told Q magazine in 2016. So he set the record straight in interviews, suggesting that Morrissey forced him out.
The singer appears to take umbrage at this in his open letter. “We haven’t known each other for 35 years – which is many lifetimes ago,” Morrissey wrote this week. “When we met, you and I were not successful. We both helped each other become whatever it is we are today. Can you not just leave it at that? Must you persistently, year after year, decade after decade, blame me for everything?... From the 2007 Solomon Islands tsunami to the dribble on your grandma’s chin?”
Morrissey is also no doubt irritated that Marr comments in interviews on Things That Morrissey Says. Again, not really Marr’s fault: the more controversy that Morrissey courts, the more Marr will be asked about it. And Morrissey courts a lot of controversy. In recent years he has made a barrage of offensive pronouncements including swipes at the Chinese and sympathy for far-right groups such as For Britain. Record labels have shied away: last June, Morrissey announced that he would sell his latest album to the “highest (or lowest) bidder”. Of course Marr is asked about all this.
Marr stated in a 2018 interview with this paper that you can’t separate the art from the artist. So when in the same interview he was asked about Morrissey’s recent expression of sympathy for Tommy Robinson, the jailed far-right activist and English Defence League founder, he witheringly said: “Of course I completely disagree with those views. Anyone who knows me can guess how I feel about it, but on some level, I really don’t give a f---. Does it mean anything in my actual day-to-day life? No. Not at all.”
In his letter, Morrissey suggests hypocrisy (not about politics but in general). “You found me inspirational enough to make music with me for six years. If I was, as you claim, such an eyesore monster, where exactly did this leave you? Kidnapped? Mute? Chained? Abducted by cross-eyed extra-terrestrials?” Morrissey asked.
Lastly, there is in all likelihood an unspoken battle going on for the legacy of The Smiths. Who can claim the soul of the band – the singer and lyricist, or the guitar player who wrote the music? Both men play Smiths songs in their live sets. At Morrissey’s last gig, according to the SetlistFM website, he played four Smiths songs including How Soon Is Now? and Shoplifters of the World Unite.
At Marr’s most recent, he also played four including How Soon Is Now? and Bigmouth Strikes Again. Both men could claim to be the heart of the band. Six years ago, Marr said: “I formed The Smiths and it was my band and I broke it up.” But then Morrissey… the voice, the delivery, the gladioli, the quiff, the glasses. In so many ways, he is The Smiths. It’s a question for which there is no answer.
Unfortunately for Morrissey, his letter is unlikely to change anything. Marr will probably continue to use his name in interviews – not because it’s clickbait, but because he’s a Smith. The Beatles split up 52 years and people still ask Paul McCartney about John Lennon. This is no different.
Morrissey’s best chance of not being talked about is actually far simpler than writing a letter. In fact, it involves doing precisely nothing. If Morrissey really doesn’t want to be chatted about, he should simply shut up. Many – perhaps even Marr himself – would welcome it.