Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ was the first in-depth biography of The Smiths and, consequently, generated much reaction, not least of all from Morrissey, its loudest central character. Published in May, 1992, five years after the band split on the eve of the release of its fifth studio album, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, the book was launched during a peculiar period in the singer’s solo career. With Johnny Marr long gone free-lance, most visibly alongside Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant as part of Electronic, Morrissey had released his third – and, at that stage, easily his best – solo album, ‘Your Arsenal’, and had finally started to make commercial inroads into the American market. A market where, for multiple reasons, The Smiths had failed to generate traction. But in early August, 1992, he was forced off-stage at London’s Finsbury Park during a factious live show while supporting Madness and, not for the first time, faced suggestions that he was toying, deliberately or otherwise, with dangerous, racially-loaded themes and images.
Ten days after that show, the front of the New Musical Express carried a spectacular shot of Morrissey taken at Finsbury Park, in a gold lamé shirt, draped in a Union Jack and in front of a huge black and white backdrop featuring a striking image of two female skinheads: ‘Morrissey – Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?’, the supporting text asked while, inside, the magazine rolled out several of its brightest and best writers and went in hard and high. At the core of the argument – a recurring one ever since Morrissey claimed that ‘reggae is vile’ during an interview in 1985 – was one of the songs on ‘Your Arsenal’. ‘The National Front Disco’ tells of a young man, David, who foregoes his friends in favour of more extreme right-wing company: ‘Where is our boy? We’re lost our boy’, Morrissey sings. But it was the line – ‘England for the English’ – that provided the song with its most questionable edge, in much the same way as one of the singer’s earlier solo songs, ‘Bengali In Platforms’, had done years previously with the line ‘life is hard enough when you belong here’. Morrissey refused to speak to the N.M.E. for the guts of a decade thereafter and, in his own book, ‘Autobiography’, published in 2013, makes the not unreasonable claim that he had been deliberately targeted by the magazine which, at the time, had come under new editorial management. He goes on to robustly defend himself too, something he chose not to do at the time.
It was against this curtain and to this soundtrack that ‘The Severed Alliance’ was published. The Smiths had enjoyed an almost exclusively positive relationship with the music press during the band’s momentous but short history and often the raw devotion of some of the writers at the inkies mirrored that of the group’s support base, much of which was slavish. The band, only ever together for five years, was prolific, prodigious and panned gold at a furious rare. In support of its releases, off-stage and on, Morrissey gave sensational copy and, as a cover star, had become an enormous draw: the music magazines couldn’t get enough of The Smiths and even the most passive press releases from the group’s publicists were given serious news currency. But even by 1987 little of substance was known of them – and of Morrissey, especially – outside of the carefully tailored narrative that had been spun out since the band first blazed into public view. Indeed one of the more interesting aspects of the story of The Smiths is how the band so carefully controlled its own story, especially when, in almost every other respect, they were clearly unmanageable. I can’t recall another group from 1980 onwards about whom so much was written but of whom so little of real substance was ever given away. Most music fans – and many more non-music fans, it seemed – had an opinion on The Smiths supported, one way or another, with either leggy clichés or the party line, and no more than that.
I, like many of my peers, was one of those. I was a devoted Smiths fan, the band who, to all intents, changed the way I listened to music forever. In fact, for years, they were more than just a band: its glib to say so now but there was a time too when The Smiths were a genuine lifestyle choice and, for five glorious years, I obsessed over them. I’ve regularly trotted out the line that they were, for the post-punk generation, what The Beatles or The Clash must have been to those who went immediately before us: incendiary, liberating, vital, all-consuming. And I saw that manifest directly in the cross-demographic nature of their audiences: around Cork, The Smiths’ appeal transcended the usual parameters of class, gender and creed and their two live shows in The Savoy on Patrick Street attracted punters of all hues and from all arts and parts. Which is why I found ‘The Severed Alliance’ so absolutely compelling. Here, for the first time, I thought, was a profile of one of my favourite groups that went in where few had dared, finally putting real body on what had, in the ten years since ‘Hand In Glove’, been a finely-curated skeleton. The book clearly and comprehensively confirmed what many of us had long suspected, and which I’d heard around the gossipy fringes of the London set at the time: that Morrissey was an obsessive and abrasive character who, often giddied by money, had still to get over the wonder of himself.
The book is especially strong on the personal and social backgrounds of the primary cast of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, the almost fairytale aspect of much of the group’s early career and is particularly effective when dealing with the band’s demise in 1987. The popular narrative at the time of the split was that, in the familiar traditions of popular music, the group simply fell asunder as its constituent parts grew apart. And there is no doubt that, on one level, this was indeed the case. But, using a wide breath of core interviewees – Morrissey was the only one of The Smiths who declined the offer to take part – and three years of forensic research, Rogan gets deeply in under the bonnet. In doing so, he got spectacularly on Morrissey’s wick.
It is to Rogan’s credit that he fairly wires into much of the mythology – plenty of it created by Morrissey and Marr – that surrounded the band, concluding that, far from being the last great gang in popular music, four like-minds shaking the world in unison, there was a point where The Smiths were really just another business construct too. As was revealed subsequently through the British courts, the rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were, essentially, no more than salaried session players. In delivering his verdict in a High Court case brought by Joyce against Morrissey and Marr in 1996, Judge John Weeks tellingly described Morrissey as ‘devious, truculent and unreliable’. Which more or less tallies with Johnny Rogan’s summary in ‘The Severed Alliance’.
And yet for all Morrissey’s disdain – he dismissed the book before and after its publication, despite claiming to not have read it and launched a coquette-ish personal assault on Rogan – its long struck me that, had the book been released nine months earlier, much of the fall-out from Finsbury Park would have been, if not wholly averted, at least diluted. Given how meticulously Rogan delves into Morrissey’s own background, it would at least have provided far more of a substantive context to much of the singer’s social and cultural peccadilloes.
Like all four members of The Smiths, Johnny Rogan is an English-born child of Irish emigrant parents who, from where I stood, sounded like a pretty compelling character in his own right. I liked the cut of his jib and his approach to his work: ‘The Severed Alliance’ was his tenth book and, backed by a store of knowledge and a wide breath of reference, he was never going to be unduly intimidated by Morrissey or blinded by the sparkle of the tidy one-liner. Unlike, it has to be said, many of those who’d encountered him over the years and rarely went too far beneath the surface, myself included. I alluded to that in my Melody Maker review of the book, which originally appeared in the edition dated May 9th, 1992 and which we’ve re-produced below.
The following year, I brought Johnny Rogan to Cork and interviewed him at length for the ‘No Disco’ television series. He gave us formidable copy and, once we’d stopped recording and put the camera gear aside, I walked him across The South Mall and took him for a long lunch in The Long Valley, a regular ‘No Disco’ perk that reflected the extent of the programme’s entertainment budget. Over door-step sandwiches and mugs of coffee, he held court for ages and went into fine detail on some of the key, and most contentious, passages in ‘The Severed Alliance’ and, for good measure, told a host of anecdotes he couldn’t, for various reasons, include in the book. But we spoke too about a couple of his other favourite bands – and subjects of some of his other books – notably The Byrds and The Kinks. At one stage, I think he even removed his shades.
MORRISSEY AND MARR – THE SEVERED ALLIANCE
Morrissey doesn’t like ‘The Severed Alliance’ much. He has wished motorway death on its author, Johnny Rogan and would, apparently, rather lose the use of his limbs than pick it up and flick through it. All of which adds some kind of strange allure to this, Johnny Rogan’s tenth book, one born of frustration, fascination and a belief that : ‘The Smiths were the most important group of the Eighties. Rogan originally slated 15 months for this book. And now, three years later, it’s here.
‘The Severed Alliance’ is a wonderful love story. About two young men desperately in love with records and pop music and fame and style and themselves. Two young men who just knew that they were going to do something. Along the way, starry-eyed bit-players like Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke pop in, a bus-full of managers say hello and we get to meet the ‘belligerent ghouls’ who ran Morrissey’s schools. We meet lots of women in Morrissey’s life [Linder, his mother, his aunts, Jo Slee, Gail Colson, Caryn Gough and Sandie Shaw], and there are some great photographs. This is very ‘warts-and-all’. And why not?
Rogan turns over lots of stones. He digs deep, reads Morrissey’s juvenilia and he dares to question the man’s motives, sources and opinions. But it is Johnny Marr that provides the central slab here. For almost the first time ever, here he is talking about The Smiths songs, about guitar lines and recording. Here he is, the pragmatic street-wise, cocky kid with a guitar, a pop-zelig who always knew where to draw the lines and who always played to his strength. The kid with the quiff who rescued Morrissey, handed him a vat of fame and some of the best songs ever and who, ultimately, created both the band and the singer as focal point and mouthpiece.
The story of The Smiths is a charming one, filled up with naivety, downright stupidity, lots of laughs, loads of contradictions and some frightfully important pop music. Sometimes it’s cold, often pitifully sad, but always pinned through with an air of utter romance. The Smiths were Morrissey and Marr. Even at the very end, amid confusion and despair and bitterness and the court-room, there is an on-going respect. The Smiths, strangely, remain guarded and gang-ish, still very respectful of what they had and what they did and who they were.
‘The Severed Alliance’ paints a wonderful picture of all that and it’s a bloody marvellous book. There is, of course, more to life than books like this, you know. But this week, at least, well …. Not much more.
Great post. It was interesting how The Smiths completely polarised opinion at the time. I couldn’t have loved them more but most people I knew took exactly the opposite view. They weren’t a band you just didn’t mind one way or the other. Seeing both Morrissey and Marr as solo performers will never be the same, especially when they turn to their old band’s material. On those occasions they still need each other.
Thanks very much for taking the time to read and post, most appreciated. I agree with the points that you make : I too think theres an emptiness whenever either of the two return to The Smiths’ catalogue as part of their solo shows. Just happy to have seen them live when they were part of the most important band of the 1980s. All the best, Colm.