(#362: 26 March 1988, 1 week)
Track listing: Alsatian Cousin/Little Man, What Now?/Everyday Is Like Sunday/Bengali In Platforms/Angel, Angel Down We Go Together/Late Night, Maudlin Street/Suedehead/Break Up The Family/The Ordinary Boys/I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me/Dial-a-Cliché/Margaret On The Guillotine
The story goes like this: sometime in the autumn of 1987, Stephen Street submitted some very basic demos to Morrissey with the suggestion that he might want to use them for his first solo record. But the demos were so simplistic and banal that they were unusable, and so Vini Reilly was drafted in to polish them up and help turn them into songs. The album was recorded, Street got full composing credits for the music and Reilly was paid £800 for his work; a fairly reasonable sum by 1988 standards but nowhere near what he should have received. For his own part, Reilly is sanguine; interviewed in Rogan’s Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance, he says that the songs weren’t up to much and that he wasn’t asked to do anything particularly challenging – his view was that getting in a decent session guitarist would have done just as well.
One could say that Morrissey is key in terms of raising Viva Hate out of the seabed of banality; his vocals on the record are among the most playful he ever offered, and while some Smiths songs, even at their best, sometimes resembled blurred photographs of pop songs rather than the thing itself, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” is a majestically frightening pop record – the “strange dust” landing on “your hands and on your face” (Morrissey’s “you”s throughout the record can be interpreted as a conversational “you,” meaning “himself”) reminds us that the song’s central inspiration was not Betjeman on Slough but Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. On this coast, the apocalypse has already happened, and he is the glumly stumbling survivor.
Equally, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” is one of the first and best of Morrissey’s habitual long-form meditations on love and history. Drummer Andrew Paresi in particular never settles for the obvious beats here; the overall impression is that of an indie rejoinder to John Martyn’s “Small Hours,” though filled with entirely comprehensible lyrics which, like so much of Viva Hate, concern themselves with saying farewell to, burying and running as far away and as quickly as possible from the past ("1972, you know"). And “Alsatian Cousin” is perhaps the most disturbing and radical beginning of any Morrissey record, Reilly (and Street’s) atonal industrial hip hop scrapheap soundtracking a keenly and desperately echoed vocal in which the singer seems intent on exorcising all demons, including those van and car drivers – those semi-spoken incidents - referred to in the record’s other songs, including the one about the forgotten sixties television star, which in light of what we now know is perhaps the record's scariest song as well as its shortest (the chunky Duane Eddy guitar underscoring the "1969, ATV" references suggest somebody in Crossroads).
What the album isn’t, however – not even “Everyday Is Like Sunday” – is a band record. Would Viva Hate have sounded any different, or even have existed, had the Smiths continued? The band who recorded Strangeways was a band clearly at the end of its tether. The problem with Viva Hate lies in its presumed advantages; Morrissey free of the Smiths, on a major record label with larger recording and marketing budgets than Rough Trade – the single of “Suedehead” charted higher than any Smiths single had managed in its first week of release – but also a Morrissey without a Marr, without anybody to check his lesser instincts. There are no more “cover stars”; merely the man himself.
And so Viva Hate sounds simultaneously indulgent and tentative; the singer is clearly unsure where to go, and so we get routine sub-Smiths offerings like “Dial-a-Cliché” or “Angel Angel,” whose “Eleanor Rigby” strings introduce an element of sentimentality that had been entirely absent from the Smiths’ work, or “The Ordinary Boys” which only engages attention by virtue of Reilly’s nearly unhinged guitar work (which Lena compared to a “very compressed Eddie van Halen”). “Break Up The Family” trudges over wearily familiar Morrissey mores to a light AoR background that could almost be latter-day Fleetwood Mac.
However, Viva Hate is also a record filled with threat. It is hard to discern what exactly “Suedehead” is about – pace the video, it certainly isn’t about James Dean – other than the singer desperately and vainly trying to dissuade somebody else from looking at his diary. The pages are read, the illustrations are seen, the truth is revealed, the person presumably recoils in horror, and so Morrissey is left to croon “It was a good lay, good lay” with some embarrassment. But it doesn’t grip the listener.
Whereas “Margaret On The Guillotine” is out of keeping with everything the Smiths had stood for. The song sounds like “Meat Is Murder” but where Morrissey had once sung “This beautiful creature must die,” he now booms “Please die.” Finding he has little to say – although what he does say might be a crude condensation of what most recent TPL entries have been covertly trying to say – he exits the picture and leaves Reilly to turn the song into a Durutti Column piece, as backwards effects slowly turn reality into dream, before an abrupt chop brings proceedings to a close. But the song’s notion is an essentially foolish one.
And few songs in this tale carry more foolish notions than “Bengali In Platforms” which is the album’s stumbling block that I cannot get past. It is what Lena describes as “every shade of wrong” and actually throws the rest of the record, and Morrissey himself, into deep question; if he wants Thatcher gone, is this what he proposes to put in her place? It is an idiotic piece of work which probably found favour in those then twenty-something Oxbridge types who are now running, or plan to run, the country, and induces me to think: if you get this wrong, how and why should we trust you with anything else? Then I remember his comments in the 1986 Melody Maker about the charts, the radio and black musicians, and one’s face freezes. 1988 was a colourful, zany, rip-it-up-and-start-again year for music, and Morrissey felt and still feels out of place in its lit cloisters. Clearly thrown together rather quickly and superficially, Viva Hate, which made number one at a time when one of Morrissey’s spiritual ancestors, Kenneth Williams, had barely three weeks to live, represents the planting of a rather self-satisfied flag. Released in the same week, also on EMI, but only reaching number three, was Talking Heads’ final album Naked, on which Johnny Marr collaborated. Its air of colourful relaxation and engaging adventure contrasts rather starkly with Viva Hate’s determinedly monochromatic moonscape.