Morrissey was the lead singer with The Smiths. They were a tremendously Northern, as in North of England, band their faces set stern against the soft South and suspicious of London in particular. And like many a self-consciously Northern band before and since, they moved to the big bad southern city as soon as was humanly possible.
Mozza (as Morrissey is known) has had a complicated relationship with the city (Oh! the yearning, Oh! the dread…). To be fair to London, Morrissey has had complicated relationships with most of the world. He first tried to live in London aged 17, befor ehe formed the band. “I brought everything I possessed in these two huge cases”, he recalls. He lasted days before retreating back “oop North”, tail between legs. “It was a really awful experience”. Later, in early Smiths interviews, he described London as a dreadful “impersonal place”.
But London has usually been “where it’s at” in the music business and was certainly so in the 1980’s. The Smiths broke big in 1984 and Morrissey and his song-writing partner & the guitarist Johnny Marr were both (separately) ensconced in the city by the year end. London’s allure proved too much for Morrissey’s doubts. One of their songs called, appropriately enough, London describes a young man heading down to London as his friends, (soon to be ex) girlfriend and family gather on a Northern railway station to bid farewell, nerves and uncertainty affect the young man “but did you see the jealousy in the eyes of the ones you left behind?” That old devil, London.
Here is the song with an effective video of edited clips from Billy Liar (one of Mozza’s favourite films) to illustrate:
During the 1980’s Morrissey moved around London renting houses convenient for his habit of retracing the steps of his pantheon of heroes such as Oscar Wilde.
The Smith split up in 1987 and Morrissey dropped anchor in London buying a house in Regents Park Terrace on the edges of Camden Town and Primrose Hill. It was a house with a history; its interior had been designed by William Haines a former silent movie star whose career was cut short due to controversy over his homosexuality and previous occupants included silent movie meg-star Tallulah Bankhead and, more recently, Jasper Conran the fashion designer. Morrissey became friends with the writer Alan Bennett another Northerner in exile who lived in the next road and often went for tea.
Morrissey was regularly seen in Camden supping pints of lager in the music pubs of the area up to the mid -1990’s. “I regret to say [London] really is as exciting as some people who are always considered to be misguided say it is. I think when you visit London and you only stay for a few days you get a completely obscure vision of the place and it seems impersonal and hateful and synthetic. But when you stay here for a long time you realise the enormous advantages….In Manchester the entire place closes at 8pm …but here you can go wherever you want to, whenever you want to and do whatever you want to.”
Morrissey’s early solo songs reflect this infatuation with the city. His London is mythological, composed of Union Jack tattooed skinheads (Your Arsenal album) , dark horror-filled Commons (Mute Witness) rent boys talking Polari on the meat rack at Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly Palare), the lost (Half A Person), gangsters (Last of the International Playboys), East End boxers (Boxers), Jack The Ripper and ageing Soho Lotharios (Trouble Loves Me). It’s a London that even at the time was old-fashioned and backward looking.
And then of course, Morrissey fell out of love. Ever the contrarian he upped sticks and moved to LA. In Glamorous Glue he sang “We look to Los Angeles for the language we use. London is dead.” And he chose the future over the London past. He’s still there (mostly). He has been living in a hotel just off Sunset Boulevard. But it will never be entirely over for Morrissey and London. In Come Back To Camden he sings a love song to London, with its “slate grey Victorian skies”, “taxi drivers that never stop talking” and “tea with the taste of the Thames”. It’s one of the great London songs: