London is Dead

“I like The Smiths—but not Morrissey” is a common music take, usually attributed to two phenomena: the loss of Johnny Marr’s inimitable guitar and Morrissey’s perceived lean to the right. The songs of The Smiths are about love, loneliness, and left-wing political causes (anti-meat, anti-monarchism, antireligion, anti-school, anti-capitalism, feminism, etc.), making them acceptable by modern liberal standards. But when he broke off from The Smiths, Morrissey began to explore more jagged and provocative topics, leading many to get the ick and renounce him. One part of this shift was a growing fascination with macho British subcultures—criminals, boxers, bikers, and skinheads. The figurehead for an urbane, sensitive sort of masculinity was increasingly captivated by the old kind, the kind that leads to bar fights and fires. The most interesting document of this is his 1992 album Your Arsenal.

The title and album art reveal a lot on their own: a snapshot of a shirtless, frenzied Morrissey thrusting his mic forward like an erect penis, emblazoned with a title that doubles as a rude Cockney pun (“your arse ‘n’ all”) and a reference to Britain’s premier soccer team. The packaging reflects the sound; producer Mick Ronson brought a harder, grittier style to Morrissey’s music, mostly expressed on the first side of the album. Those five songs are poles apart from the soapy, mopey ponderings of late ’80s songs like “Yes, I Am Blind” or “Dial-a-Cliche.” The guitars roar, the bass booms, and the drums crash.

Lyrically, these songs emphasize Morrissey’s aforementioned interest in violent male subcultures. A particular theme emerges: that the old, nationalist England is dying, or already dead. On “Glamorous Glue,” Morrissey declares that “we look to Los Angeles for the language we use…London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead!” Once a world-dominating colonial power, England is now so weak that it lacks even cultural influence. “The National Front Disco” tells the tale of a young man named David who joins the far-right National Front party, alienating his friends and family. The chorus features David’s repeated refrains of “England for the English,” a slogan founded on an idealized view of what it means to be English (i.e. no immigrants). “There’s a country,” Morrissey says directly to David. “You don’t live there, but one day you would like to…” That country is a white, patriotic England of the past, and David certainly does not live there. London is dead.

The centerpiece of Your Arsenal, “We’ll Let You Know,” is Morrissey’s deepest excursion into these ideas, and one of his greatest lyrical accomplishments. The song is written from the perspective of England’s rabid soccer fans. It opens simply, with a comforting acoustic guitar loop in D major. Initially, Morrissey looks at the subjects of the song sympathetically: “How sad are we? And how sad have we been? We’ll let you know, but only if you’re really interested…You wonder how we’ve stayed alive ’til now—we’ll let you know, but only if you’re really interested.” He seems to be casting a kind eye on these people, finding a sadness inside them not often observed. They’re broken like the rest of us, just trying to survive. Then, as the guitar loop repeats, the lyrics grow darker: “We’re all smiles, then honest, I swear, it’s the turnstiles…that make us hostile.” In other words, our anger is being whipped up by petty things like those damned stadium turnstiles, but we’re nice people inside. One can sense a thick dose of irony in “honest, I swear”; the kind of language a child uses when lying through his teeth. Clearly it’s not the turnstiles.

Finally, in the next stanza, we get the full picture: “We will descend…on anyone unable to defend themselves.” The brutality of the mob mentality is crystal clear at this point. They’re not “sad” or “all smiles.” They’re out for blood. (It should be noted that violence committed by soccer fans was a prevalent issue in the 1970s, which is when the album is focused—so prevalent that it garnered the official title of “football hooliganism.”) As the intensity of the music rises, the lyrics continue: “And the songs we sing, they’re not supposed to mean a thing…” This statement instantly comes true, as in the next line, all the singer can muster is “la la la la la la la la la la la…” Eventually the la-la-las give way to a frightening medley of human voices intermingled with wailing guitars, mostly too distorted to make out. We hear thousands of fans chanting in unison. Someone shouts “Get off the roof!” A referee’s whistle squeaks into the void. One voice, pitched higher in the mix, seems to be crying out, “IS IT LONDON?” It’s a pretty terrifying sonic portrayal of a soccer riot.

Suddenly, a rumbling snare drags us out of the swamp and into a final segment in the unexpected and chilling key of E minor. Morrissey returns with a sober tone: “We may seem cold…or we may even be the most depressing people you’ve ever known. At heart, what’s left, we sadly know: that we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.” And then the song fades out, along with the sound of fifes and drums, and whispers of “never…ever…”

This last section reveals the answer to the question posed by the voice in the medley. Yes, this is London: mob violence and patriotism and irrationality. However ugly, the soul of the country is on full display (the fifes and drums imply the hooligans are upholding Britain’s colonial legacy). If you want to do away with this way of life—which Morrissey, as an introverted, gay, vegan pacifist, most likely does—you must understand that you are killing Britain.

The structure of Your Arsenal reflects this theme as well. Side One is all down-and-dirty rockabilly aggression; on Side Two, you’ll find jangle pop songs that could have been Smiths singles (“You’re The One For Me, Fatty”, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”), classic Moz miserabilism (“Seasick, Yet Still Docked”), a glam rock love anthem (“I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”), but you won’t find London. London is dead. The closest you’ll get is the closer, “Tomorrow”, and even that ends with its own death—as the last guitar chord rings out, it’s slowly supplanted by a nostalgic and saccharine piano melody. Aggression replaced by weakness. For Morrissey, effeminacy is a virtue (in his autobiography, he writes: “effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death”); nonetheless, he finds a morbid pleasure in the aesthetic of macho violence. London must die, but there must at least be an autopsy.

A month after Your Arsenal was released, Morrissey performed at Finsbury Park alongside the English ska band Madness, many of whose fans were racist skinheads. When Morrissey wrapped himself in the Union Jack during his performance of “Glamorous Glue”, everyone in the crowd blew a fuse. The Madness fans didn’t like his possibly ironic use of the flag, and the anti-racists in the crowd didn’t like his possibly unironic use of the flag. As a result, he was pelted from all sides with coins, bottles, orange juice cartons, and epithets galore. This sorry scene was a perfect microcosm of the general public’s inability to understand nuance when it came to his work. It is the job of an artist to explore complicated things in a way that transcends binaries. To condemn jingoism and hooliganism, as he clearly does on “We’ll Let You Know”, he must first understand their appeal. But this went over the heads of everyone at Madstock, it went over the heads of the British music press (who cherry-picked phrases from Your Arsenal to successfully convince the public that Morrissey was himself a frothing-at-the-mouth racist), and it continues to go over most people’s heads. Perhaps it’s best that they stick to “This Charming Man.”

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