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Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance

c/o BBC

c/o BBC

By Drew A

There have been a spate of new books on The Smiths over the past year or two, all of them examining the career of this short-lived but massively influential band in a variety of ways: straight-up band biography, song-by-song analysis, and Morrissey’s autobiographical screed. All of these books have been excellent and reviewed by me; however, there has always been one book on the Manchester band that has been revered above all others, and that was Johnny Rogan’s early 1990s book Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance. I first bought a copy of this book in the late 1990s and devoured the information contained therein. In particular, it offered a nice background into the upbringing and pre-Smiths years of the four band members, especially the mysterious and aloof Morrissey. It was also the book that prompted Morrissey himself to wish death upon author Johnny Rogan without having even read the book, famously saying in the pages of the musical papers: “Personally I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up.” Naturally, when I learned of the publication of an updated and expanded 20th-anniversary edition, I was excited to see what new material had been unearthed and added. This new version of the book is the subject of this review.

Immediately, the most noticeable different between the new edition and the original is the length: while the first edition is around 300 pages, this new edition is a whopping 640 pages! A large number of the pages are, like the prior edition, filled with lists of all of the Smiths’ tour dates and bootleg recordings, but even so, the main text is also double the length of the earlier version. Author Johnny Rogan is known for an obsessive attention to detail in all of his books (take a look at his books on the Byrds…volume 1 of his history of the band is over 1000 pages!); you know going into this book that the level of research and detail that’s gone into it will be first rate.

Rogan opens the book with an introduction that describes what has changed in both the book and the lives of the Smiths since it was originally published. He gives a potted background of the book and the hoopla surrounding its original release, as well as his interactions with the band in the interim (this includes a somewhat humorous recounting of his testimony at the famous High Court case in 1996 which pitted Joyce and Rourke against Morrissey and Marr). After this, we finally get properly into the book, which begins with a series of paragraphs that give a snapshot into what was going on in the lives of Morrissey and Marr post-Smiths in 1991. After this, the full story of the Smiths begins with, similar to the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s expansive Beatles biography, a history of the Smiths’ families traced back to their familial roots in Ireland. Rogan does a stunning job tracing the ancestry back to Ireland and the eventual movements that led to their emigration to Manchester, England. In fact, it’s nearly 200 pages before the formation of the band is even chronicled in this book! The bulk of this pre-history is focused on Morrissey as he is the one who had the most unusual upbringing, at least in terms of his unusual and complex personality, prior to forming the Smiths. A nearly equal investigation into Johnny Marr’s youth and musical exploits is offered. Due to their childhood friendship and being in several early bands together, there’s also a fair amount of background on Andy Rourke. The level of detail Rogan goes into here, especially into Morrissey’s history, is awesome (in the literal sense of the word) and makes for fascinating reading. Via his extensive research and interviews with numerous people who knew the singer in his youth, from his parents and extended family members to his friends, acquaintances, teachers, and pen pals, Rogan paints a picture of a very isolated, depressed, and confused young man who has no great ambition to do anything with his life other than lose himself in his daydreams of stardom and his love of pop culture, chart music, kitchen sink film dramas, and books. While he has always been prone to exaggeration (and Rogan points this out numerous times throughout the book), it is not an exaggeration to agree with Moz, based on the portrait painted here (and in Fletcher’s book A Light That Never Goes Out) that Morrissey truly was “dying” (in the metaphorical sense) when Johnny Marr arrived at his house in late 1982 to “save him” and propose forming a songwriting partnership.

The duo’s initial plan was to form a Brill Building songwriting team and write for other artists (inspired by Marr having recently viewed the South Bank Show on Lieber and Stoller) but eventually they decided to form their own band. They quickly got Rourke and Joyce into the band and the rest, as they say, is history. Since I’ve already reviewed books about the band, I don’t intend the focus of this review to be a detailed look at their career since it’s discussed in the previous reviews. However, the strength of Rogan’s book is how he is able to peel back the layers and reveal the minute details of the band’s affairs; everything from personal squabbles to financial and legal issues is discussed with a level of detail that gets down to exact dates and dollar (or in the Smiths’ case, pounds sterling) amounts. Rogan is able to show, through both secondary sources as well as the words of the band members themselves, that the united “gang of brothers” image and mentality peddled to the press was far from being completely true behind the scenes. While there was a genuine camaraderie and affection between all of the band members, the Smiths were only ever Morrissey and Marr, at least on paper and on every contract, and when it was convenient, the two songwriters had no problem reminding Rourke and Joyce how precarious their positions in the band were and that they were “replaceable.” This extended to the financial situation, which again has been gone over extensively here and in other books, and which I’ve discussed in the previous reviews (links above). Again, there was never a hesitation on the part of Morrissey and Marr to insinuate to the other two that they should feel lucky for what they were getting to leave it at that. The more I read this, the more it beggared belief that Morrissey and Marr themselves could even have said, let alone though, that it was a united band of brothers with the attitudes they had. This is especially frustrating because Joyce and Rourke were completely integral to the sound and image of the band. However, as Tony Fletcher pointed out in A Light That Never Goes Out, the Smiths did not have a period of struggle and hardship where they bonded as they worked toward their common goal…everything happened suddenly and seemingly overnight for them, and as such, they lacked this experience which surely hindered the interpersonal relationships in the band. Had they gone through this lean period early in their career, they surely could have weathered the later storms better than they did and probably would not have broken up in 1987, although the management issue (or lack thereof) would have still been hanging over their heads…
The original paperback edition

Speaking of this, Rogan goes into more detail regarding the ridiculous situation that was the Smiths’ management and how, after Joe Moss helped to get the band up and running before bowing out early in their career, it became almost farcical. Marr and in particular Morrissey were so reluctant to relinquish control over any aspect of their career to anyone else that they burned bridges with lawyers, accountants, tour managers, roadies, and most notably, their record label Rough Trade. As in most walks of life, money was the predominant issue and the roots of Morrissey’s now well-known avarice and miserliness go back to his time in the Smiths, where he had no problem pursuing, securing, and holding on to his own wealth but was reluctant to share in the spoils with others whose efforts on his behalf made them just as deserving. This not only extended to Rourke and Joyce, but to their road crew and even companies who were simply trying to get paid for services provided. Marr was at fault in this respect as well, although to his credit he has admitted to these failings when looking back in later years and has presumably changed his attitude to such matters. One thing hammered home by Rogan’s writing is just how abhorrently poor Morrissey and Marr’s communication skills were; if something made them uncomfortable, they simply ignored it, literally hiding from confrontation, or they would make threats; in Marr’s case, it was that he would leave the band, while in Morrissey’s case he would question the inquisitor’s loyalty and motives (“why don’t you trust me?”). Eventually these communication issues would turn inward and be a major contributor to the band splitting up. Even knowing about Morrissey’s personality and his various issues from my decades of being a fan and reading multiple books and articles about him, it was difficult for me to read this book and not grow more frustrated with his behavior and the way he treated people, even from a distance of over twenty years later. This is a testament to Rogan’s investigative powers, where he is also able to point out classic instances of Moz bending the truth, if not outright lying, even over such matters such as who posted the note on Andy Rourke’s windscreen informing him that he’d been fired from the band (and for the record, I have always believed and continue to believe 100% that Morrissey did it. All of the evidence, as well as the ridiculous nature of Moz’s explanation to the contrary, bear this out. Rogan simply hammers the final nail in the coffin of Morrissey’s argument in this book. This is but one example of many throughout).

Nowhere is Rogan’s assault on Morrissey’s credibility and manipulation more evident than in the sections dealing with the band’s break-up in 1987 and the High Court case in 1996. Perhaps “assault” is too aggressive a word as there does not seem to be any malice on the part of Rogan, but he does a great job using facts and sources, both primary and secondary, in picking apart the various excuses and explanations Moz has offered over the years. As I stated in the aforementioned book reviews of mine on prior Smiths books, it would be a damn shame if the last (and only) word on the High Court case were in Morrissey’s autobiography, and luckily Rogan offers a more impartial (if not slightly shorter) and factual account here. As in other books, it is to Marr’s testament that not only has he since owned up to his conduct and lamented that he wish he’d handled it differently, but he remains friends with Rourke and Joyce to the present day, while Morrissey has remained bitter and bitchy about the whole matter and continues to remain estranged from the other three.

One last fascinating insight offered by the book is Rogan’s ability to show how thoroughly calculated the whole enterprise was, especially on Marr’s part. He knew exactly what he wanted: a band where he could be the sole musical focus (at least in terms of writing), a charismatic frontman who would take almost all of the public spotlight and act as spokesman for the band, and the plan to be the first to leave. He had confided early on to Joe Moss that he was aware of pop history and how Lennon and McCartney argued for many years after 1970 over who really left the Beatles first. Johnny vowed he would not ever let Morrissey leave first while he’d be “stuck holding the bag with Andy and Mike.” The plan was always for Marr to leave first, knowing it would break the band up cleanly and effectively with his credibility intact. It is a marvel throughout the book to read about the powers of manipulation Morrissey and Marr had, especially at such a young age.

The main text of the book ends around page 460, and the remainder of the book (nearly 200 pages) is given to a section with extensive footnotes and references, a section listing every known Smiths concert date as well as their radio sessions and TV performances, and a final discography section listing every known Smiths recording that was officially released, every bootleg live tape, and every bootleg video tape. Overall, the book is a veritable tome of information for any Smiths fan and Rogan’s attention to detail and minutiae ensures that this book is the closest book of the type Lewisohn wrote for the Beatles that any book will ever get when it comes to the Smiths. My one and only complaint, if you’ll believe it, is that I wish there was even more detail on their career. There were some important episodes, both major and minor, throughout the band’s career that were covered in more detail in both Fletcher’s and Goddard’s books that were given shorter shrift in Rogan’s. In order for this book to be the definitive story of the band, I wish Rogan had included absolutely everything. The fact that ~230 pages are devoted to the years up to the formation of the band in 1982, and the entirety of their actual career only has roughly the same number of pages devoted to it afterward is a bit unfortunate. Perhaps I’m being greedy but I could have gladly done with another couple hundred of pages if that’s what it had taken to chronicle every important detail about the band’s career. But maybe that’s just me.

Overall, any serious Smiths fan needs this book and while it doesn’t render the books mentioned at the top of this review unnecessary by any stretch, it is still the Smiths book by which all others should be measured.

December 7, 2016

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