In his days as the headstrong, enigmatic lead singer of The Smiths, the most important U.K. guitar band of the ‘80s, Morrissey wasn’t itching to go solo. Why would he? The band was defined by his peculiar psychology—narcissism tempered by self-effacement topped with a wicked sense of humor—and driven by a genius guitarist, Johnny Marr, with no desire for the spotlight. It was a nice arrangement.
When Marr left The Smiths in 1987, ending the group’s run after four brilliant albums, Morrissey felt bewildered and betrayed. “The split is our final loss of innocence,” Moz writes in Autobiography, the 2013 memoir that reveals little about what actually what actually broke up indie’s Leiber and Stoller. To make matter worse, Morrissey soon learned he was contractually obligated to give EMI another album. Such was the impetus for his debut solo, Viva Hate, released 30 years ago today (March 14, 1988).
Despite that brash title, Viva Hate captures the uncertain first steps of an unlikely pop star who’d only formed The Smiths because Marr knocked on his door one day and coaxed him out of his bedroom. One of several outliers in Morrissey’s catalog, Viva Hate is the singer’s only album produced and co-written by Stephen Street, who’d overseen the Smiths’ final effort, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come. With Strangeways, Marr had been determined to ditch the jangling guitars The Smiths had become known for, and Street seemed eager to pick up where Johnny left off.
The result was an uneven, unfocused album that nevertheless proved Morrissey capable of making music without Marr. It wasn’t that Street was the wrong man for the job—it was more that the job of writing Morrissey solo music hadn’t yet been defined. That would come on Moz’s next few albums, where he culled from rockabilly and glam to create a musical identity separate from The Smiths. On Viva Hate, Street and guitarist Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column try a bit of everything, giving Morrissey drum loops, synths, and strings to sing over. Some experiments work better than others, but the team fares best when it sticks to traditionally Smiths-y sounds.
The album’s two best songs are also its enduring singles, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead.” Both feature chiming guitars and ear-pleasing chord patterns that Morrissey easily finds his way into. He comes up with a pair of killer melodies and lyrics that read as horribly depressed until you get to the punchlines: “Come, Armageddon, come” in “Sunday” and “Oh, it was a good lay” in “Suedehead.” Moz sounds nearly as comfortable on “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” a defiant stomper that’s hard to hear as anything but a Marr diss (even though Morrissey claims it’s not).
On the slighter “Dial a Cliche,” Street does his best to rewrite the swooning Smiths classic “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.” He comes reasonably close, though Morrissey struggles to tease out a memorable lyric and melody, even as he explores the seldom-discussed topic of young men resisting traditional notions of masculinity.
It must be said that Morrissey is a non-musician who writes songs by fitting words and melodies to existing instrumentals. As Viva Hate illustrates, that approach leaves him at the mercy of his collaborators. The album’s opener, “Alsatian Cousin,” blends bumping funk and driving rock in a way that’s less compelling than the description suggests. Street wasn’t wrong to think Moz could slot himself into something danceable—he avails himself well on The Smiths’ “Barbarism Begins at Home”—but “Alsatian Cousin” can’t decide what it wants to be. Moz responds with a teasing sketch of a scandalous teacher-student affair.
Morrissey similarly struggles to spin gold from the brooding acoustic guitars of “Little Man, What Now?” about a washed-up actor he loved as a kid, and from the bubbling beat of “Break Up the Family,” another rumination on his youth. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” is lovely but overlong, a gripping tale of growing up in ‘70s Manchester that deserves stronger music and a little editing.
Another admirable misfire is “Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together,” a dramatic chamber-pop piece seemingly about suicide but actually written for Marr, who’d already begun playing with other musicians. It’s a classic case of Morrissey offering sympathy for someone while digging into them at the same time. “When they’ve used you, and they’ve broken you, and wasted all your money…” Morrissey sings, dwelling on these indignities a little longer than he needs to before finally pledging his devotion. It’s like his backhanded reassurance on the early Smiths tune “Reel Around the Fountain”: “People see no worth in you, but I do.”
Although Viva Hate is heavily nostalgic and rooted in many of the same subjects found on Smiths records—loneliness, awkwardness, rejection, the absurdities of everyday life—the album also marks the emergence of a new Morrissey. Without Marr, he’s free to be brasher and more pugnacious than ever before.
The album’s title reflects the anger he felt about the demise of The Smiths, and the two most controversial tracks, “Bengali in Platforms” and “Margaret On the Guillotine,” are crueler than anything he’d attempted. As a Smith, Morrissey railed against teachers, record companies, preachers, and monarchs—forces any sensible ‘80s teenager would recognize as enemies. More often, he obsessed over the loves and hates and passions that made him such an outsider. Morrissey’s greatest gift was convincing a generation of sensitive outcasts that his desert island had room for everyone.
That starts to change with “Bengali In Platforms,” wherein Morrissey bemoans an immigrant for trying to assimilate into British culture. “Life is hard enough when you belong here,” Morrissey sniffs, at best showing poor judgment, at worst demonstrating how racists and xenophobes let their own insecurities fuel discrimination. (The Asian sounds heard during the bridge don’t help.) “Margaret On the Guillotine” was hardly the only anti-Thatcher song of the ‘80s, but it was among the most blunt. “When will you die?” he asks the conservative prime minister before ending the song with the sound of a falling blade.
Compared to politically minded Smiths songs like “The Queen Is Dead,” “Nowhere Fast,” and even “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” these new Morrissey solo tracks lacked wit, empathy, and nuance. While such lowlights wouldn’t dominate his solo discography—there are plenty of songs to save your life right on through the present—they mark the arrival of an artist who’s willing to trust every impulse and take on the world alone. The Morrissey of Viva Hate is the Morrissey we’ve known ever since.
“Bengali In Platforms” predicted not only Morrissey’s subsequent controversial songs “Asian Rut” and “National Front Disco,” but also the decades of incendiary remarks that have kept him in the press even during periods between albums. Last year, while discussing the issue of open borders in Europe, Morrissey told a German news site that it’s “very important for every country to retain the identity it has because it doesn’t come easy.” “Millions of people died for the German identity,” Morrissey said. “Millions of people died for the British identity.” “Margaret on the Guillotine,” of course, squares neatly with a screed Morrissey penned in 2014 after Prince William took his brother Harry hunting in Spain. “We can only pray to God that their hunting guns backfire in their faces,” Morrissey writes.
With each passing year, loving Morrissey becomes increasingly contingent on one’s willingness to accept his contradictions. He’s an anti-Trump, anti-police animal-rights zealot who supports Brexit and harbors startling nationalist views. He’s neither on the left nor the right, just as he’s neither gay nor straight, compassionate nor vindictive. He’s a completely singular artist and human being who couldn’t possibly make the music he does without help from others.
If new Morrissey fans are still being made, they should by absolutely start with Viva Hate, even though the twisted pop vignettes of Kill Uncle, the greasy glam rockers of Your Arsenal, the shimmering ballads of Vauxhall and I, and the stately comeback jams of You Are the Quarry are better. The album that began Morrissey’s solo journey introduces the agitator you’re either going to ride with or write off. This guy’s idea of a beach holiday is writing bratty postcards and pleading for nuclear annihilation. Wait’ll you hear what he thinks about everything else.