There are certain commonalities shared across many of the big gay icons that come to mind. Our pop divas — like Gaga, Madonna and Cher, for example — thrive on over-the-top costuming and spectacle. Sex, excess and escapism are part of the appeal.
On the other end of the spectrum: Morrissey. Dubbed “The Pope of Mope,” the former frontman of The Smiths was the anti-pop star. Not only did he eschew the visual trappings of glam rockers and the New Romantics, but he disavowed all the sex that permeated pop music. Although he may have been chaste, his lyrics were still full of allusions to same-sex attractions and affairs. Even Rufus Wainwright once called him “the gay Elvis.”
The subtext of songs like “Hand In Glove” and “How Soon Is Now?” spoke to queer audiences, but Morrissey’s knack for crafting lyrics that expertly capture loneliness and melancholy spoke to wide swaths of listeners that felt like outsiders. Their influence was so widespread and their fans so devoted, NME Magazine named The Smiths the most influential artist ever, over The Beatles and David Bowie.
He’s also known for his outspoken (and often controversial views) on animal rights, the Royal Family, the working class and politics. The self-described “humasexual” has been an inspiration for generations of other artists, including musicians like Oasis, Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers and many more. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling counts herself among the throngs of Smiths fans, once saying “I think the Smiths were the only group whose falling apart really affected me personally. I was very sad.”
Grab your gladiolus and indulge in five of our favorite Morrissey clips, below.
The Smith’s first single “Hand In Glove” was an instant masterpiece. Originally released in 1983, a remixed version appeared on the band’s debut self-titled full-length. The lyrics are signature Morrissey. They’re full of queer themes (“Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds/No, it’s not like any other love/This one is different, because it’s us”), alienation and defiance (“And if the people stare, then the people stare/Oh, I really don’t know and I really don’t care”) and even some loss (the repeated last line “I’ll probably never see you again,” which is from the play A Taste of Honey). Even the single’s album artwork featured a photograph by Jim French of a naked man’s bare behind.
Not all Smiths’ songs are glum. Take the timeless “This Charming Man,” for example. At its core, the jangly, dance-y track tells the story of a young man with a flat bicycle tire getting picked up by an older gentleman in a fancy car. The lyrics are written in Morrissey’s signature literate style, infusing some antiquated lyrical flourishes, such as “I would go out tonight/But I haven’t got a stitch to wear/This man said, ‘It’s gruesome/that someone so handsome should care.’”
One of the band’s best known songs is “How Soon Is Now?” The well-known chorus features the line “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” becoming an anthem for LGBTQ listeners and others who feel like outcasts.
In 1988, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate. It reached No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart, and spawned singles “Suedehead” (above) and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” The album also included the controversial “Margaret On the Guillotine,” depicting the death of Margaret Thatcher.
Peaking at No. 3, “Irish Blood, English Heart” is Morrissey’s highest charting single in the United Kingdom (along with his 2006 single “You Have Killed Me”), either solo or with the Smiths. The politically-charged track is from his 2004 solo album You Are the Quarry.
What’s your favorite Morrissey track?