“Kill Uncle” – Or the Second Coming of Morrissey
Within the back catalogue of all artists lurks the occasional misfire or mistake; often either an album weighed down by an abundance of misappropriated creativity or a complete deficit. In true Morrissey fashion, ‘Kill Uncle’ is a curious meeting point of both; at times esoteric and experimental yet simultaneously under-inspired and lazy. Spawned at a particularly difficult time in his career, ‘Kill Uncle’ had the potential to be the album that finished Morrissey, yet perversely it was ‘Kill Uncle’ that would ultimate save him – more on which later. Co-written with Fairground Attraction’s Mark Nevin, who Morrissey confessed to know little about, and produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley – of Madness, Dexy’s and Elvis Costello fame – ‘Kill Uncle’ would scrape into the top 10 and depart with urgency after much critical derision .
The album was damned as fragmented and disappointing; Morrissey too later joined the criticism of the record, describing it as “slightly pallid”, “substandard” and offering that he should be “rightly hanged on a hook through the tongue” if ever was he to release something similar. The context of ‘Kill Uncle’ in terms of Morrissey’s career and British music itself is crucial to the genesis of this difficult record.
The Smiths were long dead, the success of first solo offering ‘Viva Hate’ was no more than a memory now ‘Viva Hate’ co-writer Stephen Street was out of favour with Morrissey, and something of a sea change in British music had been underfoot in the ensuing years. By 1991, the face of the music scene Morrissey once reigned supreme over had undergone quite profound change. Introspective indie bands of the Smiths ilk like the Wedding Present had duly been shelved in the wake of the boom produced by the collision of ecstasy, the Stone Roses, acid house and such. Adding salt to a particularly public wound, Johnny Marr had found himself blending seamlessly into this new shift whilst Morrissey was, in his own words, “the person outside the gates with arms folded”. Morrissey found the movement “tame”, “non-revolutionary” and at odds with the pop aesthetics he held close. Whilst his first solo record ‘Viva Hate’ had proved a triumph, the string of singles that followed came in for an undeserved panning by the press and there was something of a consensus that Morrissey was offering something peculiarly lightweight compared to not just his contemporaries but his own back catalogue – 1991 saw Morrissey five years on from ‘The Queen is Dead’ and in need of re-asserting his powers. ‘Kill Uncle’ was not the record to do this.
Whilst large elements of the album justify the criticism with which ‘Kill Uncle’ was met – though perhaps not the vitriol – the record still contains unquestionable Morrissey gems. Lead single ‘Our Frank’ (at the time dubbed ‘Alf Wank’ by one Johnny Marr) is one such moment, balancing a playfulness of tone with genuine despair about the fate of the world and those who insist on talking about it. ‘Frankly vulgar red pullovers’ are berated, drinks and cigarettes are ordered in characteristically un-Morrissey fashion and the track ends in a paranoid swell of Morrissey’s refrain “Won’t somebody stop me from thinking all the time?” – ‘Our Frank’ is one of the real successes of Langer and Winstanley’s ambitiously experimental production on this record. Equally, the rockabilly flavours of ‘Sing Your Life’ set the sonic template for future single ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’ whilst proving one of Morrissey’s most direct manifestos and professions of intent. Around the time of recording, Morrissey was introduced for the first time to David Bowie backstage at a Manchester concert, who offered Morrissey the advice “you have to jump back and attack”. Indeed, ‘Kill Uncle’ could be compared to one of Bowie’s own famous sonic curveballs, albeit perhaps a somewhat confused one. A lasting bone of contention with the record for many is in the production, criticised in turns as lightweight, twee and – from co-writer Mark Nevin – ‘lacking middle’. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s previous production duties had proved some of the 1980’s most acclaimed hits, from Dexy’s infamous ‘Come On Eileen’ to Elvis Costello’s sublime ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ and the Madness classic ‘Our House’. All sharp, intelligent pop tracks with huge crossover appeal and a fine commercial ear; a quality certainly lacking throughout much of ‘Kill Uncle’. Some have found the roots of ‘Kill Uncle’ in Morrissey’s love for the esoteric, dynamic pop of Sparks, and some have compared the album to Sir John Betjeman’s fantastic albums of musically-accompanied poetry, ‘Varsity Rag’ and ‘Banana Blush’. Clive Langer has since suggested – not without justification – that the material given on ‘Kill Uncle’ was not as strong as the only work he and Winstanley had previously worked on with Morrissey, the fiercely Madness-esque ‘Piccadilly Palare’ and seminal ‘November Spawned a Monster’. It can be argued that the critical panning of ‘Kill Uncle’ would encourage a certain hesitancy and conservatism in Morrissey’s output, though it must be noted that 1995’s criminally overlooked ‘Southpaw Grammar’ contains some of Morrissey’s inspired and successful experimentations that delve almost into the territory of prog rock.
Reflecting on ‘Kill Uncle’ later, Morrissey later would confess that its recording took place during what was privately a very bad time for him. In the midst of darkness, Morrissey here retreats to the easy territory of the abstract and often pithy, but when the mask slips it provides some of the most painfully exposed moments of his back catalogue. Whilst deceptively superficial on the surface, ‘Found Found Found’ sees Morrissey becoming the subject of his own notoriously acerbic eye for criticism, a portrait of a person whose inability to receive affection being the only thing greater than their ability to find it. Closing track ‘There’s a Place In Hell For Me and My Friends’ is quite unlike anything else in the Morrissey canon. A haunting, understated torch song arranged with a naked sparseness, Morrissey’s vocal achieves maximum heartbreak without straying from an almost lilting, whisper. What often goes unrealised about Morrissey is that whilst he stands as one of pop’s most inventive and affecting lyricists, the measured idiosyncrasies and dynamics of his delivery are incredibly important. Forget ‘Viva Hate’, this is when Morrissey really puts the legacy of the Smiths to bed and is able to finally face forward. And face forward he would do.
Since the Smiths final outing in Brixton, Morrissey had performed just one gig in the Christmas of 1988, his band still comprising mostly of ex-Smiths and running through a brisk set list made up almost solely from ‘Viva Hate’ and ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ tracks. By 1991, Morrissey was aiming to put a new band together to tour ‘Kill Uncle’.
It would be in this search that the course of Morrissey’s career would be changed irrevocably through one chance meeting. Guitarist Boz Boorer was invited to guest on ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’ with Mark Nevin to provide the authentic rockabilly touch he had brought to his former band the Polecats, and Morrissey was impressed.
Soon after, Morrissey contacted the 29 year old Boz Boorer requesting he put a band together for an imminent tour. Amongst those drafted up by Boz for the ‘Kill Uncle’ tour was Alain Whyte, a fellow rockabilly gunslinger of more tender years who had also briefly guested on ‘Pregnant for the Last Time’, perhaps however with less success – his sole offering of a harmonica part was shelved from the release and Morrissey left apparently unimpressed by his constant nervous chatting.
The ‘Kill Uncle’ touring band – consisting of Boorer, Whyte, bassist Gary Day and drummer Spencer Cobrin – would bring an energy, a look and a gang aesthetic that Morrissey had been craving since the split of the Smiths, and the tour would stretch from April 1991 to November almost without pause.
Particularly in the US, the audience response would carry an almost Beatlemania air of hysteria as Morrissey would flail across the stage in what proved to be highly spirited affairs. Feeling the tour almost descending into danger, one member of tour personnel would be quoted as stating “It’s as though he was burning too brightly”. At the time, Morrissey was flirting with an image and sound at odds with the common perceptions of the Smiths influences – the early 70’s New York fixation that had proved so prevalent in the Smiths was replaced by a uniquely British sound.
Clad in Dr Martens, cropped blue jeans and Levi’s jackets, Morrissey would refer to himself – tongue firmly in cheek – as ‘the British mod sophisticate’, and began covering songs by the Jam and Blackburn band Bradford, known for their sub-skinhead appearance. Indeed, when Alain Whyte would begin writing for Morrissey the influences were clear – ‘Certain People I Know’ is a startling re-write of T-Rex’s ‘Ride a White Swan’, whilst hit single ‘You’re the One For Me, Fatty’ is essentially ‘Saturday’s Kids’ by the Jam dipped in glam.
Ultimately, it would be Boorer and Whyte that would provide the artistic resuscitation needed for Morrissey, whilst serving as his most long-lasting and arguably successful writing and touring partners – Boorer still spearheads Morrissey’s band and 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ featured five co-writes with Whyte.
Alain’s guttural, highly-physical writing would be the hallmark of Morrissey hits such as ‘First of the Gang to Die’, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ and ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Succesful’, whilst Boorer would craft some of the most heart-wrenching and grandiose templates for Morrissey’s voice ever committed to record, notably the achingly beautiful ‘Now My Heart is Full’ and gorgeous ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’.
It’s hard to imagine the shape Morrissey’s career would have taken without Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, yet amidst a constant spew of magazine Smiths ‘exposés’, their contribution continues to go somewhat overlooked. Whilst overall a confused yet enigmatic record, ‘Kill Uncle’ holds a unique place in the Morrissey canon as a cornerstone of transition between the Smiths and the real artistic coming of Morrissey as a solo artist.
The re-mastered ‘Kill Uncle’ is out now on EMI UK, digitally re-mastered by Bill Inglot and featuring a re-ordered tracklisting featuring three extra tracks including a cover of Herman’s Hermits b-side “East West” and a full band version of “There’s a Place In Hell For Me and My Friends”. “Kill Uncle” is re-released as part of a re-issue campaign of Morrissey’s back catalogue, which so far has included “Viva Hate”, “Bona Drag”, “Southpaw Grammar” and “Maladjusted”.