Before the state of emotional and marital bliss that currently marks my life I was married to another person. At some point around the year 2000 she was involved in organising a charity event of some sort that included a gig by The Bluetones. I asked her to take along a couple of things for the band to sign; the limited edition blue vinyl version of “Slight Return” which I had bought at their gig at King Tuts in Glasgow in 1995 was one and the other was the “Return to Splendour E.P”. Giddy as a schoolgirl I was as I waited for her to come back with those precious, precious, pieces of my youth. When I heard her keys turning in the lock I literally leapt off of the sofa to greet her and to feast my eyes on my slices of memorabilia.
By this point in our relationship I already knew that she’d cheated on me…not just a cheeky kiss under the mistletoe at a staff Christmas party but a full blown affair. For a number of reasons I had stayed with her. I hadn’t forgiven or forgotten but I’d started to think at least one of those things might be possible. What happened when she handed over my singles, the records I’d asked her to have my favourite band of that era sign, the band who all the kids who really understood how important pop music was loved and who I included on every tape I made for every girl or boy I wanted to like me was to signal the beginning of the end of that relationship.
There as clear as the nose on your face across the plain white sleeve of “Slight Return” in black biro were the signatures of everyone in the band, including one of my heroes, Mark Morriss. Preceding every one of those signatures were the words…TO MABEL (the name has been changed to protect the guilty). I couldn’t quite believe that someone could be that selfish. Then I remembered the affair and the scales began to fall from my eyes. I’ve never forgiven her. Ironically I’m very grateful to The Bluetones for the unwitting part they played in my journey to happiness.
Now I’m sitting in the same room as Mark Morriss. I tell him my tale of woe and present him with both singles. Can he right this terrible wrong and help me play those records again without being reminded of the emotional war zone that home had become? He signs both and this time the inscription on “Slight Return” reads; “To Paul, this is YOURS, it always was.” I feel a surge of gratitude welling up inside of me and have to physically restrain myself from embracing a man I don’t actually know.
That’s not strictly true though, as with all great songwriters there is a truth inside his writing that means you do know him. If you listen closely you can hear all the things you have in common, not just through his words but in his voice too. Morriss is a rare creature in the world of pop/indie/rock ‘n’ roll because he’s giving you himself and not a character. If truth really is beauty then the songs of Mark Morriss can safely be placed in the supermodel category.
An example of this can be found in “Keep The Home Fires Burning” released back in 2000 and which reached number 13 in the charts (a sign of quite how important and popular The Bluetones were because by that point most other “Britpop” bands had disappeared completely or had long given up on bothering the charts again) and which tells a tale of violence in the home. The song starts with what Morriss himself has described as brass that evokes images of “cobbled streets and Hovis”. To my ears the entire song hints at all sorts of beautiful English things like nostalgia for the past and the importance of a stiff upper lip, then lurking behind that romantic vision is something very dark. It’s a brutally honest and truthful portrait of a situation too many young people have to endure.
“It is an autobiographical song, very much so. It’s a song about my stepfather when I was growing up, he was a pig headed and violent man. It’s about the sense that you may well be trapped in your own home. It was written from my perspective as a teenager, too young to leave home and not big enough to stand up and present any sort of physical threat. I think it is a song that presents some sort of truth.”
“Some sort of truth” what else do you want from a writer than that?
In 2015, following a spell of writers block, Mark decided to record a series of cover versions. Songs he loved, songs that were a joy to sing, songs that were fun, songs from his youth…songs that said something about the taste of Mark Morriss. He called it “The Taste of Mark Morriss”. Missing from that collection of songs is anything by Morrissey or The Smiths.
Before “Britpop” became “Britpop” and before the arrival of lad culture turned the whole thing into a beer and cocaine soaked frenzy bands like The Bluetones and people like Mark Morriss were considered outsiders…indie for want of a better phrase. All of those bands and boys/girls loved Morrissey. It seemed like a missed opportunity to pay tribute to the Pope of Mope.
“They were an important band for all of us, except for Eds because he’s a drummer and the drums aren’t that exciting in The Smiths…usually they are there to keep time, not always, but most of the time.
Everything about The Smiths resonated with us, it was melodic, it felt old but new and there was this emotional depth and intelligence to the lyrics. It’s a cliche but they really did sound like they were singing to all of us.
For us it was that sense of beauty and delicacy. We didn’t get into a band to be able to say; “Look at the size of our huge swinging dicks”, we got into a band to create sweet, pretty little things and we’ve always been aware of our delicate nature in relation to our peers. We were a bunch of “frilly shirts” surrounded by Fred Perry. The Smiths were our benchmark, something for us to aspire to.”
At exactly that moment the sound of “This Charming Man” can be heard playing in the venue where Mark will be playing in a short while. It’s what Carl Jung would have called a “meaningful coincidence” as it helps to move the conversation directly onto what song by The Smiths he would have chosen to cover if he had been forced to pick one.
“I think it would have been “Death of a Disco Dancer”. It’s one of the rare Smiths songs where the drums come right to the front. That apocalyptic ending with the drums beating. It’s a song you could really explore, there’s room for expression.”
It’s worth pointing out that The Bluetones were a band long before the mania of 1994 and the pollution of a really beautiful and positive music scene by the rise of “lad culture”. They were a delicate and graceful band who prized craft over what was available on draft. Their vision of England and Englishness was very different to the artifice of blur and the boorishness of the Loaded generation. In many ways they were a separate entity from Britpop.
“At that point, in 1995, we’d already been labelled new mods, new wave of new wave and then Britpop which was the one that stuck. You don’t join a band or start writing songs to become part of a clique, you do it for the complete opposite reason and so we spent a lot of time telling people “No, no, we’re not part of this.” We had no desire to take the “movement” forward. To be honest we didn’t mind being called “new mods” because we were into all of that stuff at that time. In fact, I watched “Quadrophenia” about 18 months ago after not having seen it for about 15 years and I completely identified with a different set of characters. Jimmy was a pain in the arse, his mum and dad were the salt of the earth. When I was a teenager I just thought “Go on Jimmy, stick it to the man” and now I think “Come on Jimmy, what are you actually kicking against? Knuckle down, you’re fucking up your prospects!”
Three top ten albums (one of which went platinum and another gold) and thirteen top forty singles. Those are numbers which suggest a band that people loved. Recent live shows suggest that that love has not diminished. People adore those songs. Given the success of the recent Echobelly album, Liam Gallagher hitting number one in the album charts, Shed Seven looking set to do very well with their upcoming “Instant Pleasures” album and the Starshaped festival (which The Bluetones headlined) is their any prospect of new material?
“There is a revival happening and at the same time as that revival is happening there is a certain resignation on our part. There’s no point in us saying “We ain’t, we ain’t, we ain’t” because the argument has finished, the discussion has moved on. We wouldn’t have done something like Starshaped 10 years ago, five years ago even…we always resisted it. But then you think, now that we’ve finished making records we only have our catalogue and we like to celebrate it. It’s a good catalogue. But as far as a new Bluetones record goes, you can’t simply say that just because this band or that band has a record out that you should have one too. If you take Shed Seven, that hasn’t just happened, it’s taken a long time, it’s been a very organic thing. I think in their case it’s going to be a big success but that doesn’t happen overnight. You shouldn’t make an album because you think “I could sell x amount of copies and buy a boat” you make an album because you feel like you have to and The Bluetones aren’t in that place.”
The place Mark Morriss is in is one where a new solo album has found its way into the world. “Look Up” is a collection of songs that would make any private in the Blue Army forget all about “Expecting to Fly” and fall to the floor giving thanks for its existence. It really is that good.
As you would expect from a writer like Mark Morriss the album has its roots, lyrically, somewhere outside of the Coldplay school of “What rhymes with mellow?” songwriting. Indeed although the music for the album had been around for a while the lyrics came around June 24th last year;
“The music has been written for about 2 years but the first lyrics were written the day after the Brexit vote. That has coloured the whole record, that sense of dislocation and being disenfranchised from your own country. I didn’t think I was living in that sort of country. Brexit was like a hand out and saying NO. Philosophically it clashed with my instincts and how I saw myself as being English and British. I’m still processing the whole thing even now.”
Given that view of Brexit I wonder what Mark makes of modern day Morrissey whose view of things is exactly the opposite?
“He exists…but he doesn’t exist in my world. I feel very sad about it and I try not to think about it too much. I pretend it’s not happening. He was on 6 Music the other day and I listened and I thought “He sounds good, he sounds powerful” and then he started talking rubbish! He needs to change his aesthetic.”
Some sort of truth again. The world has moved on since the days when Morrissey sang the praises of Germaine Greer and when a young politician called Tony Blair promised a near utopian vision of a future Britain. In many ways the death of Britpop marks the end of the last period of political and cultural optimism and that’s why it’s easy to dismiss much of the music released during that time as frivolous.
In the case of Mark Morriss though we are dealing with a songwriter who existed outside of the scene that thrust him into the spotlight and who always treated that scene with a certain amount of cynicism. That’s evidenced by the fact that he is still releasing new music and playing to huge crowds at the likes of Starshaped and to a few hundred people at events like the upcoming EH6 Festival in Edinburgh. He hasn’t been defined by his first flush of fame but has, instead, been able to compartmentalise it and move on.
Mark is the best songwriter of that era, it would be a foolish person who would argue otherwise. His lyrics were a joy to read and a blessing to hear. “Don’t put your faith in time, she heals but doesn’t change.”, “You missed your chance to find out that, you don’t have to have the solution, you’ve got to understand the problem.”, “Filthy quisling, empty changeling, not quite as lily white as you once appeared.” or “Lightning strikes again, hopes down the drain, everyone’s to blame, but me…”. None of his peers could hold a candle to him as a writer.
The 20 year old me would love a new Bluetones album…but the truth is that Mark is right, doing it for the sake of doing it would be a bad idea. What he didn’t say,because he’s too modest, is that his own records are the equal of anything he did as part of a band. The melodies are there, the words are magnificent and they are shaped by the now and not determined by the then.
If you are looking for some sort of truth seek out Mark Morriss.