Immediately, I could see why he favours town hall sized venues, as it soon became clear that the intensity and intimacy are unmatched. There was no shortage of odd characters to talk to and time passed quickly. Support act Doll & The Kicks were surprisingly good, received well by the famously uncharitable Morrissey hardcore. Then, a selection of strange little vignettes were projected onto the stage curtain - the comical video for Sparks latest single, Lighten Up Morrissey, a trashy, vintage, New York Dolls performance, a camp, leather-clad, Vince Taylor clip and a touch of 60s Shirley Bassey. Then, the curtain fell, the muscular sailor backdrop was visible and You'll Never Walk Alone dramatically heralded the entrance of the man and his band as the crush started. Pinned to the people surrounding me there was no way at all to move as the crowd surged, albeit good-naturedly.
“Good evening Cambridge, this is your starter for ten - no conferring”. A searing opening blast of This Charming Man and Irish Blood, English Heart and a gasp for breath later, came the first raised eyebrow. "I have some disturbing news for you. You're all missing the Eurovision Song Contest. Dry those eyes." I sighed with relief as his fragile voice found itself and stayed strong and powerful for the rest of the night. Newer songs from his latest, Years of Refusal, prompted a little easing of the crush, with the punchy Black Cloud coming out particularly well, but with a setlist this varied there was little let up. From the gentle Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself to, my surprise hit of the night, obscure B-side The Loop. I was surprised the song choice was so Smiths heavy, with no less than six songs from that period. As you might imagine those songs, among them Ask and How Soon Is Now, were received with joy unconfined.
Most bands you see get up there, play the songs and, while you might enjoy it, you suspect it's not that different to any other show. With Morrissey you're confronted with dozens of unique incidents. One such was an abusive heckler, questioned until he squirmed, and then the show was stopped as bandleader Boz Boorer got in his face, throwing a few unrepeatable words in his direction. Apparently the heckler was later removed from the venue. The atmosphere was frenzied and the game of getting on stage began. I've never experienced this at other gigs as the fans with an eye on security and a foot on the barrier try to invade to hug or kiss the man himself. Given that this behaviour is encouraged it’s no surprise that one brave soul made it up there to wrap his arms around Morrissey's ample waist. Another staple of the show is the removal of a sweaty shirt, which is then thrown to the baying masses. Viewing him as a younger man, one might not have imagined that, nearing 50, he would rip his shirt off, stripper style, to reveal a positively beefy physique.
I didn't want the show to end and after the last song, First of the Gang To Die, I peeled myself off those around me and, aching all over, stumbled out of the venue, floating and glowing. That's the paradox of Morrissey. He might let you down... but he'll never let you down.
This Charming Man / Irish Blood, English Heart / Black Cloud / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / How Soon Is Now? / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel? / Ask / Something Is Squeezing My Skull / When Last I Spoke To Carol / Girlfriend In A Coma / Best Friend On The Payroll / Let Me Kiss You / Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself? / One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell / I Keep Mine Hidden / Sorry Doesn't Help / Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others / The Loop / I'm OK By Myself // First Of The Gang To Die
Morrissey fans are a sour bunch. It seems to me that some of them buy tickets simply to line up and have a go. They love and hate him before they even turn up, love him during the gig then hate him again straight afterwards, if they don't get exactly quite what they want. The man himself gets up there, sweats and exhausts his sometimes-fragile voice, and all he receives back, from some, is a moan. Many are like me, there to have a good time and appreciate one of the best pop back catalogues of the last 30 years. Sometimes I think that the love of his audience is the only kind he's able to process. The worst kinds of fans are what I call the 'setlist moaners'. I have never been this kind of person, one that will attend a gig and come out disappointed that my favourite songs were not played. I might say this is descended from my first Bowie show, where he played a greatest hits setlist. From that point onwards I never had to wish I were hearing a particular song from him since I had heard the 'famous' ones. And that seems to have informed my gig-going habits ever since. I can be disappointed with many aspects of shows I see but not the set list. yet, this seems to be the main, often ruinous issue with the hardcore fans, i.e. those attending more than a few shows. Are they suggesting he changes the set list to accommodate those who obsessively attend multiple shows? Admittedly, on paper the setlist is not strong. Not nearly as good as the one I was seeing at the Roundhouse 18 months ago, which contained Death of a Disco Dancer, International Playboys and more. But who cares really? 25 years of recorded music, 4 Smiths albums and a couple of compilations, 10 solo albums and countless gigs. He knows what he is doing, live. If you don't have a great time it's your own fault.
So, that mini-rant at my fellow fans over, onto the show. The Troxy is one of the more bizarre venues I've been to. A 1920s Art Deco ballroom, carpeted, with many different sections separated by curled stairways and barriers, it felt like being in a venue you didn't want to drop a cup in. There was even a polite row of seats at the back of the tiny main floor. Clumsy as I am, dark as it was, I didn't see this and managed to go flying over someone's outstretched legs before the show even began. I knew I'd done myself some damage but, unwilling to sit it out at the back, I steeled myself and joined the throng. I had been describing the centre of the crowd as a moshpit to friends. This is the wrong word but there doesn't exist a word for what it's like. At the front it was so squashed one could lift legs and remain unmoved. A little further back it's more a mass of swirling, jumping, pushing, frenzied bodies.
This Charming Man had been a song that The Smiths dropped from their shows early on and he had never played it as a solo artist before this tour. As a gig opener it's hard to think of a better choice. I was pleased to then get Boy Happy, from 2005's brilliant Ringleader of the Tormentors, an album he'd been ignoring until recently. Later on, Life is a Pigsty, with its crackling thunder and lightning sound effects, received a rapturous reception, while also allowing everyone a breather. The first couple of songs were a warm up compared to what came next, as everyone bounced together, then something happened -- Irish Blood. It all kicked off. I found myself happily swept up with the crowd, as ever mostly made up of burly men. It's important to stay sharp during these sweeping movements or you can lose your footing. I ended up a good 15 yards to the right of where I started and it wasn't the last time in the evening my position would change. By the end I was almost at the front.
He couldn't resist a little dig at a favoured target. "I was walking through Piccadilly today, and I saw Michael Jackson T shirts saying the King of Pop. This name of this song is The World is Full of Crashing Bores." A smirk and an eyebrow raise, a ripple of laughter spread through the venue. His crowd knows him. And those there to hear Smiths songs, of which there were no less than six, were as delighted as those of us who are more fans of his solo material. After all the moaning, the set list, I feel, has good balance until the later stages. There are four tracks from You Are The Quarry, his so called comeback record, but the six choices from Years of Refusal should be spread better. With half of these Refusal tracks at the end of the show there's no doubt the flow and energy levels do suffer. But these are minor quibbles. You very much feel you are witnessing one of the last great, touring, English pop icons. A man who gives everything he can to his audience. The show is all about him and us; what goes on outside that bubble is irrelevant. He is a million miles away from the performers who might have the songs but barely make eye contact with the audience. He's played arenas and tiny clubs, seeming to prefer the latter despite his lifelong need for appreciation he can never get and his passion for counting sales - as if this bears some relationship to his value as an artist and place in history. He should stop worrying about such things; his legacy is assured.
As his shirt flew into the air just above my head as the First of the Gang encore came to its noisy end, I knew by now what to do -- move back, and fast. In front of me a snarling group, egged on by Morrissey, who has always been attracted to brutal violence (as long as animals aren't involved), jumped for it. A domino effect took hold and the entire middle of the audience fell to the floor. Some people helped each other up, as the rest started fights over the shirt, then security waded in and noses were bloodied. You know you've had a proper night when you've seen a few fights and you go to bed with a bandaged knee.
This Charming Man / I Just Want To See The Boy Happy / Black Cloud / How Soon Is Now? / Irish Blood, English Heart / Ask / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel? / You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Girlfriend In A Coma / One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell / Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself / Life Is A Pigsty / Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want / When Last I Spoke To Carol / Sorry Doesn't Help / The Loop / I'm OK By Myself // First Of The Gang To Die