Two books – autobiographies – have come out in the last week that have made me realize how much of an influence the culture of one English city has been on my life. Firstly, we have Morrissey’s long-awaited tome, Autobiography, and then, football manager Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography. What’s the link? Manchester. Alex Ferguson was Manchester United’s manager from 1986-13 and Morrissey is arguably the city’s greatest laureate and most famous son. I’ve been a Man. U. fan for as long as I can remember (there’s a photo of me decked out in a replica kit as a seven year old to prove this) and the music of the Smiths and (to a lesser extent) Morrissey have been on shuffle in my head since my mid-teens.
It’s funny that Morrissey’s name has been all over the place lately. When I first became aware of his existence, somewhere in between “The Queen is Dead” and “Strangeways, Here We Come” in the mid-80s, Morrissey was a cult figure – his distinctive quiff only sparking recognition among those in the know. It seems, however, that over the years, in spite of his almost willful obtuseness and his occupying of a distinctly non-commercial niche within popular music, Morrissey’s fame has grown to the extent that his bushy eyebrows and sour puss are as familiar to your (or my own!) mother as Perry Como’s cardigans or Julio Iglesias’ dazzlingly white choppers. Let it be noted, though, that Morrissey is not Manchester’s only celebrated musical export, nor the only Mancunian muso to significantly influence the course of my life. For some reason, possibly to do with its status along with Liverpool and Glasgow as one of the main British receiving points for massive numbers of Irish immigrants from the mid-nineteenth century up until the 1960s, Manchester has always been a musical melting pot, a hotbed of folk and, later, popular music. Since as far back as I care to recall, bands from that city have been high up the list on my personal hit parade.
After a visit by the Sex Pistols to the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976 lit the fuse, Manchester exploded into a frenzy of punk and post-punk musical activity, out of which emerged bands like the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Cabaret Voltaire, Magazine and Joy Division. Each of these has been hugely influential on a global scale, with the Fall and Joy Division single-handedly fathering new genres within pop-rock. The group that emerged from Joy Division following Ian Curtis’ suicide — New Order — changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll forever by splicing electronica into the mix. It was into this post-“Blue Monday” landscape that the Smiths nonchalantly wandered with their jangly guitars, classic-songwriting-with-a-bitter-twist and Mr. Stephen Morrissey’s mordant lyrics. After the stellar rise and acrimonious (and subsequently litigious) split-up of the Smiths in 1987 came the “Madchester” scene – a monster, E-fuelled party out of which came stumbling some of the late 80s/early 90s (and mine too!) most acclaimed bands; The Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the Charlatans, to name a few. Into the 90s and beyond, the city continued to provide the world (and me) with pioneering groups that pushed at the boundaries of pop (Badly Drawn Boy, the Chemical Brothers, Doves, the Ting Tings) as well as those that achieved massive worldwide success based on well-established formulae (Oasis, Take That, Elbow).
In spite of this stiff competition, the Smiths are incontestably the quintessential Manchester band. There is no other group that is so identified with the city. They are Manchester’s Beatles. In terms of the lyrical content of their songs (“belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”, “Rusholme Ruffians”, “and in the darkened underpass, I thought ‘Oh, God, my chance has come at last’”), their use of images and place names from the city (e.g. calling their final album “Strangeways, Here We Come”, being photographed in front of Salford Lads Club for the sleeve of “The Queen is Dead”) and the whole Manchester “vibe” of the band, they firmly declare themselves to be of Manchester.
As if it wasn’t enough for Manchester to play the role of some kind of world-renowned rock ‘n’ roll nursery for the Next Big Thing, the city has been one of England’s leading footballing lights for a century or more. Manchester’s two top-flight teams — United and City (the less said about the latter, the better!) — are each as significant a player in the history of English and European football as e.g. Joy Division would be in the history of post-punk music. Manchester United enjoyed its most successful period with Alex Ferguson at the helm. Surpassing the achievements of Matt Busby and his teams bedecked with great players like Best, Charlton and Law, Ferguson reaped in the trophies with a form of swashbuckling football that somehow echoed the audacity of the city’s musical mavericks. The names of Ferguson’s players from the late 80’s to mid 90’s are inseparable from my memories of growing up: Robson, Strachan, McClaire, Giggs, Hughes, Keane.
His controversial comments about Roy Keane (towards the end of his stint at Old Trafford Keane is depicted as some kind of grouchy control-freak whose humour dictated the entire team’s mood on the training pitch and in the dressing room) dominated reviews last week of Ferguson’s My Autobiography. And here’s my clever link between Morrissey and Ferguson: the singer’s 1997 “Roy’s Keen” — an obvious pun on the great midfield general’s name. The song recalls for me driving to the Cork village of Rock Chapel for a funeral one evening in late April 1999. Tom Dunne (a dyed-in-the-wool Man. U. fan) was on the radio, warming up his listenership for the Juventus match to take place that evening. As we arrived to the village, he gave “Roy’s Keen” a spin. We trooped out of the car, firstly to the removal and then to the village pub, where mourners had more than half an eye on the action from Turin. The game finished up 2—3 – one of United most famous victories – which set them up for winning the Champions’ League a few weeks later. The hero of that night in Turin? Roy Keane.
Roy’s keen, Roy’s keen
We’ve never seen a