I first read Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance sometime back in the mid 1990s. It was dog-eared copy I had borrowed from a friend and to be honest, I didn’t get very far -- keeping it largely as a locker accessory to boost my bona fides when it came to musical knowledge. Since then however, Severed Alliance has become famous and is now considered among the best books on a musical group. And it was with this in mind that upon coming across the 20th anniversary edition, I decided to finally give it the reading I should have decades ago. Having remained a fan of the Smiths (and of both Morrissey and Marr) since, I also knew it would be fun reading about one of the most famous musical duos to come out of the 80s.
|Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, 20th Anniversary Edition, Johnny Rogan, Omnibus Press, 2012, pp. 624, £14.95|
To say the book is a tour de force is an understatement. Coming in at 624 pages (including extensive footnoting), Severed Alliance begins with a detailed account of Morrissey and Marr’s familial roots in Ireland, complete with smatterings of both Irish and British political and sociological history to provide context for the eventual moves to England. From there it discusses the early careers of both: Morrissey as a prolific writer of letters to the musical press and eventual author of his own pamphlet-book on the New York Dolls, and Marr as an precocious and thorough student of popular music. Along the way we are also treated to a detailed description of the UK’s music scene of the 70s and 80s which provides important context as to backdrop of the Smiths’ development. This all culminates with the eventual first encounter of the eventual bandmates, instigated by Johnny’s friend Rob Allman at Morrissey’s house Stretford, Manchester.
From there it’s on to an account of the rise of the Smiths as a four person ensemble; the writing of their earliest songs and the methods in which Morrissey and Marr went about creating their art. Of course, by reading Severed Alliance in 2013, one is able to do so with the Smiths’ entire catalogue close and this is a real advantage. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop reading and listen to them. Rogan does a great job analysing the Smiths’ canon and this has led to a new appreciation of music I have literally listened to for decades.
Along with a command of the music, Severed Alliance is also good at explaining the business side of the group and how important this was to its overall being. In the past, Morrissey has expressed displeasure with this book, and this is probably because Rogan pulls no punches with regard to contractual aspects of the band and in places really airs the dirty linen. In these sections we also learn about the Smiths importance to the fledgling Rough Trade records and Morrissey and Marr’s dominance of the financial affairs of the band, all of which eventually led to the legal case Joyce v Morrissey and Others before the Royal Courts of Justice in the 1990s. The legal aspect of the Smiths' history was beyond the scope of the book, but subsequent research done during the trial shows that Rogan did not let his project end, and the litigation did contribute to the revised edition.
Reading books on musical groups can seem like a somewhat pointless activity in an era of near instantaneous pop culture information. But even with the internet, Severed Alliance provides in one volume a thorough analysis of the Smiths and the two personalities that drove this band during its short existence. The opening chapters about Morrissey’s Irish background seemed a little excessive in places, but this minor failing aside, the writing is great (at times being as poetic as Morrissey's himself) and this book tells the facinating story of the Smiths in a comprehensive and engaging way. Because of this, Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance is a very enjoyable book and would make a great addition to any indie/alternative music aficionado’s library. 4.5/5 STARS