Bona, darling

Moz reissue isn’t such a Drag

Some might say: “Oh, not another Morrissey reissue.”  And they would have a point.  This past decade has seen a ridiculous quantity of Moz re-releases, not all of them good quality, ensuring that one of the most loyal fanbases in popular music forks out time and again for material they all already own, in the full and safe knowledge that they will continue to do so ad infinitum.

Well, everyone has their limit.  I, for one, refused to buy his latest b-side compilation Swords on the basis that it simply wasn’t worth the money or the excitement; and I certainly didn’t buy the HMV/Parlophone Singles ’88 – ’95 CD on the basis that the two facsimile boxsets it was culled from were expensive enough purchases and more than artistically adequate.  I was also miffed beyond words by the Greatest Hits compilation in 2008 that not only, by its nature, repeated a whole load of previously reissued stuff, its two new tracks were then reissued themselves on the next Moz studio album.  And let’s not forget the dreadful hash that’s been made of The Smiths’ back catalogue, most recently the appalling Sound Of The Smiths compilations, which only reinforced Warner Bros’ peculiar contempt for one of their most esteemed back catalogues – not to mention the fans, whom they know full well will fork out for everything that comes out.

However, the 20th anniversary reissue of Bona Drag is something I’m rather excited about.  After the two fine reissues/alternative versions of Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, it had quite a lot to live up to.  Well, it’s certainly delivered, to these ears.  Morrissey’s first couple of years as a solo artist were very much an exploratory period.  Still haunted by his apparent abandonment by Johnny Marr, his steps appeared nothing if not tentative; but following the release of the well-received Viva Hate in 1988, it suddenly became entirely unclear if there would even be a follow-up.  The news pages of the music press seemed full of tales of The Smiths reforming, Morrissey’s protracted falling out with new songwriting partner Stephen Street, his supposed disowning of most of Viva Hate and a second album seemed further away with every passing week.

His post-Viva Hate singles had been impressive.  The great ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ (which Radio 1’s Simon Mayo even predicted would be a No.1) was released with three brand new b-sides on the 12″ – ‘Sister I’m A Poet’, ‘Will Never Marry’ ‘Disappointed’,  all of them superior to virtually everything on the album.  ‘Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, which featured all the ex-Smiths bar Johnny Marr on the record and on a magnificent Top of the Pops performance, was so good, even Marr himself sent Morrissey a postcard to tell him so; ‘Interesting Drug’ was fine (especially the etched 12″ featuring a cartoon Oscar Wilde and the inscription “Motorcycle Au Pair Boy”) and even ‘Ouija Board Ouija Board’, while “not exactly ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” according to Moz, was a lovely distraction from the awfulness of the progressively commercialised indie scene which was in the process of introducing the future ‘phenomenon’ of The Stone Roses.  But something was clearly not right in Morrissey’s world.

He began to tell the press about his forthcoming 1990 album Bona Drag a little prematurely.  Songs recorded for the intended album with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, including two co-written with former Smith Andy Rourke (with whom he’d already released ‘Yes, I Am Blind’, the ‘Ouija Board’ b-side), didn’t turn into the expected album and were released instead as the singles ‘November Spawned A Monster’ and ‘Piccadilly Palare’ and their b-sides.  But what eventually emerged as the ‘album’ Bona Drag seemed an inadequate stop gap to fans at the time.

Firstly, its release coincided with a hefty record company dealer price hike, meaning yours truly paid the previously inconceivable sum of £7.49 for the vinyl version.  But it was the track listing that left most of us scratching our heads.  Fair enough, we knew it wasn’t going to contain anything new, but why choose these particular b-sides?  There was no place for tracks I felt were essential, songs casual Morrissey fans (i.e. those who didn’t buy the singles) would love but hadn’t got hold of: firstly, two of those Andy Rourke co-writes, ‘Girl Least Likely To’ and ‘Get Off The Stage’, incredibly different but individually great songs in their own right; ‘Oh Well, I’ll Never Learn’, which was then available only on the ultra-rare CD and cassette singles of ‘Suedehead’; and, perhaps most glaringly, those ‘Everyday’ b-sides – no ‘Sister I’m A Poet’, arguably his greatest post-Smiths song at the time and, exasperatingly, why an edited version of the sublime ‘Will Never Marry’?  The climax to the original version is weepingly beautiful and yet Bona Drag clips it in its prime.

In later years, I’d find Morrissey’s nose-cut-off-to-spite-face compilations (especially the bewildering but still wonderful World Of Morrissey) mildly amusing but being a Moz fan in 1990 was often difficult enough to justify to doubters without having an artifact released that you know just isn’t his best work.

Yet, the most extraordinary thing happened – people actually took Bona Drag to their hearts.  Despite the dealer-price hike, a lot of punters bought it.  Many of them hadn’t bought Viva Hate but bought this one instead because it was actually full of Top 20 hits.  Moz mania, still not quite a global phenomenon, had almost begun.  Nowadays, Bona Drag and its associated memories bring me nothing but pleasure and the reissue is a beautiful item.  It’s a joy to hear greats like ‘Everyday’, ‘Suedehead’ and ‘November’ in big, booming, remastered glory, and even greater to become aquainted with the unreleased outtakes, especially ‘Lifeguard On Duty’.  Add to this the reworked sleeve (featuring Morrissey’s lovely eek and lovely riah) and the unseen photographs within, it’s a lovely memento of an era when Morrissey was still gradually finding his feet as a solo artist.

The following year, after the release of the decidedly ‘Marmite’ Kill Uncle, he went on tour with his new band and future musical collaborators Boz Boorer, Alain Whyte, Spencer Cobrin and Gary Day, and the worldwide Morrissey explosion began in earnest.  His greatest years were still ahead of him.

After this great reissue, I now look forward (if I even dare) to bold reissues of Kill Uncle, Your Arsenal and Vauxhall and I.  I don’t mind if they’re all 20th anniversary editions, I can wait.  I just hope they’re every bit as good.

Bona Drag was one of the first albums I bought on CD – I have the HMV original, luckily bought before EMI reissued it on Parlophone.  At the time of writing, it’s also the most recent CD I’ve bought – and how lovely that it’s now on the specially reactivated label Major Minor.  Happy days.

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