Andy Burnham on The Smiths: That Betrayal In Full

John Rentoul

Minor turbulence in my corner of the internet at the weekend when I reported that Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, Manchester MP and confessed former Morrissey muppet, said that The Smiths haven’t stood the test of time.

I have been inundated by demands for further and better particulars. So here they are.

The whole sorry story started when I bumped into Burnham in Westminster Tube station and asked him what he was listening to on his iPhone. Billy Bragg, he said, apologising for the predictability, or possibly for the failure of his shuffle function to do anything random. In the interest of fair disclosure I said that I had been listening to the Charlatans and we talked about Manchester music briefly before he casually disclosed the world exclusive news: “I don’t think The Smiths have lasted well, have they?”

Maybe not, I said, weakly, though I like “How Soon Is Now”, revealing that I wasn’t much of a Smiths fan in the first place. In a state of mild shock, I went my separate way.

A few days later I asked him for an interview, both to elaborate on his music criticism and to defend himself against a rather obvious Conservative propaganda exercise, which is trying to blame the previous government for the current problems in the NHS. The part of the interview about the NHS was in The Independent on Sunday yesterday, and the full transcript is on the blog here.

Here is the transcript of the bit about music:

Burnham: It’s been a real new lease of life for me having that on your phone. I love music and at times in this job I’ve had spells where I have drifted out of listening to a lot, but now I’m back and buying too much on iTunes. I have the same album on vinyl, tape, CD and iTunes.

I really was a Smiths fan. I had the old Morrissey quiff, grown up nearby, going into Manchester all the time. I saw them once, the Queen Is Dead tour, at Salford University, so it was the homecoming night, 1986, the heyday of it. It was captivating.

I nearly got the chance to meet Morrissey. I was going to interview him. It was via one of his publicists. He dropped me and carried on with Simon Armitage. I was going to blame him. My first question was: “Do you know I hold you personally responsible for what I’m doing now?” And the reason for that is, I know this sounds weird but, he did have an effect on a lot of kids in the north west at the time. You didn’t just have to put up with the – you could lift your sights a little bit. It was an important moment in my life and he started warbling away, about literature, and I was doing English Literature at school. All his stuff was about breaking out of – Viv Nicholson, the pools winner, and A Taste of Honey – it was all about, Could you break away from your background?

[But it hasn’t lasted?] I feel that. I play it to my kids [13, 11 and 8] and the only song that they will really relate to is “How Soon Is Now?” And it has a vibe, or a beat, a bit more of the reverb thing going on, but the jingly-jangly yodelling-type lyric does feel a bit trapped in Eighties indy-land.

When you see those early Top of the Pops performances it’s like a historical curiosity. Did they really do that back then? I’m also – a bit predictable again – a huge Stone Roses follower. I was younger when I liked The Smiths and then the Stone Roses came along, ‘89, ‘90, and I was 19, I was old enough to follow them around. I went to the Heaton Park thing in Manchester when they reformed last year and they’ve also got a film out recently. One thing you notice about the Stone Roses is that they are more Everyman. They are less an introverted sixth-form thing, and they are much more the lads in hi-vis jackets, they are everyone’s band in the way that The Smiths never were. The Smiths were always, I’m a student therefore – The Stone Roses [has] a more timeless feel to it, more relevant.

[For your eight Desert Island Discs, during the Labour leadership campaign in 2010, you chose three Morrissey songs: “How Soon Is Now?”, “There Is a Light” and “Every Day Is Like Sunday”.] I’ve not gone back on that. I think I spent more time on that list than everything else in the leadership campaign. I was in the back of the minibus agonising about it.

[Aren't you betraying the Smiths fan base?] It might sound like that, mightn’t it? And I do feel guilty about that. But I did drift away a little bit from the devotion part. I really was into everything that Morrissey said, every record, I was very into all of that. But then did drift away. I’m very much into Manchester music. I feel at the moment – maybe everyone says this when they get to my age – that it’s not as vibrant, I mean maybe we were spoilt. That Manchester scene was unbelievable really. The height of Factory Records, New Order, the Railway Children; The Smiths, who were the outsiders to the Factory scene. Then came the Madchester scene, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the whole thing explodes. So I was working in Manchester in between university. I got to write the sleeve notes on the 20th anniversary reissue of the Stone Roses first album – the amazing things you get to do; Stella Creasy’s done something for the Wedding Present – and recounted how I used to share an office with Maurice Boon who was the father of someone called Clint Boon who was the leading light in the Inspiral Carpets. Clint Boon is a big figure around Manchester, he’s a DJ now. So I had all these connections into all of that. That north-west scene had a big belonging feeling to it.

[We should renew the idea of you interviewing Morrissey.] I was gutted when it fell though. I did want to say to him, although he may have a certain disdain for politicians and I can understand why in some ways, I also wanted to say to him that it was an era when I was coming through school, in a mining area. It was bleak in that era, the mid-Eighties. My mum and dad were saying you should stay on at school and it wasn’t clear – they persuaded me to do it but I wasn’t clear where I was heading and what I was doing.

My mum and dad: neither of them went to university, skilled blue collar. Pretty ordinary really. I can remember getting to sixth form and beginning to think about what you could aspire to, university. Starting to listen to the Smiths and it gave you a bit of a – an idea that you could aspire to bigger things beyond where you were.

[David Cameron likes The Smiths.] It was hard to take when I heard that. If he ever said he liked the Stone Roses then I’d just be in bits on the floor. That I couldn’t comprehend. Because every student in the land had the Queen Is Dead poster up, and everyone – it spoke to all that, the student community – because it was a thing about intellectual pain and not feeling like the average person, wasn’t it? So I can understand how Cameron might – and I can understand how Johnny Marr and Morrissey hate the fact, and I do too – but I can understand why he [Cameron] feels – from his background – that it was still kind of OK to like them. He’s said things since which I’ve said, phew, I really don’t like that: Florence and the Machine.

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  • porkfright

    Zero comments? There were three last evening.

  • Hill244

    John must justify his (double) salary so we are treated to a regurgitated piece on his last blog entry. Next week? Cute kittens and puppies – in colour!

  • Junius

    Can there be a politician today who dares declare an interest in classical music? Too elitist, innit. Instantly puts one beyond the proletarian pale and out of touch with the masses, dunnit.

    I would no sooner face the morning without listening to an uplifting and sunny Haydn symphony than forgo my delicious and nourishing bowl of rolled-oat porridge.

  • Pacificweather

    One look at his voting record and parliamentary expenses shows that he is a shallow man with poor judgement so one cannot be surprised that is reflected in this taste in music. The ideal New Labour politician.

  • YellowFoam

    Rentoul, the Cristina Odone of the Independent.

  • ManxAndrew

    “I don’t think The Smiths have lasted well, have they?”

    Really? They’re timeless.

  • Jabblue

    So no mention of the lyrics or the melodies. It is almost as if he was a Smiths fan for everything other than the music itself, and call me Dave ruined that for him by saying he liked them. Who said politicians are shallow? I do have to agree with him about how good they were on the TQID tour. The addition of Craig to make them a 5 piece turbocharged them to another level.

  • torjs99

    Morrissey is lord

  • Line Day

    Andy Burnham? Stone Roses? Effing morons

  • jaspers

    There is always something untrustworthy about someone who doesn’t have a passion for music. Someone who likes it played ‘in the background’ like Muzak. Burnhams passion for music is a positive in my book.

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