"A community is infinitely brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime... He who would be free must not conform!!!! Authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us." — Oscar Wilde
This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the Japanese release of The Smiths Meat is Murder album, one of the finest and most acerbic pop recordings, released during the eighties. The Japanese release was five weeks after the album was premiered in the UK on 11 February 1985. By this time The Smiths were a household name in England and at the centre of intense media interest. As it turned out The Smiths and their singer/songwriter Morrissey made more front covers of the revered New Musical Express (NME), weekly newspaper and bible for any pop fan, than any other band during the eighties. So extreme was this situation that the NME became known as 'The New Morrissey Express' instead. Morrissey modelled himself as a modern day Oscar Wilde and gave interviews, which were articulate and sardonic, with his arsenal of sharp wit and sarcasm. It is these characteristics that made him such a fine songwriter as the first verse of the The Headmaster Ritual, which opens Meat is Murder, attests:
Run Manchester schools
Sir leads the troops
Jealous of youth
Same old suit since 1962
There are many other fine songs on this record, which include The Joke isn’t Funny Anymore, Nowhere Fast and Meat is Murder. However, it is the track Barbarism Begins at Home, which was initially overshadowed by these other songs, that has emerged as the great conceptual artist statement of the album. One reason it may have been initially overlooked by fans is the fact that it remains the shortest lyric Morrissey ever wrote:
Unruly Boys who will not grow up, must be taken in hand
Unruly Girls who will not settle down, they must be taken in hand
A Crack on the head is what you get for not asking
And a Crack on the head is what you get for asking
The profundity of the song is not only felt as a protest against the use of authoritarianism as a way to suppress creativity and individuality in society, but the fact that it is our parents who were responsible for this behaviour and its damaging side-effects in the first place.
If this was the product of the rational mind it needed to be counteracted with thoughts and actions that were the workings of an irrational mind. Morrissey is not only a gifted songwriter but was the inspiration behind many of the bands fabulous conceptual cover designs that often featured a movie star or social celebrity from yesteryear and Barbarism at Home as a stroke of pure genius featured Viv Nicholson, the first of England’s big spenders and certainly not their last.
Nicholson was able to overturn every social norm of her upbringing, give up her unglamorous job in a Yorkshire cake factory after becoming the biggest winner on the football pools in 1961 winning more than five million pounds in today’s money.
This turned her into an overnight celebrity in England and when asked what she was going to do with the money by the British tabloids she famously stated SPEND, SPEND, SPEND.
This is precisely what Nicholson did buying designer clothes, houses and cars, including the Jaguar her husband Keith died in. Then, more alcohol, more husbands...no more money. Although it all sounds very sad it was the expression of the irrational mind that made her a legend in her own lifetime.
Morrissey remained fascinated by Nicholson and her attitude to wealth, thinking of her as ahead of her time, precisely because society tends to be envious and snobbish towards what they think of as ill gotten gains, particularly if the recipient is working class and began life poorer than them.
Barbarism Begins at Home may be 32 years old this month, but its message has become clear.
We have all become big spenders now, in a world driven by credit and hyper-inflation, with the majority of us living beyond our means. Barbarism Begins at Home is therefore not only an ode to rational and irrational thought and behaviour, but more importantly, knowing the difference between the two. As Oscar Wilde famously said: "Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth."