20 Years Ago: Morrissey Loses a Court Battle, Then Loses His Way on ‘Maladjusted’
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Morrissey was a musician without a sound, a citizen without a country, and man outside the mainstream by the time Maladjusted arrived on Aug. 11, 1997. Beset by all sides, he’d devolve into an unhappy figure who was “devious, truculent and unreliable.”
Those were the words of Judge John Weeks, anyway, as he ruled against Morrissey in a 1996 suit over back royalties brought by his former Smiths bandmate Mike Joyce. Morrissey bristled at the characterization, to the point where his next album was basically sunk by “Sorrow Will Come in the End,” a vicious, dirge-like response to the trial.
In fact, Island Records refused to include the song in U.K. pressings, fearing a libel suit. Morrissey tried to move the album to Mercury, even as he continued to grouse about the seemingly tossed-off cover image. He left England behind in this same darkly unstable period, moving to Los Angeles.
“As if life had not tested me out enough, I find the record label to be hesitant or absent on the original release of Maladjusted,” Morrissey said in the liner notes for a subsequent reissue. “The worst time of life ensues, and it would have been a kindness to kill me. Some tried. The artwork is pieced together in New York by the U.S. label, and is tearfully bad, and we all edge away from making things work. It is over before it begins.”
Going into Maladjusted, Morrissey had hoped to bridge the gap between the torchy pop songs of 1994’s Vauxhall and I and the flinty indie rock he’d created with Johnny Marr in the Smiths. Needless to say, this placed him firmly outside the popular, but now-aging Britpop movement.
“I am blessed with a lucrative deal from Mercury Records in New York and I begin recording the album Maladjusted – yet another collection of unpopular themes, and one which will largely pass unnoticed,” Morrissey says in 2013’s Autobiography. “Although I love Maladjusted, the artwork is out of my hands and terrifies anyone who gazes upon it.”
Issues with his label certainly complicated things. But the larger problem was that Maladjusted emerged as something that was neither fish nor fowl. The bouncy “Alma Matters” returned Morrissey to the U.K. Top 20, marking his highest chart position in the decade between 1994-2004. But the album stalled at No. 8, tied for a career worst, as an out-of-sync Morrissey struggled to find purchase in an uncertain era.
Listen to Morrissey Perform ‘Roy’s Keen’
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Morrissey argued that his position as an outsider was nothing new. “Well, I think the overall theme, the meaning of Maladjusted, is my position in the great scheme of things – within music,” he told KROQ in 1997. “I don’t really seem to ever fit in. In the ’80s, when independent/alternative music was not played or listened to, that’s obviously the kind of music I was making. And then when it was listened to, certainly in England, I was ‘box-office poison,’ if you like. So, Maladjusted really means constantly, you know, not fitting in. And not really a bad thing, I don’t think.”
Still, the results – again completed with help from the songwriting team of Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer – occasionally felt like a jumble of confusion, rather than varied by design. Even when it worked, Maladjusted tended to come off as calculated instead of hip. Morrissey’s two follow-up singles, “Roy’s Keen” and “Satan Rejected My Soul,” could get no higher than No. 39 in Britain. Maladjusted then stalled at No. 61 on the Billboard charts, only slightly better than 1996’s studiously grumpy Southpaw Grammar.
“I haven’t been swept away by a massive wave of popularity; if I had, it would be difficult to maintain,” Morrissey mused in a 1997 talk with the Big Issue. “I don’t face the dangers of instant evaporation. I can withstand the fact that I don’t sell as well as I used to. The people who buy my records do so for the right reasons. That’s important because it means you’re not a fad.”
Morrissey kept tinkering with Maladjusted, rearranging the song list, reinserting “Sorrow Will Come in the End” for the first time in the U.K., and removing the much-maligned artwork for an expanded 2009 reissue. By then, he was in the midst of a five-year run featuring three straight Top 5 U.K. albums, beginning with the No. 11 Billboard smash You Are the Quarry. But Maladjusted simply never recovered from the inclusion of “Sorrow Will Come in the End,” in which Morrissey appears to physically threaten Mike Joyce.
Joyce seemed to take “Sorrow Will Come in the End” in stride, despite lines like this one: “Don’t close your eyes, don’t ever close your eyes. A man who slits throats has time on his hands, and I’m gonna get you.” Discussing the song with Q magazine in 2004, Joyce said he “just found it funny. If Lemmy had written it, I might be concerned.”
The drummer ultimately received a ruling for 25 percent of the band’s non-songwriting commissions following a nearly decade-long period of quarreling in the courts. Bass-playing fellow litigant Andy Rourke ended up settling for a lump sum and 10 percent in perpetuity along the way. That ugliness soured the whole project.
“Really, I’ll never forgive him and to a lesser degree Andy, because it was horrific,” Morrissey told Melody Maker in 1997. “I thought it was shocking, and if I was a weaker person or less intelligent, it would make me despise the Smiths and everything they stood for. And the judge was horrendous, and all the scrawly sniveling little extremely physically ugly people involved, who viewed me as some kind of anarchic, and semi-glamorous if you don’t mind me saying, free spirit.”
Pieces kept falling off. By the end of the tour, Morrissey had no label home anymore – and was also missing two members of his touring group, after Johnny Bridgwood and Spencer Cobrin quit. Knocked on his heels, Morrissey wouldn’t record another album until 2004’s You Are the Quarry.
Morrissey Albums Ranked in Order of Moz-ness