Sep 01

Couldn’t Life Ever Be Sane Again?

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What is “Panic” about? Dismissed and attacked since its release as small-minded, or snobbish, or even borderline racist, The Smiths’ anti-disco broadside continues to intrigue. On this thread, The Pinefox calls it a “yoking of two ideas” – a revolutionary fantasia and an attack on dance music – and claims that it’s the second of the two that’s made the press running ever since. What he doesn’t ask is how these ideas might fit together.

The origin of the record, also as described on ILM, is Morrissey’s hearing a Radio 1 DJ playing a bit of pop fluff (Wham, apparently) after initial reports of the Chernobyl disaster. This horrified him, and I’ve always heard the song’s verses literally – a vision of England not in revolution but in catastrophe, and a vision tinted with disgust at the ghastly gulf between the potential severity of, well, everything and the shiny escapism of pop. A pop The Smiths were and are tangled in – “Panic” still gets played in discos itself, week-in week-out.

“Panic” is not so much a manifesto, then, as it is a great gut-level shudder, a visceral response to a world where life-as-presented and life-as-lived have become cleanly and utterly disconnected, in the three minutes it takes George Michael to sing his song. Which maybe makes it relevant, right now.

Now of course we know the correct musical response to disaster – slow songs, old songs, and plenty of them. But watching kids’ TV, and listening to the radio, in the week or so after September 11th – with the same songs as before in the charts, the same pre-paid adverts furring up the television – pop culture did seem inane and stupid, and something worse too. In the paranoid, panicky post-attack climate you could imagine the same jingles and adverts on reels, shown this time to a different, hostile audience. Look, this phantom projectionist is saying, beyond the speeches and uniforms, this is the West at its materialist heart: garish, decadent, obsessive, weak. Despise it.

The thought passes. But the same thought – to look at ourselves through more pitiless eyes – is there in “Panic”, I think. There is a relish in Morrissey’s voice when he sings about his imaginary crisis, and there is a reason why the song links panic and hedonism. Morrissey, like many a punk before and since, is toying with the idea that the panic is – aesthetically speaking – deserved, inevitable, a judgement come to wipe a worthless culture away. (“If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together”, as the follow-up starkly put it).

It’s never a totally unappealing sentiment – you can see its milder, milkier reflections now even, with critics like Jim DeRogatis pronouncing the doom of teen-pop in the wake of tragedy, and a return to the fiery rock values that Jim DeRogatis happens to quite like. But if that spasm of dislike was all there was to “Panic” it might just be smug. What “Panic” is about, in the end, is its music: chiming, careening, bouncing, unflaggingly rhythmic. A pop song that hates pop songs, Panic’s final secret message is this: if the disco does burn down, you will most likely be inside. We are all in this together.


  1. 1
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Feb 2008 #

    (ooh more grist to my MORRISSEY AND THE BRITISH EMPIRE project)

    (heehee he is not our cliff richard he is our FLASHMAN) <—- oh to substantiate THIS!

  2. 2
    Nicole on 10 Feb 2008 #

    I missed this when it was first published, great stuff.

  3. 3
    Doctor Casino on 16 Feb 2008 #

    Really fantastic.

  4. 4
    alephnaughtpix on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Actually, I remember hearing the actual broadcast that is supposed to have inspired “Panic”, and it’s not quite as it has since been mythologised.

    It was on the first news break in Janice Long’s show on Radio 1 that we started to hear about power stations in Sweden and Finland measuring increased radioactivity, apparently coming from the Soviet Union. Nothing was known about the nature of what was happening, much less the scale of the event. The name “Chernobyl” and “WORST NUCLEAR ACCIDENT EVAH!” had yet to be attached to the proceedings. It was just some mysterious radiation. Big enough to lead the news, but not big enough to dominate it.

    We got that, some other items, and then back to Janice Long playing George Michael’s “A Different Corner”, which was number 1 at the time. Nothing dramatic. The amount of drama subsequently attached to it suggests a great deal of 20/20 hindsight on Morrisey’s part.

    And really, I have to ask, what would have any DJ done at the time? It’s not as if it was an immediate disaster like the death of Diana or 9/11. News filtered out bit by bit. The scale of the disaster probably would have have become apparent by the time John Peel was playing, but I don’t remember anyone scouring his playlists to see if what he was playing was “correct” for the times. And to be honest, I find this whole ethos of playing the “correct” record or saying the “right” thing in times of crisis to be, quite frankly, nauseatingly conformist.

    Incidentally, according to that Johnny Rogan book, another target was Steve Wright, who famously refused to play Smiths records on his afternoon show because he didn’t think they belonged on daytime Radio 1. Or at least, he did until “Panic” was released and he proceeded to play it to death! At this point in his account, Rogan allows himself a little smug chuckle: oh ha ha, look at the silly DJ playing this record which slags him off- and he doesn’t even know it!!! I think Steve Wright would know exactly what he was doing- he could appear like like a “good sport” whilst at the same time nullifying Morrisey’s beef with him. It of course helped that it was a nice tune as well. (Even if the tune in question was largely “Metal Guru” by T-Rex.)

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    alephnaughtpix on 21 Aug 2008 #

    BTW Hasn’t anyone noticed the chronology of this Wham! story is a bit out of whack? Chernobyl was end of April 1986. The last Wham! single before that was “I’m Your Man”, which was No. 1 for most of November in the previous year. The next Wham! single was “The Edge of Heaven” in June 86. What DJ on any station with a chart-based playlist would still be playing “I’m Your Man” 5 months after it was number 1? I suspect the reason why the story is Wham! and not George Michael is that “A Different Corner” is far nearer the sort of “slow song” mentioned above.

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    DJ Punctum on 21 Aug 2008 #

    I’m sure Steve Wright also knew what he was doing with his “comedy” “characters” like Gervaise the gay hairdresser who went off the show because of a “mystery illness” or when he ceaselessly took the piss out of Morrissey, the Pet Shop Boys or Marc Almond – are we spotting a trend here?

    More recently Antony out of Antony and the Johnsons guested on his R2 show and you could hear Wright’s chair audibly squirm with embarrassment as Antony spoke of the pop with which he grew up in the eighties and how radio at the time always either took the piss out of it or didn’t bother to play it at all.

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    alephnaughtpix on 21 Aug 2008 #

    That Anthony and Johnsons interview sounds fun. BTW Didn’t Wright also used to take the piss out of Depeche Mode for being “really boring” as well?

    BTw I’m not actually defending Steve Wright- when I did listen to him, I was initially too young to realise that with characters like Gervaise he was taking the piss out of people like myself. By the time I was old enough I had by and large stopped listening to him. And I’ve not touched the Radio 2 show on account of it being incredibly boring. So no doubt, he’ll be playing lots of Depeche Mode. I don’t think he’s really worthy of being part of a slightly iffy mythology connected with a classic song.

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