Over 20 years ago, in January 1995, as Morrissey sharpened songs for his fifth solo album from his North London home, on the other side of the capital another flamboyant and controversial outsider was about to cast a shadow over English football. Sent off for the fourth time in four months, Manchester United’s French forward Eric Cantona was heading for the tunnel at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park early in the second half of a nervy 0-0 draw, when, hearing xenophobic abuse from a home fan, he launched a kung-fu kick into the supporter’s chest. The outcry was enormous. Morrissey, inevitably, was enraptured. He began turning up to interviews in Cantona t-shirts, howling his praises: “I find him very exciting,” Morrissey beamed to one interviewer. “I think [the kung-fu kick] set a good example. I found it very encouraging and glamorous.” The Mancunian started performing live with tambourines with “ERIC” and “CANTONA” scrawled on them, and even snuck the Frenchman’s image into a short film played as he came onstage each night on his 1996 world tour the following year. In the volatile, artistic, misunderstood Cantona, Morrissey saw a kindred spirit.
Two decades on from the Frenchman’s infamous improv karate, Morrissey’s admiration for the his fellow enfant terrible doesn’t appeared to have dimmed: in his recent autobiography, he recounts finding himself meeting Cantona by chance in a Parisian hotel lobby years after the Selhurst Park incident with uncharacteristic, palpable awe. “I offer him a rarely used smile, he doesn’t want it and turns away coldly, and I am nixed like a fatty at the church steps,” he says when the footballer fails to recognise him.
Similarly undimmed is the powerful pull of the Morrissey solo album it’s thought Cantona helped inspire. August 1995’s daring ‘Southpaw Grammar’, written at the height of his fascination with the striker, touched on the duel beauty and brutality of sport – a duality Cantona, capable of both violent outbursts and ballet-like elegance on a football pitch, encompassed like no other player in the game’s history.
From its sleeve art, a photo of 1960s Michigan boxer Kenny Lane, to its title, slang for a left-handed punch, the fiercely divisive ‘Southpaw…’ went down frequent detours into our obsession with sport and the way its violence seeps out of stadiums and into modern life. “You fight with your right hand and caress with your left hand,” the former Smith begins over scrappy guitars on ‘The Operation’, while ‘The Boy Racer’ was a menacing observation of a playboy with the testosterone of a Formula One racer, speeding down city roads. “Stood at the urinal, he thinks he’s got the whole world in his hands and I’m gonna kill him,” sings Morrissey. The single that preceded the album, ‘Boxers’, meanwhile, captured the highs and lows of life in the ring.
None of this was completely new for Morrissey, whose 1992 album ‘Your Arsenal’ had moments like the provocative ‘We’ll Let You Know’, which delved into the culture of football hooligans, mimicking the problematic, borderline xenophobic language of the terraces in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But ‘Southpaw…’ was more explicit, and packed a fitting brawny new sound to match its subject matter. Having left EMI after seven years and seven albums for RCA, partly because it was Elvis Presley’s label and partly because “there was simply no where left to go with EMI”, the former Smith was free to reinvent himself once more. Eschewing the simple three-minute sing-alongs that made ‘Vauxhall and I’ his most successful solo release to date, ‘Southpaw…’ began with a punishing Shostakovich’s Fifth-sampling eleven minute slow-burn that re-told the Smiths’ ‘Headmaster Ritual’ from the perspective of the headmaster. Later, sharp Morricone strings add a malevolent edge to ‘Dagenham Dave’ before a barreling three-minute drum solo opens ‘The Operation’. Fans and critics were understandably puzzled – though it had the bones of classic Morrissey, all jangley guitars, knockout hooks and razorwire wit, ‘Southpaw…’ was fleshed out with bold experimental flourishes.
Morrissey’s never directly confirmed the impact of Cantona on his music, but the parallels are interesting, even if unintended. Two decades and one strange 2009 reissue with a “reworked” tracklisting later, the loud, violent ‘Southpaw…’ still packs a formidable blow: a Cantonian kick-to-the-chest of an album that, much like his French kindred spirit, confounded, beguiled, enraged and enchanted in equal measure.