The Wild Child’s Revenge

Concerning The Alcohol Years – a film by Carol Morley (2000)

I enjoyed this film; thanks, Geraldine, for recommending it.

In her mid-to-late teens, Carol Morley was notorious in Manchester for her wild behaviour. This is the subject of her film, explored through the recollections of her old friends and acquaintances, whom she tracked down and interviewed about 13 years later. Carol had lost touch with them when she moved to London, suddenly, aged about 20 in June 1986.

Reasons for Carol’s promiscuous lifestyle are never spelled out… although her father’s suicide when she was a child is raised as a possible cause by some of her friends. The film’s title suggests another possible reason but I found this unconvincing, having known many people with alcohol addiction.

The title also draws a line under that period of Carol’s life, implying that her life completely changed in summer 1986, when really the only thing that altered was her geographical location.

And there were apparently no lasting consequences: AIDS, Herpes, pregnancy, abortions – none of these things are acknowledged in the world described by the film – although they must have been lurking on the sidelines. Only one possible bad consequence is raised – premature death – that old rock’n’roll chestnut – and we know this didn’t happen.

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The opening shot of a classified ad, which Carol supposedly used to track down old friends and acquaintances, is a device which is intended to emphasise the gulf between past and present.

In fact, I’m sure that Carol didn’t find her interviewees using the ad; most hadn’t moved very far from where she last saw them… and they almost all knew each other.

The interviewees describe a striking teenager who liked attention; they recall her good looks, her unusual clothes and the “toys” she carried around with her – the duck on wheels and the train set. She was acting out a role… playing at being childlike… purposefully provoking the interest of others, especially older men who worked in the music industry, which was no co-incidence.

If there were any justice in this world, one of those men would have written songs for her, mentored her successful music career, photographed her, promoted her or made a film about her… but very disappointingly for Carol, none of the above occurred.

In the end, she had to go out and make the damn film herself.

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I love the disarmingly simple construction of the film and the camera work in particular: the interviewees talking directly to camera; the shots of streets, houses and front doors opening to reveal people’s faces (and sometimes other things); the views of the city centre and the flash-backs of wet pavements, rain-soaked steps, bedroom wallpaper and the inside of a greasy spoon cafe, all evoking young Carol’s visual memories.

The Hulme flats were already gone when the film was made but Carol was able to film inside the derelict, vandalised Hacienda building, not long before it was knocked down, and the effect is wonderfully eerie.

The Alcohol Years is a piece of alchemy through which an embarrassing failure is transformed into a successful work of art. Carol tried and failed to become a pop star in Manchester in the mid-80s. She left Manchester because her band TOT was dropped from The Tenth Event in June 1986. Ironically, the event was a damp squib… she needn’t have felt so crushed.

The film multi-tasks: it narrates the myth about Carol’s young self – the girl who should have been famous but wasn’t because people around her used and abused her and let her down.

It ensures that Carol Morley’s young self won’t be forgotten, so all that madness and self-destruction weren’t completely in vain: yes she really was like that because all these people say she was.

She punishes some of the people who let her down by opening them up to scrutiny.

And she distances herself from her past… by implying that her promiscuous behaviour was about a particular time and place and not something which was within herself.

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When Carol discusses The Alcohol Years in interviews she comes across as the very opposite of the girl we hear described in her film; she is articulate, intellectual and apparently very respectable.

Anyone who watches the film, and then watches Carol being interviewed, will be struck by how much more sophisticated she appears than most of her interviewees.

Yes, Carol has moved on… to the capital… leaving behind the peasants where they belong, in their northern backwater, obsessing about the past… while by contrast, Carol is able to view that past objectively…

“I look at actuality and treat it creatively,” she says in interview.

Actuality my arse.

The film is a perfect piece of revenge… against the city which didn’t appreciate Carol… which didn’t make her a star, even though she was doing all the right things… all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re a young woman who wants to be famous.

She was sleeping with all the right men, apparently… although one of her interviewees calls her a second-division star fucker… perhaps that was because she was in Manchester. Perhaps you can only become a ‘premier division star fucker’ in London. Is that why she moved there?

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Carol Morley has every right to feel angry and disappointed about the way things worked out in Manchester. She was a determined, intelligent girl on a mission to be a pop star. She managed to get a band together, TOT; they wrote a couple of songs and they were signed to Factory Records, who failed to promote them. She was doing all the right things… and she knew all the right people.

Arguably, she should have spent less time getting wasted and sleeping around and more time writing songs, but that never did the Happy Mondays any harm, did it? (Well not at first.) Anyway she knew plenty of people who could have helped her out in the song-writing department. And pop stars are supposed to behave badly, aren’t they?

Carol Morley could give the Mondays and Oasis a run for their money in the bad behaviour department. She was perfect Manchester pop star material, but there was one huge problem: she was a girl.

Did she not realise? Did no-one explain to her? You can only be a pop star in Manchester if you’re a man. Nothing else will do. That’s the way it’s always been here, as long as anyone can remember. Maybe the penny dropped and that’s why Carol went to London.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s going to be a Music Hall of Fame in Manchester. I can’t think of a single female face that will be in there… one that people will immediately recognise. I can’t think of many black faces either. Can you? What does that say about Manchester?

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Postscript – May 2015

When I watched Carol Morley’s film The Alcohol Years four years ago, I was particularly interested to see the people who appear in it, some of whom I knew, or saw about in Manchester in the mid-80s. My write-up above didn’t dwell upon these people though, because I became more interested in the film’s structure, the intentions of the film-maker, and the disturbing elements of Manchester’s culture which she exposes.

A few months later, I saw Carol’s more recent film ‘Dreams Of A Life’, about a woman whose corpse lay undiscovered in a London flat for years. I felt sure Carol had seized the opportunity to re-use the peculiar format she stumbled across with Alcohol Years; this time the ‘absent central character’ was Joyce, the dead woman, instead of herself. It was an impressively thorough piece of work, but there was none of the cheeky humour of Alcohol Years, and the result was deeply depressing.

Now Carol has made ‘The Falling’ and I haven’t seen it yet, although I’ve heard it reviewed on Radio 4 more than once. And now people aren’t automatically mentioning her older brother Paul, the music journalist and innovator, when they discuss her work… she’s becoming more famous than him!

Pondering this, I remembered that Paul isn’t mentioned once in ‘Alcohol Years’. This seemed reasonable when I first saw it: Carol was still in his shadow then, where she must have spent most of her life – and this film was her own thing, about her experiences in Manchester while he was in London, so why would he be in it?

But, having thought on, I realise it’s very likely that Carol’s world-view was hugely influenced by her connection with her brother and this becomes interesting if you consider that her lifestyle choices may have been a response to assumptions she made, based on that worldview.

In her film commentary she explains:
“the post-punk era in Manchester in the early eighties was a kind of dead time… …it felt like we were all waiting for something to happen – people of my generation – too young for punk. Everyone I hung out with of my age wanted to be famous, wanted to be in a band. We were all on the dole. It was Thatcher’s Britain.”

The early eighties were actually a very interesting time in Manchester… but Carol saw them as dull by comparison with the punk era, which was before her time, partly because the importance of punk had been so rammed home by people like her brother.

From him she had inherited a mind-map of the Manchester music scene which would not have been available to most 16-year-olds.

The film opens with:
(Alan Wise:) “You told me you had a list… of all the people in Manchester you wanted to have sex with…”

She says in her commentary that she has no memory of a list… but it’s fair to say that she knew who was who in the Manchester music scene at a very young age.

Carol’s interviewees fall into roughly three categories: people who went out in Manchester; Hacienda staff; and people who were connected with the music industry. The first and second groups contain people around her age who she would have met quite naturally. But the third group is mainly older men… and this is the group which she was linked with through her brother.

Dick Witts is presented as a random neighbour in the film, but through the commentary we learn that he was lead singer of band The Passage, which Carol says her band supported when she was just 13. It’s hard to imagine this scenario without the involvement of her older brother.

Liz Naylor and Dave Haslam were part of the Manchester fanzine scene where Paul Morley cut his teeth before going south to work for the NME. Carol will have understood Liz’s significance as a female doing something similar to what Paul had done… and Dave will not have been immune to the fact that Carol was Paul’s sister.

Of Alan Wise, Carol says in the commentary: “It was amazing to know him and to know Nico because you just felt one step away from Andy Warhol.”

In 1982, when I was also 16 and starting sixth form round the corner from Carol’s house, I knew of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, but I didn’t know who Alan Wise was… and I can’t imagine how I would have befriended him and Nico!

In 1984, some people may have felt that knowing Carol Morley made them just one step away from ZTT’s Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the hottest, most controversial band in the country. Carol would have had great kudos (or curiosity-value) whether she wanted it or not. None of this is ever mentioned in The Alcohol Years, even though the pros and cons of being Paul Morley’s sister would have been considerable… on the one hand always being considered in the same sentence as him… on the other, enjoying privileges on account of the association.

She says in her commentary:
“At the same time as trying to construct an identity for myself, I was trying to lose myself in alcohol… “

(It’s funny that Carol talks about ‘trying to construct an identity’ for herself while her best mate Debbie worked for a clothes shop called Identity.)

What Carol had, which were completely her own – nothing to do with her brother – were her gender and sexuality. Could she have felt pushed to emphasise these in order to signal very clearly to people that she was not just Paul Morley’s sister and needed to be considered quite separately from him?

Her friend Debbie says: “…you actually got people falling in love with you like, all the freaks of Manchester…”

Was it a bizarre form of sibling rivalry even… to monopolise the attention of men like Pete Shelley of the punk band The Buzzcocks, for instance… although there are plenty of sexual conquests who weren’t music industry people.

In her commentary Carol says:
I think I was a very young girl in a very male world. Manchester in many ways was a lads’ world and looking back there was quite a big dose of unhealthy sexist attitudes I think. You could question how much I was trying to live up to a male idea of sexuality, of being available, of fulfilling some kind of male fantasy.

Was Carol acting out a female role which was being pushed at her by pop culture?

Even though our general culture does just about everything possible to repress young women’s sexuality, pop culture has tended to idolise women who are free spirits and ignore the social conditioning – while at any moment reserving the right to denounce them – which is really sly.

Our generation was offered what appeared to be a liberating opportunity through pop music, but for most women, this was misleading… and that’s because our pop music era took many of its cues from the 50s Beat Generation, which was male-dominated and often misogynistic:

Wikipedia: “The Beat Generation… Central elements of ‘Beat’ culture: rejection of standard narrative values, the spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration… Rather than offering liberation from social norms, Beat culture actually often marginalized and further culturally repressed American women and, more specifically, many of the female writers of the time period.”

Certainly Manchester’s pop culture didn’t seem to do much to encourage Carol’s band, TOT:
Debbie says: “I think we just saw it as a way of getting known, you know,… more than the music…”

In a final twist, the 1986 GMEX concert, from which TOT were dropped at the last minute causing Carol to leave Manchester, was co-presented by her brother, flogging the dead horse of punk once again, much to our great boredom. A home-grown girl-band or a history lecture – which should Tony Wilson have championed?

The obvious absent central character of Alcohol Years is Carol herself… but their is another pivotal off-stage player – her brother Paul. He is the key really… to the mystery of her behaviour, the nature of the role she constructed for herself in Manchester, and even the making of the film itself. It’s all part of Carol’s struggle to be seen as a person in her own right… not just as the sister of Paul Morley. With her new film The Falling, she has finally achieved her objective.

(It’s funny – I remember thinking there were two absent central characters in Dreams Of A Life too – Joyce, and the unknown abusive boyfriend who may have killed her… I remember feeling disappointed that Carol didn’t try to find out who he was.)

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  1. carol morley

    Thanks for writing about The Alcohol Years… really interesting to read- I’m making a new film at the moment called Dreams of a Life that I’d love you to look at when the time comes.
    All best with Mancky.
    Carol x

    • Thanks for your comment, Carol. It’s brilliant to get real feedback from a real person…
      The Alcohol Years has opened my eyes to just how bad attitudes towards women have been within the Manchester music scene over the years – I can’t imagine how I didn’t notice this earlier. It’ll be really interesting to see your next film,
      Best wishes, Urs

  2. moanymaloney

    I don’t recall Carol’s band, but have often wondered about Manchester’s “invisible girls” and why there is not one single female name to come out of the 1980s era. I remember a group called Glass Animals which may or may not have been something to do with Cath Carroll. I think Armed Force also had a female vocalist but in terms of people who were well known, I suppose there’s only Gillian from New Order and irrespective of whether she’s any good, she just happens to be the drummer’s missus. Was Manchester just a really sexist place then-what happened to all the girls?

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