As a teenager growing up in Manchester in the 1970s Billy befriended Steven Morrissey, drawn together by a mutual love of underground New York Music. They played in a band together briefly before both going on to extremely successful careers in music.
Now that period of Morrissey’s life has been bought to the big screen as ‘England is Mine’ and we catch up with Billy and the actor Adam Lawrence who played him in the film for an exclusive interview for www.billyduffy.com
Words & Photos by Mick Peek
Mick Peek; So how did you come to get involved in the film Billy?
Billy Duffy; “I have a friend in LA called Orian Williams, who was a producer on ‘Control’, the excellent film about Joy Division, who contacted me to say that he was working on new project about Morrissey’s teenage years before The Smiths. He asked if I’d be happy to meet with the writer and director Mark Gill to chat about that time in my life and help with his background research. I met with Mark a few times and talked with him about all my memories of those early days and that helped with the storyline and settings for the film. I also got involved providing some short pieces of guitar for the soundscape too.”
MP; What about you Adam, how did you get to end up playing Billy?
Adam Lawrence; “It started when my agent called to say you’ve got an audition for this film tomorrow… can you play the guitar? So, I said “No… but tell them yeah”. So, I had one night to learn the lines, the accent and the guitar because in the scene we were doing I needed to be strumming a guitar. As I like to do as much as I can for an audition I rang my mate who had a guitar, cycled to his house and picked up his acoustic because he didn’t have an electric.
I was working at a coffee shop at the time and I was in the basement there learning the chords and I didn’t realize at the time but acoustic guitars have thicker strings and my little artist hands couldn’t take it so by the end my fingers were bleeding.
I got home about 9pm and I thought I’ve got a few hours more to prepare so I went to bed watching YouTube videos of Billy trying to get the accent right.
The next day I turned up at the audition with the acoustic having learnt a few simple chords and winged it. After the audition, I said to Mark (Gill) “Look I can’t play but if you give me the time I’ll learn… if Daniel Day Lewis could learn to paint with his feet for ‘My Left Foot’ I can do it. After I didn’t get a recall I just got told “that was it I’d got the part”.”
MP; Did you have to learn a song for the audition then?
AL; “No, the script was just ‘Billy strums some chords’ so my mate just taught me a few chords and the ones I played in the audition were the same ones that ended up in the bedroom scene in the film.”
BD; “I was sent the clip from the bedroom scene and asked, “what do you think” and I said, “well it sounds alright to me ‘cos I could only play a few chords myself at that time”.”
AL; “Yeah, that scene was set in your room and I was looking around seeing all these posters of bands that I’d researched and I was thinking “yeah, Billy listened to that when he was a kid” and then I saw these records and thought “yeah, he had that record” and then I lay back on the bed and thought it really feels like my character’s room.”
MP; How realistic would it have been Adam not being able to play as wasn’t the whole punk ethos that anyone can do it?
BD; “Yeah it was probably like that, well maybe a bit more than overnight haha but that’s how I learnt as someone said to me I’m a drummer, he’s got a bass and we’re looking for a guitar player so I badgered my mum and she badgered my dad and we went to a music shop on Deansgate and at great expense (for us) got a guitar and a little amplifier. Next day I showed up at rehearsals and I was a guitarist. So, in essence what Adam did was pretty close.”
MP; Adam, once you’d found out you’d got the part what more research did you do?
AL; “I bought Morrissey’s autobiography and then I went on Billy’s website and looked at all the articles and interviews especially the video ones where I was listening to his accent all the time. It was good to have someone real to copy so I could make it like one person rather than a general Mancunian accent. In the script, there was lots of references about Billy smoking all the time and as I don’t smoke I went on Amazon and got some herbal cigarettes from America, which cost a bomb, as I wanted to look natural in the film.
I probably went a bit far cos I went to ‘Rocket’ in Soho and bought these 1970’s shoes and wore them for about 2 days and they’ve been in my cupboard ever since.
I started listening to music like Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the first song Billy learnt on guitar… ‘House of the rising sun’. I thought I could learn that… but then I tried I thought nah I can’t!
In fact the day I found out I’d got the part I went to Denmark Street and bought a guitar and little amp and stated practicing loads with my mate.”
MP; So, after you’d bought all that stuff did you lose money making the film?
AL; “Haha, oh yeah, I probably spent more prepping for the film than I made doing it. Though I didn’t go as far as getting a sleeve tattoo!!”
BD; “Well it didn’t have a tattoo until a lot later… in fact I didn’t smoke at that time either…. So, I’m not sure where they got that from?”
AL; “There’s a line in the script which says, “I’ve really gotta stop smoking…”
BD; “I didn’t start smoking until I moved to London and I was working at Johnsons. But it isn’t a documentary so it doesn’t mater ‘cos the essence is there. I do remember when I met Morrissey the first time he was smoking these menthol cigarettes called ‘More’ which were like long cocktail cigarettes.”
AL; “Is that when he had long hair?”
BD; “Yeah, it wasn’t really long, just longish, shoulder length curly hair. The quiff’s all came later for us when after punk the next big thing was rockabilly with the Stray Cats around 1980… they were really cool and exciting. If you look at the early Smiths pictures they all had little pompadours and the band I was in at the time, Theatre of Hate, we had that short spiky, bit rockabilly bit Clash thing going on.”
AL; “In the film I had red hair…”
BD; “Yeah for sure I remember dying my hair… not bright red but Henna red like aubergine…”
AL; “I’d come back from shooting and be working in the coffee shop with red hair in this 1970s cut knowing in 2017 with this haircut people were gonna be going “what’s he doing?” … it was good on set but when I left I looked really silly!”
MP; How did you feel about playing a real-life person still living?
AL; ‘Every character you play you have to treat it as a real person so in that sense it’s not different but I really like mimicking people so it was great playing a real person and watching those videos helped. Also, because I’m playing Billy when he was younger it’s not as scary because time has passed.”
BD; “It was a very different world when the film is set and it’s hard to get across to people how different punk had made it… not just wanting to be a punk but how everything changed after the Sex Pistols played Manchester.
1976 was very early and leading people went to see punk gigs but the period you’re portraying in the film was only late ‘77 early ‘78… and that really was the start of punk in the UK.
It was a big deal and it’s hard to get across to people as there was a big division amongst young people, between those who didn’t want to be punk and those who did. It wasn’t class it was just a mentality… it was like mods and rockers… you either wanted to stay the old way or go with the new-fangled punk rock.”
AL; At the time was Morrissey a mate or just a guy that you had a musical connection with?
BD; “We shared an obsession with New York underground music and that was the connection with him, me, and my mates from Wythenshawe, like Phil Fletcher and Steven Pomfritt and to some extent Johnny Marr. Johnny was a young kid, 3 or 4 years younger than us but he was very smart even if he hadn’t really grown into himself at that point. And there was a ritual every Saturday morning where we’d go into town.”
MP; What places were you hanging around with on those Saturday trips into Manchester with Morrissey and the Wythenshawe lads?
BD; “It was always… “lets go into town” and we’d go in in the morning. Sometimes I’d start out in A1 Music and try and nick stuff and then we’d meet up and go to ‘Yanks’ record shop which was in a basement near Oxford Road and the only place to get a US mag called ‘New York Rocker’ that featured all the stuff we loved. We’d go pawing through the vinyl to get the new stuff and our trick was to buy one and chance if it was any good and if it wasn’t we’d scratch it and then take it back and say “this was scratched” and we’d get another album. Sometimes if they weren’t too busy you could put headphones on and listen to the records and we were just obsessed with anything to do with New York, primarily the New York Dolls, but Patti Smith, Lou Reed… all that stuff.”
MP; Didn’t Morrissey run the ‘New York Dolls’ UK fan club?
BD; “Yeah, and apparently, he was petitioning the BBC to replay them on The Old Grey Whistle Test. At that time, there was just three channels of television in the UK and only two music shows… Top Of The Pops for the charts and The Old Grey Whistle Test which was primarily adult, hippyfied rock but they put the ‘Dolls’ on.
Now all that stuff’s been released on DVD and you can see it on YouTube whenever you want but back then there was nothing… it was just what you were given.
That was until I and every young Mancunian musician got lucky when a newscaster on the local channel called Tony Wilson started getting some great music on Granada TV. He put on Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop… at half past six in the evening… legends beamed into our living rooms that would never get on TV anywhere else at the time. He then did a show called ‘So it Goes’ which was the first TV show to feature the Sex Pistols and filmed loads of the up and coming punk bands when they played the Electric Circus in Manchester, quite often with me in the crowd!
Wilson was a great contributor to Manchester with Factory Records and the Hacienda, and all that, but really initially what he did by bringing that stuff to the TV for all of us suburban council estate kids was a big, big deal.”
MP; Who else would you say inspired the kids growing up in Manchester at the time?
BD; “There was a lot of great people in Manchester and we were so lucky for a provincial town to have them. We had Tosh Ryan who set up Rabid Records, Alan Erasmus who co-founded Factory records with Wilson, Rob Gretton who was a DJ at Rafters and run a fanzine for Slaughter and the Dogs (helping them fund their first single) who went on to become Joy Divisions manager (and New Order)… legendary producer Martin Hannett… they were all great people, visionary.
There was just this community in Manchester at the time that was just waiting for something to happen and then Howard Devoto and Pete Shelly (of The Buzzcocks) invited the Sex Pistols to come and play at the Free Trade Hall… without them there wouldn’t have been those two famous gigs that Morrissey was at and I was at… along with most of the next generation of Manchester musicians!”
MP; Did you know Morrissey when you went to see the Pistols in 1976?
BD; No, I didn’t know anybody on the scene at that point. I went with four lads from my school and that was the first punk gig I ever went to in. I had long hair and a jacket with Aerosmith on the back as well as Blue Oyster Cults logo, which is ironic. But then if you look at photos from early punk shows people in the crowd were in all sort of clothes and different hair lengths. There was only about 200 people that were punks and the rest were just interested in checking out the music at the start. In fairness I’d mainly gone to see Wythenshawe band Slaughter & The Dogs who were on with them.”
MP; So that ’Pistols’ show was the epiphany for you?
BD; Yeah, me and a whole lot of other guys. I’d always liked rock but I was just not that good at playing it cos I was only 15 and just doing my O levels. Then punk came along which was still a form of rock but it was inspired by the New York stuff we were talking about before.
Up to that point there were the global huge rock bands Led Zeppelin and then there was this side thing of the MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges that we all loved but was more underground and never really did as well. So, the punk thing was great with Johnny Thunders looking so cool and The Pistols album still stands up now … if you listen to ‘Never mind the bollocks’ it’s still sounds as good as anything around!”
MP; When you started hanging out with Morressey through your mutual love of New York music did he say “Oh, I’ve been writing songs” and show them to you?
BD; “Yeah, he showed me some and I was very impressed with the lyrics… very, very impressed. It was the whole package that he presented even typed out on sheets of paper.”
AL; “So you were quite pally”
BD; “Yeah, and then we started going to a lot of gigs together cos we just liked the same things, especially anything from New York even off the wall stuff like Wayne County & The Electric Chairs who became Jayne County cos he had a sex change!
We’d basically go and see anyone that was different and I remember when we went to see the Talking Heads at Manchester University we couldn’t get in cos you had to be a student or get signed in by one. We were stood outside when the band came along and the guitarist Jerry Harrison was like “What do you mean you can’t get in? You want to come and see our band?… We’ll get you in”. So, we went in with them and years later I became friends with Jerry and he still remembers getting me and Morrissey into the show.
At the time though that was my ‘little moment’ that I bragged to my mates about for ages!”
MP; How did playing in The Nosebleeds come about then?
BD; “How the thing with the thing with Morrissey came about was very random. I had just left school, there was like zero employment options and I was just aspiring to be a roadie for Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds when their guitarist had just left and they asked me if I was interested. I was 16 years of age and I could play a bit… I wasn’t great but I was ok on guitar, so for the audition the big thing I had to learn their single “Ain’t bin to no music school”…
AL; “I’ve listed to that on Spotify.”
BD; “Yeah, you can still get it… but it was pretty tricky cos at the start of the song there’s all these weird harmonics because the guitar player I replaced, Vini Reilly (who became the Durriti Column and features in the movie 24 Hour Party People), was basically the Steve Hillage of Punk.
I got the gig and they said do you know any singer’s cos Eddie Garrity had left the band too. I said, “I know this guy Steve and he really wants to be a singer and he’s shown me lyrics which are brilliant but I don’t know whether he can sing or not”.
MP; It sounds like you were a bit wary about suggesting him?
BD; “Well, like I said the lyrics were amazing but I was just more scared for him that he would get battered cos it was quite a violent time. He wasn’t really effeminate but he used to have that sexual ambiguity thing and at the time the big bands were like Sham 69… it was all fighting, punk rock and skinheads. So, as such it was gamble to give him a go but I was desperate to do anything to get out of my home in Wythenshawe as I wasn’t getting on with my parents. Looking back on it I always knew that Morrissey was a unique character I just didn’t know if he could sing or not, or front it, but then I figured he’s such a strong character and what have I got to lose.
All that said, even though his sexual orientation was always ambiguous it wasn’t a big deal amongst our group of friends. Nobody cared because a big part of the punk thing in Manchester was we always used to go to the gay club’s cos they’d have a straight night where they’d play all the music that we liked and you could go there and not get beaten up!”
AL; “When I saw the New York Dolls I didn’t know what their sexual orientation was.”
BD; “Which was straight, but they used to do the glam thing … that era pre-punk there was a lot of sexual ambiguity and a lot of drugs I guess … the whole Bowie, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan thing. Primarily they were all heterosexuals but nobody really cared either way.
But away from our friends it was seriously dangerous in Manchester and I got punched randomly somewhere, just for dressing a bit punky!”
MP; You were obviously concerned about Morrissey being able to be a front man, so when did you realise it was going to work?
BD; “I think it was when he started throwing sweets out at that second ‘Nosebleeds’ gig at the Ritz. We were the support band and did six songs and the last one was called ‘Peppermint Heaven’ and he threw out all these sweets which completely surprised everyone. That was the first time I thought that he had something special cos he never let on what he was going to do, he’d just thought that out and done it. Remember, at that time every other front man was more of an aggressive macho character and there was a lot of violence in the crowds and spitting going on so Morrissey throwing out sweets was quite different.
We actually got a great review of that first gig in the NME by the legendary writer Paul Morley where he said “The Nosebleeds re-surface with a front man with charisma” and “Only their name can prevent them being this year’s big surprise”.
An important thing to mention about the Nosebleeds with me and Morressy was that we wrote all new songs and didn’t play any of the old ones including their single “Aint bin to no music school” which was their one known song! It was Morrissey’s insistence that we didn’t even do it and I don’t think he even wanted to call the band the Nosebleeds.”
AL; “On the poster for the first gig it still said Ed Banger even though Morrissey was the singer?”
BD; “Well, the first gig at the Poly was a Rabid Records party and had lots of bands on and Slaughter & The Dogs headlining. Ed Banger &The Nosebleeds were on the label and therefore part of the bill and we just fulfilled their obligation to do the gig but we didn’t tell them that there was a new signer, a new guitar player and we weren’t gonna play any of their songs at all!
MP; So it was all brand-new songs that you’d written with Morrissey?
BD; “Yeah and one cover, apparently. I don’t actually remember writing with Steven though but I do remember some of the songs. As well as ‘Peppermint Heaven’ there was one called ‘Pristine Condition’… which I thought was quite funny and was about someone getting beaten up for being different. The lyric was from the point of view of a person pleading “don’t punch me in the face” … and that that was inspired by what was going on in town at that time.
There was one called ‘I think I’m ready for the Electric Chair’ and I think also one called ‘Deeper and Deeper’.”
AL; Did you write the songs in your bedroom?
BD; “I honestly can’t remember if it was my bedroom or his but I do remember going round to his house in Streford a few times.”
AL; “We actually filmed on the street outside his old house…”
BD; “I remember it was a classic British pre-war semi-detatched house and very pleasant.
Though I do I remember going there once and him yelling at me just as we were going in the front door. I was walking behind him and just making conversation repeating something I’d read in one of the music papers about how The Clash’s lyrics are important. He turned on me pretty quick going “why… why do you think it’s important?”.
It wasn’t an argument as such but I remember thinking ohhh at the time and they took the energy of that interaction and fitted it to the narrative of the script of the film as it gave an insight into his character.”
MP; In Johnny Marr’s book he talks about how he would write the music then take that to Morrissey and he would fit the lyrics to the mood of the song… was that the same with you two back then…
BD; “Yeah, and that’s pretty much the same as the way I’ve worked ever since with Ian Astbury and The Cult. I get an idea for some music and most of the singers I’ve worked with basically have lyrics and ideas already written down but the feel of the music will make them go “oh, I’ll pick that one”…”
MP; So, he already had a whole book of lyrics?
BD; “Yeah and the music would suggest a subject matter of which he’d already written about, which is probably the most common way of writing songs. In fact, it’s very unusual for anyone to be able to orchestrate music to lyrics though apparently, that’s what Elton John used to do with Bernie Taupin and he’d put music to lyrics but I can’t even imagine how to do that.”
MP; So how did the band stuff with Morrissey end?
BD; “I left the Nosebleeds because I got offered chance to join a band called ‘Studio Sweethearts’ with some of the guys from Slaughter & The Dogs. It meant going to London with a record deal, my own room in a flat and getting wages so at the time I couldn’t turn it down. Remember we’d only done two Nosebleeds gigs even if we had got that great review from Paul Morley!
There wasn’t a row it was just a matter of fact when I got offered the Studio Sweethearts gig and you’ve got to understand at that time they’d played Paris and Amsterdam which to me where mythical places as I’d hardly been out of Manchester! It was too tempting and they were saying “oh, we’re gonna make a record in the studio where Elton John records… and there’s free food” That was mental to me back then… “What do you mean there’s free food?”… “Yeah it’s free… you go and record and they feed you!” hahahah.
In retrospect, you might look back and say who would leave a band with Morrissey because he’s obviously a very talented and unique individual but it wasn’t that I left Morrissey it was that I seized the opportunity to get out of Manchester and away from home.
It wasn’t the wrong decision as it turned out though and we never really fell out we just drifted apart.
I think I was put there to get him on the stage and introduce him to Johnny Marr … that was clearly what I was meant to do… cos I’ve had a great career… he’s had a great career…
I have no regrets and I don’t think I could have lasted 3 or 4 more years in Manchester… on the dole… living at my parents … cos I was definitely not keen on getting a ‘real’ job!”
‘England is Mine’ opens on 4th August in the UK
You can watch the trailer here…
Special Thanks to Joanna Padovani at Stretford Public Hall for looking after us at the photo shoot and Doug Sparkes of Auden guitars who created the replica of Billy’s original ‘Gordon Smith’ guitar for the film.
Interview by Mick Peek – July 2017 © www.billyduffy.com 2017 – All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher.