A Light That Never Goes Out


There’s something I’d like to try


This is an experiment, a rabbit hole. Go with me.


In Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (1993) British historian E.P. Thompson explores how land use and ownership was shaped by the evolving relationship between customs and law, influencing the development of English law in relation to land as private property. Prior to a series of parliamentary acts dating from the fourteenth century onwards, land in England was subject to the feudal system of tenure. The feudal system produced a parallel system of communal farming and related land use of common or ‘waste’ land, where peasants, having no land of their own, customarily shared this land to keep livestock, grow food, and produce materials for other necessities such as building and clothing. This land became known as ‘the commons’.[1]




The English word ‘culture’ is derived from the Latin colere, which means to tend, or to cultivate.


I didn’t go to the 2023 Glastonbury music festival, but like countless others who wished they could have done, I watched it on television and on catch-up. One evening, curious (and a child of the ‘80s), I streamed the set of ‘80s pop icon Rick Astley who, with Stockport indie band Blossoms, performed a set of songs by ‘80s cult indie band The Smiths.

Prior to Glastonbury, Astley and Blossoms had performed a few songs by The Smiths as encores at two Blossoms gigs, going down a storm with audiences. In 2021, they performed a full set of Smiths’ songs at Manchester’s Albert Hall. This was noted by music journalists largely for its novelty, an incongruous ‘covers band’ providing a kind of fun night out for fans of The Smiths who wanted to enjoy the music without the guilt, following a growing number of examples of the alleged racist and xenophobic views held by The Smiths’ former lead singer and lyricist, Steven Morrissey. [2] The frontman of a working class band from Manchester, Morrissey was once, at least apparently so, left-leaning: openly anti-Thatcher and anti-monarchy, with The Smiths even playing gigs for explicitly left-wing causes. Morrissey’s unusual articulate and literary narrative lyrics seemed to speak to a particular kind of (northern and, yes, for the main part, white and male) working class emotional experience, painted against both the urban and rural backdrops of northwest England. Growing discomfort with some of Morrissey’s public comments in recent years culminated in 2019 when he openly voiced support for a ring-wing political party.[3] Rather than attempting the strange mental gymnastics of separating art and artist, many fans of The Smiths took to social media to declare they simply could not and would not listen to their records again. Other pop stars, including Billy Bragg, and Matt Berninger, have since publicly shunned Morrissey’s music, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations actively called for fans to boycott one of Morrissey’s shows in Baltimore, Maryland during his 2019 tour of the USA.[4]

At Glastonbury 2023, Astley’s and Blossoms’ ‘secret’ set, announced only a few days beforehand, was performed on the Woodsies Stage to a packed audience of over 10,000 people. Again, reviews saw journalists writing about the set ‘banishing any sense of moral queasiness’ in enjoying the songs and made further references to covers bands and ‘glorified karaoke’.[5] But that’s not it. It was brilliant, but there was something more going on than nostalgia or novelty or irony. Something else occurred – was clearly occurring, even via a streaming service – during their Glastonbury set.


On a hillside, desolate


The True Levellers were a radical agrarian protest movement that emerged in Surrey in the mid-1600s in the wake of the English Civil war. In 1640, in notable parallel to the current economic situation of spiralling inflation, food prices had reached record heights. In 1642 the first English Civil War broke out – parliamentarians’ demands for full participation in government were refused by Charles I, a monarch that believed in royal absolutism and the Divine Right of Kings. The great private landowners – lords of the manor – who benefited from low taxation and increasing legal protection, were ardent anti-parliamentarians.

In 1643, Gerrard Winstanley, a clothier, moved from London to Cobham in Surrey after trading in the capital had destabilised. By necessity, he became involved in farming, grazing, and dairying, and soon began to develop radical ideas about land sharing and communal living.[6] During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, use-rights of the commons were gradually replaced by the legal rights of landowners. Thompson writes that, prior to this, ‘[a]s both land and rights became more valuable, attempts to limit these rights or to enclose lands were met with riotous resistance in 1421, 1430, 1469, 1473, 1495, and 1509, while further enclosure was successfully resisted in a major riot in 1525.’[7] However, this erosion of common land through legislation eventually resulted in the 1773 Enclosures Act, removing access rights to common land and enabling ‘enclosure’, the restriction of land use to only its legal owner.[8]

In 1649, food prices had surged due to a series of poor harvests. Winstanley and fourteen others published a pamphlet in which they declared themselves the ‘True Levellers’. In it, they claimed that private property was a ‘curse’ and that ‘Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murder, or Theft’. They protested that land should be a ‘common treasury for all’, and that all formerly common land should be returned to the poor for cultivation. Declaring their intent to take down enclosures on St George’s Hill near Weybridge, they claimed doing so would induce the local population to join them and they would quickly number several thousands.[9] In April that year, following the execution of Charles I, the group broke ground on St George’s Hill and began planting vegetables, in an attempt to reclaim it for common use. Over several months they were systematically harassed by the Lord of the Manor, who deployed organised gangs to intimidate and attack the group. The True Levellers were taken to court and ordered to abandon the site or face eviction, and they left the hill in August, around the start of the harvest season. At other sites of attempted ground breaking they were violently evicted, some were imprisoned, their crops and livestock were attacked, and over subsequent years, the group was driven from county to county. Heavily influential on subsequent Communist thought and numerous waves of the Squatters’ Movement, there has been a contemporary resurgence of interest in The True Levellers (also referred to as The Diggers) in the wake of soaring food prices and the climate emergency, in large part the results of over 250 years of industrialised capitalism enabled by enclosure.


St. George’s Hill is now a private gated community, replete with the ‘greenery’ of tennis clubs and a golf course.


Breaking old ground


Russell Hoban’s speculative-fiction novel Riddley Walker (1980), set in a post-apocalyptic Kent, and more recently Anne Washburn’s ‘post-electric’ play Mr. Burns (2013) explore what remains of, and is claimed as ‘culture’ by humans when society – and thus capitalism – no longer exists and how the remnants of culture (the martyrdom of St. Eustace, and US TV show The Simpsons, respectively) in the shared memories of survivors of various fictional Armageddons are, over time, transmuted into mythology. In other words, over time, the meanings, intentions, and associations of cultural objects become less and less bound to their origins and instead serve a particular social purpose.

The western European cultural practice of music festivals emerged out of tradition of cultural festivity relating to the seasons, such as folk and harvest festivals, the coming together of people in celebration culture and cultivation. Glastonbury’s location is, famously, tied to histories of folklore, mythology, and mysticism. It is home to Stonehenge and the Tor, the ancient St Michael’s church, said to have several mythological links, including to those of King Arthur. It is also said to stand on a ley line, a phenomenon often attributed to the occurrence of unexpected synchronicities and coincidences. Alfred Watkins, an English landscape photographer and antiquarian proposed the notion of ‘leys’ in a book called The Old Straight Track (1925). He proposed that our ancestors ‘built and used prominent features in the landscape as navigation points’, such as stone circles, hilltops, and ancient moats. He named the straight lines by which these navigation points were seemingly connected ‘ley lines’. Suggesting that these routes ‘were followed in prehistoric times for the purposes of trade or religious rites’, to understand the concept of ley lines, he encouraged his readers to ‘imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach’.[10] Although Watkins did not believe ley lines to have magical powers, other contemporaneous groups did: ‘that they represented lines of subtle energy that travelled along the land’.[11] Since the 1960s, members of various countercultural groups, such as the New Age Movement and modern paganism, took this further, believing that ley lines contained ‘earth energies’ which, as well as serving as a guide between sacred sites, could produce higher states of consciousness.[12] Glastonbury Festival is frequently described by its attendees as a ‘magical’ experience.

As I have indicated above, what struck me about Rick Astley and Blossoms performing The Smiths at Glastonbury was that it was clearly more than a nostalgic novelty covers act. For one, it was technically too good and taken too seriously by both the performers and the audience. But more than this, it transcended covers band-ness, or novelty, or nostalgia, and was brilliant because of this transcendence. Unlike Bragg et al, Astley and Blossoms haven’t publicly declared their performance of songs by The Smiths as some kind of anti-Morrissey stance. But what did occur, I propose, was a kind of public or common reclamation of those songs. Over the course of an hour, the back catalogue of The Smiths was, at some imperceptible moment, transformed into folk music: They’re not your songs, they’re our songs. Moreover, it is, perhaps, an act of tending, or cultivation: It seems that the creator of these songs can no longer be trusted, so we – all of us – will be taking care of them from now on.

Before Blossoms and Astley did so, Johnny Marr, lead guitarist of The Smiths, regularly performed, and still performs, songs from band’s back catalogue during his sets as a solo artist, perhaps to demonstrate that he does not hold the views apparently held by his former co-songwriter, to actively separate both himself and their music from those views, and to make a statement about his ownership of the songs and their meaning. In 2021, however, Marr described Astley’s and Blossoms’ Albert Hall set as ‘funny and horrible at the same time’, the ‘horrible’ seeming to refer to an unarticulated discomfort with Astley’s involvement.[13] It is also potentially ‘horrible’ to Marr in a different sense: ‘horrible’, perhaps, because at that moment, Marr realised he could no longer control what happens to his own music.

Consequently, The Smiths, and more specifically Steven Morrissey, potentially start to become the stuff of myths, the beginning of a slow disconnect between Morrissey and his apparent beliefs from his lyrics and their original perceived meaning, as they are performed more and more without his involvement or his control. This is not the same as the notion of separating the art from the artist: that is an individual and problematic act, and one to which I don’t subscribe. Nor is it about the regressive and dangerous right-wing ideology of ‘taking back’ things or making things ‘great again’. This is an idea of an attempt at – the possibilities of – collective ownership of art, in a non-capitalistic or anti-capitalist sense, of something which, ultimately, can’t be owned, not really. Music, like all art, is subject to private ownership – there is money to be made from sales, rights, performances, royalties – but art is not just a common social good, something that can be experienced communally but owned privately: it can transcend into a kind of intangible common asset. You can make art and you can own art, but art also has a life – a common life – of its own, which neither its maker nor its owner can control.


I wonder to myself


I don’t know if ley lines are said to connect the historic counties of Lancashire and Surrey so, instead, I merely note that the lives of Gerrard Winstanley and Rick Astley, though chronologically distanced by over 350 years, are closely tied by geography. Winstanley was born in Wigan parish, near Manchester, and Astley was born in Newton-Le-Willows, 7 miles south of Wigan. In the Middle Ages, Wigan was considered part of the manor of Neweton, now Newton-Le-Willows. Rick Astley currently resides in Molesey, Surrey, 7 miles from St. George’s Hill.




[1] E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (London: Penguin Books, 19
93), pp. 122-123.
[2] Dave Simpson, ‘Rick Astley and Blossoms review – the ultimate Smiths karaoke shouldn’t work, but it does’, Guardian, 10 October 2021
<https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/oct/10/rick-astley-blossoms-review-smiths-karaoke-albert-hall-manchester> [accessed 22 July 2023].
[3] Tim Jonze, ‘Big Mouth strikes again and again: why Morrissey fans feel so betrayed’, Guardian, 30 May 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/30/bigmouth-strikes-again-morrissey-songs-loneliness-shyness-misfits-far-right-party-tonight-show-jimmy-fallon> [accessed 19 July 2023]; Jamie Learner, ‘Concert-goers’ anger toward Morrissey has been reignited’, Distractify, 19 August 2021 <https://www.distractify.com/p/morrissey-controversy> [accessed 31 July 2023].
[4] Tom Skinner ‘Billy Bragg condemns Morrissey for sharing “white supremacy video” containing footage from Stormzy’s Glastonbury set’, NME, 7 July 2019 <https://www.nme.com/news/music/billy-bragg-condemns-morrissey-for-posting-white-supremacist-video-containing-footage-from-stormzys-glastonbury-set-2525405> [accessed 28 July 2023]; Tom Taylor, ‘The National’s Matt Berninger explains why he no longer listens to Morrissey’, Far Out, 21 April 2023 <https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/the-nationals-matt-berninger-explains-why-he-no-longer-listens-to-morrissey/> [accessed 28 July 2023]; Salvetore Maicki, ‘Morrissey’s US tour ticket sales are a disaster’, The Fader, 5 September 2019 < https://www.thefader.com/2019/09/05/morrissey-north-american-tour-sales> [accessed 28 July 2023].
[5] Jenessa Williams, ‘Blossoms and Rick Astley at Glastonbury review – Smiths hits are the very opposite of miserable now’, Guardian, 24 June 2023
<https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/jun/24/blossoms-rick-astley-glastonbury-review-smiths-covers-morrissey> [accessed 10 July 2023].
[6] ‘The Surrey Diggers Trail’, Elmbridge Museum<https://elmbridgemuseum.org.uk/surrey-diggers-trail/> [accessed 14 July 2023].
[7] Thompson, pp. 122-123.
[8] Thompson, p. 101.
[9] Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men (1649), archived at <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/winstanley/1649/levellers-standard.htm> [accessed 18 July 2023]. The True Levellers were later known as ‘The Diggers’ to disambiguate them from The Levellers from whom they split due to their opposition of common ownership.
[10] Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, The English Book of Magic (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), pp.19-20
[11] Ibid., p.22.
[12] Ibid., p.25.
[13] Sam Moore, ‘Johnny Marr gives his verdict on Blossoms and Rick Astley’s Smith cover band’, NME, 17 September 2021 <https://www.nme.com/news/music/johnny-marr-gives-his-verdict-on-blossoms-and-rick-astleys-smiths-covers-band-3048563> [accessed 18 July 2023]. This is also a common theme in reviews of Astley’s and Blossoms’ joint performances, the implication that someone like Rick Astley and his status as an ‘80s pop star, should automatically preclude him from any kind of engagement with The Smiths’ work. Again, this is about ownership and territory, real or perceived. A full critique of the nostalgic territorialism of a particular kind of white male music journalist is sadly beyond the scope of this text.




Charlotte Young is an artist and writer interested in power structures, institutions, and the social construction of myths. Her artwork incorporates text, video, installation, and performance. Her work has been exhibited and performed internationally, including ABC No Rio (New York City, USA), Skånes Konstförening, (Malmö, Sweden), FormContent (London, UK), Whitstable Biennale (UK), and Latitude Festival (UK).