Who was Morrissey singing about in William It Was Really Nothing?

25 August 2019, 12:00 | Updated: 10 September 2019, 13:06

Morrissey of The Smiths, performing in concert, March 1984
Morrissey of The Smiths, performing in concert, March 1984. Picture: Harry Prosser/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Who was the classic 1984 Smiths single actually talking about?

The Smiths released their fifth single, William It Was Really Nothing on 20 August 1984. It was the follow-up to the Top 10 hit Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and was another chart success for the Manchester band. William peaked at No 17 the week that Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say I Loved You topped the charts… not bad for a release on an indie label.

The song went on to become one of The Smiths’ most underrated singles, leading off the acclaimed compilation Hatful Of Hollow later that year.

The lyrics tell of a “humdrum town” and a girl that pressures a boy into marriage - much to his discomfort as she demands: “Would you like to marry me? And if you like, you can buy the ring.”

The appeal of William It Was Really Nothing has continued over 30 years after its release - in December 2018, Morrissey opened a show in Chile with the song, just one of a handful of Smiths tracks that still make his live sets.

Morrissey reportedly wrote the song as a deliberate attempt to write a song about marriage from the male point of view, but the song led many to wonder just who “William” was based on.

Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar, 1963
Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar, 1963. Picture: LMPC via Getty Images

The “kitchen-sink” style of the lyrics would lead Morrissey-watchers to assume that William is actually Billy Liar, the titular character of the a book by Keith Waterhouse, later made into a movie in 1963 with Tom Courtenay as Billy.

Billy Liar was a fantasist living in Yorkshire, who ends up proposing to three different girls and plots his escape back to London to become a star - although things don’t work out that way.

Billy MacKenzie of The Associates performing at University of London Union, 30 January 1981
Billy MacKenzie of The Associates performing at University of London Union, 30 January 1981. Picture: David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

However, another common interpretation of the song is that William It Was Really Nothing is actually addressed to Billy Mackenzie, a Scottish singer-songwriter, best known for fronting The Associates in the early 1980s.

In his book on Mackenzie, The Glamour Chase, author Tom Doyle claims that Morrissey and Billy had a brief friendship which “allegedly ended with Mackenzie stealing a Jane Stein novel from the singer's Manchester flat”.

Smiths drummer Mike Joyce seemed to agree with the theory that the song is about Mackenzie. On a BBC radio show in 2012, he played William It Was Really Nothing and two other tracks and asked listeners to guess the theme. When one email suggested the link was “English men’s names”, Joyce pointed out that Billy Mackenzie was actually Scottish.

While The Associates enjoyed brief fame with the singles Club Country and Party Fears Two, original member Alan Rankine left just as the band were about to head out on tour leaving Mackenzie to cancel the dates and carry on alone.

In 1993, the duo reunited to demo some new material and one of the songs was called Stephen, You’re Really Something - which appeared to many to be a “reply” to William It Was Really Nothing. The song includes the line “I loved the way you sent your poetry”.

Billy Mackenzie took his own life in January 1997 and one of his final public appearances was in the video to The Cure’s single Mint Car. The Associates had been Robert Smith’s labelmates on Fiction Records at the end of the 70s and the Cure frontman later wrote a tribute to his friend, called Cut Here.