Johnny Marr Journeyman Smiths Legend Emerges Solo
Published Feb 01, 2003Despite being the musical force behind the Smiths, England's most influential, fanatically embraced indie band and one of the top acts of the '80s, prodigious guitarist and one-of-a-kind songwriter Johnny Marr always dodged the spotlight. He left the Smiths just as the band signed a million dollar deal with EMI, preferring the creative freedom of freelance work. As an accompanist, songwriter and producer, or "Phil Spector with a guitar," Marr went on to form Electronic, join the Pretenders and The The and work with a slew of artists including Billy Bragg, the Pet Shop Boys, Kirsty MacColl, Oasis and Haven. Now, for the first time since the Smiths, Marr assumes a central role with Johnny Marr and the Healers. On the band's debut album, Boomslang, Marr writes both the music and lyrics, produces, plays several instruments, and sings. Although the Healers share more common ground with Oasis and Kula Shaker than the Smiths or Morrissey solo, Marr still strives to write songs that save your life. The following contains excerpts from an interview/press conference conducted by Dave Marsh on October 1, 2002, during the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City.
John Martin Maher is born in Manchester on October 31. His parents come from big Irish families who moved to England en masse the previous year, looking for work. "My parents and aunts and uncles were all 17- to 21-year-old kids from the country, set free in the big city. They lived a very hard life, and at the end of the day they just wanted to rock'n'roll. I remember these 20-year-old women dancing and jiving to Eddie Cochrane and the Everly Brothers in the front room. It was absolutely magical to me. Until about 11, I was really painfully sensitive and freaked out, but at those parties, everyone had to sing a song or play something you were made to. So I played harmonica when I was younger, and then I got a guitar."
After years spent obsessing over the Stooges, Marc Bolan and Motown, Maher has honed his skills to the point of out-playing older neighbourhood kids like Billy Duffy, later of the Cult. "My mother was a complete obsessive about records, and the 45 single was like a mystical object to me. I immersed myself in it, but I didn't just copy the guitar parts, I would try to play the whole thing. That's how I developed my style." With four friends, including 13-year-old future Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, Maher plays Tom Petty and Thin Lizzy covers in a short-lived band called the Paris Valentinos.
Maher joins Sister Ray, a Velvet Underground-wannabe band of alleged "biker nasties." He hangs around long enough for one show.
Maher finds himself in another band with Rourke, called White Dice. Part Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, part Squeeze, the band play a few shows and records demos but labels are unimpressed. Maher enrols at Wythenshawe College.
Maher and Rourke's third stab at a band is the Freak Party, inspired by funk musicians like Nile Rodgers and the Fatback Band. They hire a drummer but never settle on a singer. During one of their rehearsals, Maher is arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen goods and the rest of the band is interrogated, but no charges are laid. Maher is also spinning funk and disco at a club called Exit and working days at X Clothes. A fellow clerk introduces him to Matt Johnson, who's forming The The in London. "We really wanted to be in a band together, but we were both just too broke to travel 200 miles to each other."
"When I went to meet Morrissey, we could talk about the Marvelettes, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls. In fact, that's how I was aware of him a few years before I met him there weren't many Dolls fans around!" Morrissey's fanciful version of meeting Maher has the young guitarist peering into his house and leaving a chocolate stain on the window. In fact, a mutual friend escorts Maher to the home of the eccentric recluse/amateur music critic. With Leiber & Stoller, Jagger/Richards aspirations, they get to work immediately. "Morrissey presented me with the lyrics to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle' and Suffer Little Children' they were the first songs I wrote professionally. With that kind of subject matter, it was like diving into the deep end."
Maher's bassist buddy Rourke and local punk drummer Mike Joyce are soon recruited, despite the fact that Joyce is space-caked on mushrooms during his audition. The band rehearse next door to X Clothes, behind Joe Moss's Crazy Face boutique. Moss, who's already a good friend of Maher's, becomes the group's manager just as they choose their moniker, the Smiths, one of three Morrissey suggestions. (The other two are Smithdom and Smiths Family.) With only three songs in the bag, the Smiths make their live debut with Morrissey's friend James Maker, who go-go dances on stage in stiletto heels. Maher is enthusiastic about attracting the gay community through Maker, but the dancer is axed after two shows.
To avoid confusion with Buzzcocks drummer John Maher, the name Johnny Marr is adopted shortly before the Smiths' first headlining gig. Their third show takes place at Manchester's legendary Hacienda. Many assume that the Smiths will sign to the club's affiliated Factory Records, but label head Tony Wilson and New Order producer Rob Gretton agree that the band's demo is shit. Within months, Wilson watches as hysterical Smiths fans fill the Hacienda, some fainting at the sight of their heroes. Morrissey and Marr sign a four-record deal with London's Rough Trade, a contract offering generous artistic control and reasonable money. The names of Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke are notably absent.
The recording of the Smiths' eponymous debut album is troubled from the outset, with weeks worth of Troy Tate-produced sessions deemed unusable. The band hastily starts over with John Porter, a key figure in Marr's musical education. "He had worked with Roxy Music and Sparks, so when we met him we just flipped out. He really did wise us up." However, the rush job ultimately leaves the band unsatisfied and Porter's days are numbered. The uneven album and three strong singles are nevertheless embraced by fans and press alike, but one critic misinterprets Morrissey's lyrics, accusing the singer of endorsing child molestation. The story is spread across the tabloids and BBC eventually bans "Reel Around the Fountain." However, the publicity only works in the band's favour, and radio sessions, TV appearances and a show at New York City's trendy Danceteria ensue.
Though Joe Moss has by now quit his post as the Smiths' manager, both Marr and Rourke move into his house, where Marr mopes over a rift with his girlfriend and Rourke works through one of many lapses into heroin abuse, a problem that's kept secret from Morrissey and Joyce. However, the band maintains a high profile on stages across the UK and Europe, and Morrissey's vanity, eccentric obsessions and outrageous political commentary are welcome fodder for the music press. Marr occasionally tries to match his partner's arrogant wit with statements like, "For a lot of people, we're the event of the decade. We feel it would be a tragic waste not to buy our records."
Although the Smiths top the British chart with Meat is Murder a refined, yet more raucous album produced by Stephen Street Rough Trade fumbles promoting their singles, particularly "How Is Now." The rift between band and label grows as the Smiths pull stunts like changing hotels in Italy to avoid press obligations and handlers. But despite their apparent disdain for foreign countries, the band completes successful, stressful, sometimes debaucherous tours of Europe and the U.S., where Marr marries long-time girlfriend Angie Brown. Marr also produces a song for a band called Impossible Dreamers, accompanies Billy Bragg on a short tour and sets some licks to tape for Bragg's upcoming album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry.
Craig Gannon briefly replaces Andy Rourke, whose persistent heroin problem is now affecting his playing. Gannon switches to second guitar when Rourke returns, allowing Marr to flex more rock muscle. But some fans and critics object to the harder sound, accusing Marr of playing guitar hero, and sightings of "Johnny clones" give further credence to this supposed rock star image. "To younger kids who were into guitars, I was at the top of a class of one, and not everyone could handle going to school looking like Morrissey. Some of them wanted to be the other guy."
A picture of stress, Marr makes a habit of vomiting before every show and nearly breaks down after a gruelling job producing the band's masterpiece, The Queen Is Dead his first attempt at producing a full-length recording. In November, he walks away from an auto accident that could have cost him his legs, if not his life. Joyce describes Marr's wrecked car as concertina-shaped.
Apart from the smooth recording of the brilliant Strangeways Here We Come, the rest of the year is tense in Smithdom. Legal and managerial troubles take their toll, and Marr feels increasingly stifled by the band's rigidly white guitar pop. When NME announces "Smiths to split," Marr perceives the rumour as a test, courtesy of Morrissey, so he up and quits. Easterhouse's Ivor Perry and Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame are briefly considered as replacements but the remaining Smiths soon throw in the towel. Vilified by Smiths maniacs in the press and in person, Marr immerses himself in work, contributing to albums by Talking Heads and Bryan Ferry, who recycles the Smiths' instrumental "Money Changes Everything," adding lyrics and re-naming it "The Right Stuff."
"When I joined the Pretenders, I only did a few shows, made a single and wrote some songs with Chrissie Hynde. She was this incredibly powerful, interesting, heavy thinking woman who didn't give a shit about the band I'd just left. I was saying, Ugh, no one understands, my band have split up, it's so heavy,' and she was like, Well, two of my band fuckin' died.'"
Marr haunts Manchester clubs with friend and New Order singer Bernard Sumner. The pair adopt the moniker Electronic and borrow the Pet Shop Boys for their debut single, "Getting Away With It." "The premise was, our city is completely going crazy with new music, new clubs, new drugs, new fashions, it felt like the centre of the universe, and we were two guys who could make some rock music out of that."
Marr also plays on Kite by British singer Kirsty MacColl, who'd sung back-up on the Smiths' "Ask," before finally joining Matt Johnson's The The in time for Mind Bomb. "The The was the perfect calling for me, but it wasn't some strange career strategy, it was just my friend who I happened to really believe in. Matt is one-of-a-kind and, frankly, I was very envious of the records he was making in the '80s."
Though much of the year is spent touring the world with The The, Marr produces a single for his old DJ partner and confidante Andrew Berry and gets the guitar out for two songs on Behaviour by the Pet Shop Boys, whose singer Neil Tennant writes another song with Electronic.
Dance grooves, exclamatory keys and a touch of rap mark the very contemporary sound of Electronic's eponymous debut album, tellingly released the same year (and employing the same back-up soul singer) as Primal Scream's superior Screamadelica. Marr lends guitar and maintains the beat on Kirsty MacColl's Electric Landlady, for which he co-writes the semi-hit "Walking Down Madison." There are also session jobs with minor acts Stex and Banderas, as well as more work with Billy Bragg. Feeling cheated out of Smiths royalties, Mike Joyce files a lawsuit against Marr and Morrissey, but it's years before they meet in court.
Smiths best-ofs and re-released singles put Marr's decade-old band back in the news, as does Johnny Rogan's controversial book, Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance. Marr later refers to the Smiths-obsessed writer as "Johnny Rodent," while Morrissey wishes him death "in an M3 pile-up," a quote Rogan uses on the cover of his next Smiths book. The past persists as Marr turns the tables on former Smiths soundman Grant Showbiz and engineers Skinthieves, the debut by his band Moodswings. The recording happens at the same studio where the Smiths last recorded.
Marr works with The The for the last time on what remains one of his favourite albums, Dusk. He doesn't join the band on the road this time around, preferring the company of his wife, his new son and Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch. The pair write and record half a dozen songs but later claim that the session tape vanished from a courier van. Some say Marr and McCulloch simply aren't happy with the material, though McCulloch later resurrects three of the tunes with Bunnyman Will Sergeant for their one-off project, Electrafixion.
The wheels are set in motion for the next Electronic album, on which Kraftwerk's Karl Bartos replaces Neil Tennant as the band's third member. Attempts to draw Nile Rodgers into the fold are unsuccessful. Marr and Sumner take time to produce a single for Manchester friends A Certain Ratio. Marr also plays guitar on a Cult B-side with childhood buddy Billy Duffy, contributes to a Pet Shop Boys single and plays on Kirsty MacColl's Titanic Days.
Electronic's Raise the Pressure is finally released after two years in production, but critics are indifferent. Britpop dominates the UK's press pages and airwaves, and band after band, guitarist after guitarist, praise the Smiths in interviews. "It's really the highest accolade coming from people you respect, like the guys out of Radiohead, or [Blur's] Graham Coxon or [Suede's] Bernard Butler. It was a sweet time for me when all those guys came out and said I influenced them. I can't hear it, but, um "
Marr plays one show and writes one song with Happy Mondays spin-off band Black Grape shortly before another Manchester act grabs his attention. Marion take their love of the Smiths to the extreme, employing Joe Moss as manager and Stephen Street as producer, opening for Morrissey on a brief tour, and finally recruiting Marr to produce their next album.
The year ends with a Smiths reunion in court. Rourke accepted a settlement years earlier, but testifies in support of Joyce, who demands equal back pay for performances and recording. Marr claims that the added load of essentially managing the band entitles he and Morrissey to their bigger cut, but Joyce walks away £1.7 million richer. The judge, however, describes Marr as "the most intelligent of the four."
Teaming up with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, Marr plays harmonica on a few instrumentals featured in the British film The James Gang, but a proper soundtrack album is never released. More work with Billy Bragg follows, as does a session with UK dance act M People.
Bits of Marr's earlier works surface, including Marion's little known gem, The Program, as well as two more of Marr and McCulloch's "lost" tracks. One appears on Evergreen by the newly reformed Echo and the Bunnymen, while the other becomes England's official World Cup anthem. "(How Does It Feel to Be) On Top of the World" is performed by England United, a bizarre super-group featuring McCulloch, members of Ocean Colour Scene, a couple of Spice Girls and a few football players. Despite Marr's input, England's performance in the World Cup is characteristically weak.
Electronic shy away from their mandate with the more rawk, aggro-funk sound of Twisted Tenderness, which Marr says is their last album. UK critics are reasonably positive but, with Marr unwilling to tour, it's over a year before the album is issued in North America. Apart from session work with Billy Bragg, Beck and Tom Jones, Marr also jams with Beatle spawn Zak Starkey and makes a rare appearance behind a microphone, singing "Meat Is Murder" at a memorial concert for animal lover Linda McCartney.
With his drummer friend Starkey and ex-Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan, Marr forms a new band, the Healers. Singers are auditioned but Marr eventually takes the lead. "The idea I had for a band was pretty much complete, I had the whole picture, including how I wanted the vocals to sound. I was singing with the band when we were knocking things around and they told me they liked what I was doing. I know they wouldn't put me out on the high wire without a net."
The Healers' first recording is "A Woman Like You," originally by British folk icon Bert Jansch, one of Marr's early heroes. Marr also plays on Jansch's new album Crimson Moon, and joins Oasis for a radio session, much to the delight of Marr fanatic Noel Gallagher.
2001 to 2002
"We got invited by [Oasis's] Noel and Liam [Gallagher] to go out on the road with them, and in the back of my mind there was still this promise I'd made to myself to form the Mancunian Sly and the Family Stone." With an expanded back-up band, the Healers "go turbo" on stage but decide to reign in the beast with more structure in the studio. The Oasis brothers enlist Marr to make a cameo on their album Heathen Chemistry, and Marr does the same on the Pet Shop Boys' Release. He also writes a track with Beth Orton for her album Daybreaker and produces Between the Senses, the debut disc by another Joe Moss-managed band, Haven. Marr participates in a live tribute to Kirsty MacColl, who died while scuba diving two years earlier, and plays several all-star shows led by Crowded House singer Neil Finn. The tour is documented on 7 Worlds Collide, which includes a cover of the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out."
Johnny Marr and the Healers release their debut album, Boomslang, on iMusic. (BMG in Canada.) It's entirely written and produced by Marr, who makes a quite capable debut as a singer and, in the Marc Bolan tradition, a freeform lyricist. The spirited grooves and thick riffage are more heavy-handed than Smiths fans might expect, but what more natural sound from a glam, funk and rock'n'roll-influenced career guitarist?
"I tried to have no agenda in terms of what's expected from my first solo record, I've just incorporated all the things I've been digging on since I was 12, 13. Some of it turned out sounding more like the Smiths than I would have expected, actually, which makes sense 'cause I was just trying to be natural. As long as I can look back in a few years and think, That's a genuine record.'"