Johnny Marr: jingle-jangle genius
Published 03/02/2013 | 17:52
Ever since The Smiths broke up in 1987, some of us have looked despondent, like old cowboys who've just returned from burying one of their gang out by the old corral. A part of us was gone, forever.
That part of us vanished with chronically shy Wildean lead singer Steven Patrick Morrissey and jangly guitar godhead Johnny Marr's melodramatic exit.
They remain, 26 years on from their split, steadfastly one of the most seminal and discussed bands of the 20th Century. "From the beginning," writes Tony Fletcher in his book A Light That Never Goes Out. "The Smiths sensed greatness, and to realise that greatness meant a refusal to accept confinement to the margins."
That margins-defying greatness is evident on This Charming Man, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable, Shoplifters Of The World Unite, Hand In Glove, Panic, I Know It's Over and Suffer Little Children (about the Moors Murderers); songs that have formed part of many people's youth, and stay with us until this day. Morrissey said he wanted to write songs that spoke about life "with Biblical fury".
Marr (from Ardwick Green in Manchester – his parents were originally from Athy in Co Kildare) loved the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, The Marvelettes, Rory Gallagher, the Velvet Underground; Morrissey (from the Hulme district of Manchester – his parents were originally from Dublin) loved Shelagh Delaney, Alan Bennett, Sven Hassel, James Dean, the New York Dolls, vegetarianism, gladioli and celibacy. How could the two Mancunians possibly fail? When Sting offered The Smiths a support slot on a big tour by his band The Police, Marr rightly rejected it on the basis – quite accurately – that "we're a hundred times more important than The Police will ever be".
Marr, so the legend goes, called at the home of Morrissey in May 1982 and the rest was history. Or hysteria, since the split. While the cult of Morrissey still looms larger than ever, his creative partner in The Smiths, Marr, is almost as interesting. He made a great album as Electronic – with Bernard Sumner of New Order – and did some good-not-great stuff with The The and Modest Mouse, The Cribs and The Healers.
Obviously most of us would prefer that he and Morrissey could bury that three-decades-old hatchet and reform for one last Smiths album and tour, but that seems unlikely. As he said in 2007 – and I don't think he has revised his opinion since: "It is probably a good thing that it won't happen. If it were the right thing to do, and it was going to be a beautiful experience for the audience, the musicians and everyone, and there was bunting in the streets, then that would be a good thing. But to me, it's as abstract as saying wouldn't it be great if there was a multi-million dollar blockbuster movie that was a cross between ET and The Railway Children. Yes, it would be nice, but it's not going to be happen, is it? It's idle fantasy. Really, who gives a damn?"
If we are to be honest, there is an element of who-gives-a-damn about Marr, who plays at The Academy, Dublin, next month, releasing his debut solo album, The Messenger. We gave it a listen anyway, because Johnny Marr was the guitar deity who gave us so many classics with Morrissey. And unsurprisingly The Messenger is a somewhat guitar-y album.
"That's OK," said Marr of this very charge recently to The Quietus.com. "There have been times over the years when I might have avoided that, either because it was too obvious or because I didn't want to be bagged – and it's certainly the prerogative of someone in their 20s or 30s to do that.
"But when you get a bit older it's good to drop certain worries, because it's not appropriate any more. I went to see Television a while ago, and it occurred to me that if I go and see Television, I don't want to hear them trying to sound like The Ramones. I want them to sound like Television being very, very good. I mean, it's hardly profound, but it was a bit of a rule of thumb I had with this record: be me, and do it as good as I can. Don't go trying to re-invent my own wheel. I've tried to do that plenty of times already.
"So I'm glad that it's a guitar player's record... I'm absolutely fine with that. It's also a little bit about the people who've followed me and stuck with me for a long time, and what they want..."
Johnny Marr plays The Academy in Dublin on March 27