Thursday 23 November 2017

Sonic adventures of a restless spirit

Legendary guitarist Johnny Marr reveals how The Smiths came close to patching up their differences in an engaging memoir

Charming man: Johnny Marr
Charming man: Johnny Marr
Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr with The Smiths
John Meagher

John Meagher

For music lovers of a certain vintage, it is question that is pondered time and again. Will Morrissey and Johnny Marr - the men behind one of the most fanatically adored bands of all time, The Smiths - ever work together again? Might the group who changed the course of British music in a glorious spell between 1983 and 1987, forget their differences and embark on one of the great musical victory laps?

Judging from Marr's entertaining and enlightening new memoir, one of rock's most unlikely of reunions will remain the stuff of fantasy. He writes that he and Morrissey, having met in 2008 after years apart, discussed the idea of bringing The Smiths back to life but, it turned out to be idle pub talk.

"We were talking about the possibility of the band reforming," he writes, "and in that moment it seemed that with the right intention, it could actually be done and might even be great. I went to Mexico with the Cribs [the band he was then playing with], and then suddenly there was radio silence. Our communication ended, and things went back to how they were and how I expect they always will be."

Set the Boy Free arrives two years after Morrissey's hugely anticipated autobiography, and those irked that the singer skirted over aspects of The Smiths' career, will be heartened by the fact that Marr does a more comprehensive job of capturing that wonderfully prolific and thrilling five years when the Manchester quartet was the most lauded British outfit since the Beatles.

Johnny Marr with The Smiths
Johnny Marr with The Smiths

There's little of the self-indulgence and score-settling that pockmarked Morrissey's otherwise engaging book and Marr sets about telling his side in plain language, and in simple chronological order.

So we get great detail about his childhood, his first dabbling in music, that fertile time in The Smiths and the anguished period that arrived thanks to their erroneous split. There's plenty of information, too, about his chequered career post-Smiths, one that has seen him sprinkle guitar magic on any number of bands.

There's much to cherish for Irish readers, too, especially as Marr - born John Maher, in Manchester in 1963 - talks at length about a singularly Irish childhood. Like Morrissey, both his parents, John and Frances, were emigrants from this country, and he recalls happy summer days spent with relations near Athy, Co Kildare, and with his large, extended family in Manchester.

His was a happy childhood. "Our house always had music going," he writes. "My parents were both obsessed about singers and bands and my mother bought records all the time."

He got his first guitar at five - a wooden toy that he had seen in the window of the local convenience store. "From then on I can't remember a time when I didn't have a guitar."

Several of the Manchester Mahers had a great faculty with music and so, too, did the young Johnny when he first started to learn the rudiments of his chosen instrument. A school teacher recognised his talent and urged him to become an "artist" and not fall into bad company. It was advice the fledgling musician would take to heart, and one of the first things he did was to change his name to Marr, the phonetically correct pronunciation of his surname.

He absorbed much of the music that emerged in the thrilling cultural landscape of the 1970s, and by the end of the decade was determined to be in a band. He was helped in his single-minded pursuit of that aim when he met Angie, his future wife, while still a teen. The book is devoted to her.

He writes movingly about meeting Morrissey for the first time and the sense of euphoria he felt when he realised he had made friends with a kindred spirit. Their meeting is one of glorious serendipity, up there, Smiths devotees believe, with that of Lennon and McCartney.

Almost immediately, the pair created magic. Marr's extraordinary guitar playing and production nous coupled with Morrissey's poetic and bleak world-view, shot through with moments of great humour, ensured The Smiths - with rhythm section Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce in tow - were delivering great songs from the off.

Marr tells a charming story about getting signed to Rough Trade records. He had journeyed to London from Manchester with a cassette copy of their debut single 'Hand in Glove' and was determined to give it to label head Geoff Travis. When he got to the office, he sensed he was being fobbed off, but saw his chance to pretend to be a worker in the label's empty warehouse. When Travis emerged from his meeting, Marr walked up to him, introduced himself and his band, and blurted out that "You won't have heard anything like it before". Within days, The Smiths were on Rough Trade's books.

Set the Boy Free is especially engaging when dealing with those Smiths years. Marr offers a glimpse into how he and Morrissey fashioned their great songs. One senses that this kid - just 19 when their first single was released - could hardly have been happier: "I had an intimate relationship with my songwriting partner, who I loved, I had a girlfriend who was the love of my life, and I thought my band was the best in the world."

But it wasn't to last. Divisions arose when they were making their fourth album, Strangeways Here We Come. "Something suddenly changed," he writes. "New allegiances were formed between band members and I was having to defend the merits of our new manager [Ken Friedman]… This new feeling of opposition seemed like it was turning into a kind of domination, with our friendships now appearing to be a secondary consideration, and I could feel all the positivity I had for the future slipping away."

Marr says he tried to talk to Morrissey, but found the singer uncommunicative. A band meeting was called. "I expressed my frustrations as well as I could without trying to sound too negative, but inside I felt like I was drowning." He left The Smiths just days later, but there would be repercussions.

Although Marr picked himself up and formed Electronic with New Order's Bernard Sumner - another giant of the Manchester music scene - he could never quite escape The Smiths. In the mid-1990s, Rourke and Joyce sued for unpaid royalties, the former settling out of court, the latter taking a case all the way to the High Court. The drummer believed he was entitled to an equal share of the band's recordings and live earnings and the judge ruled in his favour.

"The Smiths as a band were not equal," he writes. "People might want to think otherwise, but anyone who was around us in any capacity would tell you that The Smiths were not a band of equals… If Mike Joyce wasn't happy with his 10pc share, he should have walked."

But despite the strains of that time, Marr's restless musical spirit ensured he would continue to seek new sonic adventures. Now hailed as one of the greatest guitarists to have emerged from Britain, he has played with everyone from Noel Gallagher to Neil Finn and Modest Mouse and Hans Zimmer.

This book is the work of a contented man. "I can't say what it is that's happened in my life that I'm most proud of: the bands I've been in, finding the love of my life, my kids, the songs… For a Mancunian-Irish kid with a guitar, it's all been pretty good. I may be most proud of the fact that I'm still doing what I've always done, and I hope I always will."

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