Tuesday 18 December 2018

The outsiders: Misfits and mavericks who make music magical

The greatest music has always been created by life's outsiders, says Johnny Marr. The former Smiths guitarist explains why all the best innovators are a little detached

Johnny Marr believes that music would be much worse off if it weren't for people who are willing to buck the trend(Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Johnny Marr believes that music would be much worse off if it weren't for people who are willing to buck the trend(Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

First, I'm not a cynic – absolutely not. I don't hate the music business. I am very privileged to have been a working musician for 20-odd years. I'm still a working musician now and hopefully will be for a while, so I'm happy to work and be involved with British culture.

But the British music industry has never, ever created anything, ever, in its history. It has never innovated anything. It's done plenty of good things – it's brought plenty of great innovators to light and helped to make great records and events – but nothing of any value was ever created inside the British or American music business. It always came from the outside, from outsiders created in the real world. These people, out of necessity, rejection, frustration and talent, and with vision, built their own ark and sailed it alongside and ahead of the music industry. In doing so they created their own market. They did their own research and development. They did it, and they still do it, in small clubs, playing in front of a few people, supporting other bands, going up and down the country in little vans, they do it in home-made studios, they do it on MySpace, on Facebook. They don't do it on The X Factor.

They were always people from the outside. Take Les Paul and his innovations for the electric guitar – he was rejected as a crank. The Beatles are the most obvious example – rejected by Decca for their four-piece guitar line-up. No one invented Bob Marley, no one invented the Sex Pistols or Kurt Cobain or Jay-Z – they all invented themselves and were rejected. They were outsiders and they were necessary.

The first outsider object I ever saw was a record by the Buzzcocks called Spiral Scratch. This really was outsider art. I would have been 13 or 14, and I remember that even just the look of it was astounding. Thirty-odd years later, there isn't anything like it, which is absurd. If you look at it, it's a Xerox Polaroid of four freezing-cold, skinny, poor boys from Manchester, taken in Piccadilly Gardens. At that time, rock stars, musicians, everybody inside the industry, were made to look like gods. Everything was very reverential. The record itself is quite astonishing: stripped down, no-nonsense, unadorned, direct. It was totally outside of everything that was going on at the time. The sound was one of the very first productions by another legendary Manchester outsider, Martin Hannett.

The Manchester punk rockers were the first outsiders I connected with. The idea we have now of punk rockers is quite cartoony, quite cuddly – the mohican, the bondage trousers and the safety pin. That came a little later – the people I was confronted with were super-hip Manchester lads. These guys were so switched on, they didn't bother reading the weekly music press, because that was a middle-class conceit. They were working-class, edgy provocateurs. Like the record, they were fast and they were unadorned. They didn't bother with mohicans and stuff hanging off their clothes – that came a year later.

These guys were from the street and whenever I saw them they were outside. They were outside Virgin Records on Market Street every Saturday. I don't think they wanted to go in. The next time I saw them was at the Wythenshawe Forum when I went to see Slaughter and The Dogs. I saw them outside there as well. The next time I remember I was hanging around outside a T-Rex concert because I was too young. I wanted to be inside, but I managed to do that without a ticket, by hanging out with these blokes. They were a little older than me, but they made an impression on me that never went away.

Over the years, I've started to see that there's this idea of the inside, a perception of the music business as being a place, or a group of physical spaces. I thought that and particularly people who want to get into it, or think that they need to get into it, think it's a place. A world that is entirely floored with soft shag-pile carpeting, soft lights, silent, posh, big cars, stylists every day and lots and lots of money, of course, that goes straight in your pocket, where everything's fabulous. But what I'm describing is Simon Cowell's house – and I'm not even sure that exists. That's what people think, that it's a mystical place where you're happy. But it's a world that lasts 12 weeks and stops on Christmas Eve. There's no doorway to the music industry. There's the idea that there's a doorway and there's a classic idea for aspiring musicians of how you get in there.

One way is to have a connection with the man on the inside, a Svengali. This guy is approachable because he's got one foot in the world you live in and one foot inside the door, beyond which there's a big white light. The truth of the matter is that any innovative and incredible manager who's really made a difference had never done it before. They were doing it for the first time. Malcolm McLaren (some clever dicks might say he managed the New York Dolls for a bit. Well, not really), Andrew Oldham, Joe Moss, who managed The Smiths, and Brian Epstein – they all ran shops. As did, I think, Paul McGuinness, U2's manager.

These are all people who changed the music business. Without them you wouldn't have heard of the bands. Most notably, Rob Gretton [manager of New Order and Joy Division] was a DJ and had never managed a band before. So this idea of the Svengali popping his head out of the music-business doorway, discovering people and making them stars and creating the Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles is absurd. Do you think Epstein created John Lennon? But without these guys, who were outsiders easily as much as the musicians themselves, it wouldn't happen. They had their own agendas. They were able to see something in the band and outside of them that was worthwhile and of worth.

Oldham was a formidable character who managed The Rolling Stones early on. He was younger than them and he took this bunch of very earnest blues aficionados and created the anti-Beatles. The Rolling Stones are officially my favourite band but they weren't really that good at the start. I'm sure it never would have occurred to those guys that they could be the anti-Beatles, as big as they are now, 40 or 50 years later. But that was down to the manager and his own agenda and vision. Epstein obviously had to be an outsider because of his personal life, but he had his own agenda, too, in that he had theatrical aspirations and some flair for presentation. Sadly, he was such an outsider, it probably spelled his demise.

Like a lot of people, Joy Division were inspired to take up their guitars by the Sex Pistols. Salford sons, they were pretty ordinary at first, they hadn't found their sound. They're an interesting example because early on, they got an opportunity from an insider, from the establishment. They were given some money to make a record with RCA before they were ready. It was never going to work and it never does work. The Smiths had a similar scenario. You need money, you need a break and you want to get on the inside. But if you're going to subvert and do something that's truly great, you can't do it from the inside.

RCA gave Joy Division the money to make a record and it sucked. All the pieces had to be in place; they had to wait for the right drummer, as did The Beatles. What they had that the other bands around didn't have was the ultimate Manchester outsider-manager – Gretton. Taking his own very sharp outsider aesthetic, aspirations and sense of cool, he made the band what it was in the early days and became the fifth member. He was an outsider until the day he died. If you don't just do it with the money in mind then you can stay on the outside and concentrate on being great. As soon as u o money becomes a serious concern for you, you're compromised.

One of the things I've learnt as I've got older, about movements and working with other people, is that in pop culture particularly, but in any of the arts, it's almost more important to define yourself by what you're against than by what you're for. If you can say what you're against, as Factory Records did, what you're left with is what you're for. Tony Wilson was against quite a few things but as everyone from the North knows, the main thing he was against was London. He practically led a 30-year movement against the perceived cultural superiority of London over Manchester. A fantastic outsider. And he totally championed the outside, not slick, naff music that was going to make him a lot of money really quickly. He championed rough, dangerous, messy outsiders, such as Happy Mondays from Salford. They had great poetry, great confrontation and took what was happening into the suburbs and on to television screens. They were proper outsiders. I can't really imagine that we would have known about them without Wilson but no one else could have related to them. God bless him.

The outsider label is not just a post-modern concept. Outsiderdom (is that a word?) is now a profitable and massively exploitable commodity, and a valid commercial position. Just look at Tamla Motown records – a corporate brand and a household name. And it was started by one lone songwriter. What is exciting to me about getting involved with Salford University is the idea that someone I might come across may form a label one day. They could be a producer or start their own label. Why not? These people have to come from somewhere.

More relevantly, more significantly, and certainly more recently, look at Def Jam Recordings. It was started in a dorm at New York University in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Now it's worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But if you're doing it to make hundreds of millions of dollars, it won't happen. A lot of people outside of the music business, who aren't musicians, think you do it for the money. No one I have mentioned so far, and lots of other people I could mention, does it for the money. It just happens. If they did it for the money they would be castrated, because they wouldn't have had the guts to go out and make all these audacious, wacky moves, moves that work. If you do it for the money you're screwed, it won't happen. According to me.

As well as creating The Rolling Stones, Oldham started a label, Immediate Records, in the Sixties. He did it as an anti-Establishment thing, showing them how it could be done with class, style and success. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who, also outsiders, did the same thing with Track Records. Lambert is another one of those managers who had never done it before. Older outsiders can help bands because they've got the strength, the wisdom and the capability to work from an outside position. Even if it is just because they have a couple of credit cards. It really makes a difference. So Oldham inspired me as much as any musician when I was getting The Smiths together. I learnt from reading about him and from his interviews that no one was going to discover us. Once again, it's the idea of forgetting the inside, staying in your own ark and concentrating on being great. No one discovered Bob Marley. Sure, he signed to Chris Blackwell's Island. But Blackwell was an outside label boss. He started a little label selling Jamaican records over here. He might have brought Marley to the world but Marley wasn't discovered. You can say that Kurt Cobain was on Sub Pop when they found him. But Sub Pop was also an outside label. The Beatles were on EMI. But the reason they got on to EMI was because of the producer George Martin, who within EMI was considered something of a crackpot.

With The Smiths, a mate of mine got a temporary job at EMI and convinced his bosses that we were worth spending a little bit of money on. We got the money to go into the studio but we knew it wasn't going to work, that the place wasn't for us. The irony is that one of the three songs that we got rejected with was "What Difference Does It Make?", which went on to be a Top 20 hit for us. So I know from personal experience that it doesn't work from inside. We needed to stay on the outside and to be on an outsider label. We knew we needed to be on Rough Trade Records. We were very, very specific about that. Rough Trade started off as a shop, run by Geoff Travis and set up to sell records that were outside of the mainstream. Rough Trade was outside of the underground – that's how outside it was.

Thanks to Rough Trade we came to the attention of John Peel. If you consider the history of broadcasting in this country, you quickly realise that the most innovative and significant person was Peel, the ultimate broadcaster-outsider. It is remarkable that he was able to operate in the way he did, championing outsiders and being an outsider for 40 years in an environment that, apart from Parliament and Buckingham Palace, is about the most inside, insider establishment this country has. He played really weird, great, cutting-edge music that didn't want to be on the inside.

After all of these names, I'd like to mention just one song. The song is by Lou Reed. Obviously, he was always going to be a legend because of his work with The Velvet Underground. But the reason Reed is a household name is because of one song: "Walk on the Wild Side". It's incredible: an evergreen, a staple, a classic song. But it's actually a roll-call of outsiders – Candy Darling, Joe D'Alessandro et al – and the world it describes and celebrates is exclusively a world of wilful, social-misfit outsiders, transvestites, transsexuals, druggies, subversives. Reed got his start through another great outsider manager – in fact, probably the biggest outsider of the day – when he hooked up with Andy Warhol. Warhol had no idea how to manage a band. He hadn't managed a band before and didn't manage a band afterwards. His MO was to make art that was derived from outside the existing art world, which took some doing in the 1960s. Now we're used to it. He had learnt as a youth from the inside, in his training in fine arts, but he couldn't ultimately change what he was – a born outsider. Everyone in Warhol's created universe was an outsider, and stubbornly so. Did any of these people, the Velvets or the other people who were in that song, care about anyone from inside the film industry? Did they want to be in those regular films? No. Did anyone in the industry care about them? No. But that doesn't matter. What they did was cross their fingers and hope they'd make some money. They didn't. But they also crossed their fingers and hoped they would make a difference. Which they absolutely did.

So what do these people do if it feels like they're not going to make a difference? All of them do it for other outsiders. Which really means, initially anyway, doing it for your friends. Jay-Z says that he made his first album entirely to impress his friends. I understand that completely. When The Smiths had their first bout of success, we found it necessary to go to London. I got no end of stick from Wilson for it. We wrote some good songs in London but I knew that I had to get back [to the North-west]. That was where music was going to come from. It was because I was missing my friends, I was missing that terra firma.

First off, I made that music for the other three guys [in the band], because they were my best friends. I trusted them, I trusted their taste. I made it for them first and then for the fans. It's very important that, as an artist, you aspire to being as great as the things that are influencing you and your friends. Not be like them, not be nearly as great, but as great.

That's the first rule of thumb for any artist. If your friends like it, then you're on the right track. The second rule of thumb is that if you're going to follow the first rule, then you'd better make sure that your friends have got pretty good taste, or else you're scuppered. And I suppose the third rule of thumb is to make sure that none of your friends work for insider record companies. I know you can be mavericks within the music industry. I don't want to say you have to do this, you must do that, the gospel according to me is... What I mean is that all the greats did it from the outside. And that's a very, very inspiring thing. We live in an age of such conformity and uniformity and stifling conservatism. I don't know how that happened, but we do. This idea of the outsider has to be identified and celebrated, cherished, encouraged and theorised over. I want to see more people, and I know there are people, waiting to be like those I have described: the McLarens, the Oldhams and the Lydons.

To finish, the title, "Walk on the Wild Side", came from the 1956 novel by Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side. Algren said of his book, "[it] asks why lost people develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives." That song explains it all, that title explains it all – it might as well have been called "Walk on the Wild Outside".

This is an edited version of Johnny Marr's lecture at the University of Salford, entitled Always from the Outside: Mavericks, Innovators and Building Your Own Ark

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