The early 1980s weren’t the best of times to be an aspiring guitar player. Twenty years earlier, the head of Decca records, Dick Rowe, had made the biggest A&R gaff in pop history with the legendary clanger “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein”. But in 1982, Rowe’s apocalyptic prophecy suddenly sounded frighteningly real. After the initial roar and storm of punk, British pop music had succumbed to a synthesizer-driven pursuit of new waves and new romanticisms. In an age of Vienna’s, Tainted Love’s and Too Shy’s, the pure sound of six-stringed, melodic pop – be it as amorous as The Beatles, as lascivious as The Stones or as giddy as T.Rex – was fast becoming a lost cause with few willing to fight its corner.
That all changed with Johnny Marr.
Born in Manchester on Halloween 1963, of Irish heritage, Marr’s earliest musical memories are the get-togethers of his extended family, perhaps – as his early guitar idol Marc Bolan would sing – dancing himself out of the womb to the traditional strains of Black Velvet Band. As a child he’d be spellbound by his parents’ record collection: the forlorn dramas of Del Shannon, the prison doldrums of Johnny Cash and the heart-popping bliss of his mother’s Four Tops singles. All these influences would linger at the back of the boy Marr’s brain, waiting for the command to attack his finger tips at a later date.
That date finally came during the early summer of 1982 when Marr, just 18 years-old, formed The Smiths after seeking out the reclusive and elusive Stretford poet, Morrissey. Musically, the sound of The Smiths was a guitar noise nostalgically familiar yet equally dumbfounding in its pristine newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instantaneous but woven together with such nimble flair it appeared as if the guitar was playing Marr instead of the other way round. Lost for words, early critics of the day undersold him with the words “jingle” and “jangle” when, had they tried, they might better have described the sound of Johnny Marr as that of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in angry animation. Or the echo of diamonds raining down upon zinc-plated cobblestones. Or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster (which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs in This Charming Man.)
Throughout The Smiths’ five year lifespan between the summers of 1982 and 1987, Marr continually challenged not only pop conventions but his skills as a player and a composer. Crucially, he and Morrissey formed The Smiths as a songwriting partnership in the great Brill Building tradition of Leiber and Stoller. His ambition, first and foremost, was to write great music: the fact that he could execute the tunes inside his head with unmatched grace was simply an added blessing. As a composer, Marr’s greatest Smiths triumphs were those which weakened the knees with melancholic splendour – Half A Person, Oscillate Wildly, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me and their most celebrated cri de couer There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. As a player, the biggest feathers in Marr’s Smiths cap were those which smacked the gob with their sonic ingenuity – the shuddering How Soon Is Now?, the devil’s jig of Bigmouth Strikes Again and not least the wah-wah hurricane of The Queen Is Dead. Paired with Morrissey’s generation-defining words of love and hate, wit and wisdom, sorrow and greater sorrow still, Marr was to become half of the most influential British songwriting partnership since… (need it even be said, Mr Epstein?).
By the time The Smiths disbanded in 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two: 1984′s The Smiths, 1985′s Meat Is Murder (UK number one), 1986′s The Queen Is Dead (a longstanding perennial of classic album polls, voted the greatest album of the millennium by Melody Maker) and 1987′s Strangeways, Here We Come (Marr’s personal favourite Smiths album). Across these, and the group’s 17 singles, Marr single-handedly revolutionised and renewed the potential for the guitar in popular music. Utilising his own influences from the past – a diverse gallery of heroes ranging from James Williamson (Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power) to Pentangle’s Bert Jansch (who he’d later play with on 2000′s Crimson Moon), Bolan, George Harrison and Keith Richards – Marr’s innovations lit the touch paper for a full scale renaissance in British guitar groups which has yet to wane. From The Stone Roses through to Suede, Blur, Radiohead, Oasis, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys, all roads lead back to The Smiths. All roads lead back to Johnny Marr.
But the end of The Smiths was only the end of the beginning for Johnny Marr, now a veteran guitar hero at the age of just 23. It’s a sadly misconstrued myth
that after the break up of The Smiths, Marr became a ubiquitous gun-for-hire, rock’n’roll’s eternal “special guest star” on an infinite number of projects. In reality, Marr carried on doing what he did best: playing guitar in a group. Though he’s always lent a helping hand to friends when time permits – co-writing and playing on ‘90s hit singles for Kirsty MacColl (Walking Down Madison) and Billy Bragg (Sexuality) – Marr has spent every year since The Smiths as a fully-fledged member of at least one band. No fair-weather session man, Marr has always prided himself on being part of the essential weaponry to whichever gang initiates him into their midst: The Pretenders (1987-89), The The (1988-93), Electronic (1988-?) Modest Mouse (2005-08) and The Cribs (2008-?). If you didn’t know better, you’d swear Marr had planned his mercurial career purely to give Rock Family Tree scribe Pete Frame a migraine.
Combining the architecture of the two greatest Manchester groups to respectively emerge out of the ‘70s (Joy Division/New Order) and ‘80s (The Smiths), Electronic mixed the sequencer with the guitar, the nightclub with the bedroom, Saturday nights with Sunday mornings to define the city’s soundtrack for the ‘90s. Marr’s prestigious collaboration with Bernard Sumner began with a quartet of immaculate pop singles, occasionally aided by Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant: Getting Away With It, Get The Message (still Marr’s favourite out of all the records he’s made), Feel Every Beat and Disappointed. Against a shared back-breaking weight of past baggage, Marr and Sumner found a musical equilibrium which exceeded individual expectations of both. By the group’s second and third albums, Raise The Pressure (1996) and Twisted Tenderness (1999), Electronic began defying the constraints of their name to become, however accidental or ironic, another great Manchester guitar band.
Since Marr’s friendship with The The’s Matt Johnson predated The Smiths (Marr would even kip on Johnson’s sofa during early Smiths’ sojourns to London in 1983) it seemed inevitable that the two should finally work together. To promote 1989′s Mind Bomb (including the top 20 hit The Beat(en) Generation), the group embarked on their The The Vs. The World tour resulting, in Marr’s own opinion, in “some of the best shows I’ve ever played”. Equally, he deems their next record, 1993′s critically acclaimed Dusk, one of the best of his career. A lyrically intense exorcism of Johnson’s recent bereavements, Marr sprinkled songs such as Slow Emotion Replay and Love Is Stronger Than Death with his own inimitably poignant Marrdust.
Perhaps it was fate that a young Noel Gallagher was carrying a copy of The The’s Dusk the night he bumped into Marr’s brother, Iain, in Manchester’s Hacienda. As somebody who’d been inspired to pick up a guitar by seeing The Smiths, Noel passed on a demo of his group Oasis, then in the process of getting signed. Johnny duly became Noel’s mentor, helping Oasis find management and, famously, “lending” Noel one of his hallowed Smiths guitars which, as is now part of Gallagher folklore, was possessed by the voodoo spirits of great melody assuring his group’s destiny. Years later, Marr would return to shake some action on Oasis’ 2002 number one album Heathen Chemistry.
The 21st century began with Marr nurturing his own group, The Healers. With a line-up featuring drummer Zak (son of Ringo) Starkey they recorded the 2003 album Boomslang, a heady mix of Hendrix-esque rock and, on the pensive Down On The Corner, some of Marr’s tenderest strumming since The Smiths. If his guitar wizardry was taken for granted, his complementary singing voice was a revelation. Settling into his new career path as frontman, The Healers promoted the album with a world tour taking in the US Australasia, Japan and Europe.
In 2005, work on a second Healers album with a new line-up was already underway when Johnny was tentatively approached by Modest Mouse to join the band and help with their next record. He would, furthermore throwing his lot in with enigmatic Mouse leader Isaac Brock to steer the group to the greatest commercial success of their career. Headed by the single Dashboard – which, judged on the Marr-o-meter of Marr-osity probably contains the most quintessentially Marr-ish Marr riff ever – the 2007 album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank rewarded Modest Mouse, and Johnny, with their first US number one album. (Coupled with 1985′s Meat Is Murder, this makes Johnny the only ex-Smith to top the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic.) The album has now sold in excess of 1 million copies. Johnny toured the world for 18 months with Modest Mouse.
After 25 years as the most versatile guitarist this country has ever produced, Johnny’s influence would finally be acknowledged in the late ’00s with a host of personal honours. In September 2007 Trinity College Dublin nominated Johnny as an Honorary Patron of The University Philosophical society, joining past and present Patrons including, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker and Al Pacino...