Nine Songs: Johnny Marr
Even for such a future focussed musician as Johnny Marr, the past isn’t a foreign country where things were done differently.
The songs that Marr fell in love with as a teenager still resonate with him, but not in a nostalgic sense, rather the artists and songs possessed an innate futurism and attitude that would define him. When we meet in London so effusive is Marr about the pivotal songs of his youth that we end up chatting for well over an hour about them, as he pulls strands of cultural references, from the musical importance of his home city of Manchester to the way that art mirrors culture into each song.
He’s also got the not inconsiderable matter of his third solo record Call The Comet to think about and when we meet it’s his first day of talking about it. “It’s the first bit of feedback I’m getting, where I’m communicating with other humans who’ve actually heard it. Internally I feel I’m just coming out of the studio and rubbing my eyes.”
Marr’s manifesto as a solo artist is to make modern rock music and he explains he's not ready to throw guitar music away. “It does something too valuable that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, sometimes technology can squeeze the sex and the danger out of music. People know me well enough to know that I’m not macho and I’m not trying to be too basic, I try and bring a certain amount of aspiration to guitar music. I’m glad the record rocks without being too testosterone. I think that’s what it is, I can’t really ever get too testosterone for some reason.”
A rejection of machismo is a recurring theme of the formative songs of Marr's experiences in 1970s’ Manchester. “I didn’t want to be esoteric or overthink these songs, I wanted to be really natural about it. These songs have informed my attitude as a guitar player, there’s not a lot of guitar players who will talk about playing the guitar, unless it really gets into the technicalities and the boring stuff.”
Marr's choices are anything but the boring stuff. Ranging from the trailblazers of Bowie, Bolan and Iggy Pop, to the guitar exploration of Buzzcocks and Velvet Underground, as well as a Lovin' Spoonful song that captured the idyllic early days of The Smiths, all nine songs still strike an expressive and inspirational chord for a musician who would become as influential to others as his heroes were to him.
“This song was a really pivotal moment in my life, it was the first record I ever bought and it was by a complete fluke. ‘Jeepster’ was in a bargain box for 10p and it happened to have a photograph of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn on the label, that was unusual, it was rare to have a photograph on the label and Marc Bolan looked androgynous, very beautiful, mysterious and quite weird.
“So at the age of ten I took a punt on this thing. With that money I could have bought a few comics and an ice lolly, I’d have taken the stick and put it in the wheel of my bike, which was very important! But I bought ‘Jeepster’ instead and I did that thing of walking home and looking and looking at it. Fifteen minutes later I put in on and it snagged my attention straightaway, I had to pay attention to it, but it was pop music.
“I listen to it now and it’s quite lo-fi, but even then I had an awareness it sounded like people in a room and that it was pretty rough, which was a bit of an ask for a little kid, it certainly wasn’t music for 10 year olds, 15 year olds maybe. I heard the sound of his guitar and why the hell I was hearing bongos in there as well was really intriguing to me. Before it was three quarters of the way through I was planning on playing it again and trying to find out how this thing worked.
“The riff is funky without being James Brown and his limitations as a guitar player were really useful on all of his records up until ‘20th Century Boy’, which was very brutal. ‘Jeepster’ is very funky but he’s almost playing with the same limitations of John Lee Hooker, if he was any better - a Ritchie Blackmore or an Eric Clapton - it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting because it would have sounded too bland, accomplished and slick. He’s hanging in there a bit, particularly on the outro, the riff is so dumb a more accomplished guitar player wouldn’t have been heard dead playing it. It’s so gauche, but it’s probably the best bit of music on the record.
“Then there’s the way the band go in and out of time. I picked that up the third time I listened to it and that was really amazing, because on the radio at the time it was The Osmond’s ‘Love Me for a Reason’, The Carpenters, Andy Williams and all this slick, easy listening stuff, but this was a real pre-Glam record.
“It identified me, I was ‘I know what it is to be a fan of this thing of my own now.’ I’d seen my parents be fans and to this day they’re fans of bands, but because I became a fan of this guy I was getting all these signals - particularly from girls’ magazines - about what it was to be a fan and having posters on my walls. The Smiths were very aware of that dynamic.
“I grew up very close to my sister, who was eleven months younger than me and I’m glad that was something that happened for me, because I had a real sense of what she liked. I’d almost been like a twin, what they call an Irish twin with my sister, and it gave me a genuine appreciation of how great it was to be a girl.
“It’s a fantastic function of pop culture, that shifting to take in different gender roles both ways, with people like Lady Gaga and Richey Manic. Marc Bolan was beautiful and he sounded really beautiful, the sound of a soft voice singing in a Rock and Roll way over a rock band has never really left me and that’s probably evident on my solo stuff.
“Because of the photograph of Marc Bolan on the sleeve, his androgyny and the way he was singing, it was my first independent connection of seeing a different image of masculinity. I was very, very aware of that, because he was obviously wearing make-up and he was very pretty. I was hearing this guy singing in quite an effeminate voice and I owned the record, so I’d better love it. It wasn’t that I was just loving the music, I’d invested in this thing where this guy was like a woman and that was really exciting.”
“I wanted to mention this record because it’s almost taken for granted in David Bowie’s canon as just ‘there’s another great Bowie track’, yet it gets overlooked by something like ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Heroes.’
“If this came out now I don’t think it’d have any chance on mainstream radio and I think that’s because - and this might be incredibly subjective - he does this amazing thing where he manages to be completely remote whilst leading this band. It’s a really genius performance, the way he pitches his vocal and his persona, it’s cold and remote, but yet really sexy and it’s got no earnestness in it whatsoever. It’s not inciting you to get up and rock like ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or any of the Elvis Presley records, which is someone wanting to dance with you or encouraging you to do that.
“To use an obvious comparison about Bowie, this has a really alien position because the voice is so cold, but it’s perfectly Rock and Roll. And it’s really white I think, probably because I can picture him in my mind when it came out and you’d never seen anyone more white, but it’s also as low down and Rock and Roll as any of the blues records that came out. It’s interesting, it’s got that sexuality in it.
“I was about ten when it was released and to me and a bunch of kids experiencing it then it was so modern, because of what Bowie’s doing on top of what is essentially a Yardbirds or a Muddy Waters riff and using ‘The Jean Genie’, which back then was such a hip kind of slang. It’s a play on Jean Genet and he’s describing bits he’d picked up from Iggy, but in the early 70s’ everything was ‘Ziggy’, ‘Iggy’, ‘Genie’ and people were called ‘Mick’ and ‘Stevie.’
“There was a very urban, street Rock and Roll that was quite illicit; the threat of drugs, danger, confused sexuality and super-androgyny and the character he’s singing about personifies that in the mind, which leads me to Iggy.”
“I think of all these three artists - Bolan, Bowie and Iggy - together and what I said about ‘The Jean Genie’ is all in there on the cover of Raw Power. Again, it’s illicit, threatening and very alluring to a certain kind of teenager looking for excitement, and in my case that was always through music and music culture.
“I got Raw Power when I was fourteen because it was referred to me by Billy Duffy from The Cult, who would have been all of sixteen at the time. It was at a time when I was starting to recognise I had my own thing as a guitar player that my mates didn’t have, I’m not saying it was better, I just knew I was developing my own style.
“Billy heard me playing a riff I was writing and said ‘That’s ‘Gimme Danger’ right?’ I said I’d never heard of ‘Gimme Danger and Billy said ‘That sounds like James Williamson.’ So I immediately had my back up, I was ‘Who’s this James Williamson kid? This is my new song, what are you talking about?’ But I knew Billy knew his stuff and that I really had to seek this record out, because Billy was sure that’s what I was playing and it was my new song.
“I went into Virgin Records that weekend and I was stunned by the cover. It was Iggy bare-chested, looking like an iguana or a lizard and it was onstage as well, it was something that was really happening, not some photoshoot. I bought the LP for about £2.30, got it home and played ‘Search and Destroy.’ I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, the sound of the vocal and this distorted band and when it got to ‘Gimme Danger’ it was really mysterious, dark and moody.
“I couldn’t believe it was exactly the same, the intro sounded exactly like what I was trying to do and what I was quite close to. That could have been really dispiriting or disheartening, but it had the opposite effect - it was really galvanising. There was a lot of Prog at the time but with this there weren’t these silly organ solos, it was just ‘done.’ I didn’t need it to go on for eight minutes, it was really hip and it shone a light for me. I’ve always used this album as a yardstick.
“‘Gimme Danger’ was uncanny, it was the way I was starting to play the guitar and if you listen to the start I think it sounds like what people think I sound like. I’ve met James Williamson and he knows all about this thing that happened to me and it was great to be able to tell him, he was very surprised, pleased and gracious about it and that made a massive difference. I’ve been very fortunate to have that happen to me a couple of times, where people have talked about a riff I’ve done and how they tried to work it out. So I know what it means and it’s amazing, I don’t mean that to sound immodest, it’s just an amazing thing.”
“‘Autonomy’ was a massive wakeup call for me. I bought the album the day it came out, I got the bus after school and it was in a silver plastic bag. When I got home and put it on I knew the singles, but when I got to ‘Autonomy’ it was genuinely a new kind of rock music.
“There’s no way I can ever separate the fact that I was aware it was from my town. If it had been from Düsseldorf I would have been mind blown, but I was more mind blown it was from Manchester, because it could have been from Düsseldorf. I knew it couldn’t have been from Los Angeles and sounded like The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac or Jackson Browne and knowing it now I don’t think it could have come from London.
“London at that time was very dominated by the sound of The Clash and The Pistols and in spite of what people like to say it was quite testosteroney and straight, certainly compared to the Buzzcocks and Magazine. Wire were a different matter, they had an arch femininity and an intellectual aspect about them, but Buzzcocks sounded like my environment, in much the same way Joy Division were going to a year later, the way The Smiths did a few years after that and the way The Fall did.
“I might have been projecting, but when I put it all together it sounded so modern and so Manchester and it gave me an insight into my city, modern Manchester. I was always looking for clues, for a key to pick up, to open and go through the next door as a musician and a thinker and I probably still am, that’s the best way I can describe it. ‘Autonomy’ was like a key, it was ‘This riff is very, very deliberate, it’s not bluesy, it’s very bold and it doesn’t sound anything like classic rock.’ It’s really in your face, the words are very clever and sang in quite an effeminate, challenging vocal. I love The Clash but to me it was better than ‘White Riot’, it was this cross between aggression and arty.
“The punks I’d see around Manchester personified that, they looked like little thugs and they were very effeminate, so again it’s that thing about the feminisation of rock music. I hadn’t realised that actually, but almost everything I’ve mentioned has got a non-testosterone aspect to it. That was quite a moment and being that age, fourteen, fifteen, you’re so fearless and open to being free, well I was anyway, I was looking for things to give me juice to fire that fearlessness up. I think you see through bullshit really well when you’re that age, when you get older you think too much!”
“Rather than going into the technicalities about them as a band, with The Only Ones it’s more about what it says about me as a teenage fan. I went to a lot of places to watch them, I slept in at least two bus shelters and on the kitchen floor of someone I didn’t know once. Sometimes I’d have tickets and sometimes I’d sneak in to see them and not just in the North, I came down to London and saw them at Dingwalls and The Lyceum.
“Peter Perrett was feminine, and if you were a real fan of The Only Ones he had this thing where you’d almost imagine him as a really cool older brother who you didn’t know, that was the way I used to look at him. He led the gang, but he was small and I was small, and he got really involved when he played and that’s the thing, they were a really tight, great rock band. In a way he was almost like my Syd Barrett, he had a very poetic aspect to him. I was already well into studying what the rules of being a bohemian were about and he was it really.
“John Perry was an amazing guitar player. Even then, when I was really learning my thing, I was aware it sounded exactly like a Jimi Hendrix lick crossed with a Jeff Beck lick from The Yardbirds, he was of that generation, probably a second generation Marquee, Wardour Street guitar player. They had a really fantastic drummer too, Mike Kellie from Spooky Tooth. They were a great ensemble and I knew they were really rehearsed and it really mattered to them. Peter Perrett never turned up like some druggy mess.
“‘No Solution’ is a lesser known one, everybody knows ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, but it’s the fan in me turning people onto one I think they’ll like but might not know. Fans of The Only Ones will know this song, but when I say fans I’m talking about the people in the audience, I think there were only five of them and I’m probably the only one still left alive!”
“The reason I picked ‘Philadelphia’ is because of the relatively unsung brilliance of John McGeoch on the guitar during that period, the album The Correct Use of Soap is my favourite of anything that Martin Hannett produced and again, that it came from Manchester was a huge bonus. It’s a really subjective one, for myself and my girlfriend at the time Angie, who’s now my wife, it made a soundtrack to our spring when it came out in 1980, when I was working in a clothes shop.
“Every song on the record is great and no one really puts a song across in the same way as Howard Devoto, one or two people have tried, but most people wouldn’t even bother, because it’s so idiosyncratic and impossible to pull off without sounding ridiculous. I can hear Alice Cooper in there and his effect on that generation in the delivery of the vocals. There’s also the literary influences in the concepts of the songs, which are really brilliant. Whether it’s Sartre, Dostoevsky, The Situationists or feminism, whatever kind of perversity is going on there, there was a really great, mysterious manifesto in the lyrics.
“It was art school that managed to rock without the need for laptops, sequencers or extra musicians onstage. They could really play but they were delivering art rock music and that’s why they’ve inspired me, especially in my solo career, on the first two records The Messenger and Playland Magazine were a really big inspiration for me and the band.
“John McGeoch is someone I’m more than happy to pay tribute to and it’s only really in later years that I’ve realised what a big influence he was. The fact that he joined Public Image Ltd made total sense to me, because the other guitar player of his generation who was as inventive as him was Keith Levene. He obviously had a bit of wanderlust in him as a guitar player too, and I can relate to that!”
“This era of the Velvet Underground is possibly, along with Ray Davies, my favourite kind of singing. It’s sort of weedy and again without testosterone and certainly without force, it was just very, very hip and not trying too hard. It’s interesting, because did a band ever sound as hip, not trying, but still delivering?
“Velvet Underground were a real staple of my generation, in that a bunch of kids in the mid-70s’ discovered them retrospectively, probably in a way that I’d imagine kids now discover The Smiths. They sounded genuinely subversive without being obscure, they were real, proper songs and there was a great poetry in there.
“Often when you talk about songs to people, most people assume you’re talking about the words - to a lot of people that’s what a song is. But because I got so obsessed so young with the mechanics of the music, the production and how things came together, often I wasn’t really too bothered if the words didn’t make much sense. I’ve had amazing experiences with songs that had words that absolutely didn’t make any sense, like ‘Jeepster’.
“‘Foggy Notion’ is a really good example of a song that’s just really rocking - the guitar is really hyped up and swings like crazy - that makes you feel really good and absolutely doesn’t need any serious lyrical content. In fact, sometimes - and I suspect it’s the case with ‘Foggy Notion’ because I know it so well - if the lyrics were snagging your attention too much it would distract from what it’s supposed to do. You’ve got to remember it was for young people in the 60s’ to Frug to, doing these dance moves in cool striped-shirts and cool shades and ‘Foggy Notion’ is all about that and the sound of the voice. I think that’s a great thing and something people who think songs are entirely about meaning and words aren’t aware of.
“It’s an interesting thing with The Velvet Underground, because if you imagine The Rolling Stones back then, who were supposedly the baddest of the bad boys and The Beatles who were supposed to be the hippest and most worldly, I wonder what they made of The Velvets at the time or if they’d heard them. I know Dylan was aware of them, but writing songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘The Black Angel's Death Song’, I wonder if you were in The Beatles or The Stones you were just going ‘Oh no, we’re so X-Factor.’”
“I’m on the Wikipedia page of this song? There you go, at least I’m consistent! I’ve obviously talked about it before, but I’ve not really talked about it very much. I can’t really divorce ‘Coconut Grove’ from early 1984, when The Smiths were just getting going. I loved the song then and I still love it now, it’s very evocative, but the reason I brought it up is actually to talk more about what it meant in my life, rather than the actual song.
“We’d put out our first album at the start of 1983 and it took off, ‘This Charming Man’ was a hit and my life was really blooming into something kind of incredible for an 18 year old. Without getting too immodest, we seemed to be on everybody’s lips, certainly with young people and their parents were talking about us as well. We were ticking the boxes we wanted to tick; some parents were confused and little bit threatened by us and other people thought we were the bee’s knees. It wasn’t just about getting fame, it was the kind of fame that we really wanted, from kids and fans of what was going to be called indie music and it felt really intoxicating.
“I’d been living at our manager Joe Moss’s house and because we were doing these gigs and coming back so late, Janet, who was Joe’s wife - and they had a little toddler - was probably getting so tired of these teenagers her husband had started to look after. He’d never managed a band before, so it wasn’t like he was this big shot manager, he ran a clothes shop and suddenly I was living in their house and giving Coca-Cola to their toddler Ivan, who I still know really well. With this back and forward of bringing the gear in at two in the morning she very kindly said “Look, I’ve got this cottage out in the hills in Manchester…” I would never have gone there in a million years, but essentially she was booting me out of the house! She said “You go and move, I’ll drive you there.” And I thought “Great, I’ve got these digs of my own, this little cottage.”
“So all of this stuff was happening. Me and my band were getting in a van and coming down to London, playing at Dingwalls, opening for The Sisters of Mercy, we were the talk of the town and we were getting on Top of The Pops, it was a really heady time. I’d never been reviewed before but because I was playing a Rickenbacker and the sound of my guitar playing everyone was saying ‘He sounds like The Byrds.’ I didn’t know The Byrds very well but through them I got into The Lovin' Spoonful and the whole New York, East Coast folk-rock vibe.
“We’d go and do these gigs, drive back and then in this cottage I’d moved into with my mate Andrew Berry I’d eat loads of acid and listen to ‘Coconut Grove’ over and over again, probably two hundred times. The neighbours must have thought I’d died and left the record on.
“So that’s what it means to me, it was an idyllic time in my life and I had this really strong love for my mates, who were the band, I think we all felt the same way about each other. Because we got fame, our roles were being defined by ourselves to keep it going and by outside forces and I was very protective of them. We were all pretty streetwise, but I was kind of the chatty, resourceful one who was making things happen and who looked after everybody. I was growing into that role and I was only eighteen.
“I called this period ‘The Heatwave’ in my book and you know what a heatwave feels like? Well it felt like that for about a year, I was in a heatwave and that’s ‘Coconut Grove.’ It sounds great on a very hot day, on acid.”
"'Blank Frank’ is a song that manages to be super-modern and futuristic even though it’s about forty years old now. It’s from Here Come The Warm Jets, which is one of my favourite records of all time and I got into it when I was about fourteen or fifteen. It was very challenging, it was quite arty and some of it’s abrasive, but because I loved Roxy Music I was into investing some time in it and forty odd years later it’s definitely a Desert Island Disc for me. It’s partly because it’s so full of ideas, but also because it could only have come out of the UK.
“I think all great art represents its environment; Jasper Johns is an obvious one because he used a flag, but if you look at the Pop Art movement it feels like Manhattan in the 60s’, the LA 60s’ art scene doesn’t look anything like the East Coast art scene. You could say exactly the same thing for Hip Hop, I think anything that’s informed by its environment is interesting and is usually pretty good.
“Here Come The Warm Jets would be really quite an interesting record if it came out now, the vocals are very, very British. You know the word ‘arch’? I think arch is something that Americans don’t really do and I’m not saying that with any sense of nationalism, I think that for good and bad arch is a particularly British trait, it’s kind of intellectual, it’s remote and it’s not earnest. People often think that’s a bad thing and that music - and singing in particular - has got to be from the heart, or else it’s not authentic.
“The X-Factor and talent shows have done so much damage to singing and the art of songwriting, because the basic premise is the more emotive a thing is the more quality it’s got and that’s complete nonsense. Siouxsie Sioux isn’t about that and ‘Blank Frank’ totally exemplifies it, it’s still a great rocking track but its arch and arty, it’s quite intellectual but it’s still engaging.
“One of the reasons I picked a lot of these songs is because they were part of my formative years and a theme running through this is the UK in the 70s’. The idea of it being this sea of beige and brown with terrible haircuts and power cuts was a little part of it, but when you put all these records together, particularly Brian Eno and Roxy Music, it tells a completely different story.”