Former Smiths guitarist, who's stuck to his indie credentials by gracing the stage with the likes of The Cribs, Dinosaur Jr and Modest Mouse.
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
In October 2007 Johnny won the Q magazine lifetime achievement award. The event was held at London’s Grosvenor Hotel and the award was presented by Ed O’Brien of Radiohead. Among the other winners were, Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys, Shirley Bassey and Damon Albarn.
October 2007, Johnny was appointed as a visiting Professor of Music by Salford University and delivered his first lecture on November 4th, 2008 entitled “Always from the outside, Mavericks, Innovators and Building Your own ark.” Johnny also helmed a series of workshops and seminars to students taking the BA Popular Music and Recording degree.
2008, Johnny became a member of a Yorkshire trio he’d long considered to be “the best new band in Britain”, The Cribs. In August 2008 Johnny and The Cribs headlined the NME/Radio 1 stage at Reading and Leeds festivals. Leeds (August 22) and Reading(August24). During February 2009 The Cribs toured the UK
Christmas and Early January 2008/9 Johnny went to New Zealand and collaborated on Crowded House’s Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide recording and live performance project, which raised money for Oxfam. The all-star band which included KT Tunstall, Wilco and Radiohead’s Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien amongst others, went to New Zealand for three weeks and recorded the album “The Sun Came Out” which included the Jeff Tweedy / Marr-written collaboration “Too Blue” and Johnny’s own composition “Run In The Dust”. “The Sun Came Out” was released September 2009.
During late summer / autumn 2008 Johnny supervised the remastering of the original Smiths master tapes, for the critically acclaimed compilation “The Sound Of The Smiths” which was released November 2008.
2009 also saw Johnny play guitar and harmonica on the Pet Shop Boys’ album “Yes”, Girls Aloud’s album “Out of Control” and John Frusciante’s album “The Empyrean”.
June 2009 Johnny was awarded the Mojo Classic Songwriter Award, Johnny said he was, “very honoured” to receive the award which was presented by former Suede guitarist and producer Bernard Butler.
August 2009 Johnny filmed a cameo appearance for Powder a Kevin Sampson film based on his book of the same name. It’s the story of a band who go from obscurity, to having it all, to blowing it in fantastic style, Liam Boyle and Alfie Allen are the leads and Johnny to plays himself. In the film, there’s a young guy trying to raise money to put the band in the studio, and he reluctantly puts his vintage Ferrari up for sale and asks Johnny if he’s interested. (the car is Steve McQueen’s Ferrari )
September 2009 Ignore the Ignorant, Johnny’s first album with The Cribs, was released in the UK and entered the charts at number 8, making it the bands highest charting album. The album was recorded during 2009 in Los Angeles, with producer Nick Launay in Seedy Underbelly studio. “Cheat on Me” was released as the first single in August 2009.
support local record stores. The Roses Edition was only available from shops in Yorkshire , Lancashire and Portland Oregon ), all are areas symbolised by roses.
October – December 2009 Johnny toured the UK, Europe, USA and Japan with The Cribs
Johnny and Modest Mouse released an 8 song EP “No One’s First, and You’re Next” in November 2009, the EP was a collection of songs that didn’t make it onto “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank”.
Towards the end of 2009 Johnny began composing an an original film score for The Big Bang, a neo-noir detective story, starring Antonio Banderas as a Los Angeles-based private detective . Also starring are Delroy Lindo, Sam Elliott, William Fichtner and Snoop Dogg. The film stars Banderas as a private detective who is searching for a burlesque performer who no one has ever seen. Banderas also faces a brutal Russian boxer, three LAPD detectives and an ageing billionaire looking to perfect the nuclear physics equivalent of the Big Bang.
2009 also saw Johnny score and narrate a short art film, celebrating American artist Ed Ruscha’s 1963 piece ‘Noise’, directed by Fiona Skinner, it won the Hayward gallery’s Ed Ruscha Film Challenge.
Johnny co-wrote and played on “Ordinary Millionaire” a song on Robyn Hitchcock’s March 2010 album “Propellor Time”. The backing band for this recording included R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, this was the first time that Johnny and Peter Buck had appeared on record together.
January and February 2010 Johnny & The Cribs toured America, Australia and New Zealand.
2010 saw Johnny & The Cribs confirmed for numerous world wide festivals. Walk The Line Festival Netherlands. Rock Am Ring Festival Germany. Glastonbury Festival. Oxegen Festival Ireland. T In The Park Festival Scotland. Bennicassim Festival, Spain. Fuji Rock Festival, Japan. Lollapalooza Festival Chicago. Sziget Festival, Budapest Hungary. Frequency Festival Saizburg Austria. Leeds Festival and Reading Festival. They were due to play Coechella in California but all flights were cancelled due to the Volcanic ash clouds from Iceland.
March and April 2010 Johnny supervised the remastering of all of the original Smiths master tapes.
Late April early may 2010 Johnny worked with Hans Zimmer on the electronic heavy score to Christopher Nolan’s new film ‘Inception’. Hans Zimmer said, “It’s a very electronic score. There is orchestra, but the electronics share an equal spotlight, and I also have Johnny Marr playing guitar. Besides Johnny and the orchestra, everything else stays virtual throughout the mix.”
May 2010, Johnny was awarded the Inspiration Award at the 55th Ivor Novello Awards held at Grosvenor House London. Johnny, who was presented with the award by Alex Kapranos, told the audience: “I always thought that the greatest thing you can achieve as a musician is to be called an inspiration – aside from a big house in Sunningdale obviously. Thank you to everyone who’s followed me through all the twists and turns. Hopefully there will be more twists and turns, because that’s what I like.
I believe that rock music, and pop music, is an art form and should be an art form, and it’s all about inspiration. I’ll continue to try to live up to it”.
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