The wisdom of Johnny Marr beyond The Smiths
Alejandro De Luna
I respect Johnny Marr even more after finishing Set The Boy Free, his autobiography. As the man himself proves without being cocky, his wide-ranging career goes way beyond The Smiths‘ legendary guitar wizardry and the jingle-jangle soundscapes of a Rickenbacker. The book is embellished by the anecdotes of a boundlessly creative and diverse artist and a six-string magician that cannot be pigeonholed or that would never fit in a box of rock clichés and pretentious ‘guitar heroes’. A guitarist that prefers the ‘less is more’ philosophy based on melancholic textures, legendary riffs and exquisite arpeggios.
From jamming with Keith Richards and Bert Jansch to recording with Bryan Ferry, Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, The Pretenders and Pet Shop Boys. From playing with artists such as Beck, R.EM., Ronnie Wood, Robyn Hitchcock and Paul McCartney to discovering Oasis even before Alan McGee. From mutating into a guitar scientist and studio artisan with The The and Electronic to joining Modest Mouse and The Cribs. From building a signature Fender guitar to joining forces with the genius of Hans Zimmer. And from becoming a solo artist to running five marathons in one week. Doctor and Professor Johnny Marr saw it and did it all and without compromising his artistic vision, persona and genius. Always different, but always with the same signature sound.
All the quotes below were taken with respect from Johnny Marr‘s autobiography (Set The Boy Free, 2016), with the purpose to illustrate a fascinating career in music and pop culture.
Johnny Marr with Talking Heads
“One of the biggest bands in the world while still maintaining their artistic integrity.”
Johnny Marr with The Pretenders
“The Pretenders went into the studio with Nick Lowe to record two songs for a film. We cut the Burt Bacharach song ‘The Window of the World’ and The Stooges‘ song ‘1969’ for a single. It turned out to be a perfect document of how The Pretenders sounded with me in the band.”
Johnny Marr with The The
“Playing in The The I was given the freedom to try anything and encouraged to do things I’d not done before; fuzz sounds, industrial noises and radical echoes were all employed in the spirit of experimentation.”
“When I joined The The, my guitar technique improved considerably. I learned everything I could about the new guitar technology: programming devices, filters, modulation, backwards effects, and any way of changing the sound with pedals, something that I came to think of as ‘producing with your feet’ and which would become invaluable in the future.”
“Dusk is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Johnny Marr with Electronic
“I saw working with Bernard [Sumner] as an opportunity to experiment with electronic music and to learn as much about working with machines as I could. I wanted to program drumbeats and write the most out-and-out synth pop, I could muster regardless of what anyone might think.”
“In spite of my urge to do otherwise, I would still always play guitar on the songs, but usually after I had tried to make it sound like a synthesiser. It was important and necessary for me at the time to do different things from what I was known for.”
“I was also inspired by Brian Eno, who didn’t appear to impose any limitations on what he did or how he did things, and his method of using the studios an instrument was an idea I was interested in taking as far as I could.”
“Working with Karl [Bartos], I learned first-hand about German history: composers, philosophers, and what was really happening with the musicians in the German counterculture.” [On working with Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos]
Johnny Marr with Billy Bragg
“Billy is someone who understood my genuine attempts to balance unpretentiousness with an occasional hedonistic eccentricity befitting a rock star.”
Johnny Marr with Pet Shop Boys
“I’ve ended up employing a lot of different guitar styles. I’ve played on more Pet Shop Boys songs than any other musician, my favourite being ‘This Must Be the Place’.”
Johnny Marr & The Healers
I was looking to do something different. I was listening to psychedelic bands of the sixties, and the German bands commonly referred as ‘Krautrock’, especially Faust, with their combination of tranced-out slink and pastoral spaciness. I wanted to play songs that were hypnotic.
The idea was to cross the sexuality of the blues with the eroticism of electronica.
Johnny Marr with Modest Mouse
“The American bands gave me a renewed enthusiasm for current guitar music and provided a perfect antidote to the UK’s post-Britpop scene, which aside from a couple of bands I considered to be something of a dead-end, one way street.”
“Being in a rootsy American band was a whole new thing, and I enjoyed mixing guitar science with the vibe of the Mississippi swamp.”
“It had been the best time of my life. I’d had a number one album in America, had started building my own guitar [signature Fender Jaguar], and had even sung ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ to my wife on Elvis‘ porch.”
“Modest Mouse had booked a second show in Brooklyn later that same night [after the Madison Square Garden gig]. After our set I played with R.E.M. and then jumped in a cab to catch up with Modest Mouse show at around three thirty in the morning, and when the night night was over I walked out on to the sidewalk at seven o’ clock, dazed but feeling good, having played three times in one night in New York.”
Johnny Marr with The Cribs
“To me The Cribs played street UK guitar music but with the attitude of an American band. They had grown up devouring the US alternative culture in the nineties that had been led by bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana, which meant that The Cribs were different from their peers, who didn’t have quite the same anti-corporate ideology, nor the same force.”
“I made the loudest and weirdest noises I could to accompany the chaos and it was carnage.”
Johnny Marr with Hans Zimmer
“Working on a film is entirely different from writing songs. A song is a subjective endeavour and you’re working to meet your own criteria, whatever they might be. The music for a film has to express some aspect of the emotion that’s happening on the screen, and emotion doesn’t necessarily have to mean ’emotional’.”
“Performing such dramatic music, with some of the greatest musicians in the world in the orchestra behind me, was one of the high points of my life.”
“Now that I was based back in England I felt like I was reconnecting with my musical roots and the values of the bands I was into when I was starting out. I wanted two guitars with loud drums, and lyrics that reflected what I saw going on around me – something I came to think off as ‘outside music’.”
“I thought it might be good to do something that was about other things – cities, environment, society, other people.”
“Some people would inevitably compare the way I do Smiths songs to Morrissey, which is as redundant as it is absurd.”