Johnny Marr interviewed for The Guitar Magazine
There was a point in time when suddenly Johnny Marr made it cool play pop guitar all over again. In this exhaustive interview, the Mancunian maestro reveals his key influences and leads TGM on an exclusive album-by-album tour of his career to date. Just do him a favour: don't mention the 'jangle' word, eh?
It took five albums before he played a conventional solo; he'd
rather listen to electro pioneers Mantronix than any of the blues greats; he
judges pure pop music 'a noble thing', and likes songs with 'a definite
beginning, middle and end.' Cut from a different cloth than the average guitar
hero, maybe - but that's one of the reasons why Johnny Marr is so admired.
In the 1980s, Marr was one of only a few British guitarists who offered an alternative to America's production line of gymnastically-fingered fret-chokers. His work with The Smiths impressed not just from a playing point of view, but also because it placed ambitious guitar-led pop back in the British charts. In an era when the ensemble du jour was the synth duo, The Smiths proved inspirational. 'I didn't take it all seriously until I saw Johnny Marr,' admits the current king of guitar pop, Oasis overlord Noel Gallagher. 'He had the Brian Jones haircut and the white polo neck and the big red semi-acoustic. When The Smiths came on Top Of The Pops, that was it for me. I wanted to be Johnny Marr.'
The 70 Smiths songs Marr recorded in four years are, of course, only half of
the story. Since the band's demise he's gone on to record and tour with The The,
play numerous sessions, and explore more eclectic avenues with Bernard Sumner in
Today, at London's Mayfair studios, Marr has agreed to cast a fond yet not uncritical eye over his guitaristic back pages. Aptly, it's a studio where Marr recorded with The Smiths; typically, the guitarist is talking nineteen to the dozen; weirdly, the first chapter in his story begins with Irish power-bluesman Rory Gallagher...
'He came along [at a] time when I was at an age desperate for something to call my own,' Marr reflects. 'He had a very straightforward street image - jeans, plimsoles, a really battered guitar - and it just connected with me. I went to see him in concert and he scared the life out of me, honest! He was so intense I couldn't believe it - I wanted to get closer, but I was scared in case he made eye contact with me and the earth swallowed me up or something. I can remember staying off school for a couple of days pretending I was ill and trying to play along with his records.
'There was one day when I was playing along to his Deuce album which was just a complete turning point for me as a guitar player. I sussed it out, and the penny just dropped; "I can play!" It's funny, 'cos about six months ago I dug all the records from that period of my life out again, and I can hear echoes of what I do chordally in what Rory Gallagher used to do. I don't know if anyone else would pick up on it but for me it was quite shocking... it was like seeing old photographs of yourself."
Marr subsequently lapped up the playing of Howlin' Wolf and sidekick Hubert Sumlin, Neil Young, early Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty And The heartbreakers, plus, notably, Nils Lofgren - sometime Crazy Horse guitarist and leader of his own '70s band, Grin - and the lauded English folk stylist Bert Jansch.
'Nils Lofgren had this really melodic lead style, as opposed to a modal, bluesy style,' Marr explains. 'He played across relative minors a lot of the time, which meant he could play a really poignant melody even in the middle of a straight-ahead rock track, and that was something that really interested me. All guitar players know that when you first start it's incredibly tempting and easy to just go for that Chuck Berry sort of thing, but Nils Lofgren never really did that. The songs were great, too, and he had this amazing, almost guileless, boyish voice. He also played beautiful slide on acoustic guitar...
'You can hear Nils Lofgren's influence on me in the solo on Shoplifters Of The World Unite. That's all done with false harmonics, which is a steel player's technique: you touch the strings with a right-hand finger an octave higher than where you're fretting, and then pluck the string with your thumb. All this was useful as inspiration to me 'cos I was desperate not to play boogie or blues leads. There was a million other guys doing that, and anyway, it really didn't have any poignancy for me. I still hear young players doing it to this day and... it just seems too easy.
'Even then, I was really into sad melodies. I started looking for people who played things in minor keys, something a bit more evocative than straight boogie. The altered tunings thing came, I guess, when I discovered Bert Jansch. He still inspires me to this day - his recent album is great. He's one of the key threads that run through my guitar playing. Whenever I come up against a dead end or lose the plot with my playing I just go back and listen to Bert Jansch... horribly unfashionable influences, I know, but it's the strange truth."
The lush production work of '60's maverick Phil Spector provided the next impetus. 'When I heard his records, a whole new world opened up to me,' Marr discloses. 'Even back then, I didn't so much listen to music as study it. I'd put on records, whether by a favourite group like T-Rex or just some naff pop record, and if the middle eight didn't appear where I thought it should or if the fade-out was too short, I'd get really frustrated! Having my head buried in the speakers, listening out for those things sort of grew in tandem with my obsession for guitars. And that's been with me for as long as I can remember.
'Thing is, when I was younger I'd spend a lot of time sitting in my bedroom with my guitar-playing friends, listening to Neil Young and Bert Jansch, skinnin' up and being serious, and my sister would be in the next bedroom listening to dance music and getting ready to go out with her friends, and they just sounding [sic] like they were having a better time - and they looked better, too! They'd say to me, "what are you listening to this miserable crap for?" After that I started getting turned on to Chic, The Fatback Band, The Ohio Players and War. If you listen to The Smiths' The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, the rhythm part from verse two onwards - that chick-a-chick part - it's pure Nile Rogers...
'I've got tons and tons of influences and I don't know many musicians who've got as wide ranging tastes that go into their playing as myself,' he adds. 'My whole life's been wrapped up in this, I've been fighting for it since I was 11 years old. What can I say? - I mean it, man.'
Righto. No apologies then as TGM says eyes down for 13 meaningful years of guitar, triumph, overwork, despair, ever-changing haircuts and, err... more guitar. Beginning with...
HATFUL OF HOLLOW
A budget-priced collection of Radio 1 sessions, B-sides and new tracks that ultimately seduced a substantially larger audience. The radio tracks displayed a swagger and venom that had been absent from The Smiths, while Marr's guitar was now shifted centre stage; check the quicksilver arpeggios in Girl Afraid, the baffling chordology of William, It Was Really Nothing and the chiming mandolin in Please, Please , Please, Let Me Get What I Want - plus, of course, the swampy throb of How Soon Is Now?
'At the time I wasn't too sure about Hatful Of Hollow being released - although the radio sessions were great, I was keen for them to remain just being that. In hindsight, I realised there were certain tracks - particularly Handsome Devil - that had something the produced version just didn't. It's a very valid record.
'How Soon Is Now? was the one, though. I wanted to write a track with an intro that you couldn't forget, something that you knew straight away was The Smiths. In that regard it was very "worked on". I arrived at the studio with a demo of the whole thing, apart from the tremolo effect - though that was bound to surface on a Smiths track sooner or later, 'cos at that time I was playing Bo Diddley stuff everywhere I went. I wanted it to be really, really tense and swampy, all at the same time.
'Layering the slide part was what gave it the real tension. As soon as I played that bit on the second and third strings, John Porter put an AMS harmoniser on it. Then we recorded each individual string with the harmoniser, then we tuned the B string down a half step and harmonised the whole thing.
'The tremolo effect came from laying down a regular rhythm part (with a capo at the 2nd fret) on a Les Paul, then sending that out in to the live room to four Fender Twins. John was controlling the tremolo on two of them and I was controlling the other two, and whenever they went out of sync we just had to stop the track and start all over again. It took an eternity. God bless the sampler, 'cos it would have been so much easier! But it was just one of those great moments.
'When Morrissey sang the vocal it was the first time we'd all heard it. John Porter said, "Oh, great - he's singing about the elements! I am the sun and the air..." But of course it was really, I am the son and the heir/of a shyness that is criminally vulgar... A great track.'
MEAT IS MURDER
The second Smiths album proper, self-produced, and yet - despite the band's glowing reputation - it didn't yield a single hit. Marr nevertheless stretched out with his backward guitar treatments on That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore and Meat Is Murder, and the open tuning/overdubbing complexity of The Headmaster Ritual. And, look out - indie-alien funk guitar ahoy on Barbarism Begins At Home...
'The Hatful Of Hollow Radio 1 sessions were really just banged out and ended up sounding great, so I thought, "Why use a name producer? We'll do it ourselves." I really like That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, the title track and The Headmaster Ritual - as guitar pieces they took me a long time to do, and songs like that don't come around that often.
'The nuts and bolts of The Headmaster Ritual came together during the first album, and I just carried on playing around with it. It started off as a very sublime sort of Joni Mitchell-esque chord figure; I played it to Morrissey but we never took it further. Then, as my life got more and more intense, so did the song. The bridge and the chorus part were originally for another song, but I put them together with the first part. That was unusual for me; normally I just hammer away at an idea until I've got a song. It's in open D turning, with a capo at the second fret. Again, it was heavily overdubbed. It was a very exciting period for me - realising I could hijack 16 tracks all for myself.'
Some reckon it to be Marr's strongest guitar LP with The Smiths...
'Really? In hindsight, I wasn't happy with the overall sound. I think it's too thin. And artistically, I think Meat Is Murder is the least successful of all The Smiths' albums. Some of the songs are just played too fast. That's me - I'm terrible for just speeding things up. Super hyper!'
While Marr's orchestral guitar arrangements on record were undoubtedly impressive, it was at this point he realised that the band's live sound badly needed bolstering up. 'When you go out live you want to give people at least a general impression of the whole thing, but if you're on your own, you end up compromising a lot of the chord inversions and inflections that were there in the overdubs,' he explains. 'You generally end up being reduced to playing that big-sounding first position chord. With my one-man band approach I managed that fairly successfully for a while, but other times it didn't really work. From a guitar point of view That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore could have been absolutely incredible live, but in the end it was only good.'
Once the Meat Is Murder tour was over Marr decided to add a second guitarist, Craig Gannon, for live dates.
THE QUEEN IS DEAD
'Album of the '80s,' cooed the critics, and ardent fans tend to agree: this is The Smiths' masterpiece. Although behind the scenes things were becoming extremely fraught, Marr still judged Bigmouth Strikes Again to be 'my very own Jumpin' Jack Flash'. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side exhibited an able pop touch, and the Stooges-influenced title track's aggressive wah rock frenzy was further enlivened by an eerie 'woohing' noise in the background...
'I'd done the rhythm track for The Queen Is Dead, and left the guitar on the stand. The wah pedal just happened to be half open, and putting the guitar down made the guitar suddenly hit off this harmonic. We were back at the desk playing back the rhythm track and I could still hear this harmonic wailing away, so we put the tape back onto record while I crept back into the booth and started opening up the wah-wah, thinking "Don't die, don't die!" Eventually I opened up the pedal, and "Wooooohhhhhh!" Kept it going, too. Great accident.'
More open tuning frippery came in the form of Morrissey's mis-spelt Cemetry Gates. 'When we signed with Rough Trade we were being hailed as The Great New Songwriters, and I was on the train coming back thinking, "Right, if you're so great - first thing in the morning, sit down and write A Great Song." I started with Cemetry Gates' BM to G change in open G...
'Sonically we got it right, but it was a very dark album that came out of a very dark period. I remember, when I was a kid, bands used to describe album environments as being very womb-like, which always fascinated me as an idea... now I know! Once was enough, making an album like that - I was really putting myself out on the edge. I know that sounds very humourless, and we did have a good time making it, but it was a bit like that. We had no manager, so me and Morrissey were trying to run the whole band, plus we were still on an independent label, but out of all that adversity we still managed to make this great album. A song like Never Had No One Ever could only have come out of that mindset - fucked-up.'
STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME
By the time Strangeways... reached the record racks, The Smiths were no more. Cocky coves claim they can hear clues in the grooves: Morrissey's lyrical preoccupation with death, the absence of guitar (yikes!) on the opening track, Marr's splintered riffing and production, his gaunt and frankly ill appearance in press photos. Further 'proof' was cited in Morrissey's lyrics for I Won't Share You, an 'obvious' kiss-off to his session-hungry partner. Doh! Unbridled woe and much burning of cardigans ensued...
'Actually, it's my favourite Smiths album. We split after we recorded it and they were good sessions. One or two of the songs are acoustic-led (Girlfriend In A Coma and Unhappy Birthday) which I really liked - now that was an organic record.
'I wanted the electric guitar parts a lot less layered and with a lot more weight, which you can hear on I Started Something I Couldn't Finish. The stuff that wasn't acoustic was mainly led by my 355 12-string; in fact, a lot of the songs - I Started Something..., Paint A Vulgar Picture and Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before - were written on that guitar. It gave a really big sound. I wanted to make sure my main guitar parts really counted and stayed on the record. Often, before, I had changed the main foundation at a later date, but that didn't happen with Strangeways.'
Coincidence or not, Marr also chose Paint A Vulgar Picture to 'lay down' his first guitar solo proper...
'Yeah, it was a big deal!' he grins wryly. 'I had to make everyone leave the studio, bring in a few candles... no, not really. The song just suited it. I always thought that if you played a guitar solo it should be something people could whistle... mind you, since then I've recorded solos that even Roger Whittaker would have problems whistling.
'One of the main things that was frustrating me about The Smiths was the way I was getting boxed. Anyone with half an ear could listen to The Smiths records and hear hard guitars, distorted guitars, backwards guitars, slide guitars, acoustics, Nashville tunings, open tunings... yet every time I opened a music paper it said, "Johnny Marr - jingle jangle." I'd just had enough...'
After The Smiths split, Marr cropped up on various sessions - backing Bryan
Ferry on his Bete Noir LP (The Right Stuff single was a vocal
version of Marr's Smiths instrumental Money Changes Everything), on the
Colors film soundtrack, some tasty work on Kirsty McColl's Kite
album, a few songs on Talking Head's Naked. For a while it looked like
he would join The Pretenders (he played on their Windows Of The World
single and even completed a short tour) but his first full-time project was as
new guitarist in The The. 'I'd actually met Matt Johnson before The Smiths,'
recalls Marr, 'it was just finances and geography that kept us apart. We hit it
off straight away when we first met - he played me something off Burning
Blue Soul, and I played him the music that eventually became Suffer
Little Children, and we really connected. He was the only other person I
knew playing in a similar sort of style as me. When I was in The Smiths I'd
always listen to Matt's records and think "I could do that better" -
'The way we got together was amazing synchronicity. You see, I really wanted to play with David Palmer (drums, one-time ABC-er) and James Eller (bass, just exited Julian Cope's band) and I talked about putting a band together with them, but at the same time Matt talked to each of us individually about playing with The The - and hey presto, we all joined The The. It was perfect for me in many ways, 'cos it allowed me to continue to be a musician and do something intense, but to stay completely away from the media hullabaloo that was going on around The Smiths' split.'
As he continued touring with The The, Marr began work on his next project.
He'd originally planned to simply guest on a forthcoming solo album by New Order
singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner, but their writing blossomed and the decided to
form a new band, Electronic. Fusing Sumner's electro-influenced pop and Marr's
supposed guitar classicism seemed strange; it certainly resulted in a sound way
removed from that of The Smiths. Marr nevertheless insists that the raised
eyebrows of public and press were the result of him being misunderstood all
'The sound of Electronic goes back to what was going on at The Hacienda (Manchester club) when the Smiths were formed,' he says. 'Even in the band's early days I was really quite involved with the people behind the club - Mike Pickering (of M People), Tony Wilson (Factory records) and Peter Saville (designer) all used to come into the clothes shop where I worked, which was really exciting for an 18-year-old.
'The Hacienda looked really exciting 'cos it was going to be playing primarily American music and consequently that's where I spent nearly every night. My then flatmate used to be a DJ there and he'd play all these obscure New York records; J Walter Negro And The Loose Jointz' Shoot The Pump, Prince Charles And The City Beat Band... all the stuff that evolved into hip-hop. I'm not laying claim to that but I certainly understood it. New Order took that and kind of made it their own... I went on record saying I thought New Order were great for doing that, which wasn't really the thing to do when you were in The Smiths in 1985.
'So to me, it was never bizarre that I ended up forming a group with Bernard Sumner - he was one of the only other English guitar players in the '80s who was doing anything passionate. I always thought he played guitar like Neil Young, actually...'
A week later, Marr's back at home in Manchester demoing new Electronic
material. He's now back 'on a roll', he says over the phone, and can promise new
and mostly guitar-led Electronic releases by mid-'97. 'I'm happiest when I'm
wandering round a room full of guitars in different tunings, guitars with capos
on,' he admits. 'It means you've got a frame of reference in your head and then
the guitar speaks a different language. I've been thinking about my playing a
lot recently, and if I could say anything it's probably that I've always been
anti the easy cliche. When I was growing up, all that widdly-dee playing was
considered illegal... and quite rightly. They should bring back the birch for
So where is his playing going?
'Hard to fathom... I suppose it's going underground,' he offers, somewhat inconclusively. 'For example, at the moment I'm interested in this new technique, a combination of false harmonics with a thumbpick to tell the feedback which note it should play, and on top of that using a couple of octave boxes to get the note to jump around. If you use two you can get it to jump down an octave and then jump back again... pretty good, really freaks the feedback out! But again, it's still melodic. Y'know, it's easy to walk up to amp and get it to whistle, but it's not so easy to get it to whistle a tune. It's just another way of avoiding the obvious.'
It would be churlish to suggest that many of Marr's admirers would actually like him to return to a four-piece guitar/bass/drums/vox group and 'do something obvious'... so TGM suggests it anyway.
Yeah, yeah,' sighs Marr. 'The thing is, guitar rock/pop is completely chasing its own tail at the moment. I want to do something a little more innovative. I like change, I hate dogma. A lot of musicians who are influenced by older groups seem to miss the point of relativity - sticking to the "authentic" isn't what made Hendrix; otherwise he'd have been playing pure delta blues. Sticking to the authentic isn't what made the Beatles, either. As well as passion and amazing talent, it was innovation. I really believe you've got to use everything at your disposal.'
He really does mean it. Man.
VG DOES IT
This article was originally published in the January, 1997
issue of The Guitar Magazine.
Reprinted without permission for personal use only.