Johnny Marr: 'Popular songs from The Smiths belong to everybody'
Ahead of his gig in Belfast next week, Johnny Marr tells Chris Jones how the city’s music heritage influenced him, finally releasing a solo album, and why he has started singing songs from his former band, The Smiths
Speaking to a veteran rock star about an upcoming gig in Belfast, you get used to hearing the same old platitudes — wonderful crowds, great craic, rinse and repeat.
But Manchester-born Johnny Marr is more thoughtful than most. Looking ahead to his upcoming solo show in Belfast, the former Smiths guitarist becomes genuinely animated about the city and its music, enthusing about Them and Stiff Little Fingers, Rory Gallagher’s famous Ulster Hall gigs and Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations.
“It’s a city I really like,” he says. “I first went there in 1984 or 1985 with The Smiths and it was always intriguing to me. I’d always been quite a fan of Them, Van Morrison’s group, and there was a sound in those records that I assumed was part of the spirit of the city. It’s always been known for pretty energetic guitar music.”
In the mid-Eighties, when The Smiths were at their height, Marr says he used to look forward to their Belfast gigs more than most — “it wasn’t just another town on the calendar,” he says. And while he knew roughly what to expect from the ailing city having watched the Troubles from a safe distance (and been raised in an Irish family), he relished the opportunity to see for himself.
“I got used to the image of Belfast from the news,” he says. “It gave it an air of unpredictability and a strangeness that it was so close, but there was a tension that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else. Obviously I was very young, but to be honest it made it really exciting for me. There was a working class street culture, I think. And, of course, you couldn’t have grown up in Manchester in the Sixties and Seventies and go to Belfast and not think about George Best. It’d be like going to Hong Kong and not thinking about Bruce Lee. For young Manchester lads with Irish descent, and me in particular, I had an interest in going to Belfast.”
Marr returns to the city to promote his two recent solo albums, The Messenger (2013) and last year’s Playland, each of which revisits the punk-pop sound of his teenage years — the likes of Blondie and fellow Mancunians the Buzzcocks. But Johnny Marr the solo artist is a relatively new idea — after The Smiths split up in 1987, he spent the best part of 30 years as an in-demand sideman, playing with The The, Electronic (featuring members of New Order and Kraftwerk), Beck, Pet Shop Boys, Neil Finn, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, as well as fronting his own short-lived band, The Healers. So what took him so long to step into the limelight?
“I guess the answer is just that I’ve been very, very busy making records with other bands,” he says. “It never occurred to me to make a solo record until I had the songs. Yeah, maybe I could have done it years before, but I look back on all the stuff with the Pet Shop Boys and The The particularly, and Modest Mouse, and I’m quite happy with the way things have panned out.”
In particular, the last decade has been incredibly busy — as well as all the rock collaborations, Marr has also been lauded for working on the score for the movie Inception with legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, while the pair recently completed a score for Freeheld, starring Julianne Moore. Oh, and he’s also writing his memoirs. “Now I talk about it, I can’t really believe how I’ve managed to find the time to do it,” he says.
But then that’s always been his way. He casts his mind back to his teens for evidence. “I was going to do what I was going to do no matter what,” he recalls. “I spent from 14, 15 up until I formed The Smiths sleeping on rehearsal room floors if it meant we could get the next day for free. I actually did that for a week so the landlord couldn’t throw us out. I snuck on trains and buses and got thrown off. I was skint. My desire was such that even the hardships sounded great to me. I was really, really dedicated. There was no other option for me.”
More recently, he attributes his peripatetic career to his reluctance to take a break even if his bandmates insist on it, and a restless creative impulse.
“I get very interested in a certain idea and I have to go and pursue that for a few years, and if the bands that I’m with at that particular time are going in a different direction, then I just have to go my own way,” he says. “That was a big part of what happened in The Smiths — I felt like all the influences, musically and aesthetically, were done for me, and I wanted to experience new things.”
But after spending the bulk of his career playing other people’s songs, occasionally contributing backing vocals, and bearing in mind he’s now in his 50s, you might expect Marr’s recent move to centre stage to have taken some getting used to. But apparently not. “I don’t know why it came easily!” he says. “Maybe a little bit of it is because I had to do it quite a lot when I was
in my teens. When I was in certain bands and the singer wasn’t making it, I was always pushed to the front and had to write some lyrics. I did a few little gigs in front of my mates, and that's probably the toughest audience you're ever going to get. They're merciless. So half of what I did when I started fronting my own band was stepping back into that role.
"And the other half was just the experience of playing so many shows, particularly with Modest Mouse and The Cribs. I did a lot of singing and that made me a much better singer - having to sing along with Gary Jarman, of The Cribs, who's one of the best singers I've ever worked with."
You may notice the absence of a certain Smiths singer from Marr's thoughts on the frontmen in his life. It's well documented that Marr and Morrissey don't get on, and that the former doesn't always react well to being asked about the latter. But Marr is preparing to reconnect with those early Smiths gigs in Belfast (and, by extension, with his estranged bandmate) by playing several of the band's songs during his set, something he only started to do relatively recently. The words and the unmistakeable delivery of those songs may have been all Morrissey's work, but Marr wrote most of the music, and his much-copied, rarely bettered guitar work is just as key to his old band's sound.
"I felt it was inappropriate to play Smiths songs for many, many years," he says.
"But then lots of other people started playing Smiths songs. People doing cover versions and all this sort of stuff. It was only playing with Neil Finn and Eddie Vedder in the early 2000s -they wanted to do a Smiths song with me, and when I was uncomfortable with it, it was quite obvious I needed to drop that and not be precious about it. And if anyone is going to do it, it's going to be me. If I'm going to play a show now, it would be weird for me not to play How Soon Is Now?. And if you've written There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, why would you not want to play that?"
Well, indeed. Marr says that he has no regrets over leaving it this long to play those songs himself - he was mostly playing in other people's bands so it wouldn't have made much sense.
The obvious question, though, is whether it took time to get used to singing Morrissey's completely idiosyncratic words every night.
"Not really, because I know them without having to think of it," he says. "When those songs are really popular, they kind of belong to everybody. I've been asked over the years whether playing those songs is cathartic for me, or whether I'm reclaiming them or anything like that, but that's all quite academic and looking at it in the wrong way.
"When I play those songs, I'm playing them to make everybody feel good. And when everybody feels good, I get that back."
Johnny Marr plays the Limelight, Belfast, 8pm October 16. For tickets go to www.ticketmaster.co.uk
Since The Smiths broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr has barely sat still. What about the other three?
Over the last 25 years, Stephen Patrick Morrissey has become an odd combination of national treasure and professional troll. His solo career has been enormously successful and his recent Autobiography sold by the bucketload, but his recent novel was panned and controversy has never been far away.
Mike Joyce (drums)
Joyce is best known for the lawsuit that he and Rourke launched against Morrissey and Marr in 1996 for royalties they felt they were owed. Rourke settled out of court, but Joyce continued until the bitter end. He won £1m. He has also worked as a session drummer for Suede and the Buzzcocks among others, and as a DJ and broadcaster.
Andy Rourke (bass)
Bassist Rourke went on to a moderately successful career as a session bassist (including for The Pretenders) and toured with Badly Drawn Boy for two years in the early 2000s. He only got £83k from the settlement with Morrissey and Marr, which he promptly spent before being declared bankrupt in 1999. He's now a DJ and radio presenter in New York.