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Johnny Marr - man on a pop mission

Johnny Marr talks with Dave Simpson about politics, his musical journeyand learning to love The Smiths

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 6:57pm

During the December 2010 debate over the raising of student tuition fees in Britain's House of Commons, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy asked a rather surreal question of Prime Minister David Cameron, who had just gone public with his unlikely fandom of left-wing, anti-Conservative, seminal Manchester indie band The Smiths.

"As The Smiths are the archetypal student band, if he wins tomorrow night's vote, what songs does he think students will be listening to?" the member for Bristol East asked, to roars from the opposition benches, going on to suggest several Smiths songs. " Miserable Lie, I Don't Owe You Anything or Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now?" Cameron responded in kind: "I expect that if I turned up I probably wouldn't get This Charming Man, and if I went with the foreign secretary [William Hague] it would probably be William, It Was Really Nothing."

When reminded of the exchange, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr comments drily: "You do wonder. What part of The Smiths ethos did he not get?" Few British groups have had the far-reaching impact of The Smiths, and few guitarists are as celebrated as Marr. He was recently named New Musical Express' ultimate guitarist (ahead of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page), and even has a Salford University honorary doctorate for "changing the face of British music".

"I get a lot of people being very nice to me, even when I don't want them to be," Marr chuckles. "With one or two exceptions, the people who like the music are always super nice and don't want to bother you. They just want to tell you how much they love it."

Marr has spent 26 years trying to move on from The Smiths, who split in 1987, in which time he's been quite the musical chameleon. What he calls a "searching personality" has taken him from synthesiser pop with Bernard Sumner in Electronic to foreboding rock with Matt Johnson's The The, from folk with Bert Jansch to adult-oriented pop with Crowded House via playing with Bryan Ferry and Chic's Nile Rodgers. He has fronted short-lived Stooges-ish swamp rockers The Healers, enjoyed an unlikely US No1 album with left-field indie outfit Modest Mouse and taken his roving guitar gunslinger role to shouty indie band The Cribs.

It's hard to see how he could have journeyed further from the trademark "chiming man" guitars he played in The Smiths, short of playing a kazoo. Yet here he is, a youthful 49-year-old, talking about his first ever solo album, The Messenger, which sees him returning to the big tunes and cascading guitar arpeggios that made him the guitarist of his generation.

We meet in a London photographic studio, where, having his picture taken earlier, Marr still looked the bouffant-haired tunesmith whose 1983 Top of the Pops appearance alongside a gladioli-hurling Morrissey provided indie rock with its "year zero" moment. His reputation as one of rock's nicest guys is not without merit, yet he is also savvy and single-minded, and when he agrees to the photographer's request for photographs with a guitar it's with a matey but firm: "Just don't tell me how to hold it."

In person, the matt black Keith Richards barnet and glittery nail varnish on his plectrum-holding right hand suggest a man who has spent his entire adult life as a national institution. Otherwise he's disarmingly normal, self-effacing but not falsely modest, and - mostly - open. But he sounds very much a man on a mission.

"I felt something was missing from pop," he explains of The Messenger's prickly energy and epic, romantic soundscapes, which handily coincide with the widely predicted return of the guitar to pop's forefront in 2013. "When you hit it right on guitars in pop, it can be vivacious and exuberant and shiny. If people say parts of the record sound like The Smiths, I'm OK with that because hopefully it's got the same exuberance."

But for years, Marr wasn't "OK" with sounding anything like The Smiths. In fact, as he now admits, the band cast such a long shadow that his musical shapeshifting was an "entirely conscious" decision to avoid sounding like his former self at all. If he came up with a riff that sounded anything like the group, he'd bin it.

By 2005, he had been through so many metamorphoses that he couldn't see himself as a British artist any more. So he went to Portland in the US (initially to join Modest Mouse, before hooking up with the relocated Cribs) to "find some space to play". One night, his fingers found the beginnings of the sort of instantly melodious guitar shape he turned out by the truckload when he was the musical half of songwriting partnership Morrissey and Marr.

"In the past, I'd have shredded it because it sounded too much like me," he admits, "but it just felt so sweet and so genuine, it seemed important to just go with it." The riff became The Cribs' We Share the Same Skies, after which he began pining for the way bands operated in Britain, especially in his youth. "I knew I needed to come back to front a group that operated like that."

In May 1982, Marr was an 18-year-old clothes shop assistant when he sashayed up to fellow working-class Irish-Mancunian and renowned misfit-about-town Steven Patrick Morrissey to suggest they form a group. The pair were so infatuated with each other's possibilities that on their second meeting they planned The Smiths in detail. They plotted the label they would sign to (Rough Trade), the record sleeves, even the colour of the label on their debut single (blue). Everything came true. "I didn't expect that. I'd written a load of catchy tunes in my bedroom."

While Marr's guitar style and worldview assimilated Motown, Chic, The Hollies and Iggy Pop, Morrissey added words steeped in Oscar Wilde and 1960s kitchen-sink drama. Morrissey's declaration of celibacy was another genius move, which made fans desperate to be the first to love him. "We invented indie as we still know it," says Marr, the debt ceremoniously acknowledged in the 1990s when Oasis' Noel Gallagher played Marr's guitar.

But the guitarist was equally taken aback by the reach of The Smiths' non-musical impact: the amount of people that turned vegetarian because of the album Meat is Murder, or became politically motivated through Margaret on the Guillotine. "We were of that generation that came after punk and post-punk," he says. "We're grateful for the revolution, but there was a bit of homophobia there, and sexism. There wasn't in indie. People don't talk about it now, but it was non-macho."

As a young boy, while others had toy cars or teddy bears, Marr had a toy guitar. "Recently, my parents redecorated the house and there were a couple of my really old toy guitars knocking around. So they moved them out, decorated, then put them back, as if they were houseplants."

When he was recently invited to speak at his children's school, his wife Angie told him to talk about what he knew. So Marr talked about being a guitarist. "I said: 'If you want to be happy, find something you're good at and make it your life, whether it's being a train driver, architect, or whatever'." He smiles. "There's a lot to be said for being an expert at something."

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