The Smiths were one of the great UK singles bands – now Johnny Marr boxes up his first 10 solo single releases in a 7″ box. The synchronicity of which isn’t lost on John Earls…
One of the three art prints included in Johnny Marr’s solo singles boxset is a close-up of a tattoo on his forearm, proclaiming ‘45 R.P.M.’ in Parlophone’s font. Marr had it done 10 years ago, when he was 45, to confirm singles have as much religious significance to him as the Shiva tattooed on his other arm. If anyone has lived their life in singles, it’s Johnny Marr.
The Smiths may have been at the vanguard of the 80s golden age of the flipside but, if anything, it’s more significant Marr has been able to compile such a gorgeous-looking box of 7″ singles from the past decade, too: precious few other artists are keeping the art of the proper 7″ alive. In an era when major labels routinely charge an eye-watering £10 or more for one-sided 7″ singles of pre-existing album tracks, Johnny Marr is stoically reminding people of the importance of B-sides. IDLES, Pet Shop Boys, Arctic Monkeys, Saint Etienne and Manic Street Preachers are among the last bands to still bother. The 90s multi-format era, which meant Suede and Oasis were able to release B-side compilations as good as their parent albums, is as baffling to many new music fans as the existence of the cassingle.
Single Life starts out prosaically enough. Marr’s 2012 debut The Messenger is released as a physical single for the first time here, meaning its flipside is merely a demo of future single New Town Velocity. Since then? Single Life has a wealth of ideas and power which co-exists with Marr’s progression across his three albums from the “Decent for a solo effort” chiming rock & roll of The Messenger to 2018’s sprawling, shamanic and psychedelic Call The Comet.
The breakneck ride of Easy Money was the best single of 2014. Just when the up-for-it The It-Switch starts wrapping up as a perfectly excellent pop song, Marr bolts on a magnificent solo, because he’s Johnny ‘Fucking’ Marr and he’s entitled to show off, thanks. Jeopardy lies in wait on Hi Hello’s B-side, ready to rip the unwary to shreds. Spectral Eyes was written for Blondie, before Marr decided it was too good to give to anyone else. He was right to keep it. There’s a sumptuous live version of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want for nostalgists, while the divergence into technicolour synth pop on brand new single Armatopia suggests album four will be another bright new dawn for someone always out for adventure.
At £95, Single Life is steep. £9.50 a single? That’s poor. At least the artwork is varied while staying reliably fascinating, from the guitar hero pose on Dynamo to the brutalist imagery of New Town Velocity. There are 10 different colours on the vinyl. Pricing aside, Single Life is an exemplary collection. There are a thousand reasons to celebrate Johnny Marr. The fact he’s still pursuing the perfect single package nearly 40 years into his career is very high up the list.