Since The Smiths dissolved, Johnny Marr has travelled the world, bringing his guitar-superstar chops to a host of bands’ records and finding his voice as a solo songwriter. Call The Comet, though, was forged in his home city. Richard Purden meets Marr to talk about embracing rock music, record shopping with Morrissey and being influenced by HG Wells…
The May Fair Hotel in London’s West End was once famous for high society ballroom dances featuring Big Band leader Bert Ambrose. Today, it hosts a very different kind of bandleader; at least that’s how Johnny Marr describes himself after rejecting previous terms such as ‘songwriter’ (too “Jackson Browne”) and ‘guitar slinger for hire’.
Marr admits that no-nonsense self-perception has a lot to do with his working class background growing up as a second-generation Irish kid in 1970s Manchester. It’s more than 40 years since he formed his first band, aged 13. After moving from Ardwick to Wythenshawe, once the largest council estate in Europe, he was able to draw upon a notable pool of musicians, which featured fellow Smith Andy Rourke, Billy Duffy (The Cult), and former Coronation Street actor Kevin Kennedy.
His trademark black tresses are today fashioned into a feather cut, with lighter streaks summoning Keith Richards’ rakish look of the early 70s. Reflecting on a lifetime shaped by vinyl, he remembers his first sighting of the Stones guitarist when looking through the record collection of a friend’s parent. “It was the hexagonal sleeve – I’ve yet to see a more spooky and freaked-out looking band on a greatest hits record [Through The Past, Darkly].”
“My parents loved early rock ’n’ roll,” he explains of his boyhood introduction to vinyl. “We would visit these musty old record shops to pick up old 45s of Jerry Lee Lewis and The Everly Brothers, it was a kind of early retro. You didn’t need to be an alternative person or collector, because it was a huge cultural pastime; your auntie would have a lot of records, everybody had a record player – in the way people have laptops now. The charts covered easy-listening people in their 40s and 50s who were very straight. It’s not like now, where you have hipster grandmas and grandads. When you went to a friend’s house, you would look through the family’s records. There was often a lot of dross, but there would be the odd thing – that’s how I got into Motown.”
Visiting his favourite record shops is a passion that continues for Marr to this day – Kingbee in Manchester, Jackpot in Portland and Groucho’s in Dundee. “I’ve been going to Groucho’s since The Smiths days; I’m glad these places are still around.” There is an enthusiastic grin when recalling his first 7″, a copy of Jeepster by T. Rex. “For my generation, record shops were places like Rumbelows and Barratts that primarily sold record players and washing machines. There were stores selling the hardware and software, to use modern parlance. Later on, I went to places like Black Sedan, which was a bit of a student hangout that smelled of pot – all the good ones did, as I remember.
“Virgin was the first big shop and an important place in town, where musicians stuck up cards with ‘singer wanted’. A lot of bands came out of that scene; Joy Division advertised there.”
It’s that period of Manchester’s history that the 54-year-old has revisited; the city of his early teenage years, which predates The Stone Roses, Oasis, Madchester and The Haçienda. “The first solo album (The Messenger) was done in Berlin and New York mostly, and in my mind, I can’t separate those two places from the record,” he explains. “Playland is a very ‘London’ record; that environment shaped the sound.”
His third long-player, Call The Comet, was recorded in the custom-made Crazy Face Factory studio, which overlooks the Pennines and is named after the clothes shop once owned by the late Joe Moss, who played an essential role managing The Smiths in their foundational year.
“I moved into the studio on the day Joe died, which was a strange coincidence. The emotion on the record comes from me being in this big open place, physically surrounded by that landscape, and also me coming out of writing the biog (Set The Boy Free).”
Walk Into The Sea might sound like something of a bleak prospect, but the song is about daring to take a metaphorical leap into the water and come out reinvigorated. It finishes with the line: “Hope breaks on me”. It’s about rebirth, a baptism story of climbing over the cliffs and plunging into the sea and coming out the other end. There appears to be something of Marr’s Catholic childhood etched into the grooves. “There is a bit of that, being brought up Irish Catholic. If you have a vivid imagination, there’s a gothic quality to a lot of the iconography and an awareness of otherworldly activity, without a doubt.”
Elsewhere, Marr describes The Tracers as “totally HG Wells”. Although he left school at 14, Marr’s reading list expanded greatly when “hanging around a lot of bookshops frequented by older guys that went on to shape the late 70s and early 80s, like Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris and Paul Morley. There was an awareness among them of writers like Philip K Dick and William Burroughs.”
It was Moss who first encouraged Marr to knock on Morrissey’s door four years later, when Marr was only 18. Significantly, the songwriting partnership blossomed over a shared love of records and pop culture. Flicking through Morrissey’s collection, Marr opted to put on The Marvelettes B-side written by Smokey Robinson – You’re The One. “While I was playing and choosing the records, it skipped things along about 20 minutes. If you can imagine it, you’re sat in your bedroom and some kid turns up and starts going on about forming this life-changing band.
“He had no idea that was going to happen, that must have been quite trippy, because before I knocked on the door… it was just another Wednesday.”
It seems natural that Morrissey and Marr would go on poignant day trips to visit specific record shops. One particular journey had a significant influence on Strangeways Here We Come, their final long-player, released after the much-publicized split.
Hand That Stops The Needle
“Me and Morrissey would go to these record shops on our own, which was really important to us. Around ’86, ’87, we were already quite big, with a few songs in the charts and it became a real ‘thing’. We found a few places, and these trips were like pilgrimages and quite sacred to us; it was something we would look forward to, and also it would give us a kind of resource, because we were buying records like Young, Gifted And Black and a few Bowie and Roxy singles.
“I Started Something… sounds unashamedly like Mick Ronson, which comes from that time. It was a sort of thing me and him had going, which reminded everybody that our friendship was to be nurtured – that’s what started the whole thing off.”
On Call The Comet, Marr revisits what he’s previously described as the “beautiful melancholy” of The Smiths on Hi Hello. It summons both There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and Well I Wonder. “That’s good,” he says. “I’ve spent so much time avoiding the past. With Hi Hello, it felt so natural. When something has a feeling of honesty, you should just go with it, and that one just poured out. I had to sing about my feelings. As much as it was my intention not to sing about myself, I had to in that. It’s a song of unconditional love to someone, it’s that thing that all of us know unless we are very unlucky. It could be about a friend, sister, son, daughter or whatever. I had to face this one out with a sense of vulnerability and openness; it turned into a pretty song.”
Marr comes from a generation of guitarists whose playing is immediately recognisable; be it Will Sergeant, Thee Edge or Charlie Burchill, they all share an idiosyncratic singularity. “We were a generation of boys who grew up during that macho, posturing cock-rock period, we thought that was redundant. I think all of us were influenced by people like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Their approach was modern, and there was a more intellectual and feminine aspect to it.”
Marr’s signature sparkling arpeggios, minor-key harmonies and flurry of euphoric melodies have added much to modern indie bands such as Modest Mouse and The Cribs. His working relationship with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, too, is one he looks back on with affection. “I learned a lot from Bernard that people might not expect. He employs this approach to song construction called ‘working with the lights off’.
“He would rather not know what key the song is in or how many bars certain bits have. He works purely by ear and clock time. Bernard will say: ‘Right, we’ve gone round that part too many times’. A lot of musicians would go back to the first verse of a song, but he would say: ‘Why?’. If you know that about him, then you understand the period around ’83 to ’86, where the song construction is often quite peculiar.”
Scores To Settle
Marr has always been adept at borrowing stylistic elements from his collaborators – and that has continued with Hans Zimmer, when working on the score for films such as Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. “Hans is the person I’m still learning a lot from at the moment,” he says. A collaboration with the actress Maxine Peake has been another good fit. The pair share similar backgrounds, which manifested on The Priest – a spoken-word cut from a forthcoming album about homelessness. “I’d asked Maxine to record and she brought in this blog written by Joe Gallagher, a great writer who spent some time living on the streets. I added some music to it. As it was forming, I couldn’t believe what we had. The story was so clever, so unexpected. Maxine comes from the position of a young woman on the streets, who was trying to take the high ground by not drinking. She kind of acts on the track, and nailed it immediately.”
Over the last five years, Marr has written film scores and a best-selling biography, and is about to launch his third long-player. He’s happy to admit Call The Comet is a “rock” record, something he’s avoided in the past. The approach has allowed a more expressive and confident vocal delivery: “It comes from fronting and singing a lot of gigs and turning it up. I didn’t want to push it before and get in people’s faces.
“I was probably overthinking it before, but four or five years of doing this has taught me a lot. This is now another facet for me, which I’m happy to take on. I’ll always be the guitar player who sings and I’m happy to be so, but I’m less polite about it now.”
Richard Purden, 21 August 2018