Johnny Marr & the Healers
Growing up in the Seventies, with IRA bombing campaigns at their peak, he became accustomed to being branded an "Irish pig" at school and on the terraced streets of his native Ardwick. But his extended Irish family also immersed him in music from an early age: pop, country, folk and classic rock. At family gatherings, his father played harmonica while his uncle a sharply dressed Beatles and Everly Brothers freak, played guitar. His mother meanwhile, compiled her own personal singleschart every week.
"It was music, music, music," Marr says of his childhood. "Every Christmas I got a guitar and every birthday I got a football kit." In 1973, the Maher family were moved by the council from the crumbling Ardwick to the slightly more leafy but equally grim south Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, a disruptive dislocation of which Marr later said: "I thought I'd moved to Beverly Hills." It was in Wythenshawe that Johnny first befriended his fellow Smith-in-waiting Andy Rourke, as well as future Cult guitarist Bill Duffy. He embraced glam rock but was still too young to fully participate in punk. This helped shape the ant-punk attitude he later expressed during his Smiths heyday.
"The musical and political lines drawn by punkrock stayed in place for a long, long time," Johnny recalls. "And there's nothing worse when you're a kid than having to live by the laws of the generation above you. That has been lost by the generations since, so it's a hard thing for them to understand. But I've got to say, looking back at my singles collection, anything that was any good from that period I've got. My main thing was the American stuff, people like Patti Smith, and that's how I got into Phil Spector - and I got into the girl groups through The New York Dolls. That was my first ever vague tenuous connection with Morrissey - that was the thing that intrigued me about him, because he was famously a New York Dolls fan, and the first time I ever really met him was fleetingly at a Patti Smith gig when I was about 14 or 15. I was just a little kid hanging around."
Aware of the potent Smiths mythology which stalks his every move, Johnny stresses that this was a mere passing encounter, not a real meeting. "There'll be a whole fucking book about that next", he groans. The official birth of The Smiths is generally held to be Maher's fateful visit to Morrissey's Stretford home in late 1982. The chemistry worked an the duo were soon churning out richly melodic, extraordinarily lyrical guitar songs. But Marr, as Johnny re-christened himself to avoid confusion with Buzzcocks drummer John Maher, boasted an exotic musical palate for a supposed indie princeling. One of his early bands was a funk outfit called Freaky Party, and even while The Smiths were gearing up for world domination he used to DJ at small Manchester clubs.
"Yeah, retro was new when I started it," he quips. "When I was getting The Smiths together I used to play a lot of what's now known as classic rare groove records, and also a lot of James Brown, The Fatback Band. We used to play at a couple of little clubs, me and a friend. We'd play things like Sly Stone, The Jackson Five, Sam And Dave, a load of Atlantic soul. I still listen to that stuff now, which is why I thought S'Express were the best group in the world when they were around because it was all pretty much based on Fatback and Sly Stone. Marr not only spun records but danced too. "Too right, I bust a serious move, man. Yeah, dancing's fantastic. It should be on the school curriculum."
With bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce on board, The Smiths signed to London's Rough Trade label becoming the acknowledged saviors of guitar music and the most critically praised band of their generation. But even before they released their eponymous debut album in February, 1984. Marr was moonlighting with Mike Pickering's Factory signed funkateers, Quardo Quango, on their "Atom Rock" single. Fatefully, the record was produced by Bernard Sumner, Marr's future partner in Electronic. It was a portent of his post Smiths adventures as a session player and electro futurist. Johnny: "Bernard and Mike invited me, it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing, we used to bump into each other. It wasn't anything serious - now it seems serious because of the histories of all of us. At the time, it was just that Mike wanted me to play on his record." Marr was already a New Order fan. He had seen their first show at Comanche's in Manchester, loved their "Power, Corruption And Lies" album and still cherishes "In A Lonely Place" as one of his favourite songs. However, his secret disco leanings were kept largely under wraps.
Meanwhile The Smiths seemed unstoppable, topping the album charts with both "Meat is Murder" in February, 1985 and hitting number two with "The Queen is Dead" in June, 1986. But in that same year, The Smiths were cracking up following rumours of both drinking and drug problems of bandmembers. "The thing about the hedonism is we were just regular Manchester guys, doing what regular Manchester guys do," Marr shrugs. "In the early days Morrissey probably enjoyed a gig and by the time he got home he'd had a bottle of wine, but that's all we had. It's become this big idea that we were carrying on like Guns N'Roses, which we weren't." Marr's wake-up call was a tequila-fuelled, near-fatal car crash just yards from his Manchester home in late 1986. But even here he refuses to bow to rock'n'roll mythology. "Yeah, there was a period where I did zone out and take it to the limit, but that was always part of what I was looking forward to as a kid. I was 21 or 22, living my dream, having just come offstage in Cleveland on a Sunday night with a bar full of Smiths fans, sat in a hotel room with a lot of money for a kid from where I come from, doing what I used to dream about at 11 or 12. I did what anyone where I come from does - just partied. We weren't Aerosmith but we weren't The Osmonds either."
The last ever Smiths show on British soil, rescheduled after Johnny's car crash, was an Artists Against Apartheid benefit at London's Brixton Academy on December 12, 1986.The innovation of Marr's work with The Smiths reached its summit on their swansong album "Strangeways Here We Come". Diverse in style and expansive in sound, Marr's favourite Smiths album could almost be seen as the precursor to Electronic's modernist soundscapes. "The very first track on that album doesn't have one guitar on it," says Marr. "There's a clue for you. But you would never know, it still sounds like me. There's electric pianos on it, samples, some strings and some noises I was making in the studio with whatever was hanging about." It's tempting to speculate, whether if The Smiths had continued, they might now sound like Electronic. "No, we'd sound like The Prodigy, but with Kenneth Williams on the cover of the album," says Marr.
In August, 1987, Marr quit the group he had founded five years before. The remaining three members struggled on together for a further few weeks, even recording some demos with Easterhouse guitarist Ivor Perry, but the dream was over. The indie Beatles were no more. Significantly, Johnny also gave up his west London flat in 1987 and moved back to Manchester on a permanent basis with his wife, Angie (Marr's childhood sweetheart, who he had married on The Smiths' 1985 tour of America). At that time he was convinced that his musical future lay outside Britain.
Marr retreated to America and sought out his guitar heroes. He spent many nights in dusk-to-dawn jam sessions with Keith Richards and co-wrote some sketchy songs with David Crosby, formerly of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, in LA. "He was just getting over his prison sentence and drug addictions," Johnny recalls. "I met him and we clicked straight away. He took me back to his house, and what was really sweet was that we were in this bedroom with two guitars - it was like two kids who had bunked off school, because when his wife came in he was under a strict regime to behave himself. Not that I was any threat to that, but it was just like: what's this little scruff from Wythenshawe doing in David Crosby's bedroom? We started playing a couple of tunes, and from what I remember they were really good. But it was just that one meeting." Marr considered forming a band with Charlie Drayton and Keith Jordan with whom he co-wrote some "wicked, dark, instrumental music" for Dennis Hopper's 1988 gang movie "Colors" before "Herbie Hancock came in and naffed it all up." Drayton and Jordan, ironically, went on to work with Keith Richards.
Marr then realised that the place where he was hearing all the best music was finally at his house in Manchester. "Not because it's my roots or anything, but just because my house is where I was hearing all the best music," Johnny said. He seemed to settle for becoming the most famous session musician on the planet. In 1988, he surfaced on Bryan Ferry's album "Bęte Noir" and the final Talking Head opus "Naked". He called Ferry a "really good, down-to-earth bloke" but admitted, "I also did it because I was feeling so contrary. I was thumbing my nose at everyone who was on my back. "Critics pondered whether the former guitar god had compromised his legendary sense of cool, but it is significant that he turned down both Midge Ure's all-star band for 1998's Mandela birthday bash at Wembley and David Bowie's wretched "Glass Spider" tour. "If he'd asked me 10 years earlier I'd have been there like a shot, but I think by his own admission he wasn't on top form in those days." Bowie's axeman post was eventually filled by Peter Frampton.
Marr's next move was equally intriguing. He spent a year with post-punk titans The Pretenders, touring and playing on their 1989 album "Windows on the world". "Hanging out with Chrissie Hynde for a year when I did was far more significant than just playing onstage," Johnny says now. "The reality was that Chrissie and I were very close for a year and she's an incredible person in private. I couldn't have been involved with a better person for that time, and I learned a hell of a lot. I kind of was a permanent member of The Pretenders, but there wasn't really a group there because she'd been touring for a long time and was going through a period of transition. What she wanted to do was just retreat. And that was fine, but after the year had gone by I was missing going out on tour and making records."
One more on the look-out for musicians he could relate to, Marr began jamming with ex-ABC drummer David Palmer and former Julian Cope bassist James Eller. Matt Johnson was also looking to regroup his The The project at the same time, incorporating this ready-made trio as his new backing band, Johnson, who Marr knew from his pre-Smiths day, had already written most of 1989's "Mind Bomb" album, which did not help Johnny's public image as an apparently directionless hired hand. Marr's second The The album, 1993's "Dusk", was more of a fully fledged collaboration. In the interim he also found time to record with Billy Bragg, Kirtsy MacColl, Stex, Banderas, Andrew Berry (who used to be Marr's old hairdresser pal) and both the Pet Shop Boys and Electronic. "The reason I did it was there was no other way of me making records other than to form a group that would have been completely trampled on no matter what we've done," Marr explains. "Plus, I hadn't found musicians that I could relate to in that way. That was the only opportunity to do it, plus the people who asked me to play on their records I had respect for - and got along with personally. Of course, I was aware of disdainful attitudes about it, but what was I expected to do? I can still listen to some of those records and they're top. But I'm not doing sessions any more."
With the new generation of groove-driven, chemically boosted rock stars such as Ian Brown and Shaun Ryders, who were regulars at Marr's house, a new era was to star for Johnny, Electronic. Frustrated with the democratic and constrictions and internal frictions of New Order, Bernard Sumner began formulating a solo offshoot project. But it appeared to be impossible because he had nobody to bounce ideas off and also because it was no fun spending one night a week in an empty warehouse adjoining a graveyard. He began seeking collaborators for what was initially planned as a Sumner solo record. It was inevitable that his path would eventually collide with fellow Manchester musician Johnny Marr's. In San Francisco, at the climax of New order's 1987 tour with Echo And The Bunnymen, Sumner invited Marr out to discuss forming a band. Johnny Agreed. Soon afterwards Peter Hook invited the guitar maestro to join his own nascent side project Monaco. But Marr turned down his offer saying he was too late.
Johnny claims that his friendship with Bernard would have remained merely social if they hadn't clicked creatively straight away. The duo wrote a song on their first day of working together: "Reality". "The reason we were able to work together was we were both into making music that's emotive," Marr insists, "Even if it's got a beat behind it, it's got to have something emotional and passionate behind it." Thus Electronic became a serious item, and began seeking out creative partners. They recruited Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to craft their opulent debut single, "Getting Away With It". Marr returned the favour by playing on the PSB album, "Behaviour". Originally planned to remain a low-key white label act, their fantasy that factory would allow them to develop as an underground phenomenon was shattered when it became clear that "Getting Away With It" sold 275.000 copies, making it number 38 in America. Bernard Sumner meanwhile turned his back on New Order and Marr had accomplished his commitments to The Pretenders, Electronic had arrived. Electronic barely had a handful of half-formed compositions when Depeche Mode invited the duo to support them in LA. A new type of band was born so said Sumner: "We were sick of the group format where you have the same people in the same group for years and years. The idea was to come with a new type of group with two members who stayed the same and two or one members who changed, so you get a different chemistry with each album."
"Get The Message", Electronic's second single, climbed to number 8 and showcased Marr's stately guitars over the duo's disco leanings. Released in May, 1991, Electronic's self-titled debut LP was hailed as a masterpiece, wiping away all the supergroup sneers and finally launching the Marr/Sumner axis as serious Nineties contenders. Another number 6 smash followed in 1992 with the one-off single "Disappointed" featuring Neil Tennant on vocals. This effectively closed the band's first chapter, freeing Johnny to work on The The's "Dusk" and Bernard to reactivate New Order for 1993's "Republic".
The five year gap between "Electronic" and "Raise The Pressure" was not just dictated by musical commitments, both Johnny and Bernard became fathers during this period. Meanwhile the collapse of Factory in 1992 had left both New Order and Electronic homeless.
In May, 1993, Johnny happened to attend a gig by a five piece band called Oasis. Johnny liked what he saw, recognising some of his own Manc-Irish mentality in Noel Gallagher, and ended up loaning him one of his precious guitars. "It was just before they got signed by Creations and there were about nine people there," Marr recalls. "They took so long between songs because he was tuning up. I said: "Haven't you got a spare guitar anywhere?" And he said: "No, I'm on the dole." And I just liked him so the intention was to loan him this guitar, but he fell in love with it so I let him have it." In July, 1994, however Noel smashed Marr's guitar to splinters. He phoned Johnny to apologise and the next morning a taxi arrived from Manchester containing another Marr guitar - this time a sturdier model.
"Raise The Pressure" took two painstaking years to create in Marr's former home which was now his studio. He had moved his family a mile down the road because "it was easier than moving the studio." Marr and Sumner, two Chic fans, initially considered inviting Nile Rodgers to work on "Raise The Pressure", but a single phone call to the disco king was enough to put Johnny off. Instead their chief collaborator became Kraftwerk escapee Karl Bartos, recommended by a mutual friend in Berlin. Bartos spent a year commuting to Manchester and co-wrote six of the album's 13 tracks. Released in 1996, "Raise The Pressure" received generally lukewarm reviews, though it was at that time probably the truest reflection of Electronic's eclectic agenda. While mixing the record in London, Johnny and Bernard played it to George Michael who loved it. George demanded to hear it again, in its entirety, immediately.
The third Electronic album "Twisted Tenderness" has arrived in April, 1999. Unlike its predecessors, it took less than a year from start to finish and relies heavily on guitars over computers. With a live rhythm section borrowed from the defunct Black Grape, Johnny Marr has returned full circle to his roots with a four piece rock band. "Electronic's just evolved that way," says Johnny. "It wasn't like any particular considered decision or game plan. The wheel kind of turned around a little bit for me as a writer. maybe I've moved backwards in order to move on, but I don't se it as a step backwards. I just wrote more songs on guitar from the ground up. I always saw the sequencer, and I still do, as a very compliant set of musicians - who, unfortunately, have no personality." The album features guest appearances by Scottish siren Astrid Williams and techno noodlers Fridge but, unlike its predecessors, no major collaborators. After "Twisted Tenderness", Electronic will lie fallow once more as Sumner works on the next New Order album. It's unthinkable that someone as prolific as Marr will sit idle during this period.
During the recordings of "Twisted Tenderness", Marr lent his guitar skills to another Pet Shop Boys album, "Bilingual", and renewed his Mike Pickering association by playing on M People's 1997 album, "Fresco". He also became involved in his own leisurewear label, Elk. Whatever Johnny Marr does in the next post-Electronic lull, what keeps Marr relevant is that he is clearly still a music fan. To be continued…