Johnny Marr: conversation about re-forming the Smiths

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Walk past the 110 electric guitars filed on shelves like a library archive, and the dozens of keyboards swaddled in dust, and the ancient amps that the Smiths used at their first gigs, and you eventually come to a toilet cubicle, slap bang in the middle of the room. It looks as if it has briefly parked itself there while waiting for a more suitable home.

When you go in, things become even stranger – pop’s equivalent of the Tardis. The walls are lined with a series of gold and silver discs: Mind Bomb by The The, Ignore the Ignorant by the Cribs, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry by Billy Bragg, all of them awarded to Johnny Marr. In the corner of the loo, there is a trophy for “godlike genius”, presented to the guitarist in 2013 by the music magazine NME. It’s a reminder that Marr’s career didn’t end with the Smiths.

But 29 years since their demise, it’s still the Smiths most people want to hear about. The band more or less invented indie, as Marr is quick to remind me. Their tunes (by Marr) were as delicate as their lyrics (by Morrissey) were morose. They became known as pop’s supreme miserabilists (not least because of songs such as Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now) but it was a brand of miserabilism that was romantic and funny. (In There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Morrissey sings: “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die.”) Between 1983 and 1987, they had 15 hits. Songs such as This Charming Man, William It Was Really Nothing and Big Mouth Strikes Again weren’t just classic pop, they were perfectly formed short stories.

Ever since the Smiths split, Marr has been reluctant to talk about the band and his relationship with Morrissey. Like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, he was blamed for being the one to walk away, and felt he was never quite forgiven. But at the age of 52, enjoying a successful solo career, Marr has just written a memoir, Set The Boy Free. He thinks it’s time to put the record straight.

We meet in his studio, a converted warehouse just outside Manchester. Marr is in skinny jeans and a polka-dot shirt, looking fit and clear-eyed. He says he loves the title of his book because it sounds like a famous song. But it isn’t – it just came to him. As a little boy (and he was tiny, growing up) it was music that set him free from the mundanities of everyday life. He was brought up in a working-class family in Ardwick Green, Manchester, by Irish Catholic parents who were also mad about music. His father, “a strong, brooding presence”, laid gas pipes in the road; his mother, one of 14 children, cleaned at a hospital.

There was nothing unhappy about his childhood, but there was something stultifying about suburbia. “I was looking for something – transcendence.” He looks embarrassed. “That sounds a bit pretentious, but common transcendence that everybody can relate to. I really like the word free. It has a sense of energy, and idealism, which I’ve always felt.”

Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths standing by the side of a van in 1984
On the road with Morrissey in 1984. Photograph: courtesy of Johnny Marr

He was a bright boy, and went to grammar school. Like all guitarists, he says, he was good at English and art. But beyond that he didn’t care much for academic work. He was obsessed with music: girl groups the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles, glam rockers T-Rex and Roxy Music, and most of all with guitarists.

By the age of 13, he was playing in bands with people four years older. “Fashion, culture, rebellion, drinking, girls: I was learning so much, doing 16-year-old stuff. It felt like an apprenticeship for the only thing I was going to do – be a rock guitar player.” Marr was already a star in the making, obsessed with mod haircuts and Crombie coats, spending every spare minute perfecting his guitar technique. He was a talented footballer and had a trial with Manchester City, the team he supported. But nothing could compete with his passion for music. Football fell by the wayside.

Marr says he couldn’t stand the strutting braggadocio of “cock rock”. His guitar heroes (Rory Gallagher, Keith Richards, Nile Rodgers, James Williamson from the Stooges) didn’t want to steal the show. So, rather than playing lead guitar, he devised a new way of playing for himself – using the rhythm guitar to replicate a whole band or orchestra. The technique was influenced by Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” and refined over the years in the studio. It often involved numerous guitar overdubs, and Marr referred to it as the Guitarchestra.

When he got the idea for the Smiths, which he formed at 19, it was already his fifth serious band. This time he knew he didn’t want to front it. “The few occasions I had to stand in front of a bunch of local kids at youth clubs, it was terrifying.” As far as Marr was concerned, all the great bands were based on a partnership: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards. That’s where Steven Morrissey came in.

Marr was looking for a singer for his new band. One night he watched a South Bank Show on the great songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber said he had heard that Stoller wrote songs, liked the sound of him, found out where he lived and knocked on the stranger’s door. Marr decided that that’s what he would do; he had been told Morrissey was a good vocalist, so he would find out where he lived and knock on his door.

They talked about music, and listened to Morrissey’s rare Tamla 45s. Marr raved about Dusty Springfield’s Little By Little; Morrissey played him Sandie Shaw’s Message Understood. When Marr left, Morrissey gave him some of his typed lyrics. After that, they were inseparable. “Everything that was obsessive, excessive and poetic, all the big visions I carried around inside me, were also in him. The love of pop culture, and the pure dedication, was mirrored in my partner. I’ve never seen it in anyone else before, and never in exactly the same way since. And the desperation. He was looking for someone like me and I was looking for someone like him. And we liked each other straight away. We really liked each other.”

What was the desperation? “If it wasn’t going to happen for us, all that unfulfilled ambition was a hell of a lot to carry around. We weren’t the sort of people who at 28 were going to be able to say, ‘I was in a band; it didn’t work out. That’s why I’m working in an estate agent.’ The two of us knew that we were too into it to survive that.”

Were they as intense as each other? “In different ways, yeah. Mine comes out in physicality, exuberance. My mother used to say I’m a cross between really intense and really laid-back.”

Marr says his relationship with Morrissey was as close as is possible without being lovers. Was he in love with Morrissey? “No, because I was in love with Angie [his then girlfriend, now wife], but we definitely loved each other. I think we all did.” His old school friend Andy Rourke (who had played in his first band, the Paris Valentinos) joined on bass, and Mike Joyce became their drummer. The four became good friends, but Marr says it was always clear that he and Morrissey were the leaders.

The second Morrissey lyric Marr put to music was the ghoulish Suffer Little Children, about the victims of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (“Lesley Ann, with your pretty white beads/Oh John, you’ll never be a man/And you’ll never see your home again/Oh Manchester, so much to answer for”). Didn’t the words spook him? Well, at the time, he says, they were so besotted with each other, the lyrics were secondary. “It was, ‘We like each other. You look good, I look good. I write music, you write lyrics. We’re gonna do this.’” He smiles. “When I saw, in the first songwriting session, my new group had a song about the Moors murderers, it was very much, ‘Fucking hell!’ But I went on instinct.”

Did he always think of the Smiths as his? “In a way that is protective, I did, yes. I wasn’t old enough to be paternal, but it was kind of paternal.” Marr looked like a young Keith Richards – and had the swagger. Morrissey was famously introverted, so Marr was marketed as the arrogant one. While he says he was 90% true to that image, there was always 10% that was terrified.

Johnny Marr playing his guitar
‘The only thing I was going to do was be a rock guitar player’: Marr in his studio. Photograph: Sophia Spring for the Guardian

The Smiths were always political, not in the campaigning way of Billy Bragg or Paul Weller, but in their frame of reference – the writings of Oscar Wilde, Irish Catholic life, their album titles (Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead), the daily grind of life. Growing up in working-class Manchester, Marr says, being political was instinctive. “It was just part of your mindset, because you felt you were up against it, and the right wing was the minority but controlling everything. Somebody gave me Arguments For Socialism by Tony Benn, and I discovered that what I just thought was decency was a political position. You look after people who are less fortunate, and anyone who does otherwise is just fucking ghastly. By definition, being an alternative musician back then, you were political.”

Did he and Morrissey have similar politics? “Yeah, we did back then.” And now? “I wouldn’t expect so. Probably not.” In recent years, Morrissey has made headlines for suggesting that immigration is compromising British identity; he sued the NME (successfully) for defamation, releasing a statement that “racism has no place in our society”. In a 2010 interview with this magazine, he described the Chinese as a “subspecies” when it came to their treatment of animals. Marr prefers to talk about the days when Morrissey reserved his bile for Margaret Thatcher.

Success soon began to take its toll on the Smiths. Rourke had a heroin habit; Marr survived on a diet of cocaine and booze. His weight dropped to seven stone, but he didn’t worry because all his heroes had been slight. “George Best was small, Marc Bolan was small, Bruce Lee was small. And they were cocky and hyper, so I related to that, and played up to it. When it got really unhealthy it was just part and parcel of being in the Smiths in 1986. I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is great.’ I just never ate.”

Today, Marr looks fantastically healthy – slim but not skeletal. He is vegan, teetotal and has been drug-free for many years. Now he gets his high from long-distance running. We meet at lunch, and he’s already been out for eight miles. The only thing that gives away his age is the mandatory jet-black rock star dyed hair. His eternal boyishness is reflected not only in the book’s title, but also in his passion (for new guitars, new bands, new experiences), his nomadic sense of adventure (he recently spent five years living in Portland with Angie, while playing with Modest Mouse), his curiosity (about everything).

That optimism did briefly desert Marr when the Smiths split in 1987. In Set The Boy Free, he writes that the official version of him walking out on the band isn’t quite right. Morrissey’s behaviour was becoming more and more unreliable. Things came to a head, he says, when Morrissey refused to show up for the video shoot of the single Shoplifters Of The World Unite, and ordered him to sack their latest manager, Ken Friedman (who had been introduced to the band by the singer and who Marr considered to be doing a good job). Marr says Morrissey assumed the guitarist would take on the role of unofficial manager, as he had for most of the band’s existence. Even when the Smiths became successful, Marr acted as manager, booking vans and sorting all the finer detail. At the same time, he was being dictated to in the studio. Drummer Mike Joyce, who appeared to have taken on the role of spokesman for the other three, told Marr their next single would be a cover of Cilla Black’s Work Is A Four-Letter Word. Marr wasn’t pleased – but still, he insists, he didn’t walk out. He stayed at home, making instrumental tracks in his recording studio.

In July 1987 a story appeared in the press that Marr had left, accompanied by a new photo of the band taken by their press officer in which Marr was scowling while the other three Smiths smiled away. At that point, he felt he had no option but to walk.

It sounds horribly stressful, I say. Yes, he says – not least the presumption that he would be the one to step in and manage the Smiths. “It’s what split the band up. To this day I haven’t met anyone who thinks a major rock group should be managed by the 23-year-old guitar player.” So why did he agree to manage them in the first place? “Well, because we were deemed unmanageable. When we fired managers, I always had to deal with it. When we got to the end of the band’s life, it was put to me by my partner that he wouldn’t work with the current manager and we had to go back to how it was. I wasn’t prepared to do it, and so it became untenable. There was no way forward.” For a moment, those tensions sound as raw as they did three decades ago. “I was waiting for someone to fix it, and make it so it didn’t have to happen.”

Johnny Marr with Angie, his wife, soon after they met in the late 70s
Marr with his wife Angie in the late 70s. Photograph: courtesy of Johnny Marr

Why were they so resistant to having a manager? “A lot of it was to do with control.” Does he feel he was…? Marr finishes the sentence for me. “Forced out? Yes, that was the tangible public manifestation of all that.” He stops, embarrassed by his words. “Wow! Check me out! It was the feeling of being tested, and my role in the band being untenable.” He stops again. “Just like any break-up, bad shit goes on.”

The day that he confirmed he was leaving, the other band members issued a statement wishing him luck and saying: “Other guitarists are being considered to replace him.” How did that make him feel? “I literally thought it was a joke. It was the final nail in the coffin and it took me a long time to forgive them. It was pretty callous. But I don’t hold it against anybody now. I absolutely don’t.” Within a week, the Smiths were in the studio with a new guitarist. They never completed any new material, though: by the time their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, was released in September 1987, they had announced their split.

Angie was the constant throughout this time. They started going out at the age of 15, and are still together, with two grownup children. Did she ever fear she would lose him to Morrissey? “No, it was me and Angie first. We all had these very unusual, intense relationships that worked and brought great things.” I say that Angie seems to be the glue in his story. “Well, she’s the person who’s enabled me to be who I am and vice versa. She’s completed me, and I’ve completed her.”

***

What struck Marr most when writing his book is how young he was when the Smiths split. He wasn’t yet 24, and his career with one of Britain’s biggest bands was over. Looking back now, he says, there was an inevitability about it all. Even without the tensions, and even though he didn’t want to leave, he was never going to be a lifer in a single band. For a while he became the most illustrious hired hand in the business, playing with Paul McCartney, the Pretenders and U2. He went on to have long-term relationships with a number of bands, including Matt Johnson’s eternally innovative The The (the critically acclaimed album Dusk reached number two in the UK charts), alternative dance band Electronic with Bernard Sumner (a handful of hit singles, including Getting Away With It and Get The Message), American rockers Modest Mouse (whose album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank went into the US charts at number one), and English indie punks the Cribs. Marr says these collaborations all led to great friendships.

Which band did he enjoy playing with most? “Modest Mouse,” he says without a beat. More than the Smiths? “Yeah. People don’t believe it when I say that. I love Modest Mouse so much because the chemistry of those guys was a real brotherhood. They were a great American band, and I really wanted to be in a great American band.”

He didn’t see the rest of the Smiths for years after the split. In March 1989, Joyce and Rourke started legal proceedings against Marr and Morrissey, arguing they were equal partners in the band and each entitled to 25% of recording and performance royalties rather than the 10% they were getting (Marr and Morrissey each took 40%). Rourke settled out of court, but Joyce continued and in 1996 his case was heard. Joyce’s barrister argued that Marr and Morrissey treated the drummer and bassist as “mere session musicians, as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower”. After a bruising seven days in court, Judge Weeks found in Joyce’s favour, describing Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable” and Marr as “willing to embroider his evidence to a point where he became less credible”. He also described Marr as “probably the more intelligent of the four”, while Rourke and Joyce were “unintellectual”.

Was Joyce justified in bringing the court case? “Mike had a right to do it. I don’t think he should have done because we had an agreement. Looking back, I would have done things differently. I’d make sure you don’t move a muscle without a contract – for everybody’s benefit. Young people aren’t good at doing that kind of thing, and we had to pay the price for it.” Would he still regard the 10% Joyce and Rourke were paid as a fair deal? “I would be more generous,” he says. “But it wasn’t a band of equals. Thirty-odd years later I think anyone can see that.” What would be a fair percentage? He laughs. “You know what? I’d wind up in court if I answered that.” The question he most dislikes being asked is whether the Smiths will re-form. But it emerges that he and Morrissey were asking themselves the same question decades after the split, and that it almost did come to pass. In 2008, they met for the first time since the court case in a pub in south Manchester. “The conversation about re-forming came out of the blue. I didn’t go there with that in mind. But there had been quite a few rumours about it, so naturally we discussed it. ‘It could happen…’ ‘How d’you feel about it?’ ‘What if?’ And off we went.” Who was more keen? “I think we were both as keen as each other.”

Had Morrissey changed – lost it, as people have suggested? Marr bursts out laughing. “Hahaha! Well, he hadn’t changed. Joke! I felt I’d changed when we met. I was teetotal, vegan and I’d just run 10 miles – that’s quite different from the person I was when I was last in the Smiths.” Did Morrissey see a difference? “I would think so, because I was in the pub not drinking. And he was knocking back the pints. I don’t think it’s any secret that he likes a drink; he’s very pro-drinking. But I’d changed quite a lot. I’ve got about nine tattooos for a start.”

He shows me his favourite – a tattoo that says 45rpm. Why 45rpm rather than 33rpm? “Faster, mate. Faster, shorter, better energy. I had my T-shirt on, so I think Morrissey noticed them, and he likes tattoos. So I was different, and I was fitter.”

Was Morrissey different? “He was more outgoing, more sure of himself. I’m pleased for him. It was great – a really nice meeting.”

They left the pub, contemplating a Smiths reunion, spoke a few more times, then Marr went on tour with the Cribs, and didn’t hear from Morrissey again.

Does he thinks their friendship could be rekindled? “I don’t. I think it’s run its course. I don’t feel unfriendly in any way towards Morrissey – there’s just no need for it. One of the things we had in common was that we lived for work, and we’re too busy doing what we’re doing now.”

So many people publish memoirs when they are on their uppers or want to settle scores, Marr says. But he has never been more content. He has made two solo albums in the past three years, and is enjoying learning the skills of being a frontman. His son Nile, 24, is a singer-songwriter who has performed with him; his 22-year-old daughter Sonny, who works in publishing, has sung backing vocals with him. Hearing them sing, he says, is the only thing that makes him “blub like an idiot”.

He hopes the book will be cathartic, but he’s not sure how exactly. Just talking to him, though, he already seems liberated. He recently remastered the Smiths back catalogue – the first time he’d listened to it as a body of work. (Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me is his favourite song.) He had always known it was good, but now he became fully aware of what they had achieved. Alongside his new solo work, he has started performing old Smiths songs for the first time since the band split up – occasionally joined on stage by bassist Rourke. He had always resisted the idea that he did his best work so young, but now accepts the Smiths will be his legacy.

And it is a legacy he has become increasingly determined to defend. In 2010, then prime minister David Cameron chose This Charming Man on Desert Island Discs, proclaiming himself a fan of the Smiths. Marr responded on Twitter: “Stop saying that you like the Smiths. No you don’t. I forbid you to like it.” Was he genuinely offended? “Yeah, I was pissed off by it, by the gall of thinking that me and my band were up for grabs. So I responded on behalf of all of us.” Were the others offended as well? “I think they just probably looked at it and went, ‘Johnny’s taken care of that.’” He pauses and grins. “So nothing changes very much.”

Johnny Marr and Morrissey of the Smiths in a bathroom before going onstage in Belgium in 1984
Marr and Morrissey about to go onstage in Belgium in 1984. Photograph: courtesy of Johnny Marr

‘For four days re-forming the Smiths was a very real prospect’:

an exclusive extract from Johnny Marr’s new memoir

Unfortunately for the Smiths, I wasn’t consulted when our catalogue was remastered for CDs in the 1990s. The albums sounded wrong, and I was determined to put things right. After a lot of struggle, I reached an agreement with Morrissey and Warners. I would master all the records again with a top engineer so our catalogue would be as it should be, once and for all.
When I analysed the records, I was struck by how good the band were, and how young. I recalled the exact intention and emotion that went into every note and word, and I texted Morrissey and Andy Rourke and said, “You can really hear the love in it.” I got a nice reply from both of them.

The negotiations with Warners meant that Morrissey and I were in a rare period of communication. One day in September 2008 we were only a couple of miles apart in south Manchester and arranged to meet up in a pub nearby. I was happy to see him – it was 10 years or more since we’d last met. We caught up with personal news and family and reminisced a bit.

Then our conversation turned to deeper things. Morrissey started to talk about how our relationship had become owned by the outside world, usually in a negative way. We had been defined by each other in most areas of our professional life. I appreciated him mentioning it, because it was true.

The drinks kept coming and we sat talking for hours. We chatted, as we always did, about the records we loved, and eventually we moved on to “that subject”. There had been rumours for years that the Smiths were about to re-form, and they were always untrue. I had never pursued any offer.

Suddenly we were talking about the possibility of the band re-forming, and in that moment it seemed that with the right intention it could actually be done and might even be great. I would still work with the Cribs on our album, and Morrissey also had an album due out. We hung out for a while longer, and after even more orange juice (for me) and even more beer (for him) we hugged and said our goodbyes.

I was genuinely pleased to be back in touch with Morrissey, and the Cribs and I talked about the possibility of me playing some shows with the Smiths. For four days it was a very real prospect. We would have to get someone new on drums, but if the Smiths wanted to re-form it would make a hell of a lot of people very happy, and with all our experience we might even be better than before.

Morrissey and I continued our dialogue and planned to meet up again. I went to Mexico with the Cribs, and then suddenly there was radio silence. Our communication ended, and things went back to how they were and how I expect they always will be.

I started working in the studio at unusual hours, around five or six in the morning. One day in 2010, on the way back from driving my daughter Sonny to school, I was thinking about how David Cameron had been saying that he was a fan of the Smiths. Anyone who was a fan would know we were against everything he and the Conservative party stood for. But if he wanted to say that he liked the Smiths, what could I do about it?

A student in a Smiths T-shirt, protesting against tuition fee rises, in Parliament Square, London, in 2010
A student protester in a Smiths T-shirt in 2010. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Without thinking too much about it, I picked up my phone and tweeted, “David Cameron, stop saying that you like the Smiths. No you don’t. I forbid you to like it.” Satisfied that I’d made my protest, I went to take a nap.

A couple of hours later, I was woken up by a call from Joe, my manager. “The Cameron thing,” he said. “The Twitter business. It’s crazy.” While I’d been asleep my tweet had been retweeted by thousands of people and picked up by the press all over the world. Cameron himself was called on to comment during prime minister’s questions. With the government planning to increase university tuition fees, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy stood up and said: “The Smiths are, of course, the archetypal student band. If he wins tomorrow night’s vote, what songs does he think the students will be listening to? Miserable Lie, I Don’t Owe You Anything or Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now?”

Cameron took the opportunity to show his true indie cred: “I expect that if I turned up, I probably wouldn’t get This Charming Man.”

Good one. It was all very jolly and totally bizarre.

When 50,000 demonstrators marched through London, I was proud to see the students call the politicians to account for their broken promises. Things came to a head in Parliament Square on the day the new laws were passed. The next day I was sent a photograph of a protester called Ellen Wood who was confronting the police in a Smiths T-shirt (pictured page 23). I stared at the photograph, her stance, the Houses of Parliament. The significance of her wearing the Smiths shirt made quite an impact on me. It occurred to me that, aside from the music we made, that picture could be the most powerful testament to the Smiths’ legacy.

The only other person I knew who might comprehend it the same way was Morrissey, and so I emailed him the picture. There’d been no contact between us for a long time, but I got a reply within minutes. He hadn’t seen the picture, and he was equally surprised and impressed. Our communication continued for a day or so, but although I felt I’d created a moment of friendship, an air of disaffection and distrust remained between us. It was a shame.

• This is an edited extract from Set The Boy Free by Johnny Marr, published by Century at £20. To order a copy for £16.40, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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