Johnny Marr from today's Guardian
- Gold Smith
Friday June 4, 2004
Marr: 'there are things that can be done with an acoustic guitar and
a voice that I find more interesting than standing on stage with four
geezers in leather jackets'
The most innovative guitarist of his generation is going back to his
roots. "I seem to be in transition a lot of the time, but the one
constant that has stayed through my life has been the notion of
saying what you need to say with an acoustic guitar," states Johnny
Marr. "There are things that can be done with an acoustic guitar and
a voice that I find more interesting and more expressive than
standing on stage with four geezers in leather jackets. There is
nobility in it."
If ever there were someone whose first language is articulated
through his instrument, it is Marr. As a child he would spend
Saturdays staring at the guitars and amplifiers in Manchester's
department stores while his mother did her weekly shopping, and any
guitarist on television, from a member of Cilla Black's studio band
to Marc Bolan, was an object of fascination.
By the time he came into prominence with the Smiths he had developed
a style that was richly lyrical and intricate without ever being
bombastic. "When I first discovered pop music, listening to it was an
experience that bordered on the mystical," says Marr, who is quietly
spoken and hesitant, but endlessly enthusiastic about what he does.
"There's a sad song by Del Shannon called The Answer to Everything
that my parents used to play, and it struck a chord in me because it
sounded so familiar. That song was the inspiration for [the Smiths']
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. I tried to capture the
essence of that tune; its spookiness and sense of yearning."
Over an afternoon of coffee-drinking at his Manchester home, Marr
goes some way to explaining what it is that drives him. The legacy of
the Smiths is growing as the years pass - last year NME recently
voted them the most influential band of all time, and Morrissey has
returned after years in the wilderness of the Los Angeles sunshine -
but Marr looks unlikely to revisit his old band, or the orchestral,
multi-layered music he created with them.
"I've had enough of smoke and mirrors, both literally and
figuratively. So I've been listening to Melanie, Donovan, Davy
Graham, Joni Mitchell's first album... I don't want to hear music
that uses a large vocabulary to say nothing. My attitude now is: why
use a lot of words when fuck off will do?"
Marr's role model has, for years, been Bert Jansch, the former
guitarist of the British folk-rock group Pentangle. Marr was first
aware of Jansch, who has since become a friend, after seeing
Pentangle play a concert that was broadcast on television when he was
"The band were all hunched over their acoustic guitars, wearing old
plimsolls and odd socks, looking like the performance was
interrupting a drinking session that started two days earlier and was
only just gathering momentum. This was the era of Deep Purple and Led
Zeppelin, and I got the impression that Pentangle regarded those
bands as utter lightweights musically, physically, philosophically
Marr mentions obscure psychedelic folk bands from San Francisco he
has been listening to recently - Sunburnt Hand of Man and the Six
Organs of Admittance are two of the more colourful names that come to
mind - while applauding two folk legends that are a million miles
away from the urbane sophistication of the Smiths.
Clive Palmer was a founder member of pastoral folk hippies the
Incredible String Band who went on to make solo records that sound
like they are best listened to with a bout of the plague. Incredibly,
he left the Incredible String Band because he felt they were getting
too commercial. John Martyn is the troublesome, troubled, alcoholic
singer-songwriter of intensity and depth. "Clive Palmer is so purist
that he makes regular folk singers sound like Will Young," says
Marr. "John Martyn made an album called Stormbringer that is intense,
heavy, beautiful, relevant - and that's all from one guy with six
Folk music is often accused of being gauche, or fey. Can such terms
be applied to the music of John Martyn? "Stormbringer is heavier -
genuinely heavier - than all the heavy rock bands. There's a certain
posturing in rock music that has become outdated, and there's only so
much testosterone I can take in one lifetime. It's been done to death
and there's not much strength in it any more."
Two of Marr's heroes, however, were chiefly responsible for creating
that pose in the first place. The first is Andrew Loog Oldham, the
teenage svengali and recent subject of Home Entertainment who managed
the Rolling Stones and fashioned their image; and the second is Keith
Richards, whose louche, ragged style has become the template for
generations of rock guitarists.
"Andrew Oldham inspired me because he wore hyperactivity like a badge
of honour, and because he considers it impolite to be boring. I like
Keith Richards more for his ethic than his playing. He's the captain
of the ship when it comes to being in a rock'n'roll band; he'll steer
the band through anything, and go down with them if he has to. And he
always looked good."
Whatever makes Marr such a soulful guitarist is an elusive thing.
From the Smiths to stints in the Pet Shop Boys and Electronic through
to his current band the Healers, he has intermittently rejected any
guitar style he has pioneered to make way for a new one, and he
claims that he never plays a known song on the guitar, least of all
one he has written.
"When you play music you catch whatever is in the air, and every now
and then you catch something that gives you a sense of ecstasy and
transcendence," he says. "My first lightning bolt came from Marc
Bolan. I bought Jeepster by T-Rex purely because it was in the
bargain singles box and it had a picture of Marc and Mickey Finn on
the label, so I figured I was getting more for my 25p. When I played
that record I heard magic. That magic is what I'm endlessly trying
for. That's what keeps me breathing."
Np Ray Charles Definitive Leave my Woman Alone