Here’s Johnny!

 Sean Hannam interviews Johnny Marr (2002)
Eighties jangly pop fans of the world reunite, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is back, and back at his best, working with the likes of Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys. Not only that, in true once-was-famous-in-a-supporting role fashion, he’s now also fronting his own rock outfit, The Healers. SEAN HANNAM grabs a rare audience with the secretive godfather of indie.
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This year, it’ll be difficult to avoid Johnny Marr. The former Smiths guitar hero has contributed to Oasis’ newly released album, Heathen Chemistry, Pet Shop Boys’ Release, and folky comedown queen Beth Orton’s latest long-player, Daybreaker. He’s also produced the debut album from up-and-coming, moody indie act Haven, and found the time to front his own back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll band, The Healers.
In fact, Marr’s work can be heard all over Pet Shop Boys’ Release, which heralds a new, guitar-oriented direction for the electronic dance-pop duo.
“Yeah, I’ve done their new album and I’ve recorded some stuff with Liam from Oasis, so I think a couple of my guitar parts have ended up on their record,” he says.
Does he ever get sick of being a gun-slinging, guitarist-for-hire? “I’ve never sat down and planned collaborations,” he says. “They’ve always come about from having something in common – a friendship.
“I’ve just stopped saying ‘I’m not going to do it’. I said in the States I was going to stop collaborating but then a couple of days later I got a call from Beck, asking if I’d work with him. While working with Beck, I met Beth Orton, and discovered we were staying in the same hotel. One night, we got back at four in the morning, with the sun coming up over LA, and the next thing you know we’re hanging out on a balcony and we’ve written six songs together! I was definitely Graham Nash to her Joni Mitchell!”
Last year, Johnny unleashed the debut single from his new band, The Healers. It was the first time he’d written, played and sung one of his own songs.
The Last Ride saw him shelving his tried and trusted, jangly sound for a heads-down, greasy Led Zep groove. It was also miles away from the hedonistic House and Euro disco territory he’d explored with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the duo Electronic.
Aided by musicians including former Kula Shaker bassist, Alonza Bevan, and Ringo Starr sprog, Zak Starkey, on drums, Johnny created an enormous, filthy drone-rock boogie, built on an FX-heavy wall of sound, with some blissed-out vocals reminiscent of Ray Davies.
“I was really interested in getting back to the thing that was in me when I was in my early teens,” says Marr. ” I don’t want to be retro, but I want to rock. I want to get back to the notion of energy. I started to listen again to the music that had some balls to it – T Rex, The Stooges, early David Bowie. I have a massive respect for old records, but I don’t wish it was 1969 again. I just find that there’s a primal thing which you get from some records by The Rolling Stones, Peter Green and The Stooges that shows up today’s music industry for what it is – just soap-powder.
“I was brought up on classic rock, but I don’t want to look back. I want to make something that’s for the times. I’m not trying to make a classic record – I’ve done that with The Smiths.”
Ah, The Smiths; one of the biggest successes of the Eighties. Marr and flouncy frontman Stephen Patrick Morrissey will be remembered as one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time – Marr penning intricate guitar melodies to accompany Morrissey’s sometimes tragic, sometimes comical lyrics of sexual frustration, inadequacy and alienation. Between 1982 and 1987, The Smiths recorded four brilliant, ground-breaking studio albums which became the soundtrack to student bedsits everywhere and paved the way for a whole legion of indie guitar acts, including Oasis and Blur.
“When we made those albums, we weren’t trying to be classic,” says Marr. “Had The Smiths sat down and said ‘this is going to be a classic,’ it wouldn’t have happened.”

The Smiths split in 1987, when Marr grew disenchanted with the band’s musical direction, and his relationship with Morrissey disintegrated, ending in bitterness. However, their legacy still lives on and often returns to haunt Marr.
In 1996, former Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, took him and Morrissey to court over unpaid royalties – a situation Marr now describes as ‘very ugly’.
Last year, record company Warner Bros upset him when they released yet another Smiths Best Of compilation album, with an unfortunate cover shot featuring camp Carry On star Charles Hawtrey.
“The Smiths’ back catalogue has been spectacularly tarnished by Warner Bros,” says Marr. “They mastered the album really badly, they misspelt song titles, got the producer’s name wrong, chopped off one of the intros and put on an unbelievable sleeve.
“I felt that The Smiths’ stuff could have been re-mastered. It could have been a valid release that wouldn’t have been ripping people off. I’ve got loads of video stuff from making the albums that we could have put out on a DVD – given some people value for money. What is really irksome is that the guys at Warner Bros can’t do their jobs as well as I can. That sucks, but the rest of The Smiths have done a pretty good job of tarnishing the legacy as well!”

Johnny is now surprisingly open about his time in the band. For a long time he refused to talk about what had actually happened between him and the other band members.
“I’m no angel, but I didn’t speak about The Smiths for years because I didn’t want to bring anything negative up,” he says. “I once talked about them, on a BBC TV programme, and then in a big magazine. I did four hour interviews and I swear that for three-and-a-half hours I talked about the strength of The Smiths’ friendship, the magic of the music, our influences, how great Morrissey was as a live performer and our relationship with the fans. It was all positive stuff, but the 20 minutes of complaints that I had became the theme of the articles. I don’t take it personally, but it shifts papers. The journalists who write those kind of things are a long way away from the classic writers of the late Seventies and the early Eighties, who they’re trying to emulate.”

Following the demise of The Smiths, Marr became a guitar-for-hire, lending his services to a long list of artists. Throughout his post-Smiths career he’s worked with acts including The Pretenders, Bryan Ferry, The The, Billy Bragg, Kirsty MacColl, Beck, Neil Finn and Echo & The Bunnmen’s Ian McCulloch.

“I’ve got a strong friendship with everyone I’ve worked with – apart from one obvious exception – which shows you just how dysfunctional The Smiths were,” he says.
Marr was actually a fully paid-up member of The The for three-and-a-half-years, appearing on both the Mind Bomb and Dusk albums.
“The The was as much of a band as a band could be,” he says. “Dusk is my favourite album I’ve ever worked on – without exception. It’s the only album I’ve made that I could sit down and listen to.”

Over the years, Marr had been approached on several occasions to record a solo album, but he’d resisted, believing the time wasn’t right. However, something clicked when he met Zak Starkey. “It would have been easy for me to just bang something out, but I have to be passionate about what I’m doing,” he says.
“I met Zak in New York a few years ago and we hit it off straight away – we were kindred spirits. When we got back to England we started jamming together, just for the fun of it. I’d written some songs that I couldn’t see anyone that I knew recording, so we got them together and decided to make up a group. It was a real instinctive thing.”

So was he reluctant to take up the role of frontman, after standing on the sidelines for so long? “As far as fronting the group goes, it wasn’t really my call,” he explains. “It was down to the rest of the band. I had found a singer in Manchester with a pretty good classic rock voice, but the band conspired and said that I should sing because my voice was more unusual. It took me about a week to get my head round it, but I trusted them. It then started to make sense, as there seemed little point in me giving someone else my music to sing. I had pretty strong ideas about what I wanted The Healers to be, so bringing anyone else in would have diluted it.”
Marr is keen to stress that The Healers are a group – not just him and his backing band. “The idea behind The Healers and our shows is not about coming along and adoring me – I don’t need to be loved.”
We all need to be loved, don’t we? “Not me, I’m getting it!”
So, he’s not a frustrated frontman, then? There was never a time when he looked at Morrissey and thought “that could be me up there?”
“Never. Not in the slightest. I was more than happy to carve out the path that I did. I haven’t got any aspirations to be different from the way that I am.”

 The Healers are currently working on their debut album and plan to release it some time later this year. “It’s going really well,” says Johnny. “I want to put it out on my own label. I met up with a couple of record companies last year, but they wanted me to walk around a square in Barcelona, wearing a white suit, like a guitar-playing Richard Ashcroft!”

He’s also looking for someone to produce his new material. “At some point I’d like to work with somebody, but the problem is finding someone who has made as many records as I have! Me and Bernard, in Electronic, were always looking for a producer, but everyone we met wanted to make Blue Monday or How Soon Is Now. We were like ‘hang on a minute’.”
Looking at the future, Marr has high hopes for The Healers, which he views as a long-term project. “Hand on heart, I’d like to make six true Healers albums without any kind of commercial consideration or compromise,” he says. “It seems like a test of idealism whether I can do it, but I know I can do it in terms of inspiration or will. It’s a case of trying to not let your idealism get knocked out of you by commercial and financial concerns. I’m just gonna carry on the way I’m going.”

So, we won’t be queuing up for any Smiths reunion gigs just yet, then?

“Never.”

SEAN HANNAM

This article originally appeared in Upfront magazine – 2002.

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One comment on “Here’s Johnny!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Back in 2002, I interviewed Johnny Marr – you can read it here.

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