NME, June 1989
JOHNNY, REMEMBER ME ?
Dave Haslam, NME, 24th June 1989
I was on the phone to the man who split up The Smiths, the most famous English guitarist of his generation: "Did you see The Stone Roses on Snub TV?"
Some weeks later, in Johnny Marr's sitting-room, there were a hundred things on my mind, and Johnny seemed to have plenty to get off his chest: "This isn't a small house, you've got."
So where would you have started? Where does the Johnny Marr story begin? I wasn't going to pitch in with, "Why did you break with Morrissey?"; in fact, I was hoping to let him bring up the subject of The Smiths before considering asking such a thing. Of course, I wanted to know what Johnny had been doing the past 18 months and what he was going to do. And Johnny wanted me to know that the aim of his life has never been to re-tread the steps of Keith Richards. On this, and other subjects, I guess he wanted to set the record straight.
For me, the Johnny Marr story has to include the times he spun James Brown's "Solid Gold" compilation night after night DJ-ing with Andrew Berry at Exit (was this 1981?). And the time he encouraged me to write to Janice Long and request a Shangri-Las record (that was definitely 1984). And the times I saw him perform with The Smiths; often assured, sparkling, rivetting. At other times, later perhaps, there was a charade going on. Johnny Marr was rocking out and the group was getting larger than life - divorced from life.
And I feared for him. I thought he was quiet, wary, funny and a bit intense. And I wondered how all this squared with the story the press was trying to tell; that Johnny Marr was a loud individual who stayed up later than anyone, who got up later than anyone, and who was going to elbow his way to the top. I hoped the quiet, funny Johnny Marr had survived.
So my Johnny Marr story tended towards confusion. And, as far as the last year or two are concerned, ignorance.
Does it frighten you that people in your position are often written about inaccurately?
"I resigned myself to that in the first year of The Smiths. I decided that as long as I was feeling OK within myself, then life could go on alright. One thing that's difficult is knowing how to get things straight. I've sometimes thought I should go round grabbing people and say, 'That is what's really happening!' I do realise, though, that I can't do what I do without being written about. I'm not going to gripe like some ungrateful musician."
But being in a group like The Smiths must put you under incredible public pressure.
"I'd hate to be a mega-public figure because I think the invasion of privacy is just too much. A problem is that real hysteria has grown up around The Smiths. I'm not saying we were overrated, because we weren't, but there was a ridiculous focus on what we did. I almost lost the point at times, and it was one of the reasons I left, in the end. Me leaving The Smiths has been construed as an attack on the rest of the group, which it wasn't at all. We eventually all moved back to Manchester, which is a sign in itself. We split up in London, and we all came back here. The group started to split when we first moved to London, without a doubt."
So there was a time when you knew things were sliding?
"I was unhappy for at least a year, or even a year and a half, before the split finally came."
But was there a moment when you thought that a split was actually unavoidable?
"Yes, and it wasn't just when I thought I couldn't take it. I thought if we had carried on, then none of us would have been able to take it. The rest of The Smiths know it wasn't just a case of me trying to save myself."
You haven't woken up one morning and regretted the fact that there's no Smiths anymore?
"No, never, not at all. And people around me who care about me feel the same. I can see it in their eyes. I was ill and away from home and I've no idea what would have happened to us musically. It was mad."
In a way, do you think it's better that a group like The Smiths has a certain life and then everything's finished, rather than dragging on and on?
"Yes I certainly do. With The Smiths everything was fuelled on what happened in the past - which, of course, is maybe a symptom of success and therefore it's nice - but the most exciting thing about being in a group is planning what you're going to do in the future. And there came a time when we couldn't do that. Also we were together for four or five years and that's enough for any group. Now I'm working with Matt Johnson in The The, and the feeling's good because we're looking towards the future, but I'll be very surprised if we stay together writing and playing for five years. Having said all this, I don't think about The Smiths in any other light than wonderful, because it was like some really fantastic adventure that happened to me when I was young."
Andrew Berry shared a rented house with Marr, a house belonging to Joe Moss, the first Smiths manager. Andrew used to be around all day, sticking his oar in and making cups of tea through the writing of Reel Around the Fountain.
"Andrew used to sit between me and Morrissey when we were writing songs," says Johnny. "No-one else was ever allowed to do that. He and John Kennedy promoted our first gig and, in fact, people first took us seriously because of our Andrew Berry connection."
Andrew is also a music maker. He's currently working in the 24-track studio Johnny has built in his home. Johnny works in there too, of course, most recently doing the guitar sounds for Mind Bomb, The The's LP, and working with Bernard from New Order on his "solo" LP. Neil Tennant has also become involved, after spending a weekend in Manchester and completing a song from scratch.
Working in a home studio is a different kind of thing from rehearsing and gigging with a band. "Things have changed. All those House records from Chicago, there are some great records made by just one person with a little bit of gear."
"When The Smiths started out I had a whole lot of romanticism about being in a band and being involved in music. Morrissey, in some ways, never had that. If we were travelling down to London overnight, to do a Peel session or something, we'd all be excited. Morrissey would just try to make sure he got some sleep and he'd make sure we'd stop on the way for a proper meal."
Between working with The Pretenders (immediately after The Smiths split) and his current projects, Johnny has worked with other musicians, including work on a Talking Heads track and Kirsty MacColl's album.
"I'm also supposed to have worked with The Adult Net, with Bobby Womack, with Keith Richards. Other musicians can meet each other, but I'm constantly subjected to rumour and hearsay."
And now, of course, he's found himself in a group again, with Matt Johnson.
"I've known Matt longer than I've known Morrissey, and I nearly joined The The before The Smiths were formed. It was only the fact that Matt lived in London that really stopped us playing together. He was just starting to write Soul Mining as The Smiths were forming."
Johnny Marr has never done many interviews: "I didn't serve any apprenticeship to take care of myself in interviews, or to have any incredibly perceptive view on society. I play guitar and that's all; and that's always been my get out, my safety net."
The lyricist is usually the focus for interviewers, with the fans and the journalists finding it easier to deal with the way words communicate than to understand exactly how the music works.
Take Eric Clapton. He played guitar for years before anyone popped him a question: "What do you think of Enoch Powell?" His answer, of course, came as a shock to anyone who couldn't imagine how a man who played the blues didn't like blacks. Maybe it was always more surprising that the question was ever asked.
Johnny has never been grilled on his views of the world.
"To be a known guitar player and to be called an 'alright bloke' is as much as I can ask for. I don't really care whether people think my views on world issues are right or wrong."
"No-one is interested in what I've got to say politically, or about vegetarianism, or the rain forest issue, or unemployment, or drug problems on housing estates in Manchester or about anything I did before I formed The Smiths. Of course, people are interested in why The Smiths split, what's the dirt on each other, in how much I hate the rest of the band. Or they want me to rattle on about hanging out in LA and all that kind of thing."
But the heavy question is whether, in 1989, with the Health Service falling apart, media censorship on the increase, and the Government riding rough shod over dissenting opinion, isn't being a guitar player little more than fiddling while Rome burns?
"That's hard, I'm not going to say that there's nothing that can be done. This country's not finished yet. But it's hard to know how to act. 'Hey Johnny Marr, if you're so concerned about the state of Wythenshawe Hospital, why don't you dig in your pocket?'"
"I get all that kind of stuff. I got back from America last year and saw the Telethon thing, and I couldn't believe it. It saddened me the way the British working people had to bail out a Government who've got their priorities all wrong."
"I suppose all you can do is keep your head above water, and if you're in a position where people listen to you, then you make sure your voice is heard." You've always appeared as being a real music fan. Do you listen to music all the time?
"I don't try and keep up just for the sake of it, but I do have music on all day. I listen to decent radio programmes, and going to clubs is a good way to hear new records. At the moment I've been listening to the De La Soul album which is fantastic, and I listen to Happy Mondays, of course - the best group on the planet."
Does everything you hear influence you?
"Yes, good or bad. I'm always listening to things I can use. Not necessarily chord changes or anything, but just the spirit of the track. Towards the end of The Smiths, I realised that the records I was listening to with my friends were more exciting than the records I was listening to with the group. Sometimes it came down to Sly Stone versus Herman's Hermits. And I know which side I was on. This isn't just unique to The Smiths, but one thing about any group who create a certain style and create a certain political aspect to what they do, it gets to be a club, and some things are in and some things are out. When we started we set ourselves firmly against synthesizers; at that time there weren't any other guitar groups going on about Lieber Stoller and The Shangri-Las and nobody had Brian Jones haircuts; now, of course, such things are seen as the saviours of white pop. Eventually we'd got ourselves down a musical and political cul-de-sac. Anything that sounded remotely Sly Stone or remotely Fatback just wouldn't have been allowed. In fact, at certain times on some of the tours if the fans had known what I was listening to, they would have gone mad! I've been fortunate in what's happened because now I'm free to start working with machines. I was always really focused in what I was going to do on virtually every bit of tape with The Smiths, from the moment the song was conceived. I was happy with the way that operated, but now I can get more accidents. With The Smiths, we'd invented this thing where we weren't allowed any new technology and stuff."
Presumably it wasn't just the fans who would have objected to Fatback, but Morrissey would have as well.
"I didn't stick around to ask him! Well, they're the same thing, really, Morrisseys' views and the fans'. And rightly so. I understood that."
So it was Morrissey who was leading the fans in a certain way?
"Yes, he led them in his own way. I was fascinated in that. I was fascinated in every way we went, and when I stopped being fascinated I left. But one thing I want to say is that we had a good time recording the last LP and I was unhappy before that and I was unhappy after that, but it was after that when I decided to leave. If we were going to go off and tour and try to promote the record with the bad atmosphere that was around, the situation would have got even more hideous than it was. It was a hideous, private explosion and it was also a hideous, public explosion, but the public explosion was like a fantasy, it was turned into a soap opera by the papers. Nothing that was said was true. People around us, both on my side and Morrissey's, handled the whole thing so badly that it became their whole trip and became the whole story. And it had nothing to do with how I feel about Morrissey and how he feels about me and that's true up 'til today. And that's really silly. I despise the way we became public property in that respect."
Mick Middles, in his book on The Smiths, seemed to miss every possible point. The book's a burlesque, a travesty of the truth.
"Mick Middles is a parasite who has never done anything for Manchester, other than put his picture in the newspaper every week and take on this air of being a man on the scene, a friend of the kids. He's not a friend of anybody I've ever met, any kid... I wouldn't want to give him any kind of publicity. My hands are tied, though; as soon as I open my mouth about it, it's going to draw attention to it." What I can't understand is how he could think of writing that book without ever getting close to the major characters in the story. He didn't interview any of the group. It's not even a useful piece of investigative journalism.
"It was all 1985 Hacienda cocktail-bar hearsay. One or two kids in groups, or in one particular group anyway, who desperately wanted to be respected and who have never, in fact, managed to get any respect, they informed Mick Middles. They're the people no-one likes. People like that, bitter as hell because no-one wants to listen to their music. One thing I've had to learn is to get more thick-skinned about things because it does you no good being sensitive to these irritations. I'd like to say they don't affect me, but I'd be lying."
When The Smiths split occurred people tried to pit you against Morrissey, and turn it into a big ego thing.
"One advantage of me having grown up as a muso is that I'm more aware of my position - I play inside right or left wing, not centre-forward. To be a great guitar player - which is what I've always wanted to be - then, right from the start I never wanted to stand in front of a group. I know I will never be as popular, sell as many records, or be as famous as Morrissey or any other singer I work with, and I don't want that. To be honest, I'm surprised how famous a guitar player can be in the '80's/'90's and I'm big enough. I've got far enough, in that respect."
Do you think some people will never stop pinning the blame on you for ending The Smiths?
"Some are never going to forgive. I got loads of letters at the time from people who thought I'd betrayed everything and everybody. People seemed to think that the most important thing in the world was for their favourite group to stay together. They didn't know anything about the way things were. They'd have preferred me to have died, rather than split the group up. That was their sense of what mattered. But that wasn't what mattered to me."
You said earlier that you still think about The Smiths in a wonderful light. Was there one moment you felt you'd really achieved something. That things were perfect?
"There was, but in all honesty, I can't remember a time when there wasn't a problem lurking somewhere. Morrissey and I had a lot of legal stuff piled up which we had to try and deal with. The practicalities faced by Morrissey and me when we had to try and run that kind of organisation really got me down. Of course, there were times when things were going well. When we did Hand In Glove, that was brilliant because it was a fantastic piece of vinyl. And also when we finished The Queen Is Dead; I think that was the best LP we ever made. But there was never a time when I put my feet up and said, 'Ah, I'm happy.'"
Do you now?
"Well, obviously it's still so-so. I don't walk around with a smile on my face, but I'm a lot happier. I play more and I enjoy making music. Of course, I'm in a position to say I'm happier because I know where the rent's coming from, but I don't want to take it for granted, I want to carry on making music. I've got a lot of faith in people who understand what I've been trying to do as a musician, from the start, but I've got no time for anybody who writes me a letter one week and says 'I stay up all night with headphones on, listening to "Oscillate Wildly"', and then, because of something they read in the music papers, they completely change their opinion of me. The thing about The Smiths split is that it's far too personal to explain. I've told you a lot of stuff about it, and you can tell that it was really a matter of life and death between me and my mates, and the idea that my career and longevity in the music business had anything to do with it is a real insult. But what that whole episode taught me is invaluable, about how fickle so-called 'fans' are, and how fickle writers can be, and all those other things. I needed to know that circumstances forced me to leave my own group, and the actual process of being in a group with four or five blokes, year-in and year-out, really stunts your growth, and you really begin to lose your personality. I never want that to happen to me."
Something you've always got to fight against is the way that fans can tend to think their favourite musicians are gods, and that anyone over 25 might as well be dead, that anyone who isn't into the same kind of music as they are is thick.
"Is all that still as strong as it was for our generation? I'm not sure it is, I think younger kids are far more open-minded about their role-models, certainly as far as musicians go. One thing that pisses me off, is the way groups try to resurrect attitudes that should have been buried long ago, and it's worse when I'm lumped in with it. Fortunately, I don't think that old Jim Morrison ethic holds any weight with under-16s. Under-16s are far too smart to be bothered with that sexist claptrap; I think rock 'n' roll music is exclusively boys' night out music. Just because I'm a guitar player doesn't mean I want to get roped in with all that retro-rocking. It's out-dated and sexist and racist, and all those kinds of things. In fact, I think I've got more in common with Gillian from New Order, or Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys, than I have with Stuart Adamson out of Big Country or The Edge. Far more so."
In The Smiths, though, there was often a kind of tension between the rock sound and the more wistful sound. And I've always thought that the source of the rock was you, and the wistfulness came from Morrissey. On The Queen Is Dead did the rock come from you?
"It was, like that squealer feedback that goes right through the title track, and keeps it intense, it sounded effective. When we listened back to it, it made the hair on the back of our necks stand up. But I think it's what I'm most proud of with The Smiths and being involved with Morrissey, that juxtaposition of rock from a housing estate, which is what it was - it wasn't Memphis rock like Texas, or one of those bands - and the lyrics, the lyrics are brilliant. I loved all that stuff, and the ideas. And now I hope I've got that kind of juxtaposition in my own stuff. The idea of me just being a guitar player, keeping my sense of self and living in 1989, and not wanting to be like one of the old guys, is all I want to do."
Do you think people almost begrudge you your freedom to work with whichever musicians you choose?
"Definitely, it's almost a taboo thing, to work with other musicians. But that's how I like to be. I ally myself more with modern musicians. I don't see myself as one in a long line of 'guitar greats'. And what also freaked people out was the fact that I was betraying the most perfect pop group of the '80's. And then for Matt or Bernard, say, for them to turn round and condone what I did, a lot of people couldn't take it. They wanted me to die, they wanted to see me die in some rock 'n' roll graveyard."
How strong was that pressure?
"That rock 'n' roll thing? Really strong. There was pressure on me to be a personality. Morrissey being what he was in the press, there was a mirror thing. I'm not pleading for sympathy, but there was a trap there. I was down a lot, I was depressed a lot,and what I did was, whenever there was a glimmer of happiness I arranged an interview, because I didn't want to be interviewed when I was really down. So things got out of perspective and I was always painted like a rock 'n' roll dude."
You did have a phase when you did seem to be consciously making yourself look like Keith Richards, though. Like you were almost daring people to make the comparison.
"I'd say I was guilty of that. Like I've said, what was happening to me made it easy for me to confuse the public persona and the private one. The difference now is that I won't pretend to be a character. There's no pressure for me to get like that. I can still be loud-mouthed and opinionated about some things, but pretending you know it all isn't really on. It's strange. If I start to go into all this, I give up. It's all very bleak... but I've resigned myself to all this. I know what's reality and I don't mind what happens within the confines of rumour because it's always so far removed from the way I really live. You just live and learn, don't you?"
Working with Bernard, sorting out Andrew, going to the Hacienda again; is it good being back in Manchester?
"There was a time when The Smiths split when I was fed up that every time I opened a paper there was an opinion from somebody in Manchester about what happened. I thought I would move to New York. So I went over there and did some work on the soundtrack for Colors with Dennis Hopper and I thought about working there a lot. But then, with a clear head, and without any kind of emotion involved, I realised that Manchester was the most creative place I'd been to in the world. And as I said, at the time of The Smiths, what I was being played by Donald Johnson and Jez from Ratio, and Bernard - what we were listening to as friends - was really exciting me and gave me a buzz. So it made sense to work here, aside from the fact that it's my home, and my family live just 15 minutes away."
There's a down side to all this, which is when people think that if some music has got "Manchester" stamped on it, then it's automatically got a right to be part of that creativity. It's absolutely no guarantee of quality.
"I hate that and that will kill any kind of creativity there is here."
And presumably the records you and Donald and Jez were listening to weren't made in the North of England; they were from America and Europe. The good stuff.
"No, good point."
But that just makes it harder to work out exactly what happens here...
"I do think that from The Buzzcocks to Happy Mondays, it's been a much more important time for English music than Carnaby Street circa 1965, in terms of output and influence. This has got to be recognised, and - more importantly - it's got to be recognised by people who don't live here. In the early days of The Hacienda, when The Smiths started, there was really unhealthy competition between musicians. But the way things are done now is working dividends. People are interacitng with each other. Obviously I hate the idea of Paul Young and George Michael propping themselves up at the bar after the Prince's Trust gig with their arms round each other, saying 'Yeah man, I love your records' and 'Yeah man I love your records too, let's work together'. What I do is nothing like that; we're all really intent about what we do."
What would you be doing if you weren't doing all this?
"There was never a time when I didn't think I was going to be a musician. I just live my life and get paid for it. I've always lived my life in exactly the same way. If I hadn't made it, I'd have been the biggest hasn't-been in South Manchester."
There's a lot of competition for that, the biggest hasn't-been in South Manchester. It's quite a club, in fact. But our man Marr has every reason to know he's passed all that.
That story of how he's arrived at Spring 1989 would be different if his wife Angie told it, or Andrew Berry, or Morrissey. But the Johnny Marr story has to include the time he read the press with anger and disbelief, the times he maybe tried to impress too hard, the times he came close to alcoholism, his very real worries about how people he likes perceive him, his anxiety to slough off some of his old skins. His contentment at working in his studio and his genuine, music-loving, hard-working, enthusiasm.
The Johnny Marr story is going to run and run.