Johnny Marr

TrackAlbum
DynamoPlayland
New Town VelocityThe Messenger
Easy MoneyPlayland
Down On The CornerBoomslang
The TrapPlayland
Getting Away With ItElectronic
CandidatePlayland
UpstartsThe Messenger
The Right Thing RightThe Messenger
Can't Find My Way HomeTwisted Tenderness

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Contributor: Neil Waite

When the incredible songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Marr finished in 1987 (see The Smiths toppermost #354), the two went on to follow very different paths. Morrissey has had many hits but though I enjoy his solo work I’ve followed Johnny Marr more closely as he has matured and improved.

Since being guitarist with the Smiths, Marr has been a prolific session musician, working with many renowned artists as well as being a member of The The, Modest Mouse and the Cribs. He also did a stint with the Pretenders and has guested with the Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads and others. But this toppermost is about Marr’s solo career up to his recent album Playland but also including his collaboration with Bernard Sumner in Electronic.

It was a year after the Smiths split that Marr teamed up with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. They formed Electronic, an indie dance group, co-writing material and collaborating with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Getting Away With It, their first single, came out on the Factory label in 1989 and remains a great song. Arranged with piano and orchestra, the simple logic of the chord sequence contributes to the pathos of the refrain: “I love you more than you love me.” Their self-titled debut album came out in 1991 and reached No.2 in the UK. The style departed from the Johnny Marr we knew, leaning more towards New Order than the Smiths, but I enjoyed the release and still do. In concert, Getting Away With It still features on Marr’s set list, with enhanced guitar lines.

Electronic’s second album in 1996, Raise The Pressure, felt out of sync with the music scene at the time. Brit Pop was the rage but Sumner and Marr didn’t seem interested in competing. The album did sound more like Marr than Sumner this time, and though there were highlights in For You and One Day, it was hard to see what they were trying to do. For this reason I didn’t take much notice of the third release in 1999, Twisted Tenderness. Marr and Sumner were joined by Doves bassist Jimi Goodwin and Black Grape drummer Ged Lynch for Electronic’s final album. But when I finally got round to this I was pleasantly surprised, and it’s clearly Marr’s input that makes it good. Late At Night and Breakdown have fine guitar riffs looping through the tracks but the highlight is Can’t Find My Way Home, a cover of a Blind Faith song penned by Steve Winwood. After some nicely fingered acoustic arpeggios, a driving beat backed by keyboards weighs in with chromatic riffs heading firmly down the scale.

This album was a precursor of higher things, and in 2000 he formed Johnny Marr and the Healers with Zak Starkey on drums, Lee Spenser on guitar and ex-Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan. In 2001 they released the single The Last Ride, also included in their excellent 2003 debut Boomslang. This got mixed reviews and parallels were drawn with Oasis and Stone Roses, the megabands of the time. I found the word ‘mediocre’ used in some reviews harsh. The album wasn’t staking any new boundaries but the solid guitar and powerful bass and drums made for a great sound and all the songs, written by Marr, had catchy tunes, with musicianship always showing through. The first three tracks, The Last Ride, Caught up and Down On The Corner are certainly a bit Oasis, but Marr gives that style a new dimension with his clear, emotive vocals. My choice is Down On The Corner. This opens with an irresistible chord progression, and the blend of acoustic guitar and piano complements Marr’s gentle delivery. The song was boosted by this fine performance on 2003.

Sadly, this was the Healers’ only release as Starkey was committed to drumming with the Who and Bevan had rejoined Kula Shaker. The album was perhaps enjoyably safe, but it showed growing accomplishment. After the Healers, Marr worked as a record producer, played with Modest Mouse and the Cribs, and designed his own guitar in collaboration with Fender, his preferred guitar-maker. Which was all very well, but surely this distracted him from his own music.

That is until February 2013 and Marr’s stunning solo debut The Messenger, a return to roots which might have followed the Smiths’ final release Strangeways, Here We Come. The album is full of catchy riffs and melodies with prominent guitars with some brilliant arrangements. First is the powerful The Right Thing Right, a big song with a guitar intro with the verve of Pinball Wizard. As Down On The Corner had worked down the scale, The Right Thing Right works up, just as compellingly. Upstarts was the first single release – the driving rhythm pulls you straight in and an insistent guitar riff. But the second release, New Town Velocity, is the highlight. After an expressive strummed sequence, a melodic lead and bass underpin Marr’s sensitive vocal. The song briefly dwindles to acoustic and bass then cranks back up to his typically wide-spectrum sound. The Messenger was an inspired release, years overdue from this brilliant songwriter.

Yet he outdid it in 2014 with Playland. I looked forward to this, especially (as a vinyl junkie) when I learned there was to be a vinyl edition in ‘aqua blue’.

Johnny Marr on Aqua Blue vinyl

The album was well reviewed and its lead single was the brilliant Easy Money. This starts with an irresistible jangly guitar riff and then the drums kick in with a dance feel. The album feels like a culmination of previous projects, for in songs like the delicate Candidate and 24 Hours you hear the influence from Electronic. Candidate shows the vocal range he has acquired since being overshadowed by Morrissey. My final two slots are for two more Playland tracks: The Trap and Dynamo. The Trap has gently strummed chords which soon draw you in (‘entrapping’ you). Dynamo is more upbeat, with short heavy chords and fiery guitar licks. This fine track is in appreciation of Manchester’s CIS tower: “You’re a living thing, some kind of fantasy alone …”

Marr announced a world tour and I got tickets for Bath Pavilion, which is a trek for me but my son was studying in Bath and so we went together. We weren’t sure what to expect and when we arrived at what looked like a large and rather tatty looking scout hut my expectations deflated slightly. Yet it was one of the most enjoyable concerts ever. The set was a mix of solo, Smiths and Electronic with even a crowd pleasing cover of I Fought The Law. He played brilliantly, working the audience and leaving me cheerfully humming his songs for days afterwards.

Johnny Marr is currently working on a Record Store Day release which I’m looking forward to, not to mention his next solo statement. Finally. he has found his feet and even though it’s taken over 20 years it’s been worth the wait.

Official Johnny Marr Website

The Smiths Toppermost #354

Johnny Marr biography (iTunes)

Neil Waite, a teacher of 24 years, has written a number of posts for Toppermost. He lives in Hampshire, England and has always been a music and vinyl addict. He loves a wide variety of music genres but is particularly passionate about Punk. You’ll find him on twitter @NeilWaite1

TopperPost #420

2 Comments

  1. Mark Atkins
    Mar 11, 2015

    Johnny Marr also played the great guitar on Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Walking Down Madison’ from Electric Landlady (1991). Here’s the video: I don’t think Johnny is in it.

  2. David Lewis
    Mar 12, 2015

    McCartney also considered Marr as his guitarist for a while, which would have been really interesting, though I think Marr was perhaps too indie and idiosyncratic for it to be a long term proposal anyway: he needs to do his stuff, not anyone else’s.

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