“I THOUGHT it was important” explains Johnny Marr down the phone on a Wednesday afternoon, “to let people know what really happened”. To borrow a phrase, it’s time the tale were told – the Smiths story is one that’s been documented within an inch of its life but often with varying degrees of accuracy and never from Marr’s vantage point.
Simon Reynolds got it right when, in his recent book on glam rock, he described the Smiths as “(an) aesthetic protest vote against the neo-glam pop of Thatcher’s second term”. ‘‘Set the Boy Free’ is the story of that fast-motion miracle of a band, as well as the thrillingly eclectic career that – as Marr points out – is as its high point today.
It takes in a cast of characters that includes everyone from Kirsty MacColl to Keith Richards, Bert Jansch to Bernard Sumner, Paul McCartney to Hans Zimmer. It’s insightfully and (crucially) well written – Marr often being underappreciated in his vivid intellectual curiosity, as happy discussing David Hockney or modernist architecture as he is guitar licks. This is why he’s quite so scathing about the mid-90s rise of what he dubs ‘Manc man’ in the book – when you spent the best part of the 80s trying to look like the lost male Ronette why on earth would you settle for strutting around in a parka?
I spoke to Britain’s leading pop polymath and the first great non-macho guitar hero about ‘Set the Boy Free’, Brexit, Bowie, Manchester past and present, the Smiths reunion that never was and his forthcoming collaboration with another North West firebrand.
I imagine there’s probably been offers on the table for quite some time, why did you decide that now was the right time to write your memoirs and was it something you were wary of taking on?
I had quite a few offers about four or five years ago for some reason and I’d kind of earmarked four years from then on…I wanted to get my solo records out and, you know, get something going with my audience, I thought that was more important than stopping and taking stock at that time. But as from then I knew I was going to be doing it round about now and just kind of stuck to the schedules. It was partly kind of being made offers, and liking the publisher as well and finding someone I could work with. And even though by definition an autobiography or memoir is entirely about looking back and taking stock, the idea of writing a book and the challenge of it was something I was quite looking forward to. Taking on the task. That opportunity was interesting for me – it was a lot of work but I’m glad that I’ve had the experience. And, I don’t know, it feels like a nice bit of happenstance that I’ve got to write my life story whilst things are still on the up (laughs).
As someone who’s followed your work you’ve never struck me as someone who’s at all nostalgic, but was it interesting going back to things, did you have good recall?
I’ve got a very good memory, a lot of stuff was easy to remember. I just wanted to make sure that I did it justice and got all the details of the Smiths story…which has been told so many times, but never really what it was like as a member of the band and certainly not what it was like being me. And I wanted to make sure I put a lot of detail in there, particularly things that are significant that haven’t been kind of hijacked or distorted by anyone in the past. Writing about exactly what happened when we played Glastonbury in ’84, that was fun, that came really easily to me. And my teenage years, I’d never been really told about by anyone other than, you know, some hack biographers of the Smiths who would have got the information third hand and seemingly don’t even like the people they’re talking about anyway, so I thought it was important to let people know what really happened.
That was probably the most interesting, evocative part of the book for me, your teenage years – writing about being a child of the pop era, and singles culture, and then working at the Cave and X Clothes, was it interesting revisiting all of that?
Yeah, and it was actually…it was a discipline which I enjoyed. To not make it indulgent and to stay on track and keep the pace going. And find that balance between your own subjective reminiscing and something people can read on the train you know? I’m a bit like that with music, these days anyway, of it being you know, good to read, good to listen to during the daytime when you’re sat on the train or on a bus. Just not being too indulgent and keeping it zipping along. There’s a lot in there that was really crucial to me turning out the way I have. As I said, it was just finding the right balance and finding my style. I of course understood that the most important criteria was to have your own authentic voice, as it were, and it took me a while to be happy with the way it came off the page. I did a lot of re-writing when I first started because there’s nothing worse than someone waffling on about their schooldays or romanticising stuff just for the sake of it. I suppose really I applied the same kind of attitude to writing as I do when I’m playing the guitar or writing a song. I like for it to kind of zip along and then just go down some left or right turns when you’re not expecting it. Like ending up in a police cell and things like that.
The problem with a lot of rock memoir, and you’ve described some of the pitfalls just now, is that a lot of them just aren’t that good – were there any books in particular that you took on as an influence?
It was more from a positive kind of motivation. I browsed through Keith Richards’ autobiography which I knew was very popular and found that the best bits were when he gave some insight into the creative impulse and where some of his inspiration came from for writing songs. I don’t think that’s just because I’m a musician, I’m not one for pouring over guitar mags and all of that kind of thing, but I liked those bits where he gave some insight into some kind of magic. And I’ve got a lot of good memories of those things happening in my life, and so I made a note to try and describe those things in a way that people who aren’t interested in the technicalities would still enjoy. For example, the writing of ‘This Charming Man’, that was a song that came through an open window along with the sunshine one day, and ‘How Soon is Now’ happened because I had headphones on and smoked a spliff. I didn’t really make an assumption that everybody was going to be a guitar freak, but at the same time it is what defines me and it’s the thing that’s been the most important thing in my life, along with a couple of my relationships, and that’s what makes me what I am so I have to talk about those things. I was glad that I wrote about the way ‘How Soon is Now’ was created and recorded and I just took a leap that some men and women would find it interesting even if they don’t have an idea what the word tremolo means.
I watched the Ron Howard Beatles film about their touring years that came out recently…
…and I was struck by how totally shambolic their tour operation was simply because they were the first band to do that kind of thing on that scale, and everyone who came after learnt incredibly quickly from their mistakes. And you do get a sense reading your book of something very similar with the Smiths; the lack of management, the sheer amount of responsibility that was on your shoulders.
Yeah absolutely. I’m fairly philosophical about it now, thirty years later. It was all to do with having no manager but that was partly out of bloody-mindedness and partly out of dysfunction. It was certainly illogical and was just an aspect of the band that was a very less than useful quirk. We had a lot of quirks that turned out to be fantastic, but the quirks that were less than good would turn out to be destructive and that was one of them. We all had our roles in the group and I seemed to take that role on because I started it and because I was very resourceful, which I liked and was more than happy to do, but there’s a big difference between, you know, finding a drummer, enlisting your mate as a roadie, and sitting down with a merchandise company to talk about your American arena tour. If someone out there believes that the manager of a very very successful rock’n’roll band should be their 23 year old guitar player I’m yet to meet that person.
I have an office at home and I kind of disciplined myself to write 6 or 7 hours a day whenever I could. The book took me 9 months to write and I came off the road to do that, but I also went on tour with Hans Zimmer during the writing of it and would be back and forward at home for four or five days, then out on the road with the orchestra for a few days and then come back, and that gave me a good break from the office, but I wrote some things in hotel rooms when I was doing the Hans thing because I was on a roll and needed to make the deadline. I started writing about the 70s in a hotel in Dusseldorf, and some of the Smiths stuff that I wrote was on the road. Which was actually quite useful, being on the road helped me remember some of our travels, it was good.
In 2008 – and I don’t want to dwell on this as it’s all in the book – but you go through the experience of the Smiths very nearly but not quite reforming, but what’s interesting is that pretty much straight away from that your career goes in a very different direction and you emerge as Johnny Marr the solo artist for the first time and do incredibly well. What was it like that nearly happening but then finding a very different kind of success?
Well, I guess had the Smiths had reformed at that time, at least one member of the band would have definitely been very different…the guitar player (laughs). I can only talk for myself but at that time I was playing with the Cribs and living between Manchester and Portland and I guess everybody would have changed…erm…it’s a funny one because so much of my solo career has been motivated by going forward, wherever that takes me. Not kind of, being concerned about following trends, but kind of following my nose really, and that may have come with a kind of confidence or I guess it’s come because I’m steering the ship on my own. I have my band, but I’m not working with a partner, and I have a sort of sense of it all being where I want to take us. And that’s terribly exciting and that’s where I am now and where I’m going to be going in the next couple of years. It probably would have been a very weird thing to be stuck in amber, I’d thought anyway that if the Smiths were ever going to reform a big part of it would have been to make a new record, because on the one occasion – that I talk about in the book – that it may have nearly happened, I was one hundred per cent as excited about writing new songs as I was about playing in front of two hundred thousand people. Because I’m always led by new records I guess. I don’t know, weirdly, you are a nostalgia act when you do the big comeback, and usually no-one gives a damn about your new material. But, that wouldn’t be my mentality. It’s a good question and I hadn’t thought about it really.
One thing I found really interesting was that you write about picking up Tony Benn’s ‘Arguments for Socialism’ book when you were younger, and from then on politics is something that really runs right through the book, and indeed your career – the way you were vegetarian, or joining the Red Wedge tour – and I get the sense that it’s something you view as quite important, would you agree?
Yeah, and it’s partly a generational thing – definitely to do with my background. This may sound incredibly simplistic but my politics were just born out of being brought up with a belief that society has a responsibility to take care of people who are having a tough time. And not that I’m a saint or anything, but when I first discovered the agenda of the Conservative party – which was as a real youngster during the Ted Heath government in the early 70s – it was explained to me that they were for the rich and for the powerful and that just struck me as being about having no compassion. It is a simplistic view, but I carried that with me as a youngster and essentially my opinions never really changed, it just became a matter of filling in the details. But here I am, talking to you with a Prime Minister that no-one elected… and my overriding emotion is the same as when I was a youngster. And the Conservatives are right-wing, and the right-wing has very little to do with compassion, if anything at all. If that makes me a hippie then so fucking what.
In 2013 you wrote ‘European Me’ (on ‘the Messenger’ album) and I felt that the subtext was very much that you were celebrating something that was under threat – fast forward three years and we’re out of the EU, and I’m curious about your thoughts on that as someone who obviously has wrote about celebrating Europeanism.
Yeah well when I wrote ‘European Me’ I had no idea about what was going to happen, and the song came about because of a cultural notion that I had from seeing the UK from the vantage point of Americans. I’d been in an American band for a long time and started writing ‘European Me’ when I was in Modest Mouse, because my American friends all seemed to look at the UK as an incredible European opportunity and European community, both geographically and culturally. That is to say, that our proximity to Paris and Barcelona and Eastern Europe and all of this was something that Americans very much admired. And you know, we grew up in very close proximity to where Pablo Picasso was working and Salvador Dali, and an incredible cultural heritage that we, as a little island, seemed to take advantage of but now resent and want to ignore at best, and seemingly reject at worst. And that song was about being proud of European culture, but not for one minute when I recorded that song did I think that we were about to turn into a bunch of xenophobic morons. And commit economic and cultural suicide. It’s kamikaze culture all over the place. I’m aghast and disappointed, and I’ve never been happier to be in the minority, I’ll tell you that much.
I do think there is still a massive duty for everyone who did vote Remain to continue to make the same arguments, and that’s something that shouldn’t be lost or forgotten…
Nobody ever said that the majority are correct or ought to be admired. I always hated straight culture anyway, fuck them.
That is something that’s ran right through your career though too – a real avoidance of rockism and all of that culture, be it in the Smiths taking in influences from folk or disco, and in the Healers being influenced by bands like Faust, and it’s also something evident in your lifestyle – being a vegan, being into running. There’s very few other examples in rock and pop of people who are like that. Brian Eno’s one example I thought of, but is there anyone you admire and look up to who you feel to be similar?
Yeah, I always admired Wire. The way they conducted themselves. Because they could rock in the best sense, but discarded all of that posturing. That was something I understood even as a teenager who liked rock bands. One thing that surprised me when writing the book was really how much I loved the Only Ones, and you could argue that Peter Perrett was your archetypal poetic Byronic rock’n’roll junkie figure, as was Johnny Thunders, and he was – but in the context of the time they were crucially not macho. There was a femininity to them and a vulnerability that flew in the face of what was standard rock for my generation – which was the long haired, denim jacketed, chest-beating heavy rock brigade. I was a music obsessive, a guitar obsessive, and I investigated anything I could, and that was fine but it was fortunate for me that I was round about fifteen, sixteen when the kind of naffness and testosterone and outdatedness of rock culture reached its zenith really. And I was kind of witnessing that as a young guitar player. But the lifestyle, for me, and the philosophy that I’ve tried to hold onto is partly about trying to be what I see as progressive, and I find that all that kind of cock-rock, classic rock nonsense – which didn’t actually go away when punk came along, far from it – was more straight than the alternative. That kind of rock posturing, particularly now is just completely irrelevant. And I’m not above rocking out and standing with a cigarette in my mouth onstage and I’m glad I got to do all of those things, and in my defence I was a guitar player in what I thought was the best alternative rock band in the world and I did want to take that to the limit, but it was never about putting your foot on the monitors. It’s all what you say in the riffs isn’t it? So yeah, a big part of my mentality has probably come from always having a close relationship with a girl. And not really getting too testosterone about things. That’s probably something that writing the book I already knew about myself, but it was only when I saw this constant life of relationships with women – obviously my sister as a kid, my wife who I’ve been with since being a teenager, but even Kirsty (MacColl), Chrissie Hynde, I’ve worked with a lot of girls and women and I still am now.
On the topic of non-macho rock, you write about when you were younger – by this point already really into things like T Rex – but there’s the arrival of this androgynous, effeminate artist in the form of Davd Bowie. Though Mick Ronson obviously wasn’t averse to rocking out. Did you listen to ‘Blackstar’? I’m interested in your thoughts on that record…
Yeah I got ‘Blackstar’ as soon as it came out, he’s never put one out that I haven’t listened to on the day it’s come out, and I thought it was an incredible piece of work anyway.
Yeah of course because it came out on the Friday and it wasn’t until the Monday morning that he passed away.
Yeah, and I thought it was the best thing he’d done for years. It had a real wilful, strong personality to it and sounded very very sure of itself. And sometimes, with albums like ‘Outside’…I actually thought a lot of his drum and bass stuff was pretty good actually…
Yeah, I love ‘Little Wonder’…
‘Little Wonder’s amazing, the video was good at the time too. And ‘Heathen’, actually a lot of his records, it felt like he was kind of putting his toe in the water or just following some kind of vibe. But ‘Blackstar’ I absolutely loved. There’s a theory that if you’re a creative person the things that you most are attracted to, that really inspire you, as a kid, they never really go away. And in my case you can hear glam rock in a lot of the Smiths. You can hear it in the song ‘Ignore the Ignorant’ by the Cribs.
There’s a lot of ‘Metal Guru’ in the swing of that track…
Yeah exactly, and even ‘Easy Money’ or ‘Upstarts’, things that I did pretty instinctively by accident but when I’d listened back to them I can hear that I’ve picked up on a lot of things from those early 70s records that I sat learning alongside on the carpet at home. And the times were very very pro-androgyny, and pro-camp, and pro-effeminate, and there was something really sexy about that. And that’s really stayed with me. And it might surprise one or two people to learn that the Cribs are – if not effeminate then a very balanced male and female band.
I felt that when you joined the Cribs and made ‘Ignore the Ignorant’, a lot of music journalists didn’t really attempt to take seriously what that band was before you joined, what was your experience of working with the Cribs?
What you’ve just described was not discussed but I think it was felt by me and the band a little bit. And there’s something great – and this is going to sound kind of conceited – but there’s something great about feeling that you’re going to do something really good that a lot of people know is really good but the press don’t. It doesn’t always happen. Culture maybe, not the press, but the mainstream – that’s a better word. I had the same thing with The The. We weren’t carrying any shit around but there was definitely a feeling of it not being taken as seriously as it should have been in some areas, and I felt a little bit that the fellas (the Cribs) were patronised a bit now and again. This idea of the rock legend and the indie upstarts getting together was pretty off the mark. And when that happened, on the few occasions when that did happen – I’m thinking about at the live shows – it just showed people up to be out of touch. Because for a start the Cribs were not kids when I joined, they weren’t these little scruffy lads sat on the tour bus playing XBOX and me walking around in sunglasses saying “let me tell you about the eighties”. And nor was I some guy sitting around polishing my gold records, I was a working musician, we were all of us touring all the time and we knew what we were doing was good. Anyone who came to see the Cribs shows with me in them know that it was a properly valid situation. It was a blast and I think we captured it pretty well on that record. It’s always a great thing that it’s captured on vinyl. There’s a lot of femininity in them.
One song I love off that record is ‘City of Bugs’ – that’s something that I couldn’t have imagined you doing without that band and I couldn’t have imagined them doing without you
That’s a great example; if I hadn’t joined the Cribs I wouldn’t have played on or wrote ‘City of Bugs’. A track called ‘Stick to Yr Guns’ as well. ‘Ignore the Ignorant’ could have been a really great Smiths track and I say that with real pride, I love what Ryan did with that. And one of my favourite singles that I’ve ever made was ‘We Share the Same Skies’ that was a lot to do with Gary. That was a great time and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity with the book to explain it and put it in context of the rest of my career. In just laying out the facts I pay tribute to them.
You describe yourself in the book as being very affected by the environment you’re in – be it Portland or, in the last few years, be it Manchester – I wonder what you thought of Andy Burnham saying Manchester’s music scene was stuck in its past?
Yeah, well for a start I thought that comment was almost so obvious it was wrong. The time to say that was twelve, fifteen years ago – I think there’s a few young bands knocking about that would have a slightly different opinion. The city’s changed a lot in the same way that a lot of, most, major cities in the UK have changed. There’s a big bling element, and a big bling agenda but there’ll always be young people in Manchester kicking against it, doing what they can, forming bands, going to gigs, that may sound idealistic but it’s always been that way in my lifetime and it’s that way now. There’s good venues, Soup Kitchen, the Castle, Ruby Lounge, Night and Day, Deaf Institute…I’m not bananas about the overt psych scene that seems to be taking over at the moment because it just seems like a load of geezers trying to sound like a third rate Black Sabbath to me. And I hope that kind of passes and we get back to decent frontmen, decent guitar players who can play more than just E. I don’t mind one chord but if it goes on for eleven minutes, you know, and isn’t as good as Faust or Amon Duul then what’s the point? But the University and the Met and the galleries, they balance out the corporate growth.
Especially with Whitworth Gallery having re-opened and done so well
That’s exactly what I mean, that’s right, the Whitworth getting gallery of the year was just a fantastic achievement…and deserved, as far as I can see. Manchester’s a great city. When I think about Bolton…
Which I imagine you do frequently…
Haha. I think Manchester’s getting a very good shake and places like Bolton aren’t, and there’s a potential for growth there that seems to be being ignored. Manchester could be overtly coroporate if it’s not careful and Bolton could do with a bit more. As could Bradford. Sheffield seems to be doing very nicely, keeping its cultural equilibrium, there’s enough to do there that feels enough like a secret. But Manchester, it’s always been the good alternative to London which is one of the reasons why I’ve stayed back here really.
The first event you’re doing for the book is Manchester Lit Fest and then you’ll be at the Barbican before taking it to New York, Portland, are you looking forward to the readings and Q&As and have you an idea what you’ll be doing once all of that is wrapped up?
Yeah, I’m looking forward to them. It’s another experience that I’ve never had before. I like the Barbican and I’m glad to be part of the Lit Fest. I’m doing an event in Portland where Fred Armisen – he’s an American alternative comedian essentially and is a musician – and I’ve had a chat to a few of the people who are interviewing me, Jon Savage is interviewing me in London…
His 1966 book was one of the best music books of the last couple of years.
Have you read England’s Dreaming?
England’s Dreaming is an absolute classic!
Jon’s amazing. And John Robb’s doing the Birmingham one, John’s great. So yeah I see them almost as collaborations really because they’re all interesting people in their own right. And when that’s done…I’ve started working with Maxine Peake the actor. I’m writing some music for Maxine, we’re going to do a record together and maybe do some shows together or find some way of performing some new kind of music. With some spoken word, and some text…it’s quite an ambitious show with me and Maxine. Just trying to do something that’s a cross between theatre and a gig and a film. So that’s been great, because she’s a fantastic artist. She’s incredible. I’ve liked a lot of her work and we’ve kind of got similar ideologies and an outlook on things and a similar kind of work ethic. She’s someone who likes to not follow the obvious career trajectory and she’s quite brave in her work choices. So that’s exciting. I’ll also have a new single out in Spring too, getting back to the day job.
‘Set the Boy Free’ by Johnny Marr is published in hardback, e-book and audiobook (read by Marr) on 3rd November by Century Books.
Fergal Kinney runs the Let’s Make This Precious club night in Manchester which will be at Night and Day on Friday November 11th.