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Gold Smith: Johnny Marr

Will Hodgkinson
Friday June 4, 2004

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 f*** 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 14.

"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 and lyrically."

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 strings."

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.",12830,1230797,00.html
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