Johnny Marr, the rock star turned teacher

I am a Ghost

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From The Sunday Times
January 18, 2009
Johnny Marr, the rock star turned teacher
Former Smiths' guitarist takes time from working with Neil Finn and the Cribs to teach on University of Salford music degree

Cliff Jones

Johnny Marr is a textbook definition of a “busy working musician”. Currently in New Zealand, recording with Neil Finn, the former Smiths guitarist flies back at the end of the month and heads straight into the studio with the Cribs. And, somehow, he must also find time to plan his next lecture to the students on the popular-musicology degree course at the University of Salford.

Visiting professor Marr knows the pressure is on. His inaugural lecture, Always from the Outside: Mavericks, Innovators and Building Your Own Ark, delivered last November, drew more than 1,000 people to the campus. Together with the workshop he ran for the students, it garnered him more column inches than all of his recent musical projects combined.

It wasn’t just that Marr had apparently “turned to the dark side”, as one blogger put it, that proved so controversial. It is his belief that teaching is the way forward. “One interviewer said to me, ‘Isn’t it a contradiction in terms to come to university to learn how to be a rocker?’ That’s such an outdated, old-fashioned paradigm. To them, true ‘rockers’ are supposed to be hanging about on the streets in leather jackets, throwing bricks through windows. It’s a cliché. We’ve grown and moved on a long way.

“I don’t see anything wrong in education in any creative sphere, as long as it’s not to the detriment of the emotion. What I do know is that if, when I was 16, someone had told me there was a building with a ton of amps in it, musicians hanging about and loads of resources, I’d have walked 10 miles every day to get there.”

Marr is just one of the high-profile musicians and music- industry professionals who have heeded the siren call of academia. From the grandaddy of multimedia pop theory, Brian Eno (whose debut lecture involved a demonstration of how he once took a pee in the surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal, using a length of surgical hose), to Jarvis Cocker (whose Saying the Unsayable lecture on pop lyrics found its way into his live shows), the great education divide is finally being crossed. The Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam, George Martin, the Blur bassist Alex James and the poet-singer Patti Smith are among the big names turning years of experience into student-friendly “edutainment”.

Sussex, Plymouth, Glasgow and Goldsmiths universities all offer degree courses in pop. You can study everything from modern commercial songwriting, music management and scoring for television to DJ studies, “shred” guitar, the Jewish contribution to rock and the sociology of the Beatles. Entering the 2009 Ucas season, there are 450 degree and diploma courses available — there were just 40 in 2000. New campuses and purpose-built music and media schools are popping up all over the country.

The reasons for this cosying-up between pop and academia are easy enough to understand. Considered cultural fluff for many years, pop finally triumphed as the dominant musical form of the late 20th century. Fifty years on from Awopbopaloobop, it might almost be recognised as a musical epoch alongside classical, baroque and early music. Pop has history, influence and, like literature, a recognised canon.

Richard Parfitt, a lecturer at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM), was the singer with the 60ft Dolls, discovered Duffy and has written a number of songs for her. “Modern classics are still being made, but the golden age of rock is over,” he says. “I’m not saying all of pop’s past is worth studying — 99% of novels aren’t worth it — but it’s important to acknowledge the canon. Astral Weeks, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Forever Changes and Marquee Moon are as worthy of scrutiny as the Ancient Mariner or The Waste Land. It’s not about liking them. It’s about knowing their context so you can salvage and reinvent.”

Marr agrees: “There are rules. You learn them quickly — and then you set about breaking them with confidence.”

The signs of the growing intellectualisation of pop are easy enough to spot. The rock hacks of yore can take a good deal of credit. Nick Kent, Dave Marsh, Jon Savage, Simon Reynolds, Greil Marcus and their ilk gave pop a quasi-intellectual gravitas. Pop became a matter of competing orthodoxies: the Stooges v Genesis, the countercultural importance of Pet Shop Boys, casuals, new romantics and grunge. Successive generations, weaned on Radio 1, evolved a shared cultural history. And once the broadsheets started writing seriously about pop in the late 1980s, the slow walk in from the wastelands of “lowbrow” culture began in earnest.

Joe Stretch, singer with the newly signed Manchester band (We Are) Performance, is also a lecturer in modern literature and the pop lyric at Keele. He maintains that universities have a new role as guardians of pop: “MySpace has blown it for pop. You've got 8m people uploading music that is largely slapstick and cliché-ridden. The critic in us will always look for new ways to filter culture. Universities are the new gatekeepers. Learning the history and context of pop is essential, because that’s part of how music is judged and how it evolves.”

So, let’s cut to the chase. Is a degree in glam-rock studies actually any use? The answer, it seems, is yes. The industry is building new links with education. Sony BMG, Universal and agents such as William Morris now run graduate programmes. A relevant “bit of paper” is essential. John Sweeney, business manager at the School of Media, Music & Performance at Salford, says: “Twenty years ago, these kinds of courses were ridiculed as Mickey Mouse degrees by the academic establishment. Now we are ahead of Oxford in the rankings in media, communications and popular music, because they do not offer purpose-built degrees that the industry values as highly.

“We have evolved good links with employers. At the end of each degree, we take the students in and look at where they want to be and how we can help get them the right job. Our alumni are everywhere, from commercial studios, facilities houses and large media organisations to, say, music managers on cruise ships. Some have gone into bands that tour or have been signed. The fact is that overall, between 80% and 90% of our students go straight into real jobs through placements or graduate schemes, or are talent-scouted. That’s not our statistic, by the way, that’s the government stat based on their annual reviews.

“Managers, label bosses, agents, A&R and the BBC all come to us because they know they will get high-calibre graduates who fit straight in and have more than the basics covered. We can bring talent and the industry together. With Johnny \, for instance, he will keep a close eye on how certain students and bands are developing. He offers a real and direct way into the world of producers, labels, managers and A&R. Our students spend a lot of time working, recording and rehearsing at Blueprint Studios, where, for example, you also find Elbow and the Ting Tings working. It is about how well you are connected to the industry as much as theory.”

Sweeney, along with most others in the field, believes employers are waking up to the fact that these courses are a rich source of young talent. “I think the public image of what pop music is has to catch up with the times. It is a creative industry with high standards and methods.”

Neill Thew lectures at BIMM, but also teaches the professionals how to “unpack” their own hard- won learning and turn it into good teaching. “Higher education has been professionalised in the past decade,” he says. “Lecturers have to teach to a high standard mainly because students have expectations. Most jobs require a degree, and for the better jobs in music, this is proving to be the case, too. These courses allow a specialism to be acquired, but they also give students time to work out which area of the business they are really suited to working in. People often come just wanting to write songs or be in a band, then leave three years later to work in a specific part of the industry. It is a young area of higher education, but it is growing fast.”

In the market-driven forum of higher education, both celebrity and “real world” talent are part of the attraction of degree courses.

This is the Martin Amis effect — his £80,000 appointment to the creative-writing programme at the University of Manchester saw applications rocket. “I’d be lying if I said Johnny doesn’t help raise our profile,” Sweeney says. “The difference is that he does not get paid. For Johnny, it’s all about fostering talent. That is, after all, what drives this business.”

It’s early days, but it’s entirely possible that there may be new entry requirements for a career in pop. Just as art schools did for painting and graphic design in the 1960s, a serious career in pop may require a foundation degree. A&R and recruiters may start to descend on end-of-year shows at music colleges and universities, scouting for fresh talent. As the pop canon slips out of copyright, we may yet see a Norton Anthology for Rock Classicists, with accompanying critical texts by Greil Marcus and Jon Savage.
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