I see the golf’s on. The one and only time I’ve had the brass neck enough to go busking was in 1989 when the Open was in Troon, a decent couple of drives (and maybe a sand wedge) from where I’m typing. My folks were on holiday, so naturally my house became the go-to place beyond last orders on the Saturday night. ‘The band’ rose from couches and corners in the mid Sunday morning sunshine and someone had the bright idea of suggesting we grab a couple of acoustics, a tambourine and a whole load of nerve and go and busk at the final round.
Crammed onto the train to take the two stops from Irvine to Troon, we stuck out like an amateur’s hooked tee shot in a field of scratch golfers. Smiths quiffs that had only just started to collapse as I Wanna Be Adored‘s bassline had rumbled its way into our collective conscience stood side by side with those haircuts that only famous record producers and weekend yachtsmen and the comfortably-off seem to sport – foppish, demi-wave on top, greying at the temples, fluffy over the ears, longish at the back without being a mullet…you know the sort. Their pastels, their stiff crisp collars and their perfect creases made our battered desert boots and slept-in 501s look even scruffier than normal. We quite liked being the odd ones out though, our guitars and hangovers attracting puzzled glances, especially when we got off at Troon with everyone else.
We set up pitch far, far away from a bagpiper and his cyclical repertoire of tourist-trapping tartan tunes. We found a good spot next to a hedge, along a major walkway that connected two parts of the course and sat down to consider our plan. It was mobbed. The occasional thwack of a player’s club rattling the ball far into the Ayrshire sun drew oohs and aahs and ripples of echoing applause from the throng as we quietly emptied our combined loose change into one of the guitar cases – a busker’s trick, apparently, that showed your audience that you were a bona fide attraction – and then self-consciously began tuning up.
Then we sat and looked at one another.
Passing golf fans eyed us suspiciously.
It was Grant who started.
“This is ‘Ask’,” he said to a passing female golf fan who was doing her best to pretend we weren’t there. “It was written by The Smiths and sounded nothing like this.”
No set list had been discussed or considered, but suddenly we were off, the two acoustics scrubbing out a skiffly rhythm, Grant clattering his tambourine off his elbow as he sang. No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.
Ask came to its rattling, jangling conclusion and we looked around at one another. A Chuck Berry riff flew out of my hands and onto the fretboard and suddenly we were busking Johnny B Goode.
No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.
Tough crowd. I Wanna Be Adored wasn’t going to change things, but we played it anyway. It might just about get a nod of recognition around St Andrews this afternoon, but freshly minted and still underground in the summer of ’89, I Wanna Be Adored was unknown to the Calloway-clad squares of Royal Troon.
No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.
We were midway through our second go at Ask when a wee boy shuffled up and dropped 20p into the guitar case. The four of us stopped and surrounded him with “Yes, wee man!“-handshakes and a ruffle of his wonky fringe. He ran off terrified. We played on like legends.
A woman stopped and listened. Like, actually listened. She came closer, between Grant and myself and cocked an ear to what he was singing. When we finished, she sat down cross-legged amongst us and told us it was a beautiful song.
“Who wrote it?” she wondered.
“It was The Smiths,” said Grant apologetically. “Not us.”
“It’s lovely. Will you play it again?”
For the third time we ran through Ask, getting quite good at it by this point. “Ask me, ask me, ask me!” sang Grant as we scuffed the G to C chord change with lip-curling gallusness. “If its not love then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb! The bomb that will bring us together.”
Our new fan pulled an actual fiver from her purse and with a wee smile dropped it into the case. Twenty minutes in and we were suddenly making serious money. By the time the leader’s heading up the 18th fairway, Grant man, we’ll be millionaires!!
“Excuse me, lads,” shouted an old fella from the other side of the hedge. He had a combover and was wearing an R&A blazer. Offical looking. “Excuse me, lads. But you’re going to have to move on…we can damn-well hear you on the greens!” He waited for a reply that wasn’t forthcoming. “I mean it, boys. You must stop now. You’re disturbing play and it’s just not on.” The bagpiper up the road was still strangling The Rowan Tree from his pipes but he was clearly exempt from it all. “Pack up now, please.”
It’s not very anti-establishment, but pack up is exactly what we did. We’d made just over £6 in our short busking career and we’d later drink our proceeds in the Crown. For now though, we cut through the hedge and found ourselves amongst the final round crowds.
Unbelievably – but entirely true – the American golfer Tom Watson appeared in front of me, surveying the landscape and eyeing up a shot up the fairway.
“Can you get a toon outta that gee-tar?” he asked with a wry smile.
“Aye!” I said.
Watson nodded and went back to the task in hand. Thwack! went his club against the ball as he marched his way to a very decent 4th place (I had to Google that). Ooh and aah went the crowd. “Let’s get out of here,” said us.
The Smiths – Ask (June ’86 run-through)
Mike Joyce’s scattergun Moonisms on this were sadly missing in the final take. Johnny’s sparkling guitar was gratefully added. An interesting Smiths curio, if nothing else.
A Taste Of Honey was written by playwright Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19. Set in Salford in the mid 50s, it tells the story of a 17 year-old girl, Jo, and her mum, Helen – ‘a semi-whore‘ – who leaves her daughter to go and live with a younger, richer man. Jo begins a short-lived relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant but he is sent to sea, oblivious to the situation he has created. The girl takes in a lodger to help pay the way. The lodger, a gay man, cares for her and looks after her – “you’re just like a big sister to me!” – and promises to be there for her at the birth of the child, until Helen storms back into Jo’s life and he is forced to take a step back.
As openers go, it doesn’t get much more scene-setting than that. The whole play is a brilliantly-written kitchen sink drama that zings along with unpretentious Northern honesty and questions class, single-parenthood, ethnicity, misogyny and sexuality. Choosing not to sweep the irregularities and complexities of life under the carpet, but to highlight that such things are in fact normal, I can only imagine that for the times it was fairly groundbreaking.
Born in Salford in the 50s, Morrissey was naturally drawn to the writings of Shelagh Delaney.
‘You told me not to trust men calling themselves Smith,’ says Jo to Helen at one point in A Taste Of Honey, and, like a flying bullet, the words leap of the page.
Seed planted firmly under the quiff, when the time came to name their band, the singer presented the group with the perfect, Delaney-influenced moniker. In an era of forward-thinking acts with multisyllabic names and the latest in musical equipment, The Smiths had defiantly set out their stall.
Morrissey would use Delaney’s image on a couple of Smiths sleeves – that’s her on the Louder Than Bombs compilation and the cover of the Girlfriend In A Coma single – and in reshaped form in the title of Sheila Take A Bow – and in the early days, the moping magpie wasn’t shy of stealing a line or two (or more) to help flesh out the narrative in his songs.
Reel Around The Fountain‘s “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,” for example is taken straight from A Taste Of Honey. And the phrase ‘Marry Me!‘ – scrawled on Morrissey’s skinny torso and revealed in heart crushing fashion midway through a Top Of The Pops performance for William It Was Really Nothing is a recurring phrase in the play.
Then there are key lines such as ‘six months is a long time,’ ‘I’ll probably never see you again,’ ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad‘ and ‘the dream has gone but the baby’s real‘ – the line around which he based the entire plot for The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes.
A Taste Of Honey, it’s fair to say, provided a rich seam of lyrical plunder for Steven Patrick.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel Session, Sept 83)
‘In a river the colour of lead‘, it goes, again a straight steal from A Taste Of Honey, ‘immerse the baby’s head.’ (also a reference to a line near the end of the play.) Hot on the heels of the Suffer Little Children/Moors Murderers scandal, this line caused many a management bristle when it was first heard. ‘Wrap her up in a News of The World, dump her on a doorstep, girl.’
The song is basically A Taste of Honey set to the perfect musical acccompaniment; downbeat, introspective, black and white in epoch yet technicolour in ambition. It features a prime slice of brooding, counter-melody Andy Rourke bass. Johnny’s dual lead and rhythm guitar playing is soulful and considered, mercurial and slinky yet choppy and jazzy, a zillion miles away from what most other 20-year old guitar players with a Stooges fascination might conjure up. It’s a great example of the early Smiths in action.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hacienda, 24.11.83)
This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a bit of a mongrel within The Smiths small but perfect, imperial catalogue. An early staple of live shows, its melancholic and delicate undertones were considered a bit too fragile for the debut album. It was first magnetised to tape at the band’s second Peel Session in September 1983, just a month or two after the aborted Troy Tate sessions that largely failed in capturing The Smiths electrifying live sound.
A year later, just as the group was recording another version with John Porter, the Peel Session version appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. It remains the only recorded version of the track to be officially released.
Quickly dropped from live shows as setlists changed to keep up with the rapid, prodigious writing talents of the prinicpal Smiths, This Night Has Opened My Eyes wasn’t played live again until, serendipitously, at The Smiths final show in 1986 – “There was a sense of resolve and closure,” relates Johnny Marr, “which is why we played that song that night. I remember when we made the decision to do ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ feeling a strong sense of awareness of our own history.”
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Brixton, 12.12.86)
Had they been happy with the John Porter-produced version – faster, sparkling with effervescence and slighty jauntier than the Peel Session take from the year previously (although that may just be pitch issues with the bootleg tape from whence this version was borne), it remains to be seen where This Night Has Opened My Eyes would’ve fitted into The Smiths discography.
The Smiths – This Night Has Opened My Eyes (John Porter, June 1984)
Certainly, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the debut album at all, but the next 12 months were ridiculously productive. With classic singles being frisbeed out on an almost bi-monthly basis, by the time of Meat Is Murder, Morrissey and Marr had proven themselves to be in a unique world of their own.
Perhaps, like so many of the best Smiths tracks, it would’ve been the ideal stand alone single. Maybe released between the feral and stinging What Difference Does It Make and the stellar Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, a soulful interlude amongst a peerless run of releases.
It remains though a curio that has aged well through lack of over-familiarity. Whatever, I wonder, became of the young, handsome, literate, funny, unique, quirky, lovable and worshipped Morrissey? The dream has gone but the baby’s real, you might say.
If someone had told you back in 1985 that it would’ve been Elton John, or at a push Freddie Mercury who’d be the hip name to drop 30+ years in the future, while yer man of the moment Morrissey had slowly and painfully morphed into a paunchy, shitty-quiffed racist in bad jeans, you’d have struggled to believe them. As Elton’s position at the top table of pop is affirmatively reassessed via the Rocket Man movie and the resultant positive press, so too is old Stephen Patrick’s. The nadir, for this week at least, is Morrissey’s (at best) misguided and (at worst) dangerous decision to sport a For Britain badge on his lapel. To put this into context, even Nigel Farage considers the politics of For Britain a bit too extreme and right wing for his liking. It’s there in the paparazzi photos as he steps out of the car at the studio for an appearance on the Fallon TV show. It’s still there when he performs. And it’s still there a few days later when he’s snapped on some random Beverly Hills sidewalk or other. For all you know, it’s probably still there right now, a defiant and misguided symbol of knuckleheaded nationalism.
It’s a statement that’s led to Billy Bragg questioning the motives of the one-time king of the marginalised, disenfranchised and waifs and strays, referring to him as the Oswald Moseley of pop. As a result, we’ve also seen adverts for Morrissey’s brand new California Son album being ceremoniously ripped from the walls of Merseyrail train stations. The resultant fall out might’ve caused a lesser deity to back down somewhat and offer a hastily cobbled-together press release aimed at clearing up a ‘misunderstanding’, but, no. Seemingly, from his high horse in his house high in the Hollywood Hills, Morrissey has decided that For Britain is the political party for him and he wants everyone to know it.
Had he not had a new album to promote, it’s arguable whether we’d even be talking about the growing insignificance of Morrissey, although his continual shift to the far right will forever gurantee him a public profile somewhere in the corner of the internet marked ‘racist uncle’, so you could argue that the singer has played the press at their own game and won; new album released + controversial statement = increased profile + greater sales.
I’ve not properly listened to a Morrissey album since You Are The Quarry, these days considered a high point of his solo career (although back then I’d have placed it closer to the bottom of that particular list – it’s no Vauxhall And I, that’s for sure. And it’s certainly no Your Arsenal either) and I had no real inclination to hear his present-day take on a variety of off-the-beaten-track cover versions, even with the added ‘bonus’ of having one of Green Day duet with him on some old track or other.
An interview with Morrissey published last week – I still like to read what he has to say – had him reveal that his vocal delivery on his version of Roy Orbison’s It’s Over was “absolutely, hands down the best vocal delivery I have ever done.” Wow. Let that sink in. The man who’s very essence was etched into the grooves of some of the most heart-breaking records to escape the soul – Well I Wonder and I Know It’s Over, to name but two, considers his performance on It’s Over to be the very pinnacle of his singing career. Now, given that on those two Smiths’ tracks and many others (Vauxhall And I‘s Now My Heart Is Full, for example), Morrissey laid his life on the line, his very raison d’etre, like his beautiful, towering quiff, forever on the verge of collapse, I had to hear it.
It’s certainly dramatic. Harking back to the days of Ann Coats on Bigmouth Strikes Again, it begins with a comical sped-up Morrissey vocal. There’s nothing funny about the subject matter though. “Your baby doesn’t love you any-more,” he goes, as the band march out a funereal ra-ta-tat-tat. Strings sweep, bells toll, guitars crash. It rises, falls and rises again, a great wave of melodramatic emotion – “When she says to you, there’s somebody new, we’re through, we’re through!….it’s over!” As it reaches its climax, dogs for miles around begin to howl as the high-pitched warbling vocal in the background (Moz again, with the help from studio trickery?) threatens to take over. We’re at peak crescendo now, and then, suddenly, silence.
It’s OK, I s’pose, a decent enough sign-off on a singing career that, for me, is now well and truly finished.
Now, off you run, Morrissey. And take your stupid political notions with you. We’ll always have Meat Is Murder, I guess.
It’s not a patch on the original, of course. For reverb ‘n twang and melodrama bathed in pathos and regret, Roy Orbison‘s tremulous voice cannot, will not, ever be matched. The end.
Such is the depth of his catalogue, Johnny Marr can put together a 20 song set that has something for everyone. From the opening new wave sheen of Tracers, all electrified twang and icy synths via a giddy, galloping Bigmouth Strikes Again and a choice selection of Smiths tracks that, let’s be honest, is what the majority of the audience came to hear, a Johnny show is wholly entertaining and, in an era of triple-figure ticket prices, reassuringly recession-friendly and value for money.
An early set dip focuses too closely on tracks from current album Call The Comet but when he breaks into the perennial evergreen Getting Away With It – “a disco song from England,” – the show goes into orbit. Mid-way through, white hot strobes switch to sparkling glitter ball, perfect given the Barrowland’s history, and the band’s electro disco throb gives way to Marr’s chiming guitar, little arpeggios of untamed joy ricocheting out across the heads of an ecstatic audience. He gives good face, does Johnny. Whether he’s pulling guitar hero poses from atop the monitor or fixing his eyes on the array of smartphones in the audience or leaning back with his eyes closed as his fingers coax unstoppable melody from his fretboard, he does so knowing full-well his image will be shared on social media platforms the world over.
“Any requests?” he teases before he leads his band into an impromptu run-through of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. A snippet of the riff from This Charming Man causes 1800 folk of a certain age to go heart-stoppingly weak at the knees before he slides into an imperial take on Electronic’s Get The Message. On this tour, Marr is fast becoming the indie version of his good pal Nile Rodgers, building a set of crowd pleasing hits and choice cuts from across his back catalogue and it’s the second hour of the show that truly sparkles; A brooding, gothic Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me. A trippy How Soon Is Now?, bathed in a blue and green fug with Marr wringing merry hell from his vintage Jaguar.
More Smiths follows in the encore, ensuring no-one goes home disappointed. A beautiful, lilting Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want harks back to the heady days of Smithdom, the entire audience wrung out and hung out to dry. It’s followed by an incredible There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Johnny dedicating it to “everyone in here and no-one else” before leading a euphoric call and response mass communion in the chorus. He rounds things off with a breakneck run-through of You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby, pulls another guitar pose, holds his hands aloft like a prize fighter– a featherweight, in his case, and skips off stage to rapturous applause. For generations who never saw and will never see The Smiths, this is as close as it gets. Spectacular stuff.
*this article was intended for publication in a national newspaper who were happy to run it but informed me there’d be no payment. It’s on here instead.
Sometime around the beginning of January, Plain Or Pan celebrates its birthday. This year I celebrate completing 11 years of writing. No mean feat, as anyone who blogs will tell you. Were it not for this small corner of the internet I doubt I’d have been able to muster up the necessary clout to meet and interview some of my heroes and favourite artists.
A blog that began as an outlet for me to share all manner of what I thought was great music/alternate takes/demos and general trainspottery flim flam now has a powerful reach. On any given day there will be visitors from around the world; Buenos Airies, Brisbane, Bolton…. I used to be obsessed by stats and internet traffic figures. If I wrote a new article, how many people would read it? Would anybody read it? Nowadays it’s less of an issue. As I go boldly into year 12 I’ve realised that my best articles endure. There are things I wrote in 2007 that turn up via a Google search and still prove popular today. There are articles that I thought were fantastic when published that proved to be slow burners but have now been read, reTweeted and shared on social media thousands of times. It’s very humbling. And satisfying.
Up until a couple of years ago I always shared an annual compilation for download, a ragbag collection of the most popular tracks from the previous year. Problem was, Plain Or Pan started to become a bit too popular and the internet police metaphorically popped round a couple of times and asked me (politely at first) if I wouldn’t mind removing the download link. In order to keep the wolf from the door, I no longer do this. Instead, this year I’m going to share a few links. For anyone who’s a recent visitor to the blog you might find something of interest. To any long-time readers, there might be something here that you missed first-time round. As always, feel free to link/share anything that piques your interest. Thanks for popping round, leaving comments and generally giving me the green light to keep writing. And that thing I mentioned about stats and internet traffic? Bollocks! I want as many hits on here as possible.
Ian Rankin picks six of his favourite songs. From 4 and a half years ago, this is the most-read article ever on Plain Or Pan.
Here‘s an article on the enduring appeal of The Beatles‘ It’s All Too Much. This article was Plain Or Pan’s biggest hitter in 2014.
It occured to me that I haven’t featured The Fall nearly as much as I should’ve. Here‘s one I wrote earlier. 2011, to be precise.
I once rather proudly wrote an entire piece on Kraftwerk in German. It never got the kudos it deserved, sadly. Either that or my pidgin German was really bad. There’s a similar one on Sly Stone that’s written in French. Et pourquois-pas?
The flawed genuius of Chuck Berry. This article appeared again, pratically word-for-word when Chuck passed away.
It’s not all music round here, y’know. Here‘s my piece on Alex Higgins, written in my head as I drove home from holiday.
Here‘s one of my Andy Murray articles. This fairly fired around Twitter, getting picked up by the sports networks and syndicates, garnering all manner of nice comments and dozens of new followers.
And here‘s one on the London Olympics. Remember them?
Mainly though, it’s about the music. Johnny Marr has long been my hero, so it was something of a thrill to secure a 20 minute phone interview with him (it ended up being almost an hour and a half) where, amongst other things, he chatted about the records he was most-proud of having played on.
Likewise, just short of a year ago Mike Joyce was good enough to play the same game. As someone who generally doesn’t get involved in Smiths articles, what followed was a brilliant interview and, dare I say it, article.
While we’re on The Smiths, the article I wrote about Morrissey nicking huge chunks of lyrics from Victoria Wood went yer actual viral on that there Twitter. I came home from work to find my phone lit up like a Christmas tree with social media notifications. More of that, please.
Lastly, unlike your favourite bands, much of my earlier work is far from my best, although this line from the end of an article on the imminent release of Radiohead’s game-changing name your price In Rainbows made me laugh…..
If you’re a guitar geek, here’s how Thom set up his gear in 1997…….
Of course, these days he plays a bit of piano, some Apple Mac and a smattering of Fair Trade wooden spoon.
My work today took me to Kilmarnock’s grand old Grand Hall, scene of the Ballroom Blitz and the venue in which during October 2015 Johnny Marr played a one-song soundcheck (The Headmaster Ritual) to an audience of one (me) before playing then signing my trusty old Telecaster and a couple of Smiths records before being joined by his band for the soundcheck proper. I was there today for a multi-agency course, part of which involved networking the room by finding the other lost souls who happened to have the missing parts of the same jigsaw that I’d found on my chair when I arrived. “Snowman?” some fellow room circulator would ask uncomfortably in your general direction. “Sorry, I’m an elf,” was my standard ridiculous reply. Once located, my fellow elves and I were allocated a table and a task, part of which involved telling a story to someone at your table. Given the venue and the fact that the chap next to me had already mentioned Gruff Rhys and Super Furry Animals, I fancied that he’d quite like my Johnny Marr story. As it turns out, he did, especially when I got to the punchline about how he played Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others on my guitar, his silver nail polish twinkling with each open-stringed twang.
There’s a version of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others that appears on the new-ish Queen Is Dead box set. It’s listed as a demo and has all the hallmarks of a band finding their uncertain way with a new tune, but it’s quite spectacular. Johnny’s riff hasn’t quite developed into the full-blown shimmer of the album version, but, much like a moonlit sea in your favourite Mediterranean bay, it sparkles with a lucid quicksilver glisten, 80s chorus pedal effects ‘n all . It’s worth stopping to consider that Johnny was only 22 years ‘old’ when he wrote and recorded it, which brings more than a tear of frustrated disbelief to my eyes every time I think about it. When I was 22 I was still trying to master the bastard F chord. Johnny, of course, would choose to play his F by sticking a capo on the 4th fret and playing the much easier C chord, but how was I to know that back then?
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (demo)
There’s a general feeling amongst the Smiths community that there was a great opportunity lost with the box set. I have to admit to a creeping sense of disappointment with it. It looks great and it sounds great, which is surely all that really matters, but at the eyewatering retail price (that I happily paid) I can’t help feeling a wee bit let down. I’ve lived with it since October and rather than dive in feet first with a hamfisted and potentially regretable review, I’ve waited this long before making my mind up.
It does look great. Sturdy and big, with the black shadow of the famous album cover looking righteous and regal on the front. (It is The Queen Is Dead, after all). But what was wrong with the original’s iconic racing green colour? Or the inner sleeve artwork? Where’s the Salford Lads Club image? That’s as much a part of Smiths’ heritage as the music itself. The new image, the girl wearing the Hatful Of Hollow t-shirt at the Westminster riots is a cracker. It says more than 1000 words ever could, but it’s a modern image. I get it. I appreciate why it’s there. But to include it at the expense of the original is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps Stephen Wright, the photographer that day at Salford Lads Club wanted a hefty fee for including his picture. Who knows?
And what about sleevenotes? Most box sets of this gravitas carry an extended essay from one or more of the makers and shakers. The Queen Is Dead has nothing. Smiths geeks such as myself love eeking out new information. When Mike Joyce told me a few months ago about the colour of shirt Morrissey was wearing when he recorded I Know It’s Over, well, stone me! I had to lie down in a darkened room for over 4 minutes. It’s mindless minutae to some but total treasure to me. And I’m far from alone in Smithdom. Where were the pictures of the recording sessions? The Smiths larking about with half-filled tea cups? Andy Rourke making bunny ears behind Morrissey’s untoppable quiff? They just weren’t there. That’s what was disappointing.
And the music? Well, it sounds fantastic. Johnny has done a smashing job remastering it. It’s clean, vivid, shiny and new, which I can say no more about my well-thumbed original. From now on, the new version is my go-to copy. I still have the original, of course, beautifully autographed by the wunderkid guitarist, so it’s not as if it’s going anywhere anytime soon, but I doubt I’ll ever play that particular copy again.
The demo tracks sound fantastic. Compared to the slightly ropey mp3s that circulated a few years ago, these sound like freshly-minted masterpieces. My problem is the lack of demos. There are, if you know where to look, more versions of these tracks out there, the parping Penny Lane by way of Coronation Street take of Frankly, Mr Shankly for starters. It’s by no means an era-defining complete set.
The Smiths – Frankly, Mr Shankly (demo)
Likewise with the live album. I like the sleeve image of a skewed and wonky Jack Kerouac which, if you squint a bit and use your imagination, looks a wee bit like a morning after the night before Johnny. It would’ve made for a decent budget-priced release in its own right. It’s taken from a late-era Smiths show, with an interesting career-spanning setlist played by a band at the top of their game. It’s good ‘n all, but it sounds kinda flat. It certainly doesn’t have the metallic feral velocity of the Rank album. If you want to hear late-era Smiths in all their volume, stomp and glory, that’s the one for you. And as with Rank, it’s an incomplete show. Maybe the box set includes all of the show that was recorded, but I doubt it. What a missed opportunity!
For the vinyl lover – and there are literally thousands of Smiths fans who bought this boxet – the non-inclusion of the Derek Jarman-filmed Queen Is Dead promo is a glaring miss. There were other opportunities. What about a download code? That’s standard with any vinyl release nowadays. They might even have considered a second live disc of QID-era tracks. There’s that terrific Thank Your Lucky Stars bootleg that does the rounds. It’s sensational. And what about a cleaned-up version of the only ever live take of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others? It’s worthy of inclusion for Morrissey’s extra Carry On Smiths verse alone.
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (live, Brixton Academy, 12.12.86)
Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe not. But in an era when anyone from Bon Iver to Bon Jovi can get away with releasing a 10th Anniversary Edition album with all manner of bolted-on goodies, it does look like the people looking after The Smiths sold us short. The gullible fools that we are.
Walk On The Wild Side is perhaps Lou Reed‘s best-known song.
Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side
Its languid vocal and lazy shuffle conjurs up images of stifling summer New York heat; sticky tarmac on pavements (or should that be sidewalks?), teenage girls singing with carefree abandon on street corners, a loose-limbed groove that never outstays its welcome. Listen closely though and you’ll hear a tale of the New York underbelly, the New York that was off the beaten track yet a daily experience if you were part of the Warhol ‘Factory’ set; Hustlers hustling. Drugs and dealers. Pimps and prostitutes. Females who were shemales. This is girls who are boys who like boys to be girls long before it was a Britpop soundbite. Not for nothing was its parent album called ‘Transformer‘.
Here’s an early version, with very different lyrics and Lou pointing out the girls’ parts….
The released version is a radically re-written homage to the Factory set; the scenesters and teensters who orbited around Andy Warhol’s Manhattan Studio. There were actually 3 Factories, but that’s another story for another day.
Holly who shaved her legs was Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who ran away from home in Florida at the age of 15 and by the act of shaving her legs on the way literally changed from man to woman.
Candy was Candy Darling, also a transgender actress. The subject of the Velvets’ Candy Says, she grew up in Long Island – the island – and was known to perform favours in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, the hipper than hip venue/hangout that was central to the scene. That’s Candy (above) with Andy. It’s her face who’s on the cover of Sheila Take A Bow, The Smiths’ 14th single. But you knew that already.
Little Joe was Joe Dallesandro, Warhol actor best known for his role in Flesh, where he played a teenage hustler. Coincidentally, that’s Joe on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album. But you knew that already too.
The Sugar Plum Fairy was another Flesh reference, this time to the name of a drug-dealing character in the film.
Jackie was Jackie Curtis. To say the least, an interesting person, she performed bizarre cabaret dressed sometimes as a woman and sometimes in drag. With overdone glitter, big lipstick, heavily kholed eyes, brightly dyed hair and ripped stockings, Jackie’s combination of trash and glamour was considered the catalyst for the glam rock movement. Certainly, she wouldn’t have looked out of place in the New York Dolls. At one time, Curtis was mooted to play James Dean in a biopic of Dean’s life. This never came to fruition, hence the thought she was James Dean for a day line. So now you know.
Perhaps not surprisingly, such a parade of characters and subject matter fell foul of the US censors. On the released single, they removed the references to the colored girls and giving head and the record peaked inside the Top 20. In the UK, the lyrics remained as Lou had intended and Walk On The Wild Side peaked at number 10. Make of that what you will.
Walk On The Wild Side was put together by Lou alongside co-producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson.
Walk On The Wild Side – hissy outtake with David Bowie on backing vocals
It’s said that Bowie plays guitar on WOTWS, although no credits exist to back this up. Considering at this point in time (August ’72) Bowie was spreading himself between Ziggy tours, Mott The Hoople handouts and Lou Reed production duties, given his propensity to eschew all form of food for music-related activity, it’s not unlikely to suggest he did play on it. It was quite an era for Bowie when you stop to think about it.
One person who definitely did play on WOTWS was seasoned sessioneer Herbie Flowers. Later to find fame in 70s instrumental prog/jazz group Sky, the fly Flowers played two bass lines on the song, thus ensuring himself twice the fee. He played that great defining slinky rubber band bassline and double tracked it with a more traditional Fender bass part, doubling his fee from the industry standard $17 to a more eye-watering $34. Quite how he must feel these days, now that the record is a radio standard and that his part is instantly recognisable, not to mention that the bassline was liberally sampled to form the hook on A Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? is anyone’s guess, but I bet he wishes he’d gambled on taking the royalties instead of the session fee.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.
Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.
Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,” Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”
Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.
Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.
It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.
I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…
Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?
I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!
At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’
The Smiths – I Don’t Owe You Anything
Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’
At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.
The Smiths – Death Of A Disco Dancer
4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.
The Smiths – I Know It’s Over
As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals. When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!
At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it.
The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.
Next up, How Soon Is Now?
(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.
When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”
Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.
Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).
We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.
And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.
The Smiths – Hand In Glove
When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..
So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.
‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ is the sound of The Smiths at their chiming, ha-ha-ho-ho-hollering, twin guitar attack peak. Written, as the band usually did, quickly and as part of a triptych that also included ‘London’ and ‘Half A Person’, it was considered as the follow-up single to ‘Ask’ before being passed over at the last minute in favour of ‘Shoplifters Of the World Unite’, a move regarded as travesty by many Smiths devotees at the time.
The ‘Shoplifters…’ single included both ‘London’ and ‘Half A Person’, the tracks on the b-side connected through the subject matter of moving to London, with the former a noisy glam racket that sticks two fingers up to those who are too spineless to leave and make something of themselves, and the latter a brilliantly put-together melancholic rumination of how just a move can go so wrong – “I went to London and I booked myself in at the YWCA…” The noisy and the melodic, the tragi-comedy of The Smiths on the same record.
Marr & Morrissey, Rough Trade stockroom, 1983
But the best of the three tracks written in that early October session, ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ was left alone on the shelf marked ‘Great Smiths Tracks That Would’ve Made Great Smiths Singles’. The band had high quality control values – theirs is a perfectly-formed 4 studio album and 17 single discography, untarnished by stop-gap filler material or substandard releases; the perfect group. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘Shoplifters…’ – I’m particularly partial to Johnny’s open-wah rockist guitar solo – but better single material than ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’? Nah. They got that one wrong, I think. Even if, as it turns out, Johnny thinks ‘Shoplifters…’ is the better song.
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (The World Won’t Listen mix)
Keen eagle-eared Smiths enthusiasts at sadly-departed Smiths treasure trove Smiths Recycled spotted that the mix on The World Won’t Listen ran a touch too fast, so with the aid of modern technology and whatnot re-pitched the track at the speed it would’ve been playing at when The Smiths recorded it. clever fellas, those guys. Spot the difference…
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (The World Won’t Listen mix – Repitched Version)
The track eventually saw the light of day on ‘The World Won’t Listen’ compilation, the catch-all, semi follow-up to ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ that gathered together all the odds ‘n sods ‘n ‘As ‘n Bs from the 2nd half of The Smiths career. It also appeared in slightly different form (if you turn up the EQ on your Morrissey-endorsed NHS hearing aid, subtle nuances in the mixing can be heard, if you’re that way inclined) on the American compilation ‘Louder Than Bombs’.
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (Louder Than Bombs mix)
Those same Smiths enthusiasts at Smiths Recycled also corrected the pitch on this too…
The Smiths – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby (Louder Than Bombs mix – Repitched Version)
The song itself was borne out of in-band fighting and the politics that would eventually lead to Johnny leaving the band. Booked for 5 days in London’s Mayfair Studios, Morrissey was keen for the band to work with upcoming wunderkid producer Stephen Street. Johnny preferred the tried and tested John Porter and in the end a compromise of sorts was agreed – Street would work the first day and Porter would do the other four. To add complication to the mix, 5th Smith Craig Gannon, who’d accompanied the band on their recent US tour but had never really been fully accepted into the group , was only just hanging on to his status in The Smiths by the finest hair on his bequiffed head. History shows that the Porter sessions would be the last time Gannon would work with the band.
Johnny’s tune is a classic Marr composition, tumbling in on a breath of fresh air, packed full of double and triple-tracked guitars as clear and ringing as Edinburgh Crystal, chiming, capo’d and open-stringed arpeggios and stinging counter-melodies, wrapped up and driven by a trampolining bass line and a stomping, Glitter band thud of drums in the chorus. That Johnny still plays it live in concert to this day, something The Smiths themselves never did, is testament to the longevity and beauty of the song.
The title and lyrical refrain is attributed to Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis who uttered the words at Morrissey after the singer asked him why he wouldn’t treat The Smiths with the importance that their status deserved. Morrissey had a point – The Smiths almost single-handedly allowed Rough Trade to flourish as a label. All money made from the band went back into other artists, many of whom would never have had a record deal and subsequent success without Rough Trade’s money – the money that came directly from the healthy sales of Smiths’ product. Morrissey was clearly still feeling aggrieved a few months later when he recycled the title as a lyric in ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’, The Smiths’ scathing deconstruction of the music business. It’s possible that, after hearing ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’, and stung by its lyrical content, Travis overruled the band’s decision to release it as a single.
“Obviously Geoff was staunchly against it,” said Morrissey, in highly dramatic fashion when quoted in Simon Goddard’s essential ‘Songs That Saved Your Life’. “Because he thought it was a personal letter addressed to him.“
A couple of years later, Marr would play on Kirtsy MacColl’s faithful remake of ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’, the original’s multi-tracked guitars replaced by a choir of Kirsties; airy, whispering, cooing and making it something of her own.
Kirsty MacColl – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby
It’s all slightly plodding, truth be told, a stodgy, sticky pudding compared to the floating on air joie de vivre that carries the original. That’s by far the best version, of course.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Johnny Marr is the wunderkid guitar player who, one day in 1982 knocked on the door of 384 King’s Road in the Stretford area of Manchester and encourgaged the bequiffed answerer to be the wordsmith that would sing atop his unique tunes. Together, they formed a partnership that would over a few short years become the most unique British guitar group of all time. To many of a certain age they were our Beatles, our Pistols, our band. There was no-one like them before and there’s been no-one like them since. From the first time I heard them (unusual for such a seismic event, I can’t actually remember when this was), The Smiths became my favourite band and, as a ham-fisted, fat-fingered guitar player with lofty ambitions, Johnny Marr became my instant hero.
With a guitar in his hands, Johnny is a magician. In The Smiths, brightly ringing, sparkling arpeggios fell from his fingers as regularly and as rhythmically as the Mancunian rain. Over the course of one memorable weekend the barely 21 year-old Johnny wrote three of the tunes that would define not only his band but an entire era; William, It Was Really Nothing, How Soon Is Now? and Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want were all committed to tape in order to have something new to present to producer Stephen Street come the Monday morning. Three time-tested classics. One weekend. 21 years of age. Unbelievable.
As a Smith, Johnny wrote an obscene number of brilliant, inventive tunes. Lazy writers would go on about his ‘chiming‘, ‘jangly’ guitar sound, but there was far more to his arsenal than that. There was always, even in the Smiths’ most tender moments, a bite to his guitar. He could fingerpick. He could play inventive chord patterns. He could fingerpick and play an inventive chord pattern underneath it at the same time, with 10 fingers sounding like 25. ‘Like Lieber and Stoller piano lines playing alongside the guitar‘, to misquote him from those early days. Then there were the open tunings, the Nashville tunings, the hitting of the strings with knives to get the desired effect. He reinvented the wheel.
Johnny agreed to an interview ahead of his forthcoming October tour, a tour that takes in the west coast forgotten backwater of Kilmarnock (a show I’m involved in putting on) and telephoned me from his car, “somewhere on the outskirts of Manchester, just out of rehearsals. It’s good to get the band back together and blow the dust off the songs. I’m energised and enthused and I can’t wait for the tour to start.“
I explain to Johnny that our interview will be in two parts. The first part will focus on his recent work, his upcoming tour and his in-the-pipeline autobiography. The second part will focus on his Six Of The Best, albeit a 6otB with a difference. But more of that later.
Tell me about the last couple of years, then. It seems to me that it’s been quite full-on and intensive – two albums (The Messenger and Playland) written, recorded and released in two years and toured around the world and back again. This is the sort of behaviour I’d expect from a band with it all to prove, not from someone who’s made his mark in the world and who, by now, should be sitting back admiring his body of work from the comfort of an easy chair.
I’ll take that as a compliment. I really enjoy my work. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. It’s actually been 10 years of non-stop action! I joined Modest Mouse in 2005, just in time to record the ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’ album. That album really took off in the US and we toured there for a few years. It was pretty great, playing in a band again. Then, as fate would have it, Modest Mouse decided to take a break from touring and at the same time, The Cribs asked me to join as a guitar player. Without so much as a pause, it was back to being full-on and intense all over again. But I like that. I’m not into taking a year off.
Over my time in The Cribs I collected lots of ideas for songs. My travels informed what I was writing about, and as I wrote I had a specific sound in my head for a group that could play them. It was important to me that the band I put together should operate like the best bands; we should live in the same city and we should all be friends. I’m lucky that my best mates also happen to be the bass player, the guitar player and the drummer in my band.
The Messenger was released in 2013 and was really well-received. This gave me the encouragement to keep going, and I got on a bit of a roll. The songs that ended up on Playland the following year were very much a narrative for city life. I’ve always seen the two albums as a pair. Playland was my ‘difficult second album’, but I think I pulled it off. It sounds vital and NOW!
I point out that, from The Smiths via Electronic and The The to Modest Mouse and The Cribs, Johnny Marr has had a lot of ‘difficult second albums’.
Ha! Yeah! That’s true. ‘Meat Is Murder’ was a pretty good 2nd album, wasn’t it? I’ve always been a fan of them – I loved Talking Heads and The Only Ones second LPs. You don’t always have the luxury of having a long time to write your follow-up album. Usually, they’re written on the hop. Both Talking Heads and The Only Ones were made under the conditions conducive to getting the job done.
And now, following the wham-bam knockout of the two LPs, you have a tour that will see the Messenger/Playland era come to a close and immortalised for posterity in your first live album, the aptly-named Adrenalin Baby (recorded earlier this year in Manchester and due November.)
Yeah. The live album. I’m really proud of it. It’s a really good document of the time. I’ve kept it to one CD (although it’ll be a double LP) as it’s short ‘n sweet and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s a good representation of the live set. Hopefully, people who come to the shows will enjoy it as a reminder of what the shows were like, and those who never made the shows will get an idea of what the live set is all about. I wanted it to sit alongside my favourite live LPs, albums like Bowie’s ‘Stage’ and Iggy’s ‘TV Eye’.
I remark that my favourite live album is The Ramones’ ‘It’s Alive’.Oh yeah! The energy on that is amazing. D’you know, I stole my copy! I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, so I ‘borrowed’ it from the local newsagent and never gave it back. It’s a brilliant album, isn’t it? Like all the best live albums it has volume and energy. Hopefully, people will get that from Adrenalin Baby.
Adrenalin Baby is a good potted history of Johnny’s best bits – half a dozen or so tracks from The Messenger/Playland eras, a cherry picking of the Smiths tracks he plays live, Electronic’s perennially melancholic Getting Away With It and a garage band ramalama run through of I Fought The Law. It’s Alive indeed.
Looking at the tracklisting of the album and scrutinising the playlists from the recent tours, it’s clear that Johnny holds his back catalogue dear to his heart. This is where my idea for this Six Of The Best came from – if Johnny were to put 6 of his own tracks into a time capsule to be dug up in 100 years time, which tracks would he choose? What are the tracks that Johnny Marr is defined by?
You want me to pick my own tracks? Cool! I’ve never been asked that before. Usually, everyone wants to talk to me about The Stooges. You want me to pick my own records? Alright then. Let me think about that.
And think about that he does. Johnny then very methodically gives me a chronological list of what he deems to be his best bits. An impossible task, most folk would agree (and a final choice that many would also disagree on), but, for the record, here are the tracks that Johnny Marr is most proud of having been involved in.
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?
Y’know? The Smiths really blew me away. I’m defined by them and I can quite happily live with that. The combination of guitar sounds on How Soon Is Now? is amazing. The layering. The patience required to put it all together….it hadn’t been done before and it hasn’t been done since. I’m very proud of How Soon Is Now?
Electronic – Get The Message
The band was borne out of The Smiths and New Order, but sounded like neither. We were very unique. Bernard and myself had a real spark. Get The Message is a great example of what we do best. Those early days in Electronic were great fun. I remember the first tour, drinking pints of champagne after an insane Barrowlands show.
The The – Slow Emotion Replay
I can only play harmonica one way (!), and it’s all there on Slow Emotion Replay. The guitar part – it’s what people think I sound like. You and I know differently, of course.
Modest Mouse – Dashboard
This is the track that kind of kicked off the 1st phase of my ‘new’ career. When we wrote the album, all my guitar parts were worked out in advance. I spent ages with my effects pedals making mad Captain Beefheart sounds until I discovered what I was looking for. I’m extremely proud of the guitar sound on the whole record. Everything you can hear in the left-hand speaker is me, doing my best Beefheart impression.
The Cribs – We Share The Same Skies
I’ve chosen this for the same reasons as Slow Emotion Replay. The guitar playing – classic me, isn’t it?!?
Johnny Marr – The Messenger
This song is a good representation of how I like to sing. I was never known as a singer, but I’m comfortable doing it. The Messenger is kinda post-punk in feel, jagged and spiky but the vocals are warm and textured. I like that juxtaposition.
Never one to look back, Johnny is always looking forward to the next thing. After “10, 15 years of offers”, now is the right time for him to commit his memories to print in the form of an autobiography.
“There’s a genuine interest in my life from enough people to warrant this. I was always unsure about doing this, but then I saw the satisfaction – no pun intended! – that Andrew Oldham got from penning his two memoirs. And Nile (Rodgers) writing his – well, that’s me been given the seal of approval to do my own.”
We have a wee chat about music autobiographies in general and enthuse about Keith Richard’s book, specifically the section where he talks about discovering open G tuning and how that opened up a whole new world of guitar playing.
We also chat about our kids, how it must be great, I say, to look out and see your son (Nile’s band Man Made are the support on the October tour) on stage, following in your footsteps. And then, the gent that he is, Johnny passes on some advice for my own son (he’s only 8) who’s beginning his first tentative steps on the six string. Getting guitar tips from Johnny Marr – does it get any better than that? I even have the cheek to pass on a capo trick I’ve discovered for myself – not quite the whole new world that Keith Richards discovered in open G, but enough of a trick for Johnny to prick his ears and say, “Right, run that past me again! Ah! Got it! I’m gonna try that next time I play ‘There Is A Light..’”
Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but what a great way to finish an interview!
Johnny Marr is on tour this month. Check all the usual places for ticket details.
West of Scotland fans might like to get themselves to Kilmarnock for his only date in the area on Thursday 15th October. See you down the front.