Every few years I immerse myself in Soul Mining, the debut album by The The. It’s been with me in various forms over the years – taped from the record borrowed from Irvine library, bought on cassette (since lost) for £1.25 from the back of Boots in Irvine Mall, upgraded to CD in the early ’90s and, more recently on vinyl, dug out from between the Kenneth McKellar and Marty Robbins albums in a Kilmarnock charity shop for a couple of pounds, the gold-stamped ‘Property Of CBS. Demonstration Only. Not For Sale.’ message on the back the icing on this particularly jammy cake. Re-sult, as they say.
It’s sobering to think that next year it’ll be 40 years young, its themes of existential crisis, mental state of mind and anti-government stance very much relevant to the times we currently live in. ‘I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country,’ Matt Johnson states on side one’s The Sinking Feeling.
It’s a record that comes wrapped in claustrophobia, paranoia and fear, compounded by relentless, crashing drum machines, snaking, electrified guitars and inventive technology that dates the record, maybe almost as much as the slap/synth bass that thwacks its way in and out of the grooves, but there’s not a band currently working who is as inventive and focused and visionary as Matt Johnson/The The was at this moment in time.
Much like his better-known contemporaries, Matt Johnson is neither as productive as Kate Bush nor as revered perhaps as Mark Hollis, but is every bit as much the auteur, driven by the sonic vision in his busy head. This is a man for whom music is a slow, deliberate process, sculpture rather than slap-dashed expressionism, and we’re all the richer for it.
This Is The Day might have been the obvious first choice of single from the record – gorgeous, lilting French café music with a Biblical metaphor running through it – but Uncertain Smile is the one that I return to time and time again.
The The – Uncertain Smile
It’s a song in two halves. In the first, Johnson delivers a crooned, close-miked vocal, all deep breaths and slightly wobbly intonation. In an era of chart-bound bands fronted by preening and pouting poseurs for whom the actual vocals were secondary to, y’know, what mascara went with the pantaloons or whatever, Johnson’s approach can be seen as both unique and brave.
Undeniably keeping a keen ear on proceedings was a pre-debut album Lloyd Cole, who would adopt the same approach when he came to record his vocals on Rattlesnakes. It’s not even up for debate. Contrast and compare Lloyd’s grinning, gulping vocal on his album’s title track with Johnson’s delivery on Uncertain Smile and see/hear for yourself.
But enough of the finger-pointing.
Uncertain Smile is a beauty. An ear-friendly acoustic guitar strums a chord pattern, swells of synth colour the melody and Johnson plunders the Big Book of Existential Angst to deliver a well-considered lyric.
And then it all takes off. A moonlighting Jools Holland, turning up at the studio on his motorbike and still in his leathers, hears the demo once, jumps on the studio piano and lays down a masterful solo.
Holland (unjustly if y’ask me) gets lots of flack for his supposed adding of The Boogie Woogie to everything he touches, but on Uncertain Smile he freeforms over the top of it like Mike Garson riffing on Aladdin Sane; jarring notes that veer on the edge of Les Dawson but pull back just in time, clanging chords that rattle the bones, trilling high notes that cascade down to bluesy bass notes and then back again, dextrous and masterful, Holland’s knowledge of jazz being put to good use. His playing transforms the track from an interesting slice of angst to a proper work of art that’s Bowie-level great.
Holland was surprised to find his contribution used as the big statement in the outro. He’d assumed that Johnson would drop his part into the middle of the track to create a piano interlude. Instead, Holland’s playing stretches the track all the way to the end of a breath-taking side one. Sometimes I never make it to side two, preferring instead to drop the needle on Uncertain Smile for just one more time…
Here‘s the near 10 minute New York Extended Mix. Jools-free and pitched percussion crazy.
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.