Johnny Marr's genius undiluted

By Greg Kot

Johnny Marr was only 23 when his first major band, one of the best England ever produced, fell apart.

The Smiths, the Manchester quartet he had cofounded with Morrissey in 1982, released seven albums that changed the course of British rock. By 1987, it was all over, the quartet splintering in acrimony.

"Even though I was very young, the decision to quit the Smiths was not impulsive," Marr says. "Because I had absolutely no idea what I was gonna do when I left, I had to consider the worst-case scenario, which was returning to obscurity. That was preferable to the situation I was in, so I have no regrets.

"If it's all about drinking from the fountain of youth and fame, you'll be a pretty poor musician. I just followed the music. The Smiths had a great run, but there were other things I wanted to do, and I found that in my hometown there was a revolution about to start in information, culture and music technology, and I didn't want to stay in the old boys club the rest of my life. I wanted to feel like a 23-year-old music fan."

Marr never looked back. His skills as the consummate team player?a brilliant guitarist, songwriter and arranger?soon led to stints with Chrissie Hynde in the Pretenders and Matt Johnson in The The. He hooked up with New Order's Bernard Sumner for a one-off project that blossomed into a nine-year, three-album collaboration known as Electronic. The pair tapped into the emerging acid-house movement in England, with its merger of rock and dance beats as epitomized by the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and had a hit single, "Getting Away With It."

"I saw computer technology the way Phil Spector might have seen an orchestra: as a very compliant set of musicians," Marr says. "But I started to miss playing with a band."

In 1997, while in New York, he ran into Who drummer Zak Starkey in an elevator.

"I had no idea who he was, but struck up a conversation, and I thought he had a nice face," he says with a laugh. "I'm fairly instinctive, and the next thing I knew we were running around New York and agreeing to play together once we got back to the UK. When we started to play, that thing happened when you're 16, 17, and friends develop a musical chemistry. That's the time the bell rings and you form a group."

Marr became the Healers' vocalist by default. He had intended to work as he always had?writing the songs, playing guitar, and letting someone else sing the lyrics. But after awhile, his bandmates Starkey and Alonza Bevan (formerly of Kula Shaker) insisted that he sing. "If I thought I'd be the singer in the group, I never would have started it in the first place," Marr says. But his performance on the Healers' debut album, "Boomslang" (iMusic), is certainly creditable, lending a smoky atmosphere to a batch of sultry mid-tempo grooves that evoke T. Rex and his past work in The The and the Smiths. A premium is placed on riffs and sculpted guitar parts, rather than long, meandering solos.

"When I grew up, the guitar as Olympic sport ethos was uncool," Marr says. "I liked hooks and I liked melody and getting to the point." The young guitarist played along trying to copy the arrangements to the 7-inch singles he was obsessively collecting: Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," T. Rex's "Metal Guru."

"I came to value the sense of arrangement, the storytelling aspect of sound," he says, "which I found much more appealing than some guy like Ritchie Blackmore, who wanted to float down on stage in a harness while playing a solo."

Marr's genius became apparent on Smiths' songs such as "How Soon is Now." Its opening blast of guitar is a leap of imagination, a devastating swoon that suggests a slowed down Creedence Clearwater riff tortured by a slide, distorted by vibrato and filtered through four amplifiers. It remains one of the most galvanizing moments in rock history, that of a guitarist turning his instrument into an orchestra of sound.

"It's less about technique than it is about vocabulary and state of mind," he says of his philosophy as an instrumentalist. "You've got to be making progress as a person to progress as a guitar player."

Which is why leaving the Smiths may be the second best thing that ever happened to him after founding the Smiths.

"Some people are still crying that we broke up, but I'm not," he says. "I was brought up to believe being a musician was a privilege and the idea of a guy brooding and being resentful about what was has a lot more to do with having a career than with playing music."
Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2003.


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