by Alex Hannaford
The Smiths were one of those bands you either loved or hated. Morrissey's nasal croon wasn't to everyone's taste, and most of the band's songs were more than a little depressing - remember Girlfriend in a Coma, the Moors Murders-inspired Suffer Little Children, or its A-side, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now? The Smiths (Johnny Marr second left): "At Radio 1 we were the ugly ducklings" So it's something of a surprise that, two decades on from their heyday, they have been voted the greatest band of all time by the NME.
What is less likely to be argued
over is the Mancunians' influence on pop history: they single-handedly defined
British indie rock in the Eighties,
banishing the electronic music that was threatening to characterise the decade.
Johnny Marr, the Keith Richards-lookalike lead guitarist, had a much-publicised falling out with frontman Morrissey, which signalled the end for the band. Today, the 38-year-old hasn't got a bad word to say about the man who sang the songs they wrote together, but he is still bemused by The Smiths rise to fame.
"At Radio 1 we were the ugly ducklings," he laughs, "and happy to be so. We were played on the radio because we sold records. It wasn't the other way round. They couldn't ignore us. We didn't set out thinking we would get on Top of the Pops.
"As time passes, you meet up with media people who talk about the great old days. People say, 'Do you remember when you were on The Tube or that Radio 1 session?', and I'm thinking, hang on a minute, you hated us. We had to barge our way through Tina Turner's entourage and we got no sound check. It's this revisionist history that annoys me. They come at me all smiles now, but they didn't want to know us then; they all thought of us as weird oiks."
1982 and 1987 The Smiths released four studio albums. They imploded in 1987,
following sessions for the
LP Strangeways, Here
We Come, as Morrissey and Marr's relationship became increasingly strained.
Morrissey, so the story goes, was annoyed that Marr
was playing with other artists such as Bryan Ferry and Billy Bragg, and Marr
was frustrated that their music had gone stale. Marr
says that he's not as ambitious as he was in the Eighties, but his work
has been tireless. He formed Electronic with New Order's Bernard
Sumner, played guitar in The The for a number of years, toured with Chrissy
Hynde and Bryan Ferry and, more recently, produced
the debut album for the Manchester-based band Haven. He has also been bringing
up a family - he has
a nine-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter
("My son's a lazy guitar player and he refuses to let me teach him").
"I was married when I was 22," he says. "Angie was around long before the bands. It's been me and Angie since I was 15. She came to every single gig and rehearsals and stuff. She's not in the industry." She has, Marr adds, been with him through thick and thin, and she is a non-performing member of whatever band he happens to be working with. Along with Ringo Starr's son, Zak Starkey, whom Marr met in a lift in New York in 2000, he started the band Healers as an antidote to the contemporary pop music of which he was tiring. "It seems British musicians can't make any music that is irony-free. The Smiths were not bereft of irony, but it was passionate and idealistic." Marr also finds himself the unlikely front man in Healers. This is the man who, by his own admission, was the most reluctant live performer in The Smiths. "Morrissey's arena and my arena were completely opposite. He really shone and came alive in front of an audience and that was what he was masterful at. I had to be dragged out of the studio to play live."
However, he seems happy where he is now. "The Healers played this little gig in Plymouth last year on a wet and windy Wednesday night. No one knew who we were and it was one of the best nights of my life. It's not an ego buzz. I don't need to get in front of an audience to feel loved. It's not about that."