A few years back, a good friend of mine (Pete!) asked if I’d like to go and see Johnny Marr play at the Corner Hotel in Richmond. I have always been a Smiths fan and said ‘why not!’
I’ve been a Smiths fan ever since I first came out as a little alternative girl in the early 90s but I was always a Morrissey girl and had never paid much attention to Johnny Marr or the others in the band. Perhaps it is because when I first discovered The Smiths, Morrissey was everywhere with his solo works; November Spawned a Monster, Every Day is like Sunday etc and The Smiths were long gone. Johnny Marr was behind the scenes while Morrissey plays up to every teenaged girl’s dreams with his quiff and his cavorting, bandaids on his nipples, gladioli and glorious voice. Johnny Marr was probably too rock and roll for sixteen year old me.
So I went along to watch Johnny Marr play and was transfixed. This man could really play guitar and I melted into a puddle when he played How Soon is Now and There is a Light that Never goes Out. During the show I had the realisation, these songs were Marr’s just as much as they were Morrissey’s. Ever since this show, I’ve taken a little more interest in the guy and so I decided to check out his autobiography – Set the Boy Free – on audiobook (because I only have so much time for reading and I do a lot of walking).
I enjoyed the story of Johnny Marr’s life immensely. Many times I was on the verge of happy tears at his tales of the songs I know and love. I also realise I was ill-informed and had little idea of the true influence of Johnny Marr on UK music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He appeared to have a hand in every big indie band during the period. Mucho respecto.
His story starts with his childhood and drew me in right from the start. His story begins in a working class Irish immigrant family in Manchester in a house with an outside toilet and no running hot water. But his house was filled with family and music and Marr (or Maher to be strictly correct) was obsessed with guitars from the age of five. This is a theme throughout his life, Marr is obsessional. The guitar, music, riffs and bands filled his every waking moment, when he wasn’t thinking about clothes. (He sounds like he was a sharp dressed man in the early 80s Manchester with some truly spiff hair dos.) Johnny Marr is a man who has worked hard to learn his instrument, a definite 10,000 hour practice guy. He’s not some guy who fell into a band, he was determined, ambitious and dogged. And it paid off.
His upbringing was an interesting slice of what Manchester was like during this time, poor and violent, suffering under Thatcher. It reminded me of another favourite autobiography – Take It Like A Man by Boy George, where George goes through his time before he was famous, living in squats and clubbing in late 70s/early 80s London.
From messing around with bands and working in clothes shops, the next big stage of his life is obviously The Smiths. Marr is very conscious about how he speaks about Morrissey. There is not a lot of detail about their relationship until towards the end of the book when he talks about their current on again- mostly off again relationship. But this book is mainly about music and obsession and The Smiths is only one part of the Johnny Marr musical journey. Marr keeps on going, through his time with Bernard Sumner and Electronic, time with The Pretenders, Modest Mouse and the Cribs.
His words and his opinions are very direct and forthright. He states his case plainly and matter of factly. He knows who he is and he’s proud of his achievements.
He is a man where friendships are extremely important. He speaks lovingly about the people in his life and the opportunities he was given and how he has paid it forward, introducing an unknown Noel Gallagher to his manager for example.
Despite his obsession with music and unusually for a rock star, Marr is a real family man. Marr met and married his first girlfriend, Angie and it seems she gave him a solid grounding to his life. His two children and Angie, are very important to him and, it was enlightening to hear how he has changed as he aged, from a hardcore chocolate-eater piss-head to marathon running teetotalling vegan. It’s not just me then.
This audiobook was a wonderful listen and made me head straight to Spotify to hear everything that Johnny Marr has had a hand in. Conveniently, he has set up a Spotify playlist to go along with the book.
I was fascinated to hear him speak about his craft, his approach to creativity and his process for writing his songs (so many of them now classics).
If you like indie music and the music scene over the past 50 years, I heartily recommend this book.