18th June 2017 The MALESTROM

Johnny Marr: Set the boy free

Johnny Marr’s autobiography ‘Set The Boy Free‘ has just been released in paperback and if you’ve not logged into Amazon and purchased a copy, here’s a little nudge in the right direction. Summer’s here and those two weeks lying by the pool in Southern Spain will be a lot more enjoyable with a good book by your side. NME made it their Book of the Year and it’s a must read for any musos worth their salt.

How many men reach the age of 23 and find themselves at the pinnacle of their career? A leading light in their industry and one of the most influential figures on a generation. It was indeed this exact situation where Johnny Marr found himself, having co-founded The Smiths with a certain Morrissey in 1982. They helped define one of the most significant periods in British musical history. Releasing four albums to huge critical acclaim, it was in 1987 that due to artistic differences tensions arose in the band and The Smiths ceased. Their impact was huge and reverberates to this day, the iconic guitarist Johnny Marr has affected a whole host of some of the most celebrated musicians in popular culture.

As the story plays out, it was somewhere during the defining year in popular culture that was 1990 when an unknown roadie called Noel Gallagher busying himself  in a Manchester studio, had what might be best described as a life changing moment. A colleague turned to him and proclaimed, “I’ve got to go Noel, cos I’m getting picked up by Johnny Marr.” The world goes into slow motion, like struggling to locate a winning lottery ticket – Noel aghast nearly dropped his newly scribbled songbook on hearing that that the man stood facing him was hitching a lift with a genuine Manchester icon, and urged his now significant friend to try and play this musical luminary some tracks he’d been working on. When he waved his mate goodbye comfortably seated in Marr’s BMW, Noel’s desire to be in that car with his idol was so great that it prompted him to write the line, ‘Can I ride with you in your BMW,’ from Supersonic.

Johnny Marr’s autobiography is an honest affair starting in the heady days of 1968 in Manchester when he got his first toy guitar at 5 years old. His parents love of music was an early marker, and whether it be on Top of the Pops or going to see local bands, Marr was surrounded by sound as a child. When he first heard, ‘You’re so sweet, you’re so fine, I want you all and everything just to be mine, ‘Cause you’re my babe, ‘Cause you’re my love, Girl, I’m just a Jeepster for you love’ by the hypnotic Mark Bolan of T-Rex, he knew he was NOT just discovering music, but a sound.

Like so many kids growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Marr was allowed out everywhere, youth clubs, pubs, parties, and live gigs, all the fun of the fair in Manchester, and when at home he’d be practicing the guitar. After the usual band practice at school, Marr soon found himself as the guitarist and front man of notorious local band, Sister Ray, covering Bowie songs and forging a reputation. Within no time, Marr was on the tips of tongues in the North West and a man to know.

He soon found himself on the edge of everything, befriending Ian Brown long before The Stone Roses and bumping into various members of Factory Records Hacienda associates. However his most significant step occurred when trying to form a new band. Marr had heard word about a singer called Steven Morrisey who had forged something of a reputation locally, and set about asking friends and associates if anyone knew where he lived. Marr turned up on Morrisey’s doorstep with another mate, introduced himself and asked the stranger Steven Morrisey if he was interested in singing in a new band he was forming. They bonded in Morrisey’s bedroom by discovering they both loved Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw. Morrisey soon handed him some lyrics that he’d written and when Marr sat down on his bedroom floor with his guitar, the chords seemed to flow out of his fingers naturally, it just came to him right there and then – and a legendary band was formed.

The Smiths – ‘The Queen Is Dead’

The first single was, ‘Hand in Glove’ with their mutual love of Sandie Shaw, but it was the opening chords of ‘This Charming Man’ where Marr created with a guitar riff that he double-tracked by a Telecaster and the Rickenbacker to create the chimes that most people associate with The Smiths. Like the greatest records of all time, ‘This Charming Man’ stated its case within seconds, right there and then, and it was so distinct it would come to be their anthem for years to come.

Although The Smiths were first booked to play on the Channel 4 TV programme, The Tube, the first ripple was created when they played at 4pm on Saturday afternoon on none other than The Old Grey Whistle Test. Their performance of ‘This Charming Man’, fronted by a tall, charismatic guy with a huge quiff and a bunch of flowers was truly revolutionary. They had the hair, the look, the sound and some serious indie kid swagger. It was as if the band had dropped out of some amazing secret nightclub that no one had heard about yet.

It could be claimed that their appearance on that particular show so profoundly changed Marr, Morrisey and the other two members, their lives would ultimately never be the same again. The music equivalent of an atom bomb was dropped and one of the greatest indie bands of all time carved a way through British culture for the next four years and even cracked the USA, which many, many bands never do. Johnny Marr pushed boundaries, and went on to have further success joining The Pretenders and collaborating with other successful artists. His story is a fascinating one and his autobiography, a Sunday Times bestseller, is a charming, unpretentious and humorous tale of music legend.

The paperback version dropped this month and you can order your copy HERE.

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