A low-key legend steps up to the mike
Interview / Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr was an anomaly in the decade when most lauded guitar players wore spandex, sported Morgan Fairchild hairstyles, and - acting under the delusion that they were "guitar heroes" - wielded their instruments like machine guns.
As musical director of '80s band The Smiths, Marr's dour garb, jangly six strings, and abstention from guitar solos rebelled against music seemingly geared towards the 120 m.p.h. guitar break in the middle of a song.
"When I was growing up, guitar playing was almost like an Olympic sport," chuckles Mr. Marr. "I loved all aspects of guitar culture except one tiny detail, and that was the music."
Nowadays, Marr says his guitar playing with his new band, Johnny Marr + the Healers, is "more fiery." Even so, his essential outlook hasn't changed: Personal ego and flash musicianship for its own sake get in the way of serving the song. "Some people just get really hung up on vocabulary, but it depends on what you say, doesn't it?" he asks.
The guitarist's philosophy of shunning vanity has been a guiding force throughout a storied career. That musical journey began in 1982 when Marr's jaunty guitar licks found a perfect foil in the witty but morose lyrics of a singer who went by the moniker Morrissey.
The duo's musical synchronicity in The Smiths led to classic tracks such as "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," "Sheila Take a Bow," and "Panic." And on "How Soon Is Now," Marr created a signature guitar refrain that emerges out of a fog of reverb as if from another musical dimension. The riff still packs more punch in two chords than AC/DC have ever achieved with three.
Then, Morrissey and Marr fell out in 1987, and The Smiths dissolved. Afterward, many expected Marr to audition a new band. Instead, he opted to join The Pretenders. "Waiting around to form a rock band as a followup to The Smiths would have been such a cliché," says the native of Manchester, England. "I was starting to be thought of as the new Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood/Slash/whoever guitar dude, anyway."
Marr's way of stepping out of the spotlight as a revered axeman was to quietly moonlight as a session player for several artists besides The Pretenders. In between stints with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Beck, The Pet Shop Boys, and Beth Orton, two long-term enterprises allowed Marr to work relatively anonymously in the engine room. In 1998, he joined The The (a band fronted by his friend Matt Johnson) for several albums and tours. Concurrently, a collaboration with New Order's Bernard Sumner resulted in Electronic, a studio-based group that released three records.
It was a random meeting with drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, that sparked Marr's desire to tour with a new rock 'n' roll band. The two formed the Healers by adding Alonza Bevan on bass.
"It's almost a utopian experiment to see how perfect I can get the vibe in a band," Marr says. "It was very important to me that the people who work with me have an empathy with what I'm about. I don't want to tell people that falling down drunk in the middle of a session is not allowed."
The band's record, "Boomslang" (iMusic) features Marr on lead vocals, a first for him. It also bears a layered, "guitar army" approach redolent of The Smiths.
"It's easier to do the thing that I'm supposed to sound like as opposed to erasing anything that sounded remotely like what I'd done in the past - which is what I had done with Electronic," the band leader comments. "I get kind of excited and passionate if I ... use 15 guitars and only make it sound like 8!"
Although Johnny Marr + the Healers don't play The Smiths' songs in concert, Marr now accepts the cachet that his name carries from those days. Rather than bury his name in the liner notes as usual, he agreed to the band's request to put his name on the album cover.
"My name's on it because we felt that if we turned up in Salt Lake City on a wet Sunday night, we'd be in front of 150 people rather than 110," he avers. "There's no point pretending it isn't what it is. That would kind of be like Patti Smith calling her band 'The Oranges.' "