I’ve just finished reading Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set the Boy Free. It’s a great book for anyone interested in Marr as a musician, and of course for any fan of The Smiths. It’s a pacy read, giving insight into Marr’s early years, the band’s formation, gigs, songwriting, recordings and relationships, and Marr’s experiences following The Smiths’ split.
As was often the case with me, I was kinda late to The Smiths’ party, but when I did catch up I embraced them with enthusiasm, buying vinyl albums and 12-inch singles, cassettes and later CDs. My family were market traders, and the cassettes were bought for use in a ghetto blaster, through which we’d play either Radio 1, mix tapes or albums on cassette all day. Driving the tape mechanism was pretty hard on the batteries but we’d generally get a couple of days from eight D-size, while the radio would last weeks. I used to spend quiet days at the market writing to my friend Claire, who was studying at Crewe and Alsager, or reading the NME while The Smiths played in the background.
Understandably, the focus of Set the Boy Free is firmly on The Smiths and Marr’s guitar work. Listening to the band’s music now, however, Marr is clearly so much more than a guitarist. How Soon is Now? – for my money The Smiths at their most powerful – is a huge soundscape of textures predominantly created using the guitar, but often unrecognisable as such.
I never saw The Smiths live, but in 1989 managed to catch Johnny Marr at Aston Villa Leisure Centre in Birmingham, where he was performing with The The. I was already a fan of The The having been introduced to the band by our mate Snowy in the mid-80s. Snowy had a metallic green Mark 1 Ford Escort, and the first time I heard anything from Infected we were hurtling down Gillway Lane (Snowy hurtled pretty much everywhere). He looked round at us on the back seat with a huge grin on his face, slapping the steering wheel and yelling the lyrics to Out of the Blue (into the Fire).
Infected was like nothing I’d heard before, and I subsequently bought everything I could get my hands on, including Matt Johnson’s first album Burning Blue Soul, which is mentioned in Marr’s autobiography. The The deserves a blog post in its own right, but the point is that for me Marr joining Matt Johnson’s band made The The a supergroup.
At that time I was guitarist in a band called Emma Gibbs Loves Badges, and Marr was one of my biggest influences of the modern era – the other being Echo & the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant (My all-time greatest influences would have to be bluesmen Peter Green and BB King.) I even bought a Roland JC120 amp because that’s what Marr used. I went to the gig with Emma Gibbs’ drummer Jim Goodman (Where are you, Jim?), and we stood at the front, this close to the legendary twangmaster as he strutted his stuff.
Unusually for me I can’t remember too much about the event, just a snapshot of Morrissey clones in the audience, all cardigans, beads and punctured bicycles, while Johnson and Marr were doused in a sort of golden glow. Whether that was real or imagined, I have no idea. The only song I distinctly remember is Beat(en) Generation – the hit from the album Mind Bomb. Perhaps I was just too starstruck to take it all in.
Like all guitar greats Marr’s unique style will continue to influence players for decades to come, and similarly, The Smiths’ music will always touch disaffected teenagers. Set the Boy Free is an engaging and interesting book. What’s particularly evident is Marr’s joy and disbelief at getting the opportunity to play with idols such as Brian Ferry, Keith Richards, Talking Heads, Paul McCartney and The Pretenders, all following the emotional rollercoaster that was The Smiths. As Paul McCartney apparently once said to him: “That’s bands for ya.”