Johnny Marr interviewed by Danny Kelly
Photographs by Lawrence Watson
New Musical Express, February 14, 1987
SMITHS' ears have been ringing all year with accusations of racism ('Panic'), rockism (two axemen), and sell-out (signing to EMI). 'Shoplifters...' sees them stealing up the charts and now 'The World Won't Listen'. Bring in JOHNNY MARR -- guitarist, composer, hirer and firer, producer and committed muso -- to answer DANNY KELLY'S reservations. Salford lads revisited by LAWRENCE WATSON.
the rest-room of Tony Visconti's studio beneath the pavements of Soho,
Johnny Marr ignores the veggieburger in favour of the trifle, opens
a can of lager and settles himself into a settee. A magazine lying open
beside him confirms that 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite' has crashed
into the Top Ten, and through the wall behind him comes the faint sound
of laughter -- Morrissey, Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke and Stephen Street
-- and the strains of their next single, mixed without bother
this very afternoon...
For Johnny Marr, the passing of a couple of months, and the stabilization of The Smiths' line-up, have allowed him to come to terms with these events. The changes in him, he admits, go beyond his new Elvis haircut.
"We'd all become too committed to the band. I was a Smith every second of every waking hour and it was doing me no good.
"It isn't easy to change, though, because my personal life is so closely wrapped up with the band; Morrissey's my best friend. I'm consciously spending more time with Angie, my wife, but she's deeply involved with the band too. But things did have to change. With me it was a matter of saving myself..."
The painful knowledge that things were, for the first time, badly out of hand and that changes (including the endlessly-threatened severence from Rough Trade's apron strings) would have to be made, hit The Smiths during last year's seemingly triumphal tour of America.
Frustration had set in with the realisation that their obvious and growing popularity in the USA remained stubbornly unreflected in the charts. In LA, for instance, they sold out successive nights in an 8000-seater which the previous week A-Ha had barely half-filled; but A-Ha have had a Stateside Number One, and a Top 20 album...
Morale wasn't helped either when MTV showed up. Astounded by the sight of this limey band without a proper record deal selling out huge halls, they dispatched a reporting team to jet-hop from one venue to the next. The Smiths would arrive hours after them. In their van.
"And later" Johnny rolls his eyes, "it got worse and worse. Organisationally, we had so many people pulling and pushing at us; the pressure built up unbelievably. The only way to deal with it, to motivate yourself to go out and be 'big' in front of ten or fifteen thousand people, was to get completely plastered. I found myself doing a bottle of Remy Martin each evening. And after 25 nights of that...
"'Worse for wear' wasn't the half of it; I was extremely ill. By the time the tour actually finished it was all getting a little bit ... dangerous. I was just drinking more than I could handle.
"It was then that I really began to resent, y'know, the thing with the label, the press, all of it. When it starts having a damaging effect on your health, it's all gone too far..."
And how did Morrissey, used to having everything under fingertip control, to being the centre of attention, cope with all this?
"I don't know whether he really did come to terms with it, or what. It's so much more difficult for him anyway; at the end of the day I've got someone I love, someone with whom I can be just totally myself and lock the world out. But Morrissey..."
The Smiths returned to their native fog convinced that a long-promised day could be put off no longer; it was time to talk numbered Swiss bank accounts with the majors.
"Every single label came to see us. It was small-talk, bribes, the whole number. I really enjoyed it. The decision to join EMI was only made after massive consideration. We listened carefully to each offer though I always thought EMI would be the one. They're an institution in the English music scene, which is very in keeping with The Smiths."
Johnny Marr was, and is, delighted with his betrothal to EMI. To some of their more ardent admirers, though, they might just as well have announced that their next single featured backing vocals by the South African SPG!
"The fanatics," begins a weary pop star "were, and still are, genuinely upset about our leaving Rough Trade. I'd have thought they'd be more concerned with a record's grooves than its label, but...
"And surely it's obvious that Morrissey and I wouldn't have put ourselves into a position where we'd inevitably be branded the villains of the piece, where we'd be presented as a pair of commercially opportunistic charlatans, unless there was a damn good reason for doing so..."
Like, shall we say, the million quid EMI are supposed to have bunged yourself and Morrissey to be getting with?
"That figure is just people making assumptions, and, as it happens, neither Morrissey nor myself has yet seen a penny. But I'm not going to get defensive about it -- why should I? Obviously the money's part of the reason we signed..."
There's an unworthy suspicion abroad that EMI, having gone to the bother of opening their piggy bank, might not be quite as tolerant of The Smiths' lovingly attended collection of eccentricities as were Rough Trade, may not be as readily galvanised by Morrissey's iron whim, and may, when the subject is broached, think that Artistic Control is the name of their new dance signing.
"That's all dealt with. 'Artistic Control' -- down in writing. In any case, EMI realise how desperately they need a good pop group, a great pop group, and that we were succesful off our own bat; they won't want to change us...
"That's why the labels were queueing up; they know full well they'd be getting a ready-made, fully self-contained unit, a self-sufficient success..."
If the Curse Of EMI had provided a reliable stream of Smiths-baiting material, the release of their 'Panic' single threatened a flood. Morrissey is no innocent, and he'd make the Olympic shit-stirring squad any day, but even he must've been taken aback by the shockwave of anger unleashed by his general invitation to "burn down the disco" and "hang the blessed DJ"...
In some places, these pages included, the song was interpreted as an attack on black music and, by unconscious implication, black people. But that was mild compared to a piece in another music weekly which labelled Morrissey, and The Smiths, as racist.
The furore is still vivid in Johnny Marr's mind. "I'm glad this came up, it's important. To those who took offence at the 'burn down the disco' line I'd say -- please show me the black members of New Order! For me, personally, New Order make great disco music, but there's no black people in the group. The point I'm making is that you can't just interchange the words 'black' and 'disco', or the phrases 'black music' and 'disco music'. It makes no earthly sense."
What did the band make of the direct accusations of racism as published, irony buffs, in Britain's most sexist music paper?
"I'll answer that," he begins grimly, "provided you note the fact that I'm not ranting, that I'm thinking carefully before I speak.
"Right then: next time we come across that creep, he's plastered. We're not in the habit of issuing personal threats, but that was such a vicious slur-job that we'll kick the shit out of him. Violence is disgusting but racism's worse and we don't deal with it.
"'Panic' came about at the time of Chernobyl. Morrissey and myself were listening to a Newsbeat radio report about it. The story about this shocking disaster comes to an end and then, immediately, we're off into Wham!'s 'I'm Your Man'. I remember actually saying 'what the fuck has this got to do with peoples' lives?' We hear about Chernobyl, then, seconds later, we're expected to be jumping around to 'I'm Your Man'.
And so -- 'hang the blessed DJ'. I think it was a great lyric, important and applicable to anyone who lives in England. I mean, even the most ardent disco fan wouldn't want to be subjected to that stuff, would they?"
On the racism charge, then, any judge would declare Morrissey the hapless victim of a lynch mob. Mind you, with people who put their head into nooses for fun -- remember 'all reggae is vile' M? -- the occasional fatality gets filed as an industrial accident.
And as last autumn turned into this winter, Morrissey and Johnny Marr sat in the snug of the Salford Lads Club, supping the EMI millions and passing the time by trying to think of possible misfortunes that hadn't befallen them in the previous few months. After three hours they'd come up with two --'Rotten Live Reviews' and 'Crowd Violence'. Within days, their recent UK tour had been set up to rectify the oversights.
Bad reviews were child's play to obtain, and illustrated the slightly crazy side of the habitual lovey-dovey between The Smiths and their devotees. The band, by the addition of second guitarist Craig Gannon, slightly, erm, beefed up their usual sound. Their adoring audience responded with a display of mass petulance.
This, you see, was the first recorded outbreak of cultrual vigilanteism! They'll guard their sacred Smiths-sound from all potential corruptors, including its original creators. And Johnny Marr -- identified, rightly or wrongly, as having rockist leanings -- is subjected to that particuarly intense scrutiny normally reserved for parents suspected of incest.
The tour's second chunk of innovatory audience participation was altogether more serious, though, according to Johnny Marr, "the truth was much less newsworthy than what eventually got into print.
"It started at Newport where Morrissey, through nothing more sinister than overenthusiasm, got dragged into the crowd. He was shaken, a bit concussed, and had a bump the size of an egg on the side of his head. There was no way he could have carried on. That all happened about three quarters of the way through the set, with maybe four songs left to go. The following day, though, The Sun reports that in the middle of the 'first song', at the point where Morrissey holds up the 'Queen Is Dead' banner, he was attacked by outraged 'Royalists'!!
"The next date, of course, was always going to be trouble. A certain element in our audience who are, basically, thick, responded to what they'd read over their morning cornflakes.
"I didn't see what happened to Morrissey; just turned around and he was gone. But I caught a glimpse of our monitor guy; he had blood all over his arms. Believe me, I was pretty scared; I finished the song and got off. The whole incident was created by the gutter press but the fact that a Smiths gig could be so ugly left me incredibly depressed."
The incident at Newcastle, then, where Morrissey had to seek shelter from a storm of gob, was minor by comparison?
"Well, yes and no. We just hate all that shit, a minority ruining the show for the rest, the cool ones. I don't mean this in any patronising, pop-starry way, but our audience is incredibly important to us. I look out from the stage and I see a mass of people, mostly guys, who look absolutely incredible, certainly more interesting than the types you get at gigs by The Communards or most mid-'80s groups. We're impressed to hell with our audience."
Within ten minutes of the tour's final curtain, the nun-eating rock-monster five-piece edition of The Smiths was, with the departure of Craig Gannon, back to the original foursome.
Gannon's original introduction to the band, from out of nowhere, had precipitated speculation of rosette-winning intensity. Earlier, Johnny Marr had repeated The Smiths' party line that Gannon was recruited because Andy Rourke had been "unwell".
This is loyal, but not entirely frank. Bassist Rourke had indeed been "unwell" but we're not talking headcold here. Rourke's health problems were rooted in his increasing involvement with heroin.
"Yeah," Marr nods, "that's true..."
The Smiths' legion of detractors will no doubt celebrate this sad little moment, use it to besmirch, by association, Morrissey's whiter-than-white stance. Inadequates love a victory, however small.
Did Rourke have to go (for what proved to be only a few weeks) because he couldn't fulfill his obligations, or because Johnny Marr, or Morrissey, couldn't, ahem, handle it?
"The issue never came up in that form, but we personally were all devastated by it. Andy and I have been friends since we were 13 or 14. He means a great deal to me. It's heartbreaking to see someone you care about just self-destruct."
And a smackhead, however familiar, hardly suits The Smiths' public profile...
"That's undeniable, sure, but to give him credit, Andy was intensely aware of that. In fact, he was persecuting himself about that too so the whole thing was getting quite badly complex...
"Andy's fine now and I guess something positive has come out of it, particularly in relation to that 'Morrissey, Marr and the session guys' shit. We found we really missed him, and he discovered just how important he is..."
No, it's not like the old days anymore. At 23 (which used to be rock's compulsory retirement age, though now people are allowed to work till they're as old as Zigue Zigue Sputnik), Johnny Marr is in clover. 'Shoplifters...' is going to be The Smiths' biggest hit, America beckons, and the deal with EMI means that he can spend the rest of his life hanging out in recording studios -- that, to him, translates roughly as Christmas every day!
Most of his social time, too, is spent in the company of musicians and he's just started to spread tentative wings beyond the confines of The Smiths. He played on Bragg's 'Taxman...' last year and is involved now, "in a lowest-possible profile sort of way", in upcoming projects with Bobby Womack, ACR's Donald Johnson and some old north country busking hermit he's discovered and named Bryan Ferry.
But for now, I reckon, he should concentrate on The Smiths, and the upstarts who'll be looking to unperch them.
"Yeah? Like who?"
Like ... (load Superstar Windup Device) ... Like ... (Aim) ... Like ... (Fire!) The Housemartins!
"The Housemartins?!! (Gottim) The Housemartins??? I couldn't acknowledge them as the competition without a smile on my face. And if they really are our closest rivals it's no wonder I'm so confident about The Smiths! The Housemartins! 'Happy Hour' was a complete rip-off of 'I Want The One I Can't Have', and they've nicked others too..."
And then there's Raymonde...
above article was originally published in the February 14, 1987 issue
of New Musical Express magazine.