JULY 2004

Gold Smith

Johnny Marr

Will Hodgkinson
Friday June 4, 2004

The most innovative guitarist of his generation is going back to
his roots. “I seem to be in transition a lot of the time, but the one
constant that has stayed through my life has been the notion of saying
what you need to say with an acoustic guitar,” states Johnny Marr. “There
are things that can be done with an acoustic guitar and a voice that I find
more interesting and more expressive than standing on stage with four geezers
in leather jackets. There is nobility in it.”

If ever there were someone whose first language is articulated through
his instrument, it is Marr. As a child he would spend Saturdays staring
at the guitars and amplifiers in Manchester’s department stores while
his mother did her weekly shopping, and any guitarist on television, from
a member of Cilla Black’s studio band to Marc Bolan, was an object of fascination.

By the time he came into prominence with the Smiths he had developed
a style that was richly lyrical and intricate without ever being bombastic.
“When I first discovered pop music, listening to it was an experience
that bordered on the mystical,” says Marr, who is quietly spoken and hesitant,
but endlessly enthusiastic about what he does.

“There’s a sad song by Del Shannon called The Answer to Everything
that my parents used to play, and it struck a chord in me because it sounded
so familiar. That song was the inspiration for [the Smiths’] Please, Please,
Please Let Me Get What I Want. I tried to capture the essence of that tune;
its spookiness and sense of yearning.”

Over an afternoon of coffee-drinking at his Manchester home, Marr
goes some way to explaining what it is that drives him. The legacy of the
Smiths is growing as the years pass – last year NME recently voted them
the most influential band of all time, and Morrissey has returned after
years in the wilderness of the Los Angeles sunshine – but Marr looks unlikely
to revisit his old band, or the orchestral, multi-layered music he created
with them.

“I’ve had enough of smoke and mirrors, both literally and figuratively.
So I’ve been listening to Melanie, Donovan, Davy Graham, Joni Mitchell’s
first album… I don’t want to hear music that uses a large vocabulary to
say nothing. My attitude now is: why use a lot of words when fuck off will

Marr’s role model has, for years, been Bert Jansch, the former guitarist
of the British folk-rock group Pentangle. Marr was first aware of Jansch,
who has since become a friend, after seeing Pentangle play a concert
that was broadcast on television when he was 14.

“The band were all hunched over their acoustic guitars, wearing old
plimsolls and odd socks, looking like the performance was interrupting
a drinking session that started two days earlier and was only just gathering
momentum. This was the era of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, and I got the
impression that Pentangle regarded those bands as utter lightweights musically,
physically, philosophically and lyrically.”

Marr mentions obscure psychedelic folk bands from San Francisco he
has been listening to recently – Sunburnt Hand of Man and the Six Organs
of Admittance are two of the more colourful names that come to mind –
while applauding two folk legends that are a million miles away from the
urbane sophistication of the Smiths.

Clive Palmer was a founder member of pastoral folk hippies the Incredible
String Band who went on to make solo records that sound like they are
best listened to with a bout of the plague. Incredibly, he left the Incredible
String Band because he felt they were getting too commercial. John Martyn
is the troublesome, troubled, alcoholic singer-songwriter of intensity
and depth. “Clive Palmer is so purist that he makes regular folk singers
sound like Will Young,” says Marr. “John Martyn made an album called Stormbringer
that is intense, heavy, beautiful, relevant – and that’s all from one
guy with six strings.”

Folk music is often accused of being gauche, or fey. Can such terms
be applied to the music of John Martyn? “Stormbringer is heavier – genuinely
heavier – than all the heavy rock bands. There’s a certain posturing
in rock music that has become outdated, and there’s only so much testosterone
I can take in one lifetime. It’s been done to death and there’s not much
strength in it any more.”

Two of Marr’s heroes, however, were chiefly responsible for creating
that pose in the first place. The first is Andrew Loog Oldham, the teenage
svengali and recent subject of Home Entertainment who managed the Rolling
Stones and fashioned their image; and the second is Keith Richards, whose
louche, ragged style has become the template for generations of rock guitarists.

“Andrew Oldham inspired me because he wore hyperactivity like a badge
of honour, and because he considers it impolite to be boring. I like Keith
Richards more for his ethic than his playing. He’s the captain of the
ship when it comes to being in a rock’n’roll band; he’ll steer the band
through anything, and go down with them if he has to. And he always looked

Whatever makes Marr such a soulful guitarist is an elusive thing.
From the Smiths to stints in the Pet Shop Boys and Electronic through to
his current band the Healers, he has intermittently rejected any guitar
style he has pioneered to make way for a new one, and he claims that he never
plays a known song on the guitar, least of all one he has written.

When you play music you
catch whatever is in the air, and every now and then you catch something
that gives you a sense of ecstasy and transcendence,” he says. “My first
lightning bolt came from Marc Bolan.
I bought Jeepster by T-Rex purely
because it was in the bargain singles box and it had a picture of Marc
and Mickey Finn on the label, so I figured I was getting more for my 25p.
When I played that record I heard magic. That magic is what I’m endlessly
trying for. That’s what keeps me breathing.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.