THESE THINGS TAKE TIME
Guitar Player|February 2022
Rejecting traditional rock guitar stylings, Johnny Marr created a new ethos that defined alternative rock and placed it at the forefront of the U.K.’s 1980s music scene.
MARK McSTEA
IN 1982, I was on friendly terms with Smiths’ guitar maestro Johnny Marr. We met when he was working in a pretty cool, alternative clothing store in Manchester, England, and he recognized me from the band that I was in, Private Sector. I’d see him in the store, at shows of other bands and some of my own shows, and we used to talk music, of course, and often the guitar in particular. We seemed to have a lot of musical interests in common, but I lost track of Johnny a few months before he formed the Smiths with Morrissey, and we never reconnected after that time. I remember being very curious to see what his new band would come up with, and when a mutual acquaintance, who had been at one of their earliest live shows at the Ritz, in Manchester, in 1982, recounted what the band sounded like, we were both initially a little nonplussed. Given Morrissey’s long-avowed love of the New York Dolls and Marr’s rock and roll stylings, we had expected something along much more conventional lines. Of course, the Smiths were anything but conventional, and yet they used the most conventional of formats — a guitar, bass, drums and a vocal — to create something that was extraordinarily unique, and which would influence legions of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic for the next 40 years.

The arrival of the Smiths in 1983, with the release of their debut single, “Hand in Glove,” came at a time when the U.K. music scene was a strangely divided place. At that point there were four weekly music papers: New Musical Express (NME), Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror. Of the four, Sounds and NME acted as both tastemakers and reflectors of what was current. They divided, fairly neatly, into two camps: Sounds continued to promote punk and its offshoot genre, “Oi” music, and also championed the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). The NME saw itself as defiantly anti what had gone before, ignoring the burgeoning metal scene, and instead decided that anything rock was inherently bad. Several NME journalists started to liberally use the terms rockist and rockism as pejoratively derisory digs at anything a band did that could fall under the traditional rock ethos. Thus, no guitar solos, no guitar riffs, no guitar heroes, no macho posturing, no extravagant stage shows, no rock and roll excess and so on.

Into this divide, any new band would have a tacit understanding that if their face didn’t fit the new orthodoxy at the NME, they would be unlikely to get any coverage. Of course, Sounds would still cover some bands from the other side of the battlefield, but the lines were drawn. There was no way a band like Iron Maiden, at the forefront of NWOBHM, could ever appear in the NME.

Set against this background, the emergence of the Smiths profoundly unchecked every box on the rockist hit list. This could surely have been no coincidence. Speaking from my recollections of knowing Marr for some time before he teamed up with Morrissey, he was certainly not prime fodder for becoming a darling of the NME. He was a keen rockabilly and rock and roll fan. Rory Gallagher and Nils Lofgren were two of his biggest heroes, he had more than a passing fondness for Johnny Thunders, and the walls of the clothing store where he worked prior to teaming up with Morrissey were adorned with his posters of the Clash and the Stray Cats.

Marr’s own sense of personal style even saw him looking like a member of those two groups, with his pompadour, leather biker jacket and biker boots. None of this is to suggest that there was anything fake about his new stance upon forming the Smiths. There was always another side to Marr’s musical loves, particularly an interest in the folk stylings of the likes of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham, traces of which were much easier to detect in his guitar work with the Smiths. His use of a thumb pick for some years was a self-confessed inspiration from Lofgren’s use of the implement, something which facilitated the latter’s chiming harmonics.

Effectively, Marr selected from his influences those which would most closely ally with what he knew Morrissey would like to hear in his playing, the key elements of which would offset the singer’s nontraditional approach while simultaneously rejecting anything that clashed with the new orthodoxy. As much as Marr tailored his musical approach to the emerging NME-defined concept of what was hip and happening, he also radically revamped his own personal image, presenting a complete volte-face from ’50s rocker to sensitive ’60s hipster. Perhaps ironically, Morrissey himself actually embraced a sense of style borrowed heavily from one of his own idols, James Dean. Apparently, Morrissey had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the tragic film icon on his bedroom wall the first time Marr called round to his house to suggest forming a band.

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