Johnny Marr is all over the airwaves and interweb lately. Firstly, he picks up a Godlike Genius award from the NME. Then his new album comes out. A rash of YouTube clips appear of him playing riffs from Smiths songs, causing much pant-wetting amongst fanboys and obsessives, no doubt. Then I'll be blowed if he doesn't set off on tour around the UK. Blimey.
Now I've played the guitar since I was about eight. I'm not great, in part because I've always been too lazy to practise. Don't get me wrong, I can play all manner of chords, and do plenty of lightweight stuff like a bit of picking, hammering on, bar chords, all that. The bottom line is that, although I can make a nice enough noise, I'll never be a great guitarist... but I know enough to recognise guitar greatness when I hear it. And to know that if I could magically play like any guitarist there has ever been, I would almost certainly opt to play like Johnny. So, it was with great excitement that I noted his tour was coming to my adopted home town.
I should add that I haven't followed Marr's post-Smiths career with the same dedication I have Morrissey's. I haven't bought it all, in other words. I've got some: an Electronic 7"; a The The CD single blessed with Marr's tunesmithery; albums by Kirsty McColl and Billy Bragg featuring Marr collaborations; a Cribs album; and a Modest Mouse album that I almost certainly wouldn't have bought if not for its Johnny content. But there are plenty of gaps in the collection. I didn't buy the Johnny and the Healers album, for starters. But having got myself a ticket for the gig, I thought I ought to familiarise myself with what I might hear, and so bought a copy of The Messenger. And although it's only March, I think I may already have found my album of the year.
Marr has a definite sound: there are chord progressions, chiming sounds, that whole rhythm-as-lead thing, that are unmistakably him. And they're all there, on The Messenger. But there's a lot more besides. The diversity of his collaborations over the last twenty five years (yes, it really has been that long, Smiths fans) has left its mark, so much so that it's tempting to play "spot the era" with each of The Messenger's twelve tracks. You know, that sounds like Electronic, that's a bit Cribs-y, that could have been on Strangeways... It's tempting, and it's dangerous, because yes, whilst I'd love to know what Morrissey would have sung over the top of The Right Thing Right and, especially, Say Demesne, that is to detract from the lyrics that Marr has penned, and delivers in a pleasantly surprising, strong voice. Whereas so many of the Mozfather's lyrics were introspective, Marr has a broader, outward-looking perspective. In tone and content, this alone should be enough to prevent comparisons between Smiths tracks and those on this new album. So I'll just limit myself to one more, because New Town Velocity is blessed with quintessential Marr chord progressions and shimmering guitar, so much so that I cannot listen to it without imagining Steven Patrick crooning over the top... especially in the last 35 seconds, when the backing vocals are crying out to be sung by Kirsty...
So, the album's brilliant - really, properly outstanding. But can Johnny, the arch collaborator and perennial sideman, cut it as a frontman live?
Taking to the stage looking for all the world like an older, cooler Tony Montana, toting a Fender instead of "his little friend", it quickly became apparent that yes, he can. First off, he can sing. His voice may not be the most distinctive, and he may not have the widest range, but on the night I saw him he was note-perfect for the whole gig, delivering songs old and new with equal gusto and vocal strength throughout. And of course there's the guitar - playing a beautiful Fender Jaguar for most of the gig, and supported by a very able sideman, Johnny faithfully recreated the fret-based complexity of the new album and some older classics too. And what of that back-catalogue? Well, there were two Electronic tracks - Forbidden City and, in a change to the setlist, Getting Away With It. These were well received, but the real crowd delirium was reserved for four Smiths tracks: Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before, an incendiary London, Bigmouth Strikes Again and an encore-closing How Soon Is Now?. Wisely not trying to sing like Moz, Johnny put his own vocal spin on these tracks, all of which worked with the possible exception of a somewhat innocuous "whoo" during London. And here, as my American friends might say, is the thing: successive incarnations of Morrissey's backing band have, at various times, been rightly accused of grievous musical harm to The Smiths' back-catalogue. Kinder critics would call it "a more muscular approach" to the music. Others, less kindly, would call it butchery. The beauty, then, of Marr's Smiths renditions is that musically they are perfect. The guitar parts are played properly, their complexity fully realised live, not bludgeoned through with broad, open chords. Johnny plays them how they're supposed to be played, simple as that. Whisper it quietly but, on the evidence of these four songs at least, Marr performs Smiths tracks better than Morrissey.
And whilst I'm being controversial, let me put one other theory forward - if Johnny had released The Messenger in 1989, I wonder if his career would have eclipsed Morrissey's in the years since? Easy now, I'm just thinking aloud... but the album really is that good. Go and buy it now and catch Johnny live if you can. To get you in the mood, here, courtesy of YouTube, is a radio session version of the aforementioned New Town Velocity, one of the mellower moments on The Messenger.
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