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Music

How David Bowie inspired Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner

When The Smiths broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr was just 24-years-old. After serving a turbulent tenure as the instrumental creative force in one of the most successful indie-rock groups of all time, he had decided to try his hand at something different. During his rise to prominence over the mid-1980s alongside moody frontman Morrisey, Marr had become a close friend of Manchester neighbour Bernard Sumner, the guitarist of Joy Division and later New Order.

The pair first met in 1983 when Sumner was producing two new tracks for Quango Quango, Mike Pickering’s original band. Johnny Marr had also been commissioned to contribute guitar tracks for some of the band’s new songs. The two would later cross paths at the various music venues and studios of Manchester – Marr would even play a number of gigs with The Smiths at the Hacienda club which was founded by Factory Records, Tony Wilson’s famous label that New Order were a key beneficiary of.

In 1987, Marr was ostensibly disillusioned with commitments to a specific band and instead launched into life as a guitar-slinger playing with a range of acts including Kirsty MacColl, Pretenders, Billy Bragg and The The. But by 1988, he had decided that he wanted to settle down in something where he could act more freely on his creative whim. By a stroke of fate, Sumner, too, was seeking a new project following the successful release of New Order’s Technique. He had been on tour a lot in support of the new material and had begun to feel rather burned out. Opting to remain in the studio for a while, he decided to join his friend Marr for a side project away from New Order.

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Marr once described the formation of their new duo act, stating: “When the Smiths split in 1987, Bernard [Sumner] from New Order and myself had the idea to start a new group called Electronic, which we did in ’88. We were both looking to do something that was very different from the constraints of a Mancunian four-piece rock group. Some eyebrows were raised when we got together, from both sides of Manchester, but we really had some great things in common.”

Elaborating on their shared interests, Marr described some of their key musical influences going into the project: “Musically, we both really liked David Bowie, The Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, Ennio Morricone, and The Kinks. He was surprised that I knew quite a lot about electronic music, and I was surprised that he knew how to play all these Kinks songs.” Unexpectedly, the two were clearly still very much interested in their classic rock despite their very modern interest in synth-based music. He continued: “We weren’t interested in modern ’90s rock music– until Nirvana, there’s still not a lot from that period that interests me much. But we were together for nine years, which surprised a lot of people, mostly because we only made three records.”

The legendary guitarist then highlighted the pair’s most influential material. “The one constant [inspiration] for us was David Bowie’s Low and the track ‘Warszawa’, a semi-instrumental on the second side.” It appears that David Bowie’s experimental collaboration with Brian Eno had long been an influence on Bernard Sumner. Before becoming Joy Division, the Manchester post-punk group had been named Warsaw after the group’s shared love for ‘Warszawa’ from Low

Marr continued: “Bernard and I wanted to be an anti-group but we still wanted to be who we were, so Low was a real touchstone because it had a European sensibility within a rock record, and it was also away from the group format. We picked up the fact that it was a record made in the spirit of collaboration, and that it was essentially anti-rock, which we could relate to. It was beautiful music, and from a rock artist we really loved and grew up with. We were trying to be something new for ourselves, and we thought David Bowie was a very brave artist.”

Listen to the Bowie classic, ‘Warszawa’, from his 1977 album Low below.