Smiths album cover. (Credit: Rough Trade)

What’s That Sound? How Johnny Marr used a knife to create The Smiths song ‘This Charming Man’

Johnny Marr is undoubtedly the “charming man” when it comes to guitar riffs. His deceptively simple style hides intricate technical details that might escape the audience at first go but unveil itself majestically with every listen. Before embarking on his solo career, Marr made a name by being the lead guitarist of the iconic Manchester-based band The Smiths. With his iconic jangle-pop style, Marr laid the foundation of many of the band’s songs including their second single that released in 1983. Inevitably, Marr’s holistic approach to the song produced a charming result.

While Morrissey and Marr collaboratively penned the lyrics of the band’s most defining song, Marr alone was responsible for setting it to tune. Morrissey and Marr’s partnership has always been very well balanced. Although Marr had a very distinct style that was bound to lure the attention of the listeners, it wasn’t overpowering at all. Rather, through his subtle approach, he supported and escalated the lyrics of the songs. Marr composed ‘This Charming Man’ for a BBC radio session which was to be conducted by their admirer the DJ John Peel. “I remember writing it, it was in preparation for a John Peel single. I wrote it the same night as ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ and ‘Still Ill.’” Although given three hours of studio session time, Marr being the guitar genius, wrote the chord structure within the span of twenty minutes.

In 2008, Marr confessed that the success of Aztec Camera who were their Rough Trade label mates, prompted him to write the song: “A couple of days before I wrote ‘This Charming Man’ I’d heard ‘Walk Out To Winter’ by Aztec Camera on BBC Radio 1, and I felt a little jealous,” he said. “My competitive urges kicked in. I felt that we needed something up-beat and in a major key for Rough Trade to get behind. That’s why I wrote it in the key of G, which to this day I rarely do. I knew that ‘This Charming Man’ would be our next single. I did the whole thing in one go into this TEAC 3-track tape recorder that I used to write on. I came up with the basic chords and immediately overdubbed the top line and intro riff.”

He made sure to incorporate some Marr-esque elements in the song’s arrangement as always. This time his special sound effect was created by dropping a metal knife on his telecaster. Marr, who has always been very open about his creative process and techniques explained to Select in 1993, “I’d take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord,” he commented. “Then I’d drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on ‘This Charming Man’, buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it’s really a ’54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.”

Done in an experimental zeal, Marr doubted its significance at the beginning saying “Because I’d done it so casually before I wasn’t sure if it was any good or not…then we recorded it at Maida Vale and I realised it had something special about it.” Although Marr refuses to consider it as something revolutionary to date, exclaiming “I wince a bit when I hear it now”, we as the audience will always admire these creative nuances that set Marr apart from the crowd.

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