Johnny Marr is a hero among a generation who found solace in the triumphant work he, alongside the perenially big-mouthed singer Morrissey, created for 1980s icons The Smiths. From there, Marr refused to sit still, always operating with authenticity and guile; the guitarist has worked alongside the likes of Billy Bragg, Modest Mouse and The Cribs since his departure from the indie pioneers. Always cherishing a unique tone that not only comforts but inspires, Marr’s is a career that is beyond reproach.
There’s a good argument to be made to state that Marr is one of the most important figures in British culture of the last 40 years. The performer has long been heralded as a quiet guitar champion, but his impact is almost immeasurable. Simply put, it’s all well and good to strike searing solos like one might a match or hit riffs so chunky they could make a Kit Kat blush, but Marr created a style of playing that was unique and completely influential. But, who was the band that made him really start to engage with music?
Luckily, thanks to Vinyl Writers, a project run by Saliha Enzenauer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s former production assistant, among many other accolades, we can pinpoint the moment Johnny Marr became infatuated with rock and roll and when he knew that playing the guitar was all he ever wanted to do.
Like many artists, Marr had already been bitten by the music bug from a young age and, growing up in Manchester during the 1970s, there was only one way forward for a nervous kid with an eye on getting out of the town — become a rock star. To do that, you had to be in a band, and so Marr dutifully joined his teenage group. It was there, however, that he would be introduced to Iggy Pop and The Stooges.
The moment came when the “older guy” in the group noted about some of Marr’s riffs: “That sounds like Gimme Danger from The Stooges,” following it up with perhaps the ultimate compliment, “And you sound like James Williamson.” However, Marr didn’t see it that way and was angry about the categorisation as he writes, “When you’re 14, you still think that you’re inventing something completely new with every song.” It could have been enough to dissuade the young Marr from approaching the Detroit outfit once more. However, curiosity finally got the better of him.
Having driven to his local record shop, Marr “froze when I saw Iggy on the cover. What a creature!” he notes of the cover of Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power. Like most kids during that time, Marr didn’t have enough change to pick up the album and so began a saving regime to achieve his goal. It was this process that perhaps added to the gratifying sense of achievement he felt getting the LP: “When I finally had bought the record, I kept starring at the cover on my bus ride back home,” he said, before elaborating: “The photo seduced me. It promised an alternative universe, and that is what rock music should be about, in my opinion.”
When he arrived back home and placed the record on the revolving turntable, he had to give up the ghost “and had to agree with the guy in my band: my song was a copy of ‘Gimme Danger’. But it didn’t piss me off anymore because from that moment on, I knew that I was on the right track as a guitar player.”
For a kid living with his parents in “Europe’s biggest concrete complex,” the liberating power of Iggy and The Stooges was enough to keep the flames of creativity burning in a somewhat oxygenless environment. With streetlights looming in through his window of an evening, Marr would sit down and escape through the portal of Raw Power, “The orange light shone through the curtains, and I was in another world. A dark and dangerous world, sexy and full of drugs. But most of all, beautiful.”
We’ve all shared that moment, haven’t we? Finding comfort and solace in a piece of art that removes us from the doldrums of our reality, allowing us to dream of escape and evolution in equal measure. For most of us, that’s where the story ends. For Johnny Marr, that was the moment his journey to becoming one of Britain’s greatest guitarists truly begun.