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The momentous friendship of Johnny Marr and Billy Duffy

Music’s long and tumultuous history is brimming with stories wherein two or more people have a chance encounter, a meeting which subsequently changes their lives forever. Whether it be Robert Plant meeting a rather unimpressed onlooker called John Bonham at a gig in Birmingham or Paul McCartney bumping into John Lennon at a Church fete, you get the picture. Some of the biggest bands of all time were formed on the back of chance. Life is full of these haphazard meetings that go on to change the trajectory of our lives, and in many ways, they are what really moves the human experience.

Another personal convergence that had huge effects was the meeting of Johnny Marr and Billy Duffy. Arguably Manchester’s greatest ever guitar players, Marr and Duffy’s friendship would have a positive effect on both of their lives, with both striving to become the best guitarist they possibly could, wanting to escape the humdrum suburbs of 1970s Machester.

Marr first met Duffy at the house of their mutual friend, Rob Alman, where he was rehearsing with his friends who were in a band. At the time, Alman and Duffy were inseparable, and Marr remembers them being “very clued up for such a young age, and very knowledgeable about rock music right across the board”. It was 1976, and at the time, Marr was only 12 years of age but remembered being amazed at how accomodating everyone was to him, even if they were amused at how keen this young newcomer was to hang out. This was the start of an enduring friendship between Marr and Duffy.

As Marr lived across the street from Alman’s house, he started turning up whenever the band were rehearsing, as they had turned the house into something of a social gathering point. Duffy, who was 15 at the time, remembers the young Marr being very “alert, smart and inquisitive” for his age and eager to learn. Even for a 12-year-old, Marr didn’t look out of place, and together, the entire group bonded over music. Marr asked the right questions, spoke to the right people, and before long, he was well-ingratiated in the group. Duffy remembers feeling paternal towards Marr and even sold him his first amp, a Falcon 15.

Duffy led by example for the young Marr. He knew his stuff about guitars, and was becoming an expert. Marr remembers that everyone in the group were experts on individual guitarists. Alman was specifically into Neil Young, Duffy specialised in the music of Paul Kossof, Mick Ronson and The Who, and Marr was into Rory Gallagher. Then, the American bands broke onto the scene, and this was to galvanise the group as a whole.

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Alman became a huge Television and Tom Verlaine fan, Duffy became a Johnny Thunders disciple, and famously, Marr learnt the licks of The Stooges’ second guitarist James Williamson. For Duffy and Marr, this was the start of their ascendance as guitar heroes. Marr recalled: “It was like a salon for aspiring young guitar players; encouraging and competitive in a good way, very funny too”.

Duffy and Marr shared the desire to get out of the suburbs, as Marr once explained: “I think it made us different from everybody else in the long run, that determination, maybe desperation. We also both have a strong work ethic. It’s a working class thing.” Spurred on by the energy of the punk movement, in the not too distant future, the pair were to find their way out.

The greatest side-effect of Duffy and Marr’s friendship would come at a Patti Smith gig in 1978, a moment that would set the wheels in motion for the creation of the most influential indie band of all time. At the show, Marr was briefly introduced to Morrissey, and in 1982, they formed The Smiths. The rest, as they say, is history.

Duffy would go on to become the creative driving force behind The Cult, and Marr would become the definitive British guitarist of the 1980s. By 1985, the pair had found massive creative success and had successfully escaped the suburbs of Manchester. They had emulated their idols and were now inspiring a whole new generation of budding guitarists.

Watch Johnny Marr discuss his guitar playing below.