Johnny Marr and Morrissey were the musical power couple of the 1980s, I defy anyone to name a better and more effective duo than the Mancunians behind The Smiths. Together, they defined a generation and inspired countless others in the process. Moz and Marr were the poster boys for the nascent Indie revolution of the mid-1980s.
Morrissey’s sardonic and well-informed lyrics were perfectly ballasted by Marr’s technically proficient guitar lines, and in terms of The Smiths’ music, one could not have existed without the other. It was this duo that would cement the Mancunian quartet in popular culture ad infinitum.
The impact of the Smiths is made even more dizzying when we note that they only existed from 1982 to 1987. However, they released four albums in that short period of time, with 1985’s Meat is Murder reaching the top of the UK Albums Chart.
The Smiths focused on a traditional guitar, bass and drum set up, fusing 1960s rock with contemporary post-punk. They embodied a rejection of the ubiquitous synth-pop, as prior to forming the band, all four members had been part of Manchester’s punk scene.
In fact, it would actually be another iconic guitarist that would introduce Morrissey and Marr. Showing their punk roots, the soon-to-be-Smiths partnership was introduced at a Patti Smith show at the Manchester Apollo. The fixer of this title-winning duo was none other than The Cult’s Billy Duffy.
Subsequently, Morrissey and Marr would bond quickly. Their shared love of music, poetry and literature cemented their telepathic relationship. Marr, a huge fan of Johnny Thunders and proto-punks the New York Dolls, was particularly impressed that Morrissey has written a book on the band. Inspired by the way Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller formed their hit-making partnership, Johnny Marr turned up at Morrissey’s house in Stretford and asked him if he wanted to start a band.
When Morrissey appeared on BBC Radio 5’s flagship programme, Desert Island Discs, in 2009, he recalled: “We got on absolutely famously. We were very similar in drive.” The day after Marr’s appearance on his doorstep, Morrissey phoned him and confirmed that he too wanted to form a band.
By the end of the band’s first summer, in 1982, Morrissey had chosen the name ‘The Smiths’, and would later tell an interviewer that “it was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces”. This punk sentiment was what attracted fans to the Smiths, as along with their outstanding songs, their reliance on popular culture as influences made them an accessible and exciting prospect.
Furthermore, shortly after the band’s formation, Morrissey decided he would only publicly be known by his surname, and by 1983 he banned anyone from addressing him by his forename ‘Steven’, which he had always hated.
Before too long, the band would sign to Rough Trade in 1983, and the rest, as they say, is history. Most of this history is well documented, but in 2013, after the release of his debut solo album The Messenger, Johnny Marr revealed the one song the iconic Mancunian duo bonded over, and it may come as a surprise.
Evidently, the duo was inspired by the duo’s that had coloured their musical upbringing. These included the New York Dolls‘ Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop and James Williamson and even Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. However, the one duo they bonded over was Bob and Marcia.
Who, you might ask? Bob and Marcia were a Jamaican duo who scored a UK hit single with their cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ in 1970. Released via the iconic British label Trojan, who’d have thought that the sounds of the Caribbean would have influenced this duo of young punks? Then again, the music was a sunny departure from the grey post-industrial palette of 1980s Manchester.
The former Smiths guitarist said: “We bonded over a lot of records, but we both loved that song in the same way at the same time. And that’s very likely to be the thing that inspired the music for ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’.”
He continued, “We liked so many of the Trojan singles, and a whole list of other things in the glam-rock period – Sparks, Roxy Music, some David Bowie. And the Crystals we really loved, too. But if I had to mention one, it would be Bob and Marcia.”
Since the Smiths acrimonious split in 1987, there has been no love lost between Morrissey and Marr. Yes, there have been whispers of the possibility of a reunion in the past, however, that boat has long sailed. Given the media appearances of both individuals over the past ten years, they couldn’t be more ideologically split.
It makes us wonder though, how did two people who were once inseparable in all but physicality drift just so far apart?
Watch Johnny Marr talk about his career, below.