Johnny Marr has been an essential fixture of the British music scene ever since his band, The Smiths, exploded into the mainstream during the mid-1980s. Since then, he has continued to perform as a solo artist and as a guitarist with the likes of Modest Mouse and The Cribs, for whom he offered up his astounding technical ability on a full-time basis.
Today – and after recently releasing yet another solo record – Marr is still regarded as one of the world’s greatest guitarists, blending subtle virtuosity with an understated flair that betrays his angular punk leanings. Very few guitarists still capture the imagination of young learners in the same way that Marr does. Eric Clapton’s incessant twiddling, for example, smacks a little too strongly of snobbish self-gratification these days. Meanwhile, Marr’s playing is still accessible, artful, and devastatingly cool.
With talent and charisma spilling out of their pockets, The Smiths were bound to succeed. After signing to Rough Trade, they quickly earned the praise of renowned radio DJ and gatekeeper of the hip, John Peel, who was struck by The group’s impossibly fresh sound, remarking: “You couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to. That’s fairly unusual, very rare indeed… It was that aspect of the Smiths that I found most impressive”.
That unique combination of sound that Peel found so hard to place was the result of Morrisey and Marr’s shared love of records. In fact, there was one song in particular that Marr and Morrisey bonded over. In a 2013 interview, Marr described: “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’. 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.”
The song Marr was referring to was Bob and Marcia’s 1970 hit single ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, a track originally released by Nina Simone that name year. Simone’s version is an optimistic gospel ballad that simmers with strident horn sections second only to the singer’s powerhouse vocals. In the hands of Bob and Marcia, however, the track took on the vibrant sun-drenched energy that, by the 1980s, had made Trojan Records’ ska, dub, and reggae releases such an essential feature of the UK musical landscape.
While The Smith’s iconic sound is markedly dourer than that of Bob and Marcia, tracks like ‘This Charming Man’ do seem to contain the same off-beat pulse so characteristic of ska and classic reggae. The Smiths’ talent was in taking shades of records such as ‘Young Gifted And Black’ and combining them with their won sonic palette to create something that left even the great John Peel speechless. That era-defining catalogue of tracks is still taking people’s breath away so many years later.