Why Johnny Marr sings

Jan 22, 2003 at 12:00 am

When Bowie sideman Mick Ronson stepped out from Ziggy’s shadow to release a solo album, Play Don’t Worry, some less-than-kind critics opined that maybe he should’ve called the opus Play Don’t Sing. One could almost imagine what expectations await a singing Johnny Marr, the last truly great guitar hero rock has produced. As a founding member of the Smiths, Marr has spawned imitators like Oasis, the Stone Roses, Belle & Sebastian, etc. Marr bolstered his strong but silent partner résumé further when he started up Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner and assumed support roles with the likes of the Pretenders, Brian Ferry, The The, the Charlatans, Beth Orton and Neil Finn.

Marr had time to think of other options when Electronic went on permanent hiatus after releasing their third album. “I think we’re finished now,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’d done everything that we were gonna do. New Order got back together a couple of years ago and they’re going to be making a new record, which is as it should be.”

About to make his live US singing debut with the Healers in Hoboken, N.J., hometown of Frank Sinatra, he doesn’t seem the slightest bit anxious. As for his singing, Marr’s vocals actually emulate his guitar playing, as if he’s stretching syllables to quasi-mimic the slide work of his famous fingers.

Marr’s original plan for the Healers was to get a singer, “preferably an unknown so I wouldn’t have to deal with the whole supergroup thing again,” laughs Marr, who sheepishly admits he didn’t realize having Zak Starkey (Ringo’s boy and the Who’s substitute timekeeper) sunk that notion. “I actually did find a couple I was fairly pleased with. The band went off to a café and I should’ve known right then that I was gonna be the singer because they were already talking behind my back. They came back with a fairly conspiratorial air that I was nuts for considering these other guys. As good as they were, it was a bit boring and that I should do it.”

Marr sang on the initial demos to get a lock on the lyrical as well as musical landscape. “In the past I never knew how the whole thing was gonna finish up.” This led to surprises like finding out the last song on the last Smiths album was “I Won’t Share You,” which many writers allege Morrissey directed to Marr and his extracurricular musical activities. “I couldn’t say if it was directed at me and if that’s the case, he was very much misinformed because I ain’t shared by anybody,” he audibly grins. “I was entertained (by Morrissey’s lyrics) the same way as everybody else. So I was a fan.”

Marr’s lyrics worked their way onto the last couple of Electronic albums but this would be the first opportunity to voice his own concerns one-on-one with the audience. “I didn’t want to get on a soapbox and start eulogizing or telling people how to live or write stories about characters in my life.”

Although faintly, the lyrics echo Marr’s theories, or rather obsessions, with “personal freedom and self-preservation, trying to exist outside a demographic and outside a cultural stereotype. I won’t be labeled as a macho man by the men’s magazines. Or a New Age fruitcake because I’m interested in something esoteric. Or a ponce or fairy because I like wearing earrings and makeup. Or a typical thirtysomething father because I have children. That’s why I wrote a song called ‘In Betweens,’ about trying to live outside that oppressive demographic we’re forced to live into.”

His earlier conviction to be a guitar hero hasn’t abated long after becoming one. “I was brought up with the idea of being a musician full stop; paid or otherwise was a privilege. So to be a guitar hero and cited as an influence on all these things is genuinely humbling. Seriously. You’d have to have a pretty gargantuan ego to put it down to your own brilliance.”

Marr’s own guitar hero worship is obvious in the first few bars of “In Between,” which echoes Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” right down to its maraca shakes. “I love that sound. Whatever suggests a certain voodoo is OK in my book. Even ‘How Soon Is Now’ has that vibe going. The idea of the band was to walk out on a stage with a set list of five songs and be fairly lucky if we got to the third. To play a festival and have a decent enough musical vocabulary and intensity to be able to stretch a song out. I’m not calling upon 1968. I’m just tired of seeing four or five British guys leaning against a wall scowling.”

And shoe gazing is right out as well.

“I think it’s mad pretending to not be onstage when you actually are. I think it’s too easy to look down at your shoes and be ironic.” He pauses a moment. “Maybe I should practice a moonwalk or something."


Johnny Marr & the Healers will be appearing at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) with Mellowdrone on Monday, Jan. 27. Call 313-833-9700 for details.

E-mail Serene Dominic at [email protected]