Short interview with Johnny Marr conducted during the recording of the 'Strangeways, Here We Come' LP. In addition to providing some interesting insights into the songwriting process for the new album, Johnny also speaks about the joys of playing live, the controversy over the 'Panic' single, the peculiar appeal of The Smiths to European fans, the band's prolific release schedule, image, and... future plans.
Interview sourced from the Petal Productions/Secret Squirrel Enterprises DVD 'The Smiths Still Ill: Interviews'.
johnny be good
Well, we're in Bath in the secluded English countryside talking to Johnny Marr of The Smiths. How are you Johnny?
What are you doing here in Bath?
We're doing the new LP. We're sort of midway through it now, got a couple more weeks to go on it. It's going well, we're working hard. We've been here about four weeks. The LP's called 'Strangeways, Here We Come'. It should be finished in two weeks.
Does it mark any kind of new direction for The Smiths?
Yeah, I think it does.
In what way?
Well, the writing since the last LP has changed towards a slightly harder kind of feel. And I use less guitars on the tracks, but sort of bigger sounding guitars rather than using things sort of interwoven. And because I've written the music in this particular sort of hard-hitting way, it's a lot more direct. It's not an intentional massive departure because we like pretty much the way we sound anyway. We've been together for a few years and we don't feel under any massive pressure to change with each LP. Instrumentation-wise, this album's a little bit more varied cos I've been playing a bit more keyboards - pianos and organs and things. But the songs are still... miserable rock songs. Thank God! Which I'm really pleased about. So there's no sort of massive change, there isn't any sort of 'Happy Talk's' on this LP or anything. It's still pretty serious music.
Are you a serious person?
Me?! Oh yeah. (smiles) What do you think?
In what way do you think the songwriting has progressed over the past few years?
Um, well, in the past I kinda enjoyed, um... (thinks) I'm trying not to make too little of past songs, but I kinda enjoy the idea of some disposability in pop music - from my side of it, from the musical side of things. I liked the idea of short, snappy, to-the-point pop songs. I like songs to be quite to the point and I do tend to like songs to say what they've gonna say in two-and-a-half minutes. But having said that, I've tried to write a bit more emotionally, rather than wanting to hear a great condensed pop song, say a la 'This Charming Man'. The music's a little bit more serious now. I mean, it's not quite conceptual, but I'm trying to write with a little bit more feeling rather than just come up with a riff, or a tune that's a great pop tune. I've sort of discarded a lot of things because they didn't really have enough intensity one way or the other. And I'm getting away from things sounding... pleasant and melodic - as melodic as they sounded in the past. I'm trying to sound a little bit more discordant, guitar-wise and keyboards-wise anyway.
It seems that you're becoming more of a focus of The Smiths than perhaps Morrissey was, seeing Morrissey doesn't seem to be having as high a profile. Are you happy to take on that role as being a bit more of a frontman?
Well, if this is happening I don't know why it is. It's just an accidental thing... No, I'm not really happy to take on the role of frontman. I don't think I am - I think Morrissey is the frontman. And if people want an angle on the co-writer, or the guitarist, or however people see me, then that's fair enough. But I'm not The Smiths frontman. I formed the group, but I'm not the frontman.
It's seems The Smiths are very prolific. Hardly a couple of months go by without something new coming out.
Well, people do mention that to us, but I try not to accept it too much. Because if it's prolific by other people's standards then that's their tough luck really - people who only write ten songs a year. I mean, I'm starting to see that people expect us to be in the norm - which is, what, about ten songs a year, four singles off the LP. Which is never the way we've done things. I don't regard ourselves as particularly prolific by our own standards because it's what we've always done. It's what I do - I write. I don't think there's anything particularly amazing about being able to write however many songs we write a year - 20, 25 songs. Since 'The Queen Is Dead' LP in this country, I'm not sure we've actually released on record 12 songs. And we haven't even had the follow-up LP out. So by everybody else's standards I suppose that's quite prolific. In between one LP and another, because of singles and B-sides and extra tracks, we've released a lot of new songs. [Johnny touches on an important point here. The sheer number of non-album singles released by The Smiths - unusual for a band in the 1980s but less so for a group in the 1960s, like The Beatles - is probably what's established The Smiths as prolific in many people's minds - BB] But I don't think we're prolific, no.
Do you find it easy to write?
Yeah. That's why I don't think we're prolific. That's what I do.
Do you have to be in a certain kind of mood to write?
No, not really. I can always find an angle and write a song every day. To get back to what I was saying before, even though it's been just as natural for me to write stuff for the new LP, I have tried to write with a bit more direct kind of emotion. That's to say, some of the songs are quite brutal. Not in the sense of some of the old songs like 'Miserable Lie' or 'What She Said' - which were quite stompy and thrashy - but quite brutal in a melodic sense. Trying to get a little bit more discordant. Because I think probably as a fan and as a listener of music, I'm just really bored of... commerciality. At the moment it seems to be really safe, and commerciality seems to mean non-progression and blandness. Whereas when we first started, we felt that commerciality was something that was really, really good; something not to be sneered at. And I think that with the old songs we proved we could merge both interesting ideas with an accessible sound. But I'm getting less and less interested in that. It might be to the detriment of our record sales, but it's not good just churning out songs that are gonna appear on the charts. I mean, I'd rather sell much less records and make much more interesting music. All musicians would probably claim the same, but whether they actually do it or not is debatable.
When 'Panic' came out a lot of radio people were fairly shocked over the "hang the D.J." line. Do you enjoy upsetting people?
I do, when we agree with the principle and they disagree with the principle, when there's a certain principle at stake. Yeah. I don't agree with controversy for the sake of it. I think everybody can see through that, and everybody can spot a fake a mile away. That's why we can do such a radical statement such as 'Hang the D.J.' in a single and it can be successful. Because as with all the lyrics it's not just a quick stab at controversy. To be honest, probably naively we just made the record and decided it'd be a good single and put it out. And the label said, do you expect this to be played? And when it first came out, we suddenly realised that it might not be. It's probably massive naivity but it's all... it's only music, you know. (rolls eyes)
Is playing live something of a release for you, or is it more of a necessary chore ?
No, it's a necessary joy. I could never really see it as a chore. The touring bit, the ups and downs, they're a chore, but playing live isn't a chore ever. It's always a real joy. We're fairly typical in that we wanna make each tour, and each show specifically, better than the last one. And we wanna be a more exciting live group. And we've always had a really amazing bond with the audience - which most musicians probably would like to claim, but probably in their hearts know that they don't have it. I go to all sorts of gigs - I like to go and see shows - and it's something I've noticed since going out to see other acts, and that is they don't have what we have. It's almost like a football match. Everybody's really gregarious and outrageous, and people don't just stand there taking us as seriously as people might expect. It really is like a party. I mean we're not The Faces, but being out in front of the audience, it is like a party.
Are you cocooned much when you go abroad, or do you get a chance to actually get out and see any of the country?
In the past we have been, we've been pretty much cocooned out of our own choice - we didn't really want to do much. But I've fixed that because I go away occasionally on my own and that way I get to do it. But we haven't been to Europe for a long time as a group, even though I've been myself. And the last time we were in the States was about a year ago, and we were pretty cocooned there because there wasn't really much time to do anything. There was probably a week off when we hung out, but we didn't really get to lig around much. So I try to do that - nip off with my wife and do it myself.
You're pretty popular in Europe.
I believe so, yeah.
And yet it's very difficult for a non-English speaking person to perhaps appreciate the subtleties in the lyrics. Why do you think Europe's cottoned on to The Smiths - a very English band?
That's especially puzzling because of the importance of the lyrics, and because they're literally much more important than the average rock lyric. I think the actual language barrier is transcended by our appeal, our image, and the principles that the group own, that we stand behind. For instance, there's tons of French kids that absolutely adore The Smiths who can't speak a word of English. I still think they know what we're about, I really do. I mean, obviously if they're Smiths fans and they find out what the lyrics mean... But as far as initial attraction, to European kids we look quite different - we are quite different - and our philosophies are pretty different to the norm in rock'n'roll. But we still do have a sort of 'rock'n'roll' appeal in Europe that certainly the French and the Italians and the Germans find really appealing. I mean, in those countries there is always going to be a massive market for American and English rock'n'roll. There's people like Johnny Holliday - in France he's still making disco records now, hi-NRG records. His whole career has just been France, and he's been massive there cos he's got a massive rock'n'roll spirit. They love all that, the Europeans. Which is why I like it - it's my kind of thing. People like Johnny Thunders and the Dolls, and Iggy, and all these sort of veterens of rock'n'roll they really, really like. I think that they can see some of that in us, but still there's a completely new angle. To give all credit to Morrissey, that's his side of things - he really does bring in that new, totally un-rock'n'roll angle to a rock'n'roll group.
You've mentioned words like 'doctrine' and 'philosophy' a couple of times. Is there a Smiths manifesto?
Our 'doctrine' is that all the naff and the hideous things that have happened as a consequence of rock'n'roll, and all the things that are supposed to be accepted in the music business, we don't want to involve that in the group at all. You know... (smiles) Limos are OK, I suppose, now and again. But long hair, drugs, baggy trousers, drum solos, concept LPs... The normal things that are just kinda rock'n'roll that people take for granted are hideous. Instrumental mixes on B-sides of singles, ridiculous tours, massive, crappy venues, bad merchandising... All these horrible, old stale things that mean nothing to young people in the 80s, in any country. No one really gives a shit about leather trousers anymore - except people who are hung up on Velvet Underground LPs. That's all very boring, and it's come to a head over the last few years in this country with groups playing out this rock'n'roll facade. We're completely different.
How were you affected by punk?
Oh... Unfortunately I was born just a little bit too late. Cos it happened at a time when I was really starting to take me playing seriously. And just as I was learning to play all these inticate patterns and chords, all these kids came out playing trash. And so initially I missed the point and the beauty of it really, cos I was personally just actually getting into being able to play - and the whole idea was not being able to play! But after a year or so I found things that really, really interested me in the punk movement. I mean, there were a lot of good things that came out of it - most notably Patti Smith, and the Stooges, groups like that. I was one of those people that didn't get into the Stooges until punk. You know, I don't claim to have liked the Stooges in 1973 - mainly cos I was only 10!
The Smiths are very successful here in the UK. With this next album, are you consciously aiming for a wider success.
Not consciously, no. Not with this album, cos we wanted to do that with the first LP. We consciously did it from the start - we wanted to big worldwide. We've always tried to do what it appears we're doing now, and that's try and make a bigger chart impression in America. And in Australia, and Japan, and places we've been too busy to visit, and too busy to work on.
What do you like about America?
I like the music, I like the people... I like the history - short as many people think it is. I think America's a really fascinating place. I think the negative things about it - which everybody can get to see when they go - are equally as fascinating. I like it because it's much less self-conscious. Even though obviously politically it's in a mess; a mess on a bigger scale than most other countries, put it that way. But at least the positive spirit of musicians in America is something that's really attractive, and something that's missing in a hideous way from this country. Obviously, I'm not talking about Reaganomics or the kind of (punches air with fist) 'Born in the USA' conservatism - I'm not talking about it in a political sense. I think that stinks. But it's much more inspiring than living in this country at the moment anyway.
How important do you think The Smiths' image is? Is it important to you?
Oh yeah! Not in the sense of the way we have our hair cut, or the clothes we wear. Again, I think our image encompasses that whole manifesto thing, our doctrine. I think our image is crucially important. Just take a look at the new LP. I mean, I think 'The World Won't Listen' is a really, really good, strong LP sleeve. I think it's one of the strongest, as was the Elvis Presley 'Shoplifters' sleeve. And 'The World Won't Listen' sleeve is really good because our audience - the people who want to buy the record - they buy it, and the sleeve is trying to sort of depict them, really. Not that we regard all our audience as wearing leather jackets and either having bouffants or quiffs or anything. It's much more important than that. It's just that we do try to identify ourselves to our audience as young and living in the 80s. I mean, we are young and we do live very much in the 80s, that's why we don't want to be painted as a rock'n'roll band with all the traditions of the other rock'n'roll groups. Because there's something special and extra that you need in the 80s, that the audience require from the group. I wouldn't want to go out and see a group and, you know, just see them come on and do the old leather pants trip, or the lights trip, and the backdrop, and the usual kind of palaver. Our image is that we try to portray that we live in the real world.
So when the album's finished, what's the plan for the rest of 1987?
People will obviously want us to say that we're gonna tour. Even the labels and stuff. But we're not going to be touring England though. We're not going to tour Australia or... Maybe we'll just do some European gigs, or maybe we'll do some American gigs. But we'll only have time to do that and that alone if we wanna stick to what we really want to do, and that's make some more records this year.
So, are you still enjoying yourself as much as when you first started?
Oh yeah! I'm enjoying it more so now. The last few months I've been enjoying it more so than I have for ages, yeah. Yeah, I really am enjoying it. It's great, cos we're doing what's always been the most enjoyable thing. Right now you've caught me at a good time because it's always been the most enjoyable thing for us to do, making an LP. It's great. It's brilliant when we're in this position of making an LP because we always feel exactly the same way. To hell with whether we've got a single on this LP. We've never been the sort of group who, when we've put down the tracks for the LP, go "Where's the single"? The single's either there, and if it isn't there then so what, you know. We're on a really kind of anarchistic high about this record. (raises eyebrows) We're trying to make it as uncommercial and as unaccessible as is possible within The Smiths. We're not SPK [experimental industrial rock group - BB], but we're trying not to sort of be safe. I don't think we'll ever be safe.
Reproduced WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photo by Tom Sheehan reproduced without permission.