There is a light that never goes out: Praise the indie gods! It’s Johnny Marr at the Roundhouse!
In the spotlight of the recent furore over Morrissey’s autobiography, it pays to remember not just how vital The Smiths were as a musical force, but who the truly […]
In the spotlight of the recent furore over Morrissey’s autobiography, it pays to remember not just how vital The Smiths were as a musical force, but who the truly talented lynchpin of the group was. I am, of course, referring to him of the distorter pedal and iconic riffing, the one and only Mr. Johnny Marr. Guitar hero, barely over five foot seven (having met him in a pub, after a few too many shandies, I can testify to this) and in possession of a rather impressive collection of jackets: Johnny Marr seems iconic, an instantly recognisable, be-fringed behemoth of indie heroes whose talent asserts itself as formidably on his newest album, the hate-it-at-first-then-play-it-obessively-when-the-its-not-Hatful-of-Hollow-shock-wears-off The Messenger, as it did in 1986 when The Queen Is Dead was granted to the world. And I was going to see him, at The Roundhouse. Cue squealing.
You may never have guessed this, but as a massive and committed and enamoured fan of The Smiths, the prospect of breathing the same fetid air as one of my personal icons for an evening was an exciting, if not nerve-wracking process. What if he was mean? What if he was dreadful? What if he didn’t play any Smiths songs and I cried in public and people laughed at me until I scuttled home and cried into my pillow, whilst listening to Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want and aiming curses at the whole of the Greater Manchester region?
When I got to The Roundhouse, full of hope and cheap rosé, I rapidly realised that I was the youngest person there, by about… twenty years. Middle aged men, most with some variant on the Paul Weller or Ian Curtis hairdo, stood around, reminiscing, but this worked to my advantage as I quickly wriggled into some prime dancing space perfect for supplication before the altar of a Real Life Legend. Also – quick tip this, ladies! – you automatically look more interesting when you make up the extreme minority, population of one. Compliments flew thick and fast; at least, if you count ‘nice Jarvis Cocker jacket!’ and ‘you actually like Bernard Sumner’s work with Electronic? Mental’ as compliments, which I certainly do.
Oh, but when you have a back catalogue like Johnny Marr picking a set-list for a gig must be like pulling teeth. The opener of Upstarts, vowels dragged into a sort of primal crooning and the assentation of ‘that’s how it goes – in these times’ acting as a shrug towards contemporary apathy, was pure Marr. Classy, considered and technically brilliant, with the sinister undertone that underpins the jangling in so much of his work, it was the start of a compelling and thoughtful set which only the most staunch of dissenters could fail to enjoy. (And if you don’t like The Smiths? Go away, I don’t like you). Panic – wonderful, arch, glorious Panic – came next, and Marr fills Morrissey’s vocal shoes with a kind of earthy cautiousness that gives his interpretation of the classic an edge which stops the inevitable Smiths comparisons from being too jarring. Yes, he doesn’t have the range or vocal power of Morrissey in his prime, but Morrissey doesn’t even have that anymore. Marr acknowledges his own vocal limitations and succeeds because of, not in spite of, this.
The other Smiths songs, placed to pepper the set with everyone’s favourite material, are magnificent. For a child of the 90s, getting to hear the songs recorded before I was even conceived – the songs which taught me not only that being miserable was not only normal but acceptable, the songs I howled into the night and drawled into the fabric of my formative years – was nothing short of miraculous. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before was as deliciously tart as ever, propelled by the aggression of that famous propulsive, compelling riff. It seems easy to Marr, unforced and natural, yet it’s a magnificent piece of music played with considerable technical skill. Bigmouth Strikes Again, in possession of that furious, acerbic opening, is magnificent. Crashing through the cavernous space of the Roundhouse like an aural steamroller, it seems to pinpoint a moment in musical history whilst simultaneously seeming fresh, innovative and exciting. I get far too excited at the majestic opening sweep of How Soon is Now, with its magnificent guitar drone providing the framework for one of the bleakest songs in the oeuvre of a famously melancholy band, but I can assure you that it was brilliant. It is, after all, possibly the second best Smiths song (after the title track of The Queen is Dead, naturally).
Marr’s own songs are pretty top-notch too, especially when you consider that despite his long and varied musical career, with stints in groups such as Modest Mouse and The Cribs, this is his first solo record. Lockdown actually reveals Marr as someone in possession of a strangely charming singing voice; it’s gentle, shows a lovely awareness of tone and pacing and the crowd react well to it. Also, some of the lines in it are haunting, showing Marr as a lyricist capable of nuance – ‘I know I was born just be near these streets and entry speecing/Someone’s situation there’s nobody’s hope’ particularly lovely (take that Mozza!) Generate! Generate! has a wonderful, sing-a-long refrain, splitting words into their phonetic components with a compulsive energy, and The Messenger plays with pitch to stately, imposing effect. It would be hard to deny the fact that most, if not all, of the crowd was primarily there for The Smiths stuff, but the new songs prompted plenty of smiles, and even an excited “is that the Telecaster he recorded This Charming Man on?” from the jolly bloke next to me, doing nothing to maintain the Smiths’ fan’s reputation as an arch miserablist.
Marr’s encore was a masterclass in how to get this right, as hyperbolic as that might seem, and was the part of the set where I abandoned all hope of getting out of this with my dignity intact. Please, Please, Please… was as haunting, as impeccable as ever; for a relatively simple, delicate little song, its impact has not been lessened by time or even that stomach-churning Christmas advert; as a study in sexual and social isolation, it’s magnificent. By covering I Fought The Law Marr provided a raucous antithesis to some of the sadness on show, and proved that he can do solid, sturdy punk pretty well. It was a pleasant surprise to see some Electronic in there – take that man in the bar queue! – in the form of Getting Away With It, but this night belonged to the most predictable, the most obviously perfect choice to close with. I cried, everybody cried, you’d have cried, but There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is nothing short of sublime. This song – this maddening, addictive, sumptuous song –seems to defy attempts to explain just why it possesses the power it does, but this live rendition only serves to increase its appeal. Asserting itself in all of its melancholy beauty like a double-decker bus, There Is A Light… proves itself as one of those rare songs that outreaches even the term ‘anthemic’. Oh, it’s good. It’s astounding.
At one point in the evening Johnny Marr curtly remarked that ‘It takes more than a lyricist to make a song’; a rather obvious dig at his old songwriting partner, but a valid one. It’s not The Smiths (although I’d have quite liked to take the bassist for a drink, the rhythm section ain’t quite Joyce and O’Rourke!) but watching Marr is as close as I’m likely to get. As a technical guitarist he can’t be touched, especially when you consider that he’s self-taught, picking up a guitar under the fluorescent lights of deprived 80s Manchester to create some of the most iconic musical moments of his, or any, generation. Saturday night at the Roundhouse proved that, as a guitarist, no one comes close, and that all my gushing, my persistent defence of The Smiths’ reputation over the years (‘real life’s grey and depressing, get some sodding perspective etc. etc.’) is completely valid. Thank you Johnny, both for the chance to act like a obsessed wet blanket in public and for some of the albums that have become part of my life. You’re a hero. Morrissey… good luck with the book sales, I guess.