There was a request made recently for a Johnny Marr ICA to complement the efforts (# 96 and #97) afforded to his former band mate.
What follows aren’t by any stretch of the imagination the best tracks that he’s played on but they do serve to highlight some of the diverse acts he’s been involved in, either as a member or as a guest musician, presumably being paid union rates.
1. Native Land – Everything But The Girl (1984)
So let’s start by actually featuring something he played on while he was in The Smiths. I wrote about this on the old blog back in 2011 and will just regurgitate those words one more time:-
The decade that was the 80s is one that divides opinion on whether it was a good era for music. On the one hand, there were some really appalling things inflicted upon us…..Jive Bunny, Shakin Stevens, Joe Dolce, The Birdie Song, Cliff Richard being #1 every Xmas, Bucks Fizz, T’Pau, Bowie & Jagger destroying Dancing In The Streets, Agafuckingdoo, Phil Collins, Billy Joel and soap stars becoming pop stars (Kylie Minogue excepted!!)
But on the other…..well, there’s been loads of great and often long-forgotten bands featured here on TVV which hopefully more than make up for the monstrosities listed above (many of which remain staple diets of loads of ‘classic’ radio and video stations).
The track featured today came up on random shuffle on the i-pod the other day. It’s one that sums up a lot of the 80s for me….new emerging bands that made intelligent pop records that were jaunty and upbeat…the soundtrack to the seemingly continuous demonstrations against the bomb, nuclear power, the ideologically-driven attacks against the coal industry, the apartheid regime, homophobia, racism and Thatcher/Reagan. Every other weekend in 1984 I seemed to be off somewhere or other determined to make my voice heard…
The line-up on this single was an indie supergroup with Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt being joined by Phil Moxham of Young Marble Giants fame on bass and June Miles Kingston who was part of Fun Boy Three and later on was with The Communards playing drums. Oh and Johnny Marr played harmonica…..
The single should have been a big hit. But it only reached #73 and it would take another four years and a cover version for EBTG to enjoy real success.
(The b-side of this single, Riverbed Dry, is at the foot of this post as an mp3; but Jonny didn’t play on that)
2. Up Against It – Pet Shop Boys (1996)
Johnny had of course worked previously with Neil Tennant in the early days of Electronic and so it can’t have been too much of a surprise to receive a call asking if he could add his talents to what they felt was a ‘guitar-sounding song’ that was to feature on the next Pet Shop Boys LP. The song turned out to be Up Against It which is tucked away as the eighth track on Bilingual – the backing vocals on the song were seemingly an idea hatched by Johnny in the studio on the day he went into record his part.
3. Get The Message – Electronic (1991)
I love how the first few bars of are so reminiscent of a slowed-down Bigmouth Strikes Again before Bernard Sumner adds his special ingredients via the keyboards and vocals. In 2007 Johnny Marr said it was “…maybe the track I’m most proud of out of my whole career”, while in June 2009 he reiterated that it was “the best song I’ve written”. That’s good enough for me to make it the centrepiece of the first side of this ICA.
As part of a feature in music magazine in 2012, Johnny was asked ‘ What possessed you to work on Girls Aloud’s last album?’
His reply was that he was evangelical about pop music and the idea that pop is crass and commercial is an old-fashioned rockist conceit linked to the whole “Disco Sucks” campaign. He added that he had always seen The Smiths as a pop group and cited that Sparks, Roxy Music, Bowie and Sweet all made great pop 45s, stating that he wanted to hold on to the nobility and aspirations of pop, and what it can be.
Until I looked at what could feature on this ICA, I had no idea he had played with Girls Aloud. Makes me smile and a wee bit proud that as far back as December 2006, over on the old blog, I sang the praises of this particular all-girl band. I revisited the post in August 2013.
5. Love Is Stronger Than Death – The The (1993)
Strange as it may seem, but Johnny was part of The The for a longer period that he was in The Smiths, albeit his tenure from 1988-1994 only involved two albums, both of which were the most commercially successful in the long career of Matt Johnson. This wonderfully sad song, written by Matt following the death of his brother, is as far removed from the sound of early The The as can be imagined – indeed, it is such a powerfully delivered number that you can imagine it belonging to the arsenal of the big stadium rockers of the era – but thanks to Johnny’s contribution on guitar and harmonica nobody, no matter how talented they are as a vocalist and whoever they got in beside them to work on the arrangement, could dream of ever topping the original version….which may well be why nobody has tried (to the best of my knowledge).
1. Shirley – Billy Bragg (1986)
This is the a different recording of Greetings To The New Brunette, the track which opened the LP Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. Much more of a band effort than the better known version, there’s a lot of Johnny on guitars and harmonica. Was tough to not feature Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals but I can more than make up for that with….
2. Walking Down Madison (LP version) – Kirsty MacColl (1991)
As mentioned in a previous posting, it was just a week after the break-up of The Smiths that Johnny penned a tune which he quickly sent onto Kirsty who, at the time, was needing a bit of help overcoming writer’s block. Although it would take four more years before the tune was made available, the addition of lyrics, melody and a touch of rap brought about a Top 30 hit in the summer of 1991.
3. European Me – Johnny Marr (2013)
His decision to throw caution to the wind by writing and recording under his own name, and indeed taking lead vocal, took a fair few folk by surprise. There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the songs on the two albums to date – The Messenger (2013) and Playland (2014) – with them being a blend of solid guitar solos and melodies tacked onto the verse-chorus-verse approach that has been the most solid of foundations for rock and pop music since the genres came into being. What was more interesting was that he threw himself wholeheartedly into being an out-and-out frontman for the first time in his career which, in a live setting, meant also singing lead on numbers he had written with Morrissey. It was a beautiful contrast that he was determined to play the songs as close to the renditions from the 80s as possible while his more esteemed former band member was going down ever increasingly rockier takes to utilise the talents of his own backing musicians.
It also meant that Johnny had to face up to and deal with questions from the press on the increasingly bizarre outbursts from Moz, including his views and opinions on race and politics; to his credit, Johnny has more or less avoided any slanging matches simply pointing out that his own beliefs on what makes a just society haven’t changed all that much since he was a teenager. Given all this, I felt the title of this song made it a certainty for the ICA. Oh and for the fact it owes more than a small debt to Penelope Tree by Felt.
4. Dashboard – Modest Mouse (2005)
I can’t claim to be any sort of expert on Modest Mouse; I do know however, that their 2004 single Float On is an exceptionally enjoyable few minutes of indie pop music. That however, pre-dated Johnny joining the band in 2006, being part of the ensemble who wrote, recorded and toured the LP We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank which hit the shops the following year.
The album got a lot of positive reviews and featured highly in a number of end of year critics polls, but I’ve always found it a bit of a difficult listen with too many of the songs seeming to last maybe 45 seconds or a minute beyond what they should have been – almost as if the musicians were just to keen to show off their skills at the expense of tightening up on the numbers. It’s also in many places, very reminiscent of the sort of music that had propelled Arcade Fire to fame and fortune. The lead single, which appeared some two months in advance of the release of the album, remains a very fine listen, clearly benefitting from Johnny’s input as a player and writer.
(as with the EBTG single, I’ve made the b-side available as a bonus track to the ICA)
5. Hand In Glove – Sandie Shaw (1984)
The debut single by The Smiths had been a relative flop. Now that they were famous and the ever-increasing numbers of fans were snapping up everything, the idea of re-releasing Hand In Glove with Sandie Shaw on lead vocal was an inspired one. The three boys in the band re-recorded their bits and Moz watched on from the sidelines as Sandie demonstrated how to give it the big vocal treatment. It reached #27 in April 1984, enabling an appearance on Top of The Pops in which they boys appeared sans shoes in homage to the singer as she had done this more often than not at the height of her fame in the 60s. Sandie kind of threw Moz shapes in what has become a legendary performance.