Tag Archives: The Smiths

In concert: Johnny Marr (Toronto; April 27, 2013)

Johnny Marr wants to be the messenger

(click images to enlarge)

Johnny Marr may never grow old. Chronologically he’s always been four-and-a-half years younger than Steven Morrissey, but where once they ran together in the smartest new gang in town, the singer’s descended into crotchety windmill-tilting, and the guitarist now seems a generation younger: fitter and sprightlier, socialized into the modern pop world of project one-offs, Facebooked tour tales and peer palling about.

“Hand In Glove” turns 30 on May 13th. Marr’s 50 this Halloween. Both ages seem surprising, in part because The Smiths’ tidy recording career never gathered moss, and in part because Marr’s serial short-term project-hopping’s blurred together for all but his most ardent followers. In pop fandom, most Smiths generalists would have as much trouble listing all Marr’s sideman turns as the average Joe might in naming the 50 states. I’m not saying North Dakota doesn’t matter, but put it this way: I have one Cribs disc and it’s not Ignore The Ignorant.

Johnny Marr won't stop if you think you've heard this one before


Anyway, 2013 finds Marr touring a solid and spunky “debut” solo record (a disingenuous tag, considering 2003’s Boomslang), and The Messenger’s vivacity was in full bloom at the Toronto show I caught last weekend (Phoenix Concert Theatre, April 27th). Marr bounded out to the LP’s stomping opener, “The Right Thing Right,” and steered the ship through one of the dandiest opening concert salvos I’ve heard in a good while.

As an extended artist-fan hug, the spell was greater than its sum of parts: a few Smiths tunes, a few of the better new songs, a middling Electronic single. This was about the erstwhile boy wonder magician commanding the spotlight as both singer and guitar hero, wiggling hips and pursing lips while his fingers – those magnificent fingers – pulled ringing chords and twinkling arpeggios out of his trusty Fender Jaguar, dazzling a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that clearly came primed for revelry. One of the liveliest multi-generational crowds I’ve seen in many a Toronto club date, to be honest.

What oceanic pool of restraint and resolve was Marr drawing from to allow Morrissey the pulpit in those Smiths days? Not that he was exactly Teller to Moz’ Jillette, and not that it was a bad decision from a legend-building POV, but he was so quiet. England understood him, but rockist America never did: a hapless 2003 Rolling Stone “greatest guitarist” issue left Marr off the list. The Messenger barely dented the Top 100 over here. The Marr we saw Saturday night seemed very comfortable as the billed artist, all the chops, haircut and quips you could ever need. All those years spent playing someone else’s foil – whether to genuine pop icons or indie bands of varietal worth – seem sadly unnecessary. He could’ve been Clapton, not Ronson.

Johnny Marr does the right thing right


The price of that deference is he’ll always share the bill with the elephant.

Rapture greeted every Smiths song on the docket. Not surprising. The single-minded, youthful drive that fueled Marr’s Smiths arrangements not only marks them as immediately identifiable, but also of a higher caste. When I saw Marr tour in 2003 he wasn’t doing Smiths, a huge concession given his rock ex-wife had been dipping into the canon for years. A decade later, Marr’s rethink pays off in explosions of joy, that electric twelfth-man vibe which elevates a show to a capital-E Experience.  Marr’s not pissing around with his selections, either. No cultishly adored B-sides here: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” “The Queen Is Dead,” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” all punctuated the main set. Maybe some of us would’ve fainted if “Girl Afraid” appeared in the playlist, but come on: look at those four songs! If live music’s best enjoyed as a communal whomp-whomp, can you go wrong with the breezy verbosity and chiming pre-chorus riffs in “Stop Me,” or the deliriously fatalistic singalong romanticism of “There Is A Light,” or the hilarious imagery and psycho-metallic soloing in “The Queen Is Dead,” or the 60-mile-an-hour thrill ride guitar breaks of “Bigmouth”?

No, you cannot.

“G’night!” he shouted after “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” He turned to go, the club buzzing like the Leafs had just won a playoff game. Oh, you imp.

As a singer of Smiths songs, Marr is no Morrissey. Those note-bending yodels have sharper contours than you think. And some lyrics’re meant only for certain jawlines. But if his tone’s not quite there, he does share a certain mid-range timbre, and with the simpatico backing provided by guitarist James Doviak, drummer Jack Mitchell and bassist Iwan Gronow, the music outpoints anything Morrissey’s employed in his Smiths exhumations. With apologies to Rourke and Joyce, Marr is the sound of The Smiths, and each oldie unfolds exquisitely in its creator’s hands. It makes you ache a little over that severed alliance, the divorce with no winner.

Google “Lorne Michaels Beatles offer,” and hope Jimmy Fallon’s got a chequing account.

Johnny Marr breaking rocks in the hot sun with Kevin Drew


The second half of the main set flagged, as Marr strung too many Messenger songs together. And I don’t know why he completely ignored Boomslang; a couple picks would’ve spiked the punch. All told, 10 of 12 Messenger tracks made the cut. Too many, even though the second half included the terrific new waveish title track, the splendidly melodic “New Town Velocity,” and some beautifully expansive, extended soloing on “Say Demesne.”

The encore fully restored the buzz: the star in a crimson “Johnny Fucking Marr” tee ($30 at the merch table!), an enthusiastic “I Fought The Law” with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew guesting, a de-synthesized “Getting Away With It,” and a housequaking “How Soon Is Now?” With Doviak handling the two-note sigh, Marr grabbed the shivering Bo Diddley rhythm and played it like no Morrissey sideman ever has, its swampy ripples and curves in all the right places, with a knee-weakening resonance that satisfied the mind as much as it stirred the heart. Songs that saved your life, indeed.

Johnny Marr setlist, April 27, 2013


Songs that saved your life: The Smiths – “The Headmaster Ritual”

THE SMITHS – The Headmaster Ritual (1985)

“Five years of education here proved to have no effect upon me whatsoever…except in a very adverse sense. Not to be recommended.”

In winter 1985, Morrissey walked The Oxford Road Show past childhood Manchester haunts, and stopped outside the gates of Stretford St Mary’s school. His sour pronouncements would compel the school’s sitting headmaster to mount a counteroffensive on local radio. The new Smiths LP, Meat Is Murder, was #1 in the U.K. album charts, while its tumultuous opening track, “The Headmaster Ritual,” made art out of the singer’s magnificent angst.

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s arch, vituperative lyric was neither the first nor last time Morrissey brayed about adolescent tribulations, but as the press and public’s fascination with his thematic material intensified, he began using his celebrity to ramrod a wider array of targets. The results could be spectacular. As the lead song on a chartbusting LP, “Ritual” was guaranteed analysis and notoriety, and its subject matter further distanced The Smiths from the Brit pack.

Morrissey’s March 1985 walking tour of Manchester, courtesy The Oxford Road Show:

The host album’s a wonderful piece of work, the most bewitching and beguiling of the four Smiths studio LPs. Miles ahead of  The Smiths‘ stiff and boxy execution, Meat Is Murder sounds luscious, muscular, vivacious. The all-hands-on-deck stylistic breadth’s amazing: consider the ground covered, from “What She Said”‘s metalheaded clangour to the swampy, multitracked guitar break in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” from “Well I Wonder”‘s desolate, rain-soaked reverie to the pound of flesh exacted by the stridently funked-out “Barbarism Begins At Home.”

And then, the lyrics. They’re the reason so many of us dig The Smiths in the first place, and while Morrissey arguably grew more artful over the next decade, Meat‘s lyrics represent the best Smiths-era expression of his morose, inescapably magnetic confessionalism: while he’s still teasing out his Wilde-ly romanticized frustrations, in improving upon The Smiths‘ model, his delivery’s rawer and less fanciful, experiential consequences more desperate and deep. Meat Is Murder diarizes fatalistic romantic entropy, dicey political rage, unsettling social forays, and, famously, “belligerent ghouls [who] run Manchester schools.”

The Headmaster Ritual” live in Madrid, May 19, 1985:

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s plainspoken imagery was unsettling (and is possibly even moreso today, a quarter-century further removed from the excessive corporal punishment once common to the English school system). With accounts of child abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – a matter of public record easily recalled through any Google search, “Ritual”‘s grey, dead-ended grimness ranks among Morrissey’s most powerful statements on inequity.

Mid-week on the playing field,                                                                                        Sir thwacks you on the knees.                                                                                   Knees you in the groin, elbow in the face.                                                        Bruises bigger than dinner plates.                                                                                     I wanna go home, I don’t wanna stay…                                                  Lalalalalala la-ee-ay…

Perhaps Morrissey’s taken poetic license with his recount of life on the soccer pitch at Stretford St Mary’s. Perhaps not. The word deployment’s awfully effective, either way. Thwack. Who else uses that in a song lyric? The mid-verse repetition of “knees,” first mentioned as the hapless victim’s body part, then as his tormentor’s weapon of choice. The ingenious long-vowel rhyming scheme incorporating “face,” “plates,” “stay” and the feral, wordless chorus yodel.

The couplet that gets me has to be the last verse’s “Please excuse me from gym/I’ve got this terrible cold coming on…” I went to Canada’s most prestigious boys’ preparatory school for five years (“not to be recommended”). Competition loomed at every turn, an exhausting and exhaustive gauntlet which re-made and re-modeled athletic, scholastic, social and pyschological heroes and zeroes on a weekly, if not daily basis, where class reports were sometimes graded by peers and field trips reasserted the alpha, beta and omega statuses of 10- and 12-year old boys, under the yawping direction of burly gym teachers and hirsute music instructors who grabbed shirt collars and screamed at below-average performances. Please excuse me from gym…Feigned illness? Oh, I used that. Sometimes it got me out of an undesirable task. Sometimes it got me screamed at. In “Ritual,” Morrissey’s pubescent sadsack finds himself grabbed and kicked in the showers. If this were going on today there’d be a whole lotta sad vaguebooking, a whole lotta investigation, a whole lotta publicity, a whole lotta withdrawn financial support. In “Ritual,” the protagonist only knows humiliation. In “Ritual,” Morrissey – supported by Marr’s cascade of jagged riffage, Andy Rourke’s ornate, thrusting basslines and Mike Joyce’s no-nonsense snare and cymbal work – exposes a bully pulpit for the monstrosity it is, and the result is one of the four or five best tracks in The Smiths’ canon.

And now, curios for the curious:

In 2009, Marr discussed Smiths riffs for a Fender guitar promo. In this excerpt, he lays out “Ritual”‘s central figure:

By 2004, Morrissey had taken to playing “The Headmaster Ritual” in concert, albeit at a slower tempo. This clip’s from the official tour DVD, taped in Manchester on the occasion of the singer’s 45th birthday, May 22, 2004:

In November 2007, Radiohead tackled a pair of cover versions by Manchester’s twin legends: the incipient New Order’s post-Curtis single, “Ceremony,” and “The Headmaster Ritual.” The Smiths cover’s energetic, full of feeling and worth a listen, if not a patch on the original article: