I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Johnny Marr at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds last night (thanks, Lee for having a spare!). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – I confidently predicted in the pub before the gig that he probably wouldn’t play any Smiths songs as he was touring to promote his new solo album.
I’m always slightly wary about going to see bands whose early and long-distant work I liked when they have new (and generally less good) material they will naturally be focusing on. The worst example of this was seeing Depeche Mode at the Benicassim festival in 2006 when almost the entirety of the set was comprised of songs from recent albums with little of the 1980s material played. I read an interview with the band some time later where they explained how European audiences were much more appreciative of their newer work than those in the UK and that they tended to play more of the old songs in UK shows because of this. Similarly, for many years another of my favourite artists, David Bowie refused to “play the hits” despite most of his 1980s output being frankly, pretty poor, only relenting in the mid 90s (happily just in time for me to see him at the Phoenix festival in 1996).
Those fears were confounded as he launched into Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before as his second song. Given how distinctive Morrissey’s voice is, I wasn’t sure that playing Smiths songs would be a great idea anyway, but in fact, hearing them played without Morrissey was an interesting and positive experience. Marr’s actually got a pretty decent voice and can certainly carry off singing Smiths songs without attempting to pastiche Morrissey’s vocal style. It also gives the audience the opportunity to judge the songs on their own merits and, unsurprisingly, to hear the guitar parts rather than focusing on them as the background to an inimitable vocalist. Later on in the set Marr went on to play Bigmouth Strikes Again which, if anything would have seemed to me in the abstract as even more reliant on Morrissey’s voice but in reality wasn’t. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how good the songs are as songs independent of the singer because Marr shared the work of writing them and built his reputation on the back of his guitar work which is as distinctive of its sort as Morrissey’s vocals are of theirs.
As for songs from his new album, The Messenger, I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed. They sounded fine but, on first hearing in a live environment where my aged ears seem to have turned to cheese so I can’t quite follow the lyric, it was hard to form any strong judgement or attachment. That, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians with a strong back catalogue of instantly recognisable hits don’t like to play them too much alongside new works which their audience will find less familiar, even if they don’t have a record company suit in the background trying to make them push the new album. I’ll need to listen to the album a few times before forming a view but I suspect from decoding the positive NME review that it might suffer, as say, Ryan Adams has done in some of his earlier albums, from not yet having a consistent style and rather showcasing the wide range of different things Marr can do. As Marr has himself been part of a very wide stylistic range of bands that is unavoidable until and unless he decides to stick to developing a solo career where he is in charge of his direction rather than being part of other people’s temporary convergence with it. In any case, I’d thought to myself that even if the new material was dreary as long as he finished with How Soon Is Now it wouldn’t matter. Not that there seemed to be much chance of that as that anthem of being too shy to pull, knowing it and yet still having to and wanting to put yourself through the inevitable disappointment of a night at a club seemed to be just too much Morrissey’s song lyrically even if the guitar parts of the song are probably Marr’s most iconic moments. If evidence of that were needed, when talking to a friend this morning about the gig, he said he didn’t know too much of the Smiths stuff apart from “the one that starts out going weeeeeowww”.
Of course, I got that wrong too. After starting the encore with Electronic’s Getting Away With It and getting away with being Bernard Sumner without mimicking him other than by also having a Mancunian accent, Marr closed off the night with How Soon Is Now. And it was worth waiting for.
Thanks must go to the pair of 15 year old girls who let me take a picture of the set list they had got as a treasured momento of the gig. That there’s a new generation of 15 year old girls so excited by Marr’s music 30 years on from the generation of 15 year old girls who loved The Smiths perhaps is the best evidence that Marr’s still got it, even if the largely 40-something male crowd were probably, like me, at least partly there for the nostalgia.
Thanks to the JohnnyMarrPlaysGuitar blog for the link to this review – it has good video footage of most of the set (although The Smiths songs seem to have been blocked by their record label).
I’ve now had the chance to listen to Marr’s solo album, The Messenger. It is pretty good and has a nice variety of styles. I’ve been unconsciously humming songs from it since the first couple of play throughs and that’s a good sign. It is certainly a lot more memorable than David Bowie’s latest album which even after 3 plays (available free to stream on iTunes for a while ahead of release) hasn’t imprinted itself on my mind much beyond the rather dirge-like Where Are We Now. It probably doesn’t pass the “if this was the debut of an unknown would it be great” test but I’m struggling to think of any solo debut by an established star which would!