Record Store Day takes place across the UK and worldwide on Saturday 16 April. We asked former Smiths/Modest Mouse/The Cribs guitarist Johnny Marr to explain what the event means to him
You’re reissuing ‘The Queen Is Dead’ for Record Store Day. What prompted you to get involved?
“I first got involved with RSD a few years ago when Modest Mouse put out an EP [for it]. I think a lot of musicians would seize the opportunity to be involved with an event and a gesture that means something to them and people that think the same way. With regard to ‘The Queen Is Dead’, the record company put it to me at the start of the year.
“My experience of RSD is just a very well intentioned enterprise, so as long as we got it technically right and made sure the records were all sounding and looking right, then it’s something of a celebration – celebrating something that I always loved and still do. Records transcend their physical dimensions. You get more than some plastic spinning around. Lots of things can happen in a record, and lots of life can be taken from a record.”
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Having been in bands over four decades, you must have noticed differences with the way that people produce, manufacture and sell records.
“Yeah. For a start, I always connected with them as objects, what I was hearing from them as a very little kid. One of my very first memories is of two young women in my family standing at a record player, playing a record on repeat with utter fascination and obsession.
“That was a really powerful thing that I’ve never forgotten. That little object was able to take you away from life and put you in a different place. Then I made the connection between the object and the music, and started to really love the object. They did so much. I still feel the same way.
“All the bands I’ve been in have wanted the same things as the fans, which is important releases, not just tracks. And to this day, I don’t consider the songs I write to be tracks – they’re always records in the making, or being made. The Smiths wrote records. When we wrote the songs, the first thing on our mind was to get to the studio and record it, and we did that in a way that I’ve not seen any other band do.
“Almost immediately as the last chord was written, the studio was booked, the sleeve was being glued together on Morrissey’s kitchen table, and the titles were being considered. It was all one big activity, writing the songs, and it’s been well documented that a lot of our songs were written specifically for people like us to go out and buy as soon as possible.”
The Smiths really thrived on non-album singles too.
“Yeah, that’s one of the reasons we wrote them in batches of three – the a-side, the b-side and the extra track for the 12”! It wasn’t exclusively like that, but that was often the way. So we always felt that we had this discourse, a communication between our audience and the band, and the records for me were what it was all about, even more than the shows, to an almost pathological degree! “
Mercury are going to stop selling singles by U2, Arcade Fire and The Killers – is this a mistake?
“Depends on the band! I think it’s a shame – one of the reasons people stopped buying records is because they’re not visible, they’re not available. It’s not as straightforward as saying there are no record shops because people don’t want to buy records. I wonder if it’s not also the case that people don’t buy records because they can’t find the record shops.
“Last year I wrote a short essay called ‘Landlord Stole My Records Off The Street’, which was my observation of the 90s – a lot of the towns I would visit in the UK were just filled with wine bars. A lot of councils and landlords got very greedy, and in their quest to make the world just Next and River Island, they just assumed that the big bucks would come their way from all these huge stores, they priced out all the little shops – certainly the record shops.”
“If you take them away, obviously people are going to stop buying the records. These little record stores became estate agents for yuppies, for people who don’t buy records, don’t like records, and wine bars for people to play really bad trip hop in! At least we’re having these kind of dialogues, there’s this light being shone onto these beautiful things, really.
“And like art galleries, they’re mostly there to represent what’s happening within the culture now. Retro record shops are all well and good, fabulous, but there’s nothing better than buying a great new record with a great new band.”
And it takes labels like Wichita and bands like The Cribs to insist on vinyl releases as well as downloads, not settling for less.
“It takes people like Wichita to try and find the money to put where their mouths are, and they do. Mark [Bowen]’s a really great example of it. You need those people where the culture, and this case we’re talking about the actual physical records, come before business. And those people would be considered too maverick in ordinary business.”
The prime example of this is New Order, losing money on every copy of ‘Blue Monday’ sold, but it changed everything.
“Yeah, that’s a really good example. The Smiths put out ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ in these plastic carrier bags that said “shoplifter” on it as a stylistic joke against HMV, really, but that ended up putting that record in the red, and there was quite a few things that happened like that. The New Order example is a really good one.
“Without someone like Peter Saville – he’s absolutely changed design because of vinyl, and Nick Scott, who I think is one of the really great modern designers, made a really great statement after that on The Cribs’ last album, and that is alongside the music. Without records, those things don’t happen.”