Johnny Marr – The Making Of A Godlike Genius

Ever since he formed The Smiths, Johnny Marr has been at the forefront of indie rock. That’s why on February 27 he will be crowned Godlike Genius at the NME Awards. Here’s a look back at the great man’s ridiculously varied and prolific career.

       Early years

    Marr played guitar from an early age, and formed his first band, The Paris Valentinos, at just 13. Music wasn’t his only passion – he had aspirations to be a professional football player, and had trials with Manchester City – but he soon developed a reputation in Manchester as a demon guitarist, with a distinctive arpeggiated style that, in the words of Noel Gallagher, is impossible to emulate because “you can’t play what he plays.”

    Marr (left) and Morrissey from The Smiths pose together in the store room of Rough Trade records in London, January 1983. Photo: Clare Muller/Redferns

    Before joining The Smiths, Marr served time in local bands such as White Dice (featuring future Smiths bass player Andy Rourke) and Sister Ray. The latter, he says, were “horrible, nasty, druggy bikers.”

    Marr and Morrissey pose under the branches of a willow tree in London, January 1983. Photo: Clare Muller/Redferns

  1.    The Smiths
  2. Marr met Steven Morrissey via a mutual friend in 1982. He visited the then-stranger at 384 King’s Road one afternoon and asked him if he wanted to form a band. And so emerged The Smiths, one of the most influential indie rock bands of all time.

    The Smiths on tour in America. Photo: Donna Santisi/Redferns

    Signing to indie label Rough Trade Records, The Smiths released their first single, ‘Hand In Glove’, on 13 May 1983. Their self-titled debut album followed in February 1984, and debuted at number two on the UK Albums Chart.

    Sandie Shaw performing live onstage with The Smiths at The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, March 13 1984. Andy Rourke on left, Johnny Marr on right. Photo: Martin O’Neill/Redferns)

    The Smiths are a massively important band, but Marr says they’ve always been misunderstood as “bookish” and “wimpy.” He tells NME:

    The truth is, The Smiths weren’t fey misfits. We were musically intense and forceful. We were rocking.

    Marr performing live onstage with The Smiths, playing a Gibson Les Paul guitar with Bigsby vibrato, Royal Court, London. Photo: Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns

       The Next Phase

    Marr quit The Smiths at 23, and his career since then has often confounded observers. In the immediate aftermath of the split, he played with Bryan Ferry and The Pretenders, before becoming a full-time member of The The. The latter experience was quite a druggy one: “I had loads of psychedelic revelations in The The,” says the guitarist, who these days is teetotal.

    Performing Smiths song ‘Meat Is Murder’ with Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde at a Linda McCartney tribute concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Photo: PA

  3.    Musician For Hire
  4. As well as guesting with artists as varied as Bert Jansch, Pet Shop Boys, Oasis (guesting on ‘Heathen Chemistry’), Beck, Black Grape and John Frusciante, Marr also formed a group with New Order singer Bernard Sumner. Electronic‘s self-titled debut album, released in 1991, shifted half a million copies.

    With Bernard Sumner in Electronic. Photo: Patrick Ford/Redferns

    The success of Electronic put Marr at the epicentre of Madchester. He says of this period:

    I was young, and there was this massive explosion of culture and design and fashion and drugs, straight out of my hometown, so it was a great time for me. But the drugginess of it got very boring.

    Backstage at Chicago’s Double Door. Photo: Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

    Marr was even in the frame to join Happy Mondays at one point, but he turned them down. In this period he also played guitar on a series of Pet Shop Boys albums, and produced an album for under-rated rockers Marion.

    Photo: Jon Super/Redferns

    There was talk of him joining Oasis in the mid ’90s. He tells us: “A few phone calls went back and forward between our offices when Bonehead and Guigsy left, but I couldn’t do it, and they knew it wasn’t a good idea.”

  5.    The Healers
  6. In 2000, Marr formed a new band, The Healers, featuring Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) on drums. They released their debut album ‘Boomslang’ in 2003.

    Johnny Marr And The Healers at the Hotel Como in Melbourne, Australia, February 2003. Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)

    Onstage with The Healers in Amsterdam, March 2003. Photo: Peter Pakvis/Redferns

    Onstage at the Manchester Versus Cancer charity concert, M.E.N. Arena, January 2006. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA

  7.    Modest Mouse
  8. After working as producer on their 2007 album ‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’, Marr joined Modest Mouse as a fully-fledged member – just in time for the album to go to Number One in America. It was Marr’s second stateside chart-topper, with the first being Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’ in 1989.

    Onstage with Modest Mouse at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo: PA

    Modest Mouse at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, March 2007. Photo: AP/Don Ryan

  9.    The Cribs
  10. Marr played a string of gigs with The Cribs in 2008, including one electrifying performance at Reading & Leeds, where Ryan Jarman introduced him as the newest member of the band, “Johnny Jarman”.

    In Manchester, November 12, 2008.

    The guitarist then joined The Cribs full-time, helping them write songs for the 2009 album ‘Ignore The Ignorant’ – which he’s since described as “as good as anything I’ve done”.

    With The Cribs

    With The Cribs in Leamington Spa, October 2009. Photo: Steve Thorne/Redferns

    The Cribs and Johnny Marr perform on stage during the NME Awards Tour Big Gig, February 2008, at The O2 Arena in London. Photo: Suzan/EMPICS Entertainment

  11.    And now…
  12. No longer a member of The Cribs, Marr has been trying new things. He had a hand in composing the soundtrack for 2010 blockbuster Inception, one of the highest-grossing films of recent years.

    Johnny Marr collects the Best Reissue award on stage during the 2012 NME Awards at the O2 Academy Brixton, London. Photo: PA

    He’s releasing his debut solo album ‘The Messenger’ on February 25. Oh, and there’s the small matter of performing live at the NME Awards, where he will be guest of honour.

    In Manchester, posing for his Godlike Genius NME cover shoot, January 2013. Photo: David Edwards

    His response to being named Godlike Genius? “I’ll go with it. I’m in quite good company. NME seems to be good at giving this award to people who I like, so I’ll take it in the spirit I think it was intended. I guess it means that some things really are alright with the world.”

    Photo: David Edwards

Enjoy our Johnny Marr playlist – a beginner’s guide to a Godlike Genius