Turning Daydreams Into Sound
"Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."
– E.B. White
When the idea of analysing Johnny Marr's guitar playing came up, the quote above came straight to mind. Would scrutinising the major sevenths and suspended second chords really bring more enjoyment to the music of one of the all time greats? Probably not. However, if you enjoying playing the guitar or pay close attention to detail like me, you can't help but wonder how such an array of joyous noise can come from a piece of wood and six strings.
It's nice to view song writing with an element of mystery. It is easy to look at it as the result of throwing together a finite number of chords in a certain order to make the end product a piece of music. I think the most wonderful explanation of this comes from Johnny himself, when he described writing songs as "turning daydreams into sound."
That is what makes Johnny so unique. His guitar playing seems to come via instinct and rather than looking at theory and over-analysing, it is music from self discovery – as he explained to Guitarist Magazine in 2009 when asked about his guitar playing, he said " it's done by instinct and trial; stuff I just discovered in my bedroom on winter nights. When those moments happen, I don't even want to know what that chord is called, or that some clever-dick in Pat Metheny's band has been playing it for 35 years. I just call it That Weird Chord."
That probably illustrates what makes writing songs special, and why it's greatest exponents are so good – by simply following your own thoughts and not getting bogged down by rules and the mechanics, this frees the creativity of someone as gifted as Johnny to invent something innovative. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante spoke of his surprise when collaborating on his 2009 solo album The Empyrean, as he was expecting someone of Marr's undoubtable quality to be guided by theory, only to find "he has really complex chord progressions, but he goes by his instinct and his own mental pictures."
His guitar playing seems to come via instinct and rather than looking at theory and over- analysing, it is music from self-discovery.
These mental pictures that Johnny translates into sound convey a vast range of influences. If you were fortunate enough to catch the Playland Tour, you may have been treated to an incredible version of The Headmaster Ritual. This song epitomises the versatility of Marr and his craft on the guitar. Johnny describes the track as him channelling "the idea of a strange Joni Mitchell tuning, and the actual progression is like what she would
have done had she been an MC5 fan or a punk rocker." It sublimely captures Johnny's wide range of influence in music and his ability to bring together two genres seamlessly.
It is this blend of folk melody and musicality, combined with the energy of punk that makes his music in The Smiths and beyond special. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what you're hearing as it has the conventional aspects of one piece of music, often melded with several others, making you not exactly sure how to categorise the song. The funk of Barbarism Begins At Home, Bert Jansch- esque beauty of Back To The Old House, or the sheer other-worldly feel to How Soon Is Now? The list is endless.
Many people would be delighted to feed on The Smiths and what happened in the past, but the ability to create and continue to move forward as a guitarist and a song writer is what stands out. To evolve your musical style and have something to say isn't something many people manage from 1983 until now, and we're lucky enough to have had Electronic, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and many more. Johnny moved out of his comfort zone with the guitar in Electronic, and then years later, jammed with Issac Brock on a whim to try and make new, innovative music. How many artists could write a real anthem like Getting Away With It and then come up with the sheer genius of Dashboard, an absolute Nile Rodgers infused gem? These records span genres and don't sit snuggly in little, categorised boxes. The art of collaborating with innovative and different people has shown the many facets to Johnny's talent, bringing new guitar parts out of him. Johnny even joked that he ended up using a technique mostly associated with heavy metal, tapping, when with Modest Mouse.
When speaking to FasterLouder, Johnny explained how he "tried to rebel against what I was known for. And I think that's a good thing, that's the prerogative of any artist." This is perhaps an indication of an awareness to keep moving as a songwriter. Very few people stay relevant by standing still. Artists such as Neil Young and David Bowie illustrate how constant evolution is important, and you only have to look at The Smiths alone to see how the sonic characteristics of the band changed in a short period of time, just as The Beatles did.
That's what I find so remarkable about the press obsession with describing Johnny's playing as "Jangly." To use one word to describe someone so versatile seems to highlight an inherent journalistic laziness, when it can only truly be applied to a small section of The Smiths' early works. Playland for example, bristles with energy and has a real post punk feel to it – it seems to encapsulate the energy of new wave, the aggression and beauty of James Williamson, and yet is still undoubtedly Johnny Marr.
The art of collaborating with innovative and different people has shown the many facets to Johnny's talent, bringing new guitar parts out of him.
Within his solo career, Johnny's song writing extends to the lyrics. The Messenger and Playland address relevant and interesting ideas, some "political with a small p" as Johnny has mentioned, but they feel relevant and able to connect with people. Prior to performing Speak Out, Reach Out live, Johnny explained how it was inspired by a chance encounter with some undesirable banker types – the reaction of the crowd spoke volumes, as it was clearly a topic that resonated with many in the audience.
On Playland, there is a craft to the songs that draw upon life experiences and inspiration, as Johnny explained on several songs in particular. Whether that's the ominous and brooding sounds on 25 Hours encapsulating a young Johnny, stranded in dangerous parts of Manchester, or Back In The Box, representing "either hearing a record you like, waking up on a sunny morning, being in love," it works. When you hear Johnny talk about the inspiration of these songs, it soon becomes apparent that this is precisely what he's doing, and the sonic landscapes he is creating – the imagery and pictures are really vivid and his ability to recreate these images and sensations, using just music and words, really is extraordinary. That's why to me, Playland is up there with the very best of his work and is a compulsive listen.
It seems that a lot of the best parts of Johnny's music is very personal – chords he discovered, people he met, situations he experienced. Nothing that has been taught, something that is about life experience and natural talent combining to create powerful music or interesting lyrics. The ability to encapsulate a feeling or an idea or an emotion seems really apparent in all Johnny's work, and there is a genuine feeling of energy and beauty in his music that makes it shine. Long may it continue.