The guitar icon breaks down the band's four classic LPs
"I haven't talked about the Smiths today yet," says Johnny Marr upon answering our phone call to do just that, "which is unusual." Such is life when you played guitar and wrote songs for one of the most iconic bands of the last 30 years. Since parting ways with frontman Morrissey, drummer Mike Joyce, and bassist Andy Rourke in 1987, Marr has resisted riding on his reputation, lending his distinctive silvery guitar sound to a murderer's row of musicians that includes The The, Modest Mouse, the Cribs, and others as well as his work with his band the Healers.
On the day we called Marr, though, talking about the Smiths was no burden. Rhino Records has recently released remastered versions of the Manchester quartet's entire catalog and Marr himself oversaw the remastering. To commemorate the occasion, we asked the eternally boyish-looking guitarist to reflect on the band's four studio albums.
The Smiths (1984)
"Before I joined the Smiths, I was frustrated because I couldn't find anyone else in Manchester who was as serious as I was. But when I met Morrissey, it was clear he felt just like I did. So off we went. On the first day of actually being together as writers, we talked about our dreams and what we were gonna do and how we were gonna do it. And amazingly, nearly all of it came true — things as specific as being on Rough Trade Records and touring America. But as far as songwriting, when we started out Lieber and Stoller were my main inspiration.
"In terms of the music, I think the first record is kinda like a time capsule. I don't want to describe the music too much, because then I just sound like a journalist, but I like [The Smiths] because of what it meant and how people heard it as something new when it came out. But it really doesn’t represent how the group sounded at the time. I think a first record should be a document of what the band sounds like live, and we had some aborted recording sessions that sounded more like that than the finished album did. But I don’t not like it. We wanted to be a modern band and impress our friends who had good taste and I think we did that."
Meat Is Murder (1985)
"People say this album is more political than the first one, but Morrissey's lyrics didn't surprise me, not in the slightest. Some of the very, very early songs we did were actually more radical. So the title track, "Meat is Murder," for example, I thought, 'Do I have an album's worth of music to match that kind of title?' But you know, you think about it for 40 seconds, and then you move on to thinking, 'Wow, this is gonna be really interesting!' That song, in fact, is one of the things that I’m most proud of. From that moment on I was vegetarian. People have told me over the last 25 years that they became vegetarians because of that album title. So who says pop music can't change lives?
"I can only speak for myself and not the other members of the band, but I think [Meat Is Murder] had a certain sense of daring about it. I was kind of designated the production duties for it and by the time we got to recording the second or third song I thought I was really on my mettle. As a 19-year-old, it was a very cool thing to be doing. And being cool was forefront on my mind. That and still impressing my mates! I think we did okay on that count."
The Queen Is Dead
"When it came to do the third record, the penny dropped for me. I realized that we were being talked about in terms of the greats. And I distinctly remember thinking that the way to be great isn't to try and copy what the greats have already done, but to try your best to do your own thing. But I had this moment also, you know, before we made the album, where I was standing in my kitchen, walking towards the sink or something and thought, 'Holy shit. You're gonna have to dig deep now.' It was both a little scary and humbling, but it was something to strive for.
"I think the reason that people point to The Queen Is Dead as being the best Smiths album is because it housed all the facets of the band. There's an overloading 'Smiths-ness' to it, really. It gives everybody what they want. And that was just a very fruitful time for me and Morrissey. When he was in the lyrical mindset to do 'The Queen Is Dead', I was in the right mindset to do music that fit with it perfectly. It was just a good time for our partnership. The Queen Is Dead is not my favorite Smiths album, but I'm willing to bow to the conventional wisdom that it's the band's best."
Strangeways, Here We Come
"Now this is my favorite Smiths record. Just look at a song like 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.' It sounds like no other rock group before or since. It managed to be beautiful and heavy without having the elements that people usually associate with heavy music. It's not a macho song. And Morrissey's singing on it is really great. 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before' is another fantastic one. 'Unhappy Birthday' is a nice acoustic moment. The whole thing just has a spirit to it that I love.
"Eventually of course, we got to the point after making the record where it wasn't fun to be in a band together anymore. But right up through making Strangeways, being in the Smiths was loads of fun. It was magical. I'm so proud of what we did. I'm happy to be looking back on it all."