Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set The Boy Free (Century, £20/ Audible, £21.99) tells the story of the guitarist’s journey from his childhood in Ardwick Green to the moment he met Morrissey, his career with The Smiths, and the eventual fallout and high profile legal battle between the band. The book also explores Marr’s work with bands and musicians such as Modest Mouse, The Cribs, Hans Zimmer and Paul McCartney.
In the beginning of the book you talk a lot about fashion and how clothing helped form your identity at a young age. Do you think your aesthetic style influenced you as a musician?
That’s a good question. I think it goes hand in hand. One of the great things about pop culture is that it’s all encompassing and it’s fairly integrated. You dress for the kind of music you like and vice versa, and I guess it’s always been tribal. In my case I used to obsess about what was going on in the fashions as a youngster in the same ways I used to obsess about the groups in the charts. I was very fortunate to grow up in an era of what’s now called glam rock, so you had David Bowie and T-Rex – the sort of things that everyone of my generation always prattles on about. The fashions were really exciting, but I think that’s remained the same, even in the present day, whether it’s to do with what kind of piercings you’ve got or what you do with your jewellery. A few years ago it was young kids changing their laces and having one green lace and one red lace in their Converse. Those kind of things are like little codes, and I don’t think they ever change. I think it’s a fantastic way of expressing yourself, and I think it draws youngsters out of themselves and helps them identify themselves to the outside world. Some people just aren’t that bothered about clothes and fashion, but to answer your question I saw the whole thing as one great big creative interest, and I still do. All my favourite groups have always been about more than just about the music. They’re about the presentation, about the sleeves, about the way they carry themselves, what they have to say in interviews. They don’t have to do that, but it just so happens that all my favourite musicians always have.
There’s a moment in the book where you describe your sentiments about northerners doing things differently. Do you think you owe your success to the north?
Half of it is to do with the north and half of it is to do with being a creative person. It’s an interesting coincidence that there are a lot of musicians like myself who grew up in Irish families in working-class areas of the UK, whether that be Noel Gallagher, Morrissey, Dexys, Mani, John Lydon – there’s quite a long list. Your environment definitely shapes your personality, and if you are already creative then you can go one of two ways – you can stifle that creativity and be unfulfilled or, in my case, it can spur you on to do great things. I ended up forming a band that was as closely identified with the city it came from as anyone. Not many bands actually put the names of districts in their songs as The Smiths did with Whalley Range, and we threw words like Ancoats around. Not just in the lyrics but in our choice of photographs. Strangeways and Salford Lads Club – all of that was very much part of the group’s identity and inspiration. We used what was around us for our material. So yes, absolutely in my case, growing up in the north was a massive factor in what I ended up doing.
“I don’t think it’s the responsibility of musicians to have a political opinion but I do think it’s good manners to give a voice to people who have been trampled on.”
The Smiths will always be considered as an important political band who challenged Thatcher’s Britain. Do you think there is an absence of political activism in current mainstream music?
Absolutely, yes, but I can’t really blame anyone for it because it’s easy to feel like there’s no voice and there’s no answers. I absolutely understand people not wanting to speak up for any politicians, certainly. Speaking up against politicians is a different matter. Just because there is no one to speak for doesn’t mean you can’t criticise people who stand for inequality and hatred and bigotry – those people who bring out the absolute worst aspects of society, which I believe people like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and all the Conservative Party consistently do. But everybody who knows me know they’re my politics. It’s difficult when there’s an absence of strong opposition. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of musicians to have a political opinion but I do think it’s kind of good manners to maybe give a voice to people who have been trampled on. That’s just the way I was brought up.
Do you think a lack of the music press, which previously gave a voice to those political ideals, is partly to blame?
I think that’s absolutely right. Back when the music press was popular and a strong force it was implicit and taken for granted that if you were an alternative musician you were left wing. There’s no other way of putting it. The music press by default were writing about and working with those bands. Everybody was on the same page, and that was a very powerful thing. Fans didn’t have to discuss it between themselves, but we all had a common enemy. Even though that sounds like a political statement, the fact of the matter is that fans didn’t have to feel political with a capital P –they just were against inequality and sexism and racism and intolerance. It was just a matter of decency and passion – that’s where my political education started.
What record would you say you are most proud of?
It would probably be How Soon Is Now, because you know what it is as soon as you hear the guitar. It’s a one-off. As a boy I always had the ambition to get good enough to make records that you knew what they were within the first five or 10 seconds, as you do when you hear The Passenger by Iggy Pop or I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones or any of those great classic records, and How Soon Is Now appears to do that.
Why did now feel like a good time to write your autobiography?
I made a promise to myself and to Joe Moss, my manager, that I would do it after I’d made a couple of records. That time just arrived, and I’m kind of pleased that I took the opportunity to do it while I’m still busy rather than wait until I’m sat at the end of the garden wrapped in a shawl. Selfishly as well, I’m hoping that it puts a nice full stop to a really big part of my life that has been about a lot of momentum and a lot of trying and a lot of fun, because being in a band is a lot of fun, and some tricky ups and downs. Then I can get into the next part of my life. It’s a little bit like when people move out of the house that they’ve been in for years and years. You sort of have a big clear out and you keep all the stuff you love and you move on. I guess it’s a bit like when Elton John sold all of his clothes. I’ve had years of being asked about my career, and it looked like that was never going to end. My interviews were getting so long – they were pages and pages – so I thought I might as well stick all these pages together and get it all done in one bit. The important thing was that I knew I had to make the book sound like the way I talk, which is more difficult than it sounds. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the flow of things then go back and redo it. I’ve now had another experience that I’m really glad to have done. I didn’t want to use a ghost writer, I didn’t want to sit being interviewed by someone, I wanted to write my own book and have that experience and do it all myself and get into the technicalities of writing and find the right style. I also wanted to pay tribute to everyone I’ve been in bands with because it’s an interesting roll call of people.
“Jeremy Clarkson would say he doesn’t like The Smiths anyway but that’s absolutely fine because he’s got crap taste.”
How did you select which areas of your life you wanted to talk about?
I started off with the fun stuff, which was learning to play the guitar, early records, meeting my wife, forming The Smiths. Then I took a little bit of time away and a big part of it was writing The Smiths story and what it was like for me being in The Smiths. I knew that was what people were going to be most interested in. I didn’t want to be rushing it. I wanted to get that right. Then I went back to my childhood, so it wasn’t done chronologically. It took me nine months to do a solid work. The key parts kind of made themselves really obvious. I wanted to give everyone a sense of a story about a boy who was obsessed with music and making records and then it happened in a big way, very young. It feels like my life has been very eventful and all those events kind of jumped out at me and I just wrote them. There’s not a lot of stuff that I haven’t put in there. It’s not a short book. I’m glad to say I didn’t just manage to get together the minimum requirement. I very much got into it like I get into a record. I don’t see the book as being some sort of little side promotion. I put everything down and now I’m back making music.
How important was it for you to set the record straight about the court case?
I wasn’t walking around for years with any burning desire or angst to kick off, but if I’m going to write about my life story I’m going to write about being dragged through court, and I’m going to tell it exactly how I saw it and what it really was to me. It has been a little rich, to say the least, to stand back and watch other people’s accounts of what happened in my life and the life of The Smiths in these books, and all the band members’ stories hijacked by people like Johnny Rogan, who make money out of the band when they don’t actually seem to like the principal characters in the band. So it’s nice to put things straight. All of those Smiths books are filled with erroneous details and cynical opinion except for one, which is the Tony Fletcher book. A lot of people have made money talking complete bullshit about The Smiths, which then goes down as fact. I was there and I can tell not only my story but the story of the band very well. I love the band, I formed the band and I was there for every step of the way, so I will tell exactly what happened.
Apart from David Cameron, is there anyone else who you forbid to like The Smiths?
We’ll be here all day! Obviously Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage – top of the list. Theresa May, Jose Mourinho, Jeremy Clarkson. Jeremy Clarkson would say he doesn’t like The Smiths anyway but that’s absolutely fine because he’s got crap taste.
Photo: C Alex Telfer