Reinventing the ‘Wall of Sound’ with guitars

By Sergio Ariza

Johnny Marr is one of the most atypical ‘guitar heroes’ in history, a guy who built his legacy almost without the need to do solos, but who managed to integrate his multiple influences into one the most recognised styles in the history of music. With The Smiths, he was given a titanic task, to replicate the famous ‘Wall of Sound’ by Phil Spector with just guitars. Not only did he hit the mark, but also, while at it, he managed to come up with something unique and inimitable to bring back the guitar as the most popular instrument in Britain in the 80s. If every guy wanted to be Eric Clapton before him, they wanted to be Johnny Marr after.  

Johnny Marr’s story can’t be told without putting his guitar and his music to the lyrics and voice of Morrissey. Their story is a deep love musical story that lasted less than 5 years but put out one of the most flawless discographies in music history, they  released 4 studio albums during those years and a good fistful of singles that are seared into the collective conscience of a generation. It’s as if they were born to meet and complement each other. But they broke up when they were at their best, and didn’t see each other for a long time after a bitter dispute in court filed by the bassman of the band they had formed, The Smiths. Despite it all, people still wait for a reunion that doesn’t seem to transpire any time soon. Just listen to Morrissey singing Panic without Marr, or Marr playing How Soon is Now without the voice, it is something like ‘coitus interruptus’...

Marr, born October 31, 1963, had his first encounter with Morrissey at a Patti Smith concert in 1978, but it wasn’t until 4 years later when their story began. Marr, just 18, was one of the most promising guitarists in Manchester and was as ambitious as he was talented. After playing with a number of bands, he decided it was time to find a partner who could put the right words to the skeletons of the songs that he had. Inspired by a documentary he had seen a while back about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, he decided to do as Leiber and rang the doorbell to the guy he was going to make history with. Steven Morrissey was 4 years older than Marr and had a reputation for being an eccentric loner, he lived with his mother and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Yet, Marr knew he was his man, having had the chance to read some of his poetry and a book he wrote about the New York Dolls, from this common ground, Patti Smith and Johnny Thunders, he knew something interesting would come of it. When he went up to his room and discovered his collection of single 45s, he saw that they had much more in common, their passion for music made them inseparable. The very next day Morrissey called Marr to tell him that he would be the singer in the band. It was May of 1982, the Smiths were born.

Shortly after they were writing together, one of their first songs was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, inspired by Patti Smith’s Kimberly but turned out being something altogether different. Form these first moments you can see the genius in Marr, always able to subvert his influences to make it something his own, at that moment that something was that jangly sound so linked to the Smiths as the literary melancholic lyrics of Morrissey. By the time they composed the song that they knew would be their first single, Hand in Glove, they were already with the duo that would make up the distinctive rhythm section of the band Mike Joyce on drums and Andy Rourke on bass. The song is built around a careful mix of acoustic and electric guitars recorded by Marr to create a distinct sound. This was the song that earned them a contract on the label Rough Trade. Soon they were recording in London where they would be discovered by the producer of the John Peel show on BBC. His comments are a perfect example of what made the Smiths so special, “You couldn’t immediately know what music they had been listening to. Which was something quite strange and altogether impressive”.

The following singles were This Charming Man and What Difference Does it Make?. The first one is the best example of the Smiths sound in the early years, with that incredible arrangement on Marr’s guitar (again recording various parts). Everyone thought he played with a Rickenbacker (the song played when he appeared in a famous performance on Top of the Pops, where Morrissey switched the microphone for a bouquet of flowers) but it was really cut with a Telecaster from 1954. The song’s intro is a guide to Marr’s style.   

In February 1984 they released their first album, called simply The Smiths, and despite not being very pleased with the production, it went to #2 on the charts in the U.K.. On it, you can find other delicious morsels of the Morrissey/Marr catalogue such as Reel Around the Fountain and Still Ill. For their recording Marr used a whole range of different guitars from the Telecaster to the 12-string Rickenbacker 330, and then on a Les Paul or a Gretsch Super Axe.

But far from classifying their sound, they kept evolving as you can see in the following singles, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and William, It Was Really Nothing, which contained  one of the most important B sides in history, How Soon Is It Now?, another one of Marr’s great moments. Instead of the frequent chord changes that he had used up to then, he chose to compose a song based on one chord, with the famous riff of Bo Diddley in mind.  But if anyone thinks that it sounds like Who Do You Love, it’s because they don’t know Marr, who made a symphony of guitars for the song, using a flutter effect he got by passing the track through four different Fender Twin Reverbs manually adjusted by Marr himself and producer John Porter.  

This meticulous attention when composing music is evident on Meat is Murder, which climbed to the top of the charts. For the opening song, The Headmaster Ritual, Marr uses 5 different guitar tracks, 2 Martin D-28 acoustics, 2 Rickenbackers and 1 Epiphone Coronet with special tuning, and a cap on the second fret. The main riff sounds like Day Tripper by the Beatles, something that wasn’t on purpose, although it’s true he thought of Harrison while he played it.

The band was at the peak and that very year they recorded their definitive masterpiece, The Queen is Dead, where Marr plays his style to perfection, mixing the most diverse influences, rockabilly on Vicar in a Tutu, the Stooges on the title song, Keith Richards on Bigmouth Strikes Again and Nile Rodgers on The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. Marr was a pop/rock encyclopedia that always ended up sounding like himself.  Again bringing up his incredible arsenal of guitars, this time with a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty as the main star and adding a Stratocaster for the first time on his palette. A giant record for an incomparable band, Marr comes to be one of the most remarkably original guitarists (and musicians) of the decade and Morrissey graduates as a poet laureate, either by taking out his black humour to shine on Cemetery Gates, or his most romantic side on There is a Light that Never Goes Out.   

Still, even though the record was finished in November 1985, it wasn’t released until June of’86. The problems with their discography, besides a saturation of work, as much in the studio as onstage, were beginning to take its toll on an exhausted Marr. Even so, they didn’t slow down and in ‘86, two of their best known singles were released, Panic, their tribute to T. Rex, and Ask where you hear 2 Martins, the 330 Rickenbackers and a ‘63 Strat. The same year Marr collaborated with Billy Bragg, something that Morrissey didn’t like too much.

In 1987 they recorded their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, another change of sound by Marr and the band. He wanted a stronger sound on this, and fewer guitar layers and to get it, he used another of his mythic guitars, a 12-string Gibson ES-335, which you can hear on I Started Something, Stop Me if You’ve Heard this One Before and Paint a Vulgar Picture, a song with one of the few solos (on a Strat) from the band. The record’s last song was I Won’t Share You, where Morrissey makes clear how little he liked Marr’s ‘infidelities’ outside the Smiths (Bryan Ferry had just had a hit with him) and their complicated love story came to an end.

Johnny Marr left the Smiths, fed up with Morrissey’s guidelines of what to play and what not.  But he didn’t remain idle for long, that same year he recorded with the Talking Heads on their last album, with brilliant work as in (Nothing but) Flowers. In August of ‘87 he became a member of The Pretenders, with whom he recorded Windows of the World. Despite being in one of his favourite bands, whose original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott had been an inspiration, he didn’t last long with them, and went on to join The The, a band led by Matt Johnson, where he would leave his mark on records like Mind Bomb and Dusk, as well as songs like the beauty The Beat(en) Generation and Dogs of Lust, where he not only does the guitar but also plays a very expressive harmonica. At the same time he formed the group Electronic, together with Bernard Sumner of New Order, where he was given free reins on his passion for dance music, something unthinkable with Morrissey, married to the new schedule of bands that were coming out of Manchester at the time, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, who had one of his most gifted students, John Squire.

He has an amazing list of collaborations with other artists, and his guitar and compositions gave colour to songs by Kirsty MacColl, Beck, Jane Birkin, and Crowded House, beside having formed part of Modest Mouse, where he cut the irresistible Dashboard (using a Jazzmaster), and The Cribs. At the beginning of the 21st century he started his own project called, Johnny Marr and The Healers, and in 2013 he released his first solo album, The Messenger. Since 2005 he main guitar has been a Fender Jaguar, and in 2012 the brand made his own Signature model. However, despite still feeling like a unique guitarist, his songs sound like orphans without the voice and lyrics of Morrissey.

But that shouldn’t make us forget that Johnny Marr is, simply the most remarkable British guitarists of the last 40 years. Every important band in the U.K. after the Smiths were influenced by the sound of his guitar, from the Stone Roses to Radiohead, from Oasis to Blur, from Suede to Arctic Monkeys, there hasn’t been a guitarist in the British Isles who hasn’t dreamt of playing like him. You could even say that his guitars have been an integral part of these bands now that people like Noel Gallagher, Ed O'Brien of Radiohead, or Bernard Butler have a guitar given to them by Marr himself. An elegant way to pass the torch and make his legacy something everlasting.

(Images: ©CordonPress)