Happy Birthday: Johnny Marr

Monday, October 31, 2016
Happy Birthday: Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr, the guitarist whose jangle can be heard from beginning to end within the back catalog of The Smiths and whose gifts as a string-slinger are audible on songs and albums by everyone from Beck and Bryan Ferry to Neil Finn and Sandie Shaw, turns a year older today. In celebration of his birthday, we’ve put together a six-pack of tracks featuring Marr’s masterful guitar work, but as they’re by folks who wouldn’t necessarily qualify as the usual suspects, some of them may surprise you.

1. Everything But The Girl, “Native Land” (1984): Actually, here’s a surprise straight out of the gate: Marr didn’t play guitar on this track. He did, however, contribute harmonica to this single from their self-titled sophomore album. In a TV special the following year, Marr explained that Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn were big Smiths supporters in the early days, which led to a friendship between the bunch. “As far as playing on their single, that was really a spir of the moment kind of spark that I enjoyed, really,” said Marr. “I thought…not one of their better songs, I admit, but it was okay.”

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2. Quando Quango, “Atom-Rock” (1984): Although The Smiths hail from the same neck of the woods that brought you the so-called “Madchester” movement, Marr definitely had no interest in seeing The Smiths lumped in with other artists simply because they came from the same place. “We didn’t want to be regarded in that family of Manchester bands,” Marr told Magnet in 2002. “But I played on the Quando Quango record in 1983 with Bernard Sumner. Bernard was a mate.” As for the strangely-named band which was fortunate enough to benefit from Marr and Sumner’s contributions, they were an electronic dance outfit founded by Haçienda DJ and Factory Records A&R man Mike Pickering. It doesn’t get much more Manchester than that.

3. The Pretenders, “The Windows of the World” (1988): Although it was a pretty big deal in ’88 when Marr was named an official member of The Pretenders, his stint with the band ultimately only lasted for a brief period, to the point where this song – which appears on the soundtrack to the film 1969, along with the title track – is more or less the extent of his recorded contributions to the band’s discography. (He did also co-write the track “When Will I See You,” which appears on the band’s PACKED! album, but he doesn’t actually play on it.)

4. Banderas, “This Is Your Life” (1991): Sally Herbert and Caroline Buckley were originally members of The Communards, but they stepped out on their own in 1991 as Banderas and in doing so found at least a little bit of success. This single was, in fact, their biggest hit, making it to #16 on the UK Singles chart. It probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Marr contributed guitar to the song, nor that Bernard Sumner contributed a bit of guitar himself as well as backing vocals.

5. Johnny Marr and Billy Duffy, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (1992): Recorded for the New Musical Express compilation RUBY TRAX, where artists were asked to record former #1 hits from the UK Singles chart, Marr teamed up with Duffy, guitarist for The Cult, to perform a version of Ennio Morricone’s classic spaghetti western theme song. It’s pretty sweet stuff.

6. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, “Ordinary Millionaire” (2010): They weren’t quite peers on the British jangle-pop scene – Hitchcock is a few years older – but Johnny and Robyn have certainly traveled in similar circles over the years, so it was quite lovely to finally hear Marr’s guitar chiming away behind Hitchcock’s vocals.