Last night, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr picked up the award for best reissue at the NME Awards, for “The Complete Smiths” box set, a well deserved accolade. While there, Marr has asked for the billionth time if he’d ever consider reuniting The Smiths, to which he responded, “We won’t be reforming this week…Maybe if the government stepped down. If this government stepped down, I’ll reform the band. How’s that? That’s a fair trade, isn’t it? I think the country would be better off, don’t you? I’ll do it if the coalition steps down.”
To many Smiths fans, the idea of Marr even jesting about such a venture seems to tickle the earbuds, but really, why does everyone want this? Time after time, we see once great bands embarrass themselves with foolhardy reunions, tarnishing their reputations. Furthermore, in the case of The Smiths, both Morrissey and Marr have denounced the concept so many times that if they ever did decide to do it, we would all know it was solely for money. These are artists, not merely performers, and we should really stop treating them like the latter.
In addition to that argument, there’s also the fact that both Morrissey and Marr have proven that they’re fine in a post-Smiths world. Morrissey has released a bunch of great solo albums, and Johnny Marr has been sprinkling fairy dust all over the music industry since The Smiths’ split in 1987.
To prove it, this week we’ve compiled a list of some of Marr’s best work outside The Smiths. While best known for his signature Rickenbacker jangle, his freelance work has covered everything from synthpop to folk to American indie. His style is known for being underbearing — never suffocating the artist at hand with his own style, but instead complimenting it to create an excellent partnership. Chances are you may be a huge fan of a song with Johnny Marr on it and may not even know it. Check out this list and find out.
Talking Heads – “(Nothing But) Flowers”
Talking Heads may not have been the band they were in their Eno-produced heyday, but they still had one or two tricks up their sleeve, and one of them was Johnny Marr. The guitarist played on five songs on the Heads’ final record, “Naked,” including this FM favorite about the dreams of reverse consumerism.
The Pretenders – “Windows of the World”
In the immediate aftermath of The Smiths’ breakup in 1987, Johnny Marr officially became a member of The Pretenders. He toured with the band for a year, but he only played on one recording, the single for “Windows of the World,” which also appeared on the soundtrack to the film “1969.”
Electronic – “Getting Away With It”
After Marr’s stint with The Pretenders, he began working with New Order frontman, Bernard Sumner, for what was supposed to be Sumner’s first solo album. That collaboration eventually became an equal partnership which the duo deemed Electronic. This is their first single together, “Getting Away With It,” which features Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys. The song bites the pre-chorus melody from “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs, but we can let that slide.
Billy Bragg – “Sexuality”
While no one wants to hear about Billy Bragg having relations with girls from many nations, it’s not a perishable enough thought to turn away from this great jangle pop gem from Bragg’s “Don’t Try This at Home” album. His most successful single, the song boasts a great Smiths-style progression by Marr that one can daydream a Morrissey vocal all over.
Electrafixion – “Lowdown”
Johnny Marr and ex-Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch were supposedly working on a solo album for McCulloch in the early ’90s that never surfaced. What ended up happening was McCulloch ended up patching things up with Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant, and the two formed a new band called Electrafixion. Their one album, “Burned,” was a bit messy, the band trying to tap into post-grunge melodrama rather than pursuing the tightly wound post-punk they were known for. “Lowdown” is one of the two songs from the failed Marr sessions that ended up getting passed onto to short-run band’s repertoire.
Beck – “Milk & Honey”
Each Beck album in the ’90s was a reinvention, and on “Midnite Vultures,” he transformed from the slightly off, dreampopper of “Mutations,” to a funk-tastic sex addict. “Milk & Honey” follows the album’s tongue-in-cheek freak-funk, but then unexpectedly takes a left hand turn in its coda, switching to meditative, roadside folk, complete with a wandering electric guitar lead by Johnny Marr.
Modest Mouse – “Florida”
Johnny Marr shocked everybody when he joined American indie rock heroes Modest Mouse as a full-time member in 2006. Not that he hadn’t done anything like that before — he previously joined The The between 1988-1994, a tremendous waste of his talent. Modest Mouse didn’t lose any of their weirdness with Marr’s presence on 2007′s excellent “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” and addition, carried a secret weapon to their already unstoppable sound. On “Florida” for instance, it sounds almost as if Marr ressurected his guitar settings from “This Charming Man” to hit those clanging notes heard throughout the songs verses. As a side note, this track is also one of three songs on “We Were Dead” to boast a backing vocal by The Shins’ James Mercer.
John Frusciante – “Central”
To be honest, it’s very difficult to pinpoint Johnny Marr’s exact contribution to either of the two songs he plays on John Frusciante’s most recent solo album, “The Empyrean.” However, his mere studio presence on “Central” (I think he’s playing the acoustic rhythm guitar heard mostly during its verses) seems to push the song to enlightened places. The vamp that enters right after the two minute mark is truly inspired and is one of Frusciante’s greatest achievements.
7 Worlds Collide – “Too Blue”
“Too Blue” is essentially what one could imagine The Smiths would sound like today if they stayed together. It’s a mature update of the Marr aesthetic which somewhat mirrors the softer side of the current state of Morrissey’s solo career. “Too Blue” is co-written by Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy and features a vocal by Tim Finn from Crowded House, who had previously worked with Marr on the band’s 2007 album, “Time on Earth.” It’s the opening track off the charity album, “The Sun Came Out,” which is billed to the collective 7 Worlds Collide.
The Cribs – “We Share the Same Skies”
When Johnny Marr announced he was joining The Cribs as a full-time member, my heart sank, as I was looking forward to another record with Modest Mouse. While his fretwork may be missing from their next album (rumored to be produced by Big Boi), he at least has been giving the otherwise forgettable Wakefield band a good direction. This is the band performing on “The Late Show,” where Marr played “Dashboard” with Modest Mouse two years earlier (I wonder if Dave made the connection).