Record Collector, November/December 1992
Interviewer : Johnny Rogan
Johnny Marr's importance as an instrumentalist and songwriter hardly needs stating. Since his stellar work with the Smiths, he has featured frequently in 'best guitarist' polls, and graced the covers of several guitar magazines. Once championed as the king of the indie guitarists, Marr has long since surrendered that mantle in search of a more varied musical menu. Those sadly tormented souls who blamed Marr for the break-up of their beloved Smiths merely testify to the problems that were engulfing the guitarist during his final days with the group. Trapped in a predetermined image that he had helped create, Marr discovered to his cost that the walls of Smithdom were, in fact, a musical prison. Such was the legacy of five golden years in England's most celebrated group of the 80s. Marr's decision to close the book on the Smiths, coupled with his apparently newfound musical interests, alienated a chunk of his potential audience in 1987. What seemed an inevitable part of growing up (Marr was 19 when he formed tthe Smiths, and still only 23 when they self-destructed) was also very much in character for a musician who was always looking forward.Of course, few people knew this at the time of the Smiths' break-up. Marr's background, his previous working relationship with groups, his career ambitions, and even his musical tastes, were largely undocumented. Certain aspects of his character and taste were translated through the media to form an image that sat well alongside Morrissey's vision of The Smiths. There was no hype or deceit needed to achieve this. Marr merely emphasised those traits and tastes which he assumed his audience wished to hear about, and conveniently understated or omitted the contradictory evidence. With Morrissey doing most of the talking, many mistakenly perceived the Smiths as an extension of the singer's own personality.
During his period with the Smiths, Marr was lauded as a guitar hero, and his distinctive sound brought instant comparisons with such 60s gods as Roger McGuinn and Pete Townshend. The idea of rechannelling the best of 60s pop into an 80s context was fundamental to the appeal of the Smiths. Morrissey and Marr self-consciously compared themselves to Leiber and Stoller and, by implication, the great group composers of two decades before - Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richard. Marr was happy to mine this rich vein of pop for the good of the group, but as the years passed he became less comfortable with his public image. His restlessness was reflected in chameleon-like changes in appearance - from the quiffed rocker and the mop-topped funster in beads and shades, to the dandy in a sharp suit during the 1986 tour. Those who had known Marr before the Smiths would hardly have been surprised either by his progress, his sartorial changes or his willingness to move on. His contemporaries in Manchester testify to his immense capacity for learning which, allied to a formidable record collection, made him a many-sided musician. His ambition, fashion sense, persuasive charm and street-wise suss, sharpened by working in fairs and markets, combined to create a powerful yet sometimes undemonstrative personality. From the outset, Marr conceded the media spotlight to Morrissey, realising that the Stretford bard's barbs would create more publicity if they were undiluted by prosaic utterances from other members of the group. In Morrissey and Marr's hands, the Smiths resembled nothing less than a crusade. If the group betrayed one weakness, it lay in their abject refusal to compromise over virtually anything. Of course, this was also their greatest triumph, and therein lay a beautiful contradiction. The 'Smiths sound' excluded, as a matter of policy, synthesiser excursions or any affiliation with what later became known as dance culture. Old dogma, like the refusal to sanction videos, eventually proved restrictive rather than liberating. During their final year, the group showed signs of attempting to reconcile these dilemmas. The last studio album, "Strangeways, Here We Come", was an uneasy collection which revealed them searching for a fresh direction - looking back to the lyrical themes of old, while also seeking new musical ideas. If Morrissey's obsessions were with rewriting his past neuroses, then Marr's were with forging a more challenging musical future. It was scarcely surprising that Marr should regard Morrissey's attempt at Cilla Black's "Work Is A Four-Letter Word" as an embarrassment. The affection for 60s kitsch was now passe. It was only at the close of the Smiths' story that Marr's dilemma was fully revealed. From 1982-87, he had been seen entirely in the context of the Smiths, a unit that celebrated its own existence in isolation from Marr's past. The jingle-jangle sound of the Smiths on such songs as "Girl Afraid," "This Charming Man" and "The Headmaster Ritual" constituted the essence of Johnny Marr in many people's eyes. The myth insisted that he had emerged from Wythenshawe with a love of Leiber-Stoller and 60s pop, met Morrissey, then formed the definitive 80s songwriting partnership. Tales of previous musical collaborations were deliberately suppressed and, more importantly, so were Marr's extra-curricular musical interests. Tastes which were compatible with Morrissey's were noted with enthusiasm, but the crucial differences were not.When Morrissey sang "hang the DJ" during the heyday of the Smiths, nobody pointed out that Marr had previously been a club disc-jockey, playing Chic, Sister Sledge, the Fatback Band and James Brown. When Morrissey derided dance music, nobody knew that Marr had spent over a year with Andy Rourke playing funk in the Freak Party. When Morrissey denounced drugs, nobody mentioned that Johnny was rather partial to a spliff. When Morrisseyreeled off his gallery of 50s/60s icons, Marr kept very quiet about his love of Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher. When Morrissey sought out Sandie Shaw for his patronage, few saw the significance in Marr's simultaneous involvement with the dance-orientated Quango Quango. And while Morrissey delicately chronicled his bedroom-bound adolescence, Marr never once mentioned his stints in such outfits as the Paris Valentinos, Sister Ray and White Dice.
It was important to the myth of the Smiths that the group was seen as fully formed, without past baggage to trip them up. In abandoning his past, however, Marr became increasingly trapped in a present that was dominated by the image of Morrissey. In attempting to alter the direction of the Smiths and, finally, precipitating their dissolution, Marr was not acting out of character. It was clear that he was growing weary of the 'image' of his creation, just as John Lennon had become bored with the public image of the Beatles in the late 60s. Even dream groups have their darker sides, and just as Lennon felt there was no place among the Beatles' singles for a song like "Cold Turkey", so Marr's more opaque group demanded an alternative outlet. Session work and a more experimental outlook in approaching the Smiths might have provided one answer had the group continued. However, reconciling all this with Morrissey's particular vision of the Smiths would probably have taxed Marr's patience and stamina to the breaking point. More worringly, the entire business, managerial and financial set-up behind the Smiths was so riddled with problems that it was a wonder they had any music left in them during their latter period. That they remained such a strong team, even up until their demise, speaks volumes about the potential of the Morrissey/Marr songwriting team.With the acquisition of the Smiths' back catalogue by Warners and the publication of "The Severed Alliance", interest in the group seems at its highest since the mid-80s. The re-release of "This Charming Man" exceeded most people's expectations by climbing to No. 8 in the U.K. charts, a clear 17 places higher than when it was first issued a decade ago. In the process, it became the biggest hit of the group's career, out-charting both "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Sheila Take A Bow", both of which peaked at No. 10.Within weeks, Warners issued a follow-up, "How Soon Is Now?", which again eclipsed its original No. 24 placing by reaching 16. In the meantime, the ominously-titled "Best... 1" compilation entered the album charts at No. 1. It was clear that these releases were reaching a new generation of Smiths fans, eager to embrace the group's remarkable recorded legacy. Even Morrissey's corresponding singles and album releases were outshone by the Smiths' chart performances, which must have caused him mixed feelings, to say the least.
In light of recent events, it seems clear that Warners will continue to issue Smiths product on a regular basis. Their repackaging programme, while undoubtedly successful and lucrative, nevertheless betrays an unseemly short-sightedness. The impact of "How Soon Is Now?", for example, was severely diluted by its appearance barely a month after "This Charming Man". If only the company had the foresight, confidence and respect for the Smiths' back catalogue to follow the example of EMI with the Beatles, and releasing singles in chronological order on the date of their respective anniversaries. Given that the Smiths were formed exactly a decade ago, this would have been brilliant timing, a pleasing marketing device, and provided fans with a sense of history, while allowing potential purchasers to save up for each new release. By flooding the market so indiscriminately, it now seems more likely that a substantial number of buyers will be alienated by the overkill - a classic case of killing the golden goose. Fortunately, the quality of the Smiths' recorded output will ensure its longevity, irrespective of record company policies. The long-awaited re-release of the Smith's studio albums will put matters in perspective and no doubt prompt more loving retrospectives. With the Smiths' hits back on the radio and their 'best of' prominently displayed in record shops throughout the country, it seems an appropriate time to consider Johnny Marr's comments on their record career. What follows is a small slice of an exhausting and exhaustive interview in which the tale was told of the rise and fall of a group that many regard as the most important to emerge in the last 20 years.
JR: The whole early period of the group was very vague, but manager Joe Moss says that the Smiths was a very well planned and calculated operation, and that he saw you and Morrissey as a unity of opposites that had been brought together for a specific purpose. In that sense, he was almost surprised that the Smiths lasted as long as it did.
JM: Fair enough. I think that's an astute observation.
JR: He said he had discussions with you, and that you were quite capable of talking beyond the Smiths, even at that early stage.
JM: That's true.
JR: Were you all very much in favour of signing to Rough Trade?
JM: Yes, we were. There was no argument or very little discussion about it. I trusted Morrissey's instincts on that. I knew he'd thought about it long and hard. It was almost like he was just waiting for the group to form. And a lot of his output and decisions had been decided years ago, without a doubt. He wanted to be involved with people like Richard Boon, and knew how he wanted the group to be perceived. Obviously he'd been working on the artwork for years and honing his own art. There's no question about it. There were two things: signing to Rough Trade was part of an overall philosophy that Morrissey had, especially financially. The 50/50 deal was important. But what was more important was the Rough Trade aesthetic. Not only financially, with the deal, but the running of the group and how everybody got paid. Morrissey had a very healthy outlook on how to run a group financially by not spending money on complete bullshit and nonsensical things, and not being extravagant. His motto was, "What we make we put in our pockets, and pay everybody from our pocket." His experience and sense, being a different kind of person from me, was important; and he was older. That was something that was quite handy. Joe Moss was quite capable of doing it, but Morrissey wanted to do it himself. What I'm saying is that Morrissey knew about money and the rest of it.
JR: Your first-album sessions were initially produced by Troy Tate. How did you feel about what went wrong there?
JM: All I remember is working on it underground, working really hard, and it was summer. It was in Wapping. It was very exciting, playing and stuff. Troy was a really nice guy but it just sounded like demos. We just weren't happy with the way it sounded and had to put the mockers on it. That was it. I think Morrissey was more unhappy with it than I was. But he was right - put it that way.
JR: Did you fall out with Troy?
JM: No, we didn't fall out with Troy. We were just really sorry to hurt his feelings. It was a professional decision and he obviously took it very badly. He'd got himself wrapped up in it, and understandably so.
JR: I notice that "Suffer Little Children" wasn't on the Troy Tate demo tape that is doing the rounds. Yet it was one of the first songs you wrote with Morrissey and you'd played it at the Ritz, and it subsequently appeared on the first album. Was there a reason why it wasn't on the demo? You also seem to have dropped the song from your set very quickly.
JM: I think we probably did it on our first two gigs. I think we were writing better stuff - that's the answer. It was always considered an album track. Maybe we had a doubt about it at the time.
JR: Joe Moss prefers the Troy Tate tape to the album. He goes on about purity and an artiste's early work - forget "The Queen Is Dead"!
JM: Joe likes purity. Yeah, he was really great for me. He got me into a load of stuff and encouraged me as well as giving me jobs and letting me stay at his house. He was so good to me. Me and Andrew Berry used to live in a cottage in Marple and then we moved to Joe's house. When I wasn't working for him, I'd be round his place watching Stones videos and blues videos and listening to blues records. He taught me a lot.
JR: Do you remember how and when Joe decided to manage you?
JM: I took Morrissey along to meet him on a Sunday afternoon and he said, "Yeah, I'll be your manager", which decked me. He said, "Well, you've got a phone here and a place to rehearse upstairs. We'll work out the finance so that you can get a PA to rehearse with." Then he was like, "You've got to get a van"!
JR: In passing, who did the 'Hindley' laugh on "Suffer Little Children"?
JM: It was a friend of Morrissey's called Anna.
JR: What was your opinion of the first album?
JM: I haven't listened to it in ages. I was happy that people were getting a chance to hear us, because we were better than anyone else at the time and I just thought I was happy to make a record. Just that it existed and the songs were there for people to hear was enough for me. It wasn't until people started mentioning the production that I noticed it, really.
JR: How do you feel about the production?
JM: I think the only way that record could have got made was for John Porter to come in and show us how to make a record properly, which is what he did. He showed me how to make a record.
JR: There was absolutely no interfering with Morrissey's voice at that stage, but that gradually changed?
JM: Morrissey learned to make great vocal records. People make a lot of the production not being good, but we weren't as good as we could have been. We got better. The only way to have nailed us down at that period would have been to record a gig, because we were really good live. That's probably the best way those songs could have been presented.
JR: What were your working methods with Morrissey? Did you initially play him stuff, and then after that stage get into posting cassettes through his door?
JM: It wasn't really as clear-cut as that. If we needed some songs fast, then Morrissey would come round to my place and I'd sit there with an acoustic guitar and a cassette recorder. "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" was done that way, and so was "Frankly Mr Shankly". "Shakespeare's Sister" is another. We were on our way to the studio on Saturday and Morrissey said, "Look, we need a song", and we put it together. These were ideas that had been formulated. I didn't just come up with them there and then. I'd been messing around with them. "Sheila Take A Bow" was one of the later songs we wrote. Me and Morrissey would just disappear. Some of my favourite songs came about that way, like "Half A Person". We just locked ourselves away and did it. In the time it takes to play it, I wrote it. Morrissey was great in that respect. He knew when I was going to play something good.
JR: How did "How Soon Is Now?" come about?
JM: I did "How Soon Is Now?" on a portastudio. That, "William, It Was Really Nothing" and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", I did in a period of about four to five days when I was living in a flat in Earls Court. That was done when we needed a follow-up to "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"."How Soon Is Now?" was really a good one. Musically it was a perfect cross between a sweaty swamp backing track and an intense, wired shock every few bars. I knew what I was doing with those tracks. The priority was to do "Please Please Please" and "William". Then we needed the extra track and just nailed that one.
JR: Morrissey said he didn't like "What Difference Does It Make", whereas John Porter did. What was your opinion?
JM: It was all right. I didn't think it was a particularly strong one. A lot of people liked it and it got to No. 10. It followed "This Charming Man" and was part of that peak. It was all right. It went down great live, and that's when I liked it.
JR: Just before the "Meat Is Murder" tour, Andy is being "sorted out". This seems to be almost an annual occurrence. Did you ever feel cast in the role of Andy's keeper?
JM: I was his best friend and he was my friend, so that's what you do. I never really felt cast, in that respect. If there was ever that feeling, I was more than willing to take it on.
JR: What I found interesting was that Andy's heroin problem was kept under wraps for so long. Even people on the road like Grant Showbiz and Stuart James didn't know. Morrissey himself said that it was very late before he found out. How difficult was it to keep that suppressed and was it necessary?
JM: It was necessary because we thought we could beat it. That's why I always thought, "It's going to be over soon, it's just going to stop". But that's an ongoing story in that situation all the time. Another thing was, we were terrified because we had a public anti-drugs philosophy. Morrissey would always have to have taken the stick. That probably made Andy feel worse. That was why it was kept under wraps, plus obviously things like the police. Our families' lives were changing because we'd become successful so quickly.
Their lives had been turned around as well. In mine and Andy's case, it was the first time the family had something to be proud of. No-one wanted to screw that up for Andy. And, an important point, we didn't want to screw it up for Morrissey. Genuinely, all of us would do anything for him. It wasn't just a professional thing, it was very personal. We wouldn't have let him have to deal with it.
JR: You talked about the anti-drugs philosophy. The impression I get, however, is that Morrissey wasn't as puritanical about what other people did as you might have assumed from reading his comments in the press.
JM: Morrissey isn't judgemental. I can't give him enough credit for being a professional person. I know what it's like having to deal with people who turn up late because they have to score. He had his professional reasons, and it was better that he didn't get involved. I took care of Andy and that's how our relationship worked.
JR: During 1985, things were again starting to go wrong on the management side. Why did you hire Scott Piering? Was it simply that there was no-one else you could trust or was there a determination to do it all yourselves?
JM: It was more that we didn't know anybody we could trust, or anybody in the business. To this day, I don't know why Joe Moss wasn't our manager. Morrissey knows and Joe knows, but I don't know and I never did. The only side I could understand is that if Joe realised Morrissey wasn't happy, he wouldn't have stayed. It seemed like an involuntary resignation to me.
JR: So were you disappointed when Joe left the group? Did you see him as somebody who could have grown with the group in the way Rob Gretton did with New Order?
JM: I wasn't disappointed with Joe because it was obvious that he was feeling forced out. It was something where he and Morrissey stopped seeing eye-to-eye. There were never any arguments or anything. Joe told me that he was going to have to leave. He said, "I know what you'll do, you'll say you're leaving as well. Don't. You'll be making a massive mistake." He knew me really well and said, "Keep your mouth shut and your mind shut." I followed his advice and from then on I tried to forget about it.
JR: He said that you'd known he wouldn't stay for the duration because of his family commitments. We had a long discussion about this because I couldn't see why he couldn't do it - especially when you consider Larry Parnes, Brian Epstein, Malcolm McLaren and other retailer/entrepreneurs in pop.
JM: We were close and he'd just had a little boy and I could see that he hated spending time away from his kid. So I did understand it from his point of view, why he wanted to leave. But at that time I just wasn't ready for it. I didn't feel let down by it, though. I felt that we owed him a lot.
JR: The business with Joe dragged on long after he left. There was the question of compensation. The matter has been described to me in many ways, but the impression I get is that you were caught in the crossfire between Joe and Morrissey, who was dragging his heels over this. Joe said that it was a game between you and Morrissey. But he couldn't understand why you didn't write him a cheque. A lot of people at Rough Trade felt that Joe was anti-Morrissey because of that. But Joe says that he was never disappointed about Morrissey at all. He says he never expected anything from Morrissey, but with you it was different.
JM: That's hardly fair. It is interesting to me, because I've always wanted to know how he feels about this, and what exactly went wrong. The way I see it, the group owed him money for expenses, most obviously the PA. The group had been successful from those expenses, and I personally had to pay. What happened was that when I left the Smiths, I was able to phone Joe up again because I thought I'd done the right thing. He was the one person on this earth who I knew wouldn't be surprised. Everywhere I looked, everyone thought I was crazy. I knew he was the one person who knew what the score was behind the scenes. So I went back and paid him. After the Smiths split, I paid him for the PA and I covered everyone else's costs... I paid him a cheque out of my own money, and I felt much better for doing that. But, on principle, while I was in the Smiths, it wasn't fair that the rest of the band let me pay for everybody else's gear.
JR: There was always uncertainty about Andy and Mike's role in the scheme of thing, as there was no written contract with either of them.
JM: That wasn't our fault. That wasn't mine and Morrissey's fault. Why come to us two years after the event and try and say that. Between the four of us, it was all very sound. It was a private arrangement.
JR: Well, let's put it another way. Why was 'the Smiths' on all the Rough Trade contracts just you and Morrissey?
JM: The Smiths was me and Morrissey. It was me and Morrissey at the start. When we brought in Mike and Andy, it was made clear to them. It was unusual for the whole focus of the group to be around a songwriting team, but that was fundamental to the Smiths' ethic. When I went round to see Andy to ask him to join the group, I laid out the terms to be fair. I wanted this to be a new group with a realistic outlook. Myself and Morrissey had already started writing songs. At the initial meeting with Joe, we said if we can't find the right musicians, then we'll write songs a la Brill Building writers. We had all that space. Morrissey was saying, "I'd like to write a song for Sandie Shaw". That was the way we felt. For my part, it was the Leiber/Stoller, Jagger/Richard, Lennon/McCartney vibe. So from day one, Mike and Andy knew they didn't have to do 25% of the work in
every area. That was the understanding. They could leave the studio whenever they were finished, and we couldn't. They could. We were the ones who had to deal with shit with Joe, shit with Scott and shit with Rough Trade. It suited Mike and Andy right down to the ground, because it was me and Morrissey that ran the group, and who physically did all the things except play live. All of us played live. In the studio, it was all of us doing the tapes, but everybody else skedaddled when their bit of work was done, whereas me and Morrissey were together every single day.
JR: "Meat Is Murder" was a very diverse album which included elements of rockabilly, metal and even funk. Was it intentional to provide that varied musical menu or was that simply how it came out?
JM: That's just the way I was writing at the time. My favourite song on that LP now is "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore". I think Morrissey is incredible on that, the end is brilliant. "Well I Wonder" I really like as well. It's one of those things that a modern group could try and emulate but never get the spirit of. It's so simple. "The Headmaster Ritual" was a favourite of mine for a long time just because I'm really pleased with the guitars on it and the strange tuning.
JR: How quickly did "The Headmaster Ritual" come about?
JM: For my part, "The Headmaster Ritual" came together over the longest period of time I've ever spent on a song. I first played the riff to Morrissey when we were working on the demos for our first album with Troy Tate. I nailed the rest of it when we moved to Earls Court. That was around the time when we were being fabulous.
JR: At what stage was "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" written?
JM: I completed it when we came back from America, having been to New York where we played that one gig at the Danceteria. I did that the moment I got back. I wrote it in New York with Morrissey, put it on tape when we got back and within a couple of weeks we moved to London.
JR: "The Queen Is Dead" must have been a tough album to make.
JM: It was really tough. I knew we were working on something really good. There was a feeling in the studio that we were at an important point in our career. It was so difficult. It polarized my life.I remember one time when Andy was in the studio in the live room, trying to play a bass part, and I was coaxing and coercing him into doing what I wanted and needed. The phone rang, and it was a guy, Jay, from Rough Trade, saying that Salford Van Hire had been on to him and they were going to press charges because one of the roadies had not brought the van back from a previous session and it was scratched. I was dealing with Jay on the phone, dealing with Andy on the other side of the glass, and meanwhile I was trying to come up with the middle eight for the song that we were working on. I was having to take care of that side of the group far too much. What I do remember about "The Queen Is Dead" was that it was the first time I started to disappear. At the end of each day, I would disappear and work on the next day's recording - honing songs and overdubs on my own. Mike and Andy and the roadies would party and have a good time or go somewhere.
JR: Was the relative chart failure of "Shakespeare's Sister" a key point in your relationship with Rough Trade?
JM: Not as much as people have made out. And a lot has been made out of it. It was a disappointment for me. As a 7" single for the group at that time, it was quite inventive. There was something about that riff that I always wanted to do. I just flipped recording it. I really loved doing it. We didn't get much support from Rough Trade on that one. As with "Bigmouth Strikes Again", it was a valid 7" single to own, but maybe not to play on the radio. But that's all right by me. I was really happy to have certain songs on singles, like "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", "Shakespeare's Sister", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Shoplifters Of The World Unite", because they were radical rock singles and that suited me. I was happy just owning it myself, like a lot of the audience were. The fact that we didn't get onto 'Top Of The Pops' with those records is neither here nor there. I actually preferred those to the ones that we did get on 'Top Of The Pops'.
JR: How important was the concept of having a No. 1 single? Was it an ambition of yours or Morrissey's?
JM: No, not really. We never discussed it. I think the climate was different then. Now the Mondays go in at No. 5 and James get to No.2.
JR: Did being a member of the Smiths mean that you had to subjugate certain aspects of your personality?
JM: All through that time, all I wanted to talk about was clothes, football and smoking pot. I felt I had to keep my other side away in a sense, because it wasn't what the group was about. Then, hey presto, five or six years later, the stick I got from some fans for having a bowl haircut - "what happened to your quiff?"! I was too quick for my own good. That was the way my life was. Now it's cool to shed light on it, but at the time, it wasn't.
JR: Looking back, it strikes me that there was a hell of a lot of drama in the Smiths. People seem to have taken things to heart in a more profound way than in any other group I've covered. What amazes me is the amount of emotional involvement, melodrama and delusion from people in the Smiths camp - lots of people looking for power, but at the same time, running scared. Overall, there's a sense of people getting very upset and intense about things in a very strange way.
JM: I felt completely suffocated by that at the end. That's an accurate observation. At the time I thought plainly to myself that I didn't like the way we were treating people, while at other times I think we were, as a group, over-sensitive and attracting people who were both over-sensitive and unprofessional. I've got fond memories of everybody but, personally, in a professional capacity, somebody should have come up for air. In a sense, if we hadn't had internal problems, we would have had less external
problems, because we would have sorted them out. We were too busy. We wrote so much. Now, doing my own press and not really liking it much, I'm even more amazed that Morrissey found the time to write what he did, because he did a lot of press and that was a lot of effort. But you're right, there was a lot of serious delusion around the group.
JR: By late 1985, things were very intense. Your house had become a bit of a haven, with people knocking on the door at two in the morning. Was there pressure with you becoming the celebrity in town?
JM: It wasn't that there were strangers around. It was like this. When we started a tour, everybody met up at my place and the bus turned up. Morrissey lived with his mother, Andy lived in a small flat with his girlfriend, so everybody came to my place. Also, Angie was more involved than the other girls, understandably so as she was there from the start, and I had a big house. I wanted to have a place that was filled with music. Morrissey caught it pretty well one day; he said, "Every time we come round to your house, it's like a soundcheck in every room". It's still pretty much like that now, but I never used to let people in. "Gregarious" was a word used in a lot of interviews, but I'm not a sucker. What I'm saying is, tours started at our house, I'd get up and the roadies would get on the bus. Then, weeks later, we'd get a flight from America to Heathrow, get on a coach and everybody would end up back at my place. That's a very unhealthy situation to be in. You don't have any distinction between your own life and the band's life.
JR: You said this was dark period. I gathered form this that you were playing too hard and working too hard.
JM: When I wasn't behind the mixing desk, I'd be either listening to records or watching videos and trying to get inspiration 24 hours a day, and I was drinking far too much. When you drink before you eat, it's not very good. I wasn't a drinker, but it was just something that stuck with me.
JR: What are your feelings towards Rough Trade now?
JM: In all honesty, I've got nothing against them, and I also give them a lot of credit for taking a lot of stick from us, but I didn't feel that they were as professional a record company as they should have been. It seemed to me that they made so many mistakes with us. At best, it was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.
JR: Did you consider "The Queen Is Dead" to be your finest achievement?
JM: I did at the time. Now I say you can't ignore our singles entity. In order to do that, maybe you have to take "Louder Than Bombs". You can't just say, "Listen to 'The Queen Is Dead' if you want to know about that group". You have to know about our singles philosophy. Another thing is, there are some fantastic moments on "Strangeways, Here We
Come". That might be a personal thing, but I'm quite qualified to comment on it. "Unhappy Birthday" is fantastic. Only Morrissey could do that to my music and only I could give him that music to sing. "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me" is the same, and "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before", only I didn't realize it at the time. I knew it was coming together as a great pop song, but it really was great.
JR: You've compared "The Queen Is Dead" to "The Beatles" double album. Why was that?
JM: It was very dark, stark and organic at the same time. Not organic in an acoustic guitar way, but held together by atmosphere with very few overdubs. On the Irish tour, the "Meat Is Murder" tour, I listened to a lot of the Beatles' "White Album". There was a poignancy there. It might have been my imagination, but having seen the documentary "Let It Be" I think there's an air of foreboding that's definitely there on some tracks. It's definitely there on "Unhappy Birthday". There's a lot of depth to the LP which came out of our feelings at the time. There's only a couple that I think, "Oh God, did we write that?", like "Death At One's Elbow".
JR: The title track of "The Queen Is Dead" was obviously influenced by the Stooges and the MC5.
JM: Yes, I just traced it back. It was Morrissey's idea to include "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" and he said, "I want this on the track". But he wasn't to know that I was going to lead into the feedback and drum rolls. It was just a piece of magic. I got the drum riff going and Andy got the bass line, which was one of his best ever and one that bass players still haven't matched.I went in there with all the lads watching and did the take and they just went, "Wow". I came out and I was shaking. When I suggested doing it again, they just said, "No way! No way!" What happened with the feedback was I was setting my guitar up for the track and I put it onto a stand and it was really loud. Where it hit the stand, it made that note of feedback. I did the guitar track, put the guitar on the stand, and while we were talking, it was like, "Wow, that sounded good". So I said, "Right - record that!" It was going through a wah-wah from the previous take, so I just started moving the wah-wah and it was getting all these different intervals, and it definitely added a real tension.I loved Morrissey's singing on that, and the words. But it was very MC5. Morrissey has a real love for that music as well. I remember him playing the Ramones as much as he played Sandie Shaw.
JR: Were there any other tracks on "The Queen Is Dead" or moments that particularly struck you?
JM: Morrissey's vocal on "I Know It's Over" - I'll never forget when he did that. It's one of the highlights of my life. It was that good, that strong. Every line he was hinting at where he was going to go. I was thinking, "Is he going to go there? Yes, he is!" It was just brilliant. I did have a similar experience - though it was different because I wasn't actually there - when I heard Bernard's vocal on "Get The Message". That was brilliant as well.
JR: The final year of the Smiths is very bitty and confusing. Initially, both you and Morrissey wanted to build the Smiths in America. You even went and looked for flats there for a brief period. It's also been said that you were reluctant to take it to the limit because of the pressures, illnesses and excesses that you suffered there. Yet you brought in Ken Friedman, who claimed that you wanted to play stadiums and do world tours, but Morrissey didn't. He said, "The problem was that when the smoke cleared, Johnny wanted to go on tour, make videos and do everything to get the word up, and Morrissey didn't. Morrissey was quite content not to ever play Wembley Stadium. Johnny desperately wanted to play Wembley."
JM: I think his memory's a little fanciful there. He did organize at great expense a video that Morrissey didn't show up for. That was the great breaking point between those two. Ken was pushing us towards all the things he said, in making us a big group. I didn't have any problems playing stadiums in principle, but I think he's writing himself into our story too heavily there.The split certainly didn't occur because I was in Ken Freidman's camp and Morrissey didn't like it. Not at all. Where this was an issue was that Morrissey didn't want to continue with Ken. I think he was right to do that. But I didn't want everything to move back to my house and for it to be the headquarters, for the two of us to sort out the band again. I'd just had enough of that.
JR: In 1986, you had the car crash. Was that a pivotal point in telling you to take stock?
JM: Yes, it was really. I'd been out with Mike and his girlfriend and I went to take Mike home. He didn't live too far way, so I dropped him off. Then I got literally to 150 yards from my house. There are some lights stopping you and the road forks off one way. There was a cassette in the machine and it had gone round the other side; and just as I was at the lights, the other side had started up. So I thought I'd put my foot down and take a two-minute diversion around the block. It was pouring with rain, and the car went completely out of control, then bounced off a couple of walls and ended up in the middle of the road. I jumped out and saw that the car was completely squashed. I couldn't believe that I was still alive. I did more damage running from the car to the house, falling over and stuff, than I did in the crash. It was the next day that I started getting stiff. There was something I remember about the car crash which was a little sad. I don't want to make too much of this, but we were supposed to be playing an Artists Against Apartheid gig at the Royal Albert Hall. There was a letter from one of our fans saying the whole thing was a cover-up. I thought, "What kind of people are calling themselves our fans?" The top half of me was bandaged up and braced, and I had splints and all this kind of crap. The Smiths would have done anything to get to concerts under terrible circumstances. That was the first time I can remember feeling a separation between what the fans were believing and the truth. It taught me a lesson.
JR: What are you memories of the final Smiths session in Streatham?
JM: It was utter misery. The group were really falling to pieces. We'd finished making the record and I thought, "Right, now for the first time, I can have a couple of weeks way from the group". That's all it was. I wanted to get away and I felt we should all have taken a holiday. I told Morrissey he needed a holiday. The band put what I thought was really unfair pressure to come up with two B-sides for "Girlfriend In A Coma". I fought against it. I felt I'd worked far too hard to be put in that position, coupled with the fact that Morrissey had decided he didn't want to work with Ken. That was OK. That was a problem I could have dealt with. I just felt round the corner it was never ending. It was like I was never going to be allowed to come up for air.
JR: What did you think of the songs you recorded then?
JM: I wrote "I Keep Mine Hidden", but "Work Is A Four Letter Word" I hated. That was the last straw, really. I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs. That's the main thing.
JR: But you'd previously recorded a Twinkle song.
JM: Yeah, that was another low point. Those are the two low points of our recording career, certainly. They're really inferior, and don't deserve a place alongside our own material.
JR: What happened then?
JM: That was it, really. I made a decision that I was going to get away on holiday. The only place I could think of was L.A. That was the only place I'd ever been whenever I had time off on tour. I was never a person who took holidays. I never did with my parents. L.A. was the only place I knew where there'd be sunshine, so off I went. I never saw Morrissey again.
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