Of The Smiths’ many fine attributes, there’s one which sometimes tends to get overlooked: their strong sense of place.
While their contemporaries were singing hymns to the exotic likes of Club Tropicana, Vienna and The Land of Make Believe, The Smiths were referencing Rusholme, Whalley Range and Southern Cemetery. Their songs unfolded within a landscape that was recognisable, particularly if you lived along the 46 bus route. Manchester, its buildings and geography, was a silent member of the band. Not for nothing was one of the best-loved Smiths’ photographs taken right outside Salford Lads Club.
While Morrissey‘s input as lyricist was vital here, Johnny Marr had a huge part to play too; his elaborate, layered guitar-playing doing much to evoke the urban Northern landscape from which the band sprang. It’s perhaps not all that surprising, then, that Marr has developed a keen interest in psychogeography and modern architecture. In fact, he’s recently become patron of the Manchester Modernist Society, a group of non-professional enthusiasts whose stated aims are “to foster and help develop a greater public awareness of the rich and complex relationship between architecture, art and design and public space, and draw attention to the precarious nature of much of the 20th century backdrop that we often mistakenly take for granted”.
Marr’s particular interest first surfaced late last year when he released Dynamo, a track from his 2014 solo album, as a single. Though it’s ostensibly a love song, Dynamo is built around an unusual subject: an imagined building, a synthesis of the CIS building in Manchester, the Gherkin in central London and a towering new building which Marr came across in New York.
There’s a celebrated quote about music journalism, usually attributed to Elvis Costello, suggesting that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. So presumably there’s more mileage to be had in singing about architecture?
“That quote was from Jake Riviera, who was Elvis’s manager,” Marr says. “I guess he was saying that music is a physical experience and therefore can’t be explained in words. I wrote Dynamo as a love song. I did it about a building to get around the obvious clichés and also because I like buildings and architecture. It was useful to be able to say ‘you made a place for me in you’, because if it was a straight love song I wouldn’t have said that. Music is art and architecture is art, both usually made by artists. Vision is involved, technical considerations too, recording studios for example, design – there are parallels.”
Marr’s interest in his surroundings started to develop at an early age. In 1972, when he was eight-years-old, his family moved from central Manchester’s Ardwick district out to suburban Wythenshawe, which had first been dreamt up back in the 1920s as a grand, ambitious Garden City. It hadn’t quite gone to plan, but some of those aspirations were still palpable when Marr arrived. “It didn’t feel particularly grand by any means, but it was aspirational for the working class families who’d moved there from the inner city and was a step up. It was still working class, but with more trees.”
Marr is making a habit of sifting through memories of long-ago Manchester at the moment: he’s currently working on his autobiography, which is scheduled to be published by Century in late 2016. He’s not ready to divulge any possible titles yet, but he can state that it will be all his own work, rather than being ghost-written.
“It’s a lot more work and takes time but I didn’t want an interpretation of my own voice. I think it’s somewhat more of an achievement in the long run. I am writing about Manchester, of course, but I have a good memory so I’m not scratching my head too much at the moment. It’ll be out in about a year or something.”
He doesn’t seem to have been spurred on by Morrissey’s recent autobiography, though, and suggests that his own volume has been on the cards for a while. “I’ve had people asking me to write my autobiography for years. It was just a matter of finding the right time, so that I didn’t have to stop touring to do it. My friend Andrew Oldham [erstwhile Rolling Stones manager and record industry impresario] talked me into it.”
The book should make for fascinating reading, and has a good deal of ground to cover. Over the years Marr has acted as a member of many celebrated groups, from Electronic and The The to Modest Mouse and The Cribs. Currently, his solo career seems to be gaining traction, too. But he’s still most ardently admired by fans of The Smiths who have long been used to arguing that the band’s music is far more joyous and celebratory than non-fans often assume, with Marr’s ringing, soaring guitar sound playing a huge part in this. Similarly, he reckons that Manchester itself is a more attractive, appealing city than lazy, outdated prejudices might suggest.
“The usual ‘it’s grim up north’ thing is so played out,” he says. “There are plenty of places that are a bit grim, just as there are all over the UK. But it’s not the 1930s any more, or the 1980s for that matter. I loved moving to South Manchester and I had a great time in the city centre. I know plenty of people who were young in the 1950s and 60s who will tell you that clothes and music and the nightlife in Manchester was an explosion of freedom and colour, as it was in the 90s, so make of that what you will.”
As for the Manchester buildings which most intrigue him, Marr has singled out the ‘Toast Rack‘ (officially Manchester Metropolitan University’s Hollings Building), the now-lost Hulme Crescents and the Co-op Group’s new headquarters on Angel Street. Evidently he has clear opinions about the latest wave of Manchester city centre buildings too, such as the refurbished Central Library and the recently-opened HOME arts centre at First Street.
“I was very pleased that Central Library’s refurbishment was a success,” he says. “As a Mancunian it’s one of the many buildings I’m proud of. The jury’s out on the HOME building. There’s something about how it relates to its surroundings that I’m not sure about – or how it doesn’t relate, proportionately.”
Marr’s favourites, then, are well documented, but he’s not afraid to express a critical opinion either: recently he told Architects’ Journal that: “I’ve been to a lot of cities in the UK and most of the new houses I’ve seen look shit.” So which Manchester buildings does he regard as real clangers, an eyesore, a missed opportunity? Few people, for instance, are fond of the regenerated Piccadilly Gardens.
“I agree with you that the building on the corner of Piccadilly Gardens is horrible. I’m not impressed with the Hilton Hotel [aka the Beetham Tower] either. It’s supposed to be hot stuff, but I don’t think so.”
There are many precedents where musicians have developed keen interests outside of the music realm: Julian Cope is now an acknowledged expert on Neolithic monuments, Queen’s Brian May is an respected astrophysicist and as we surely all know, the UK’s favourite science broadcaster used to play keyboards for D:Ream. Occasionally, though, there can be a latent sniffiness about this kind of extracurricular activity, as though rock stars, unlike ‘real’ people, should be expected to stick to a single-minded interest in their day job. But Marr is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, and insists that he’s not encountered any negativity about his patronage of the Modernist Society.
“I don’t get why that would be an issue for anyone,” he says. And quite right too. If anyone is qualified to cast an appraising eye over the changing face of Manchester, it’s Marr.
By Andy Murray
With thanks to Jack Hale
Johnny Marr photograph by Andrew Cotterill
Official Johnny Marr website: www.johnny-marr.com
Manchester Modernist Society: www.manchestermodernistsociety.org/