It was a bustling crowd of Mod wannabes that streamed into Melbourne’s Forum Theatre on Wednesday night. Blunt fringes, paisley shirts and skinny leg jeans were as far as the eye could see as punters sardined themselves together to see legendary The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr in action.
Alongside controversial frontman and personality Morrissey, Marr was responsible for licks and riffs of a generation, and strumming the soundtrack for all of Manchester’s misfits. It was Great Britain, it was Margaret Thatcher and it was the 80s, and no band represented the turbulent, alternative music scene better than The Smiths.
Although most recognised for his part in the band, Marr has played longer as a session artist and contributor to many other bands and projects. He’s played in The Pretenders, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, and was even a part of Neil Finn’s brief, charity-raising supergroup 7 World’s Collide alongside Eddie Vedder, Ed O’Brien, Tim Finn, Sebastian Steinberg, Phil Selway, Lisa Germano and Betchadupa.
This show – although technically a re-schedule of the Jan & Feb tour he was forced to cancel due to family illness – has worked out perfectly to coincide with Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass, now baptising it as a ‘Splendour sideshow’.
The teeny tiny frontman entered to plenty hooting and hollering. Promo photo perfect in a red shirt, velvet black jacket and his distinctive Beatles mop-top, the singer launched into the title track of his latest solo offering Playland. With his gorgeous blue-green signature Fender Jaguar strapped on, Marr paraded the stage, spending much of each song on the lip of the stage, giving us front row, snap-happy fans plenty of opportunities to take a good close-up shot.
A mash-up of a young Keith Richards and a much better looking Ronnie Wood, Marr oozed 60s rocker with his style and unapologetic Mancunian wit. “Any questions?” he asked, smiling. When a punter yelled out if a biography was in the works, he answered by describing the next song as “semi-autobiographical, so does that answer your question?”.
2013’s debut solo album The Messenger got a good look in fairly early with ‘The Right Thing Right’, the punchy 80s-inspired anthem ‘Generate Generate!’ and the beautifully poetic and cinematic rock ballad ‘New Town Velocity’. Marr was fidgety and funny throughout, clearing enjoying himself the whole way. Though many say his voice is inferior to Morrissey’s, I beg to differ. It is simply different, and personally, I found his macho, Northern twang both gritty and sexy – like a mature Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys.
A Manchester boy through and through, he quickly riffed on the rivalries that existed between his hometown and London, something he’d noticed was replicated here between Melbourne and Sydney. “Yeah Sydney sucks, London sucks,” he booed with a thumbs down in his thick working class accent, a sentiment echoed loudly by the handful of Manchester United soccer fans in the crowd.
As expected, Marr drew on The Smith’s back catalogue throughout the night, blowing the cobwebs off the likes of ‘Panic’, ‘Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. Almost one-third of the setlist, however, was from Playland, and despite majority of the crowd frothing for more Smiths songs, the new tracks were fun and polished in a live setting.
The cockney drawl and the deliciously bouncy arpeggio chords of ‘Easy Money’ made it an instant crowd-pleaser, with the kind of repetitive riff (“that’s money money, that’s money money”) anyone can sing along to with ease. From the gentle songwriting of ‘Candidate’ to the more commercial falsetto heights of bopper ‘Dynamo’, the album showcased a diverse range of modernised rock n’ roll.
Brand newy ‘Spiral Cities’ was inserted in-between the classics, showing a softer pop side to the 51-year-old. ‘Getting Away With It’ hailed from his days alongside New Order member Bernard Sumner in the band Electronic. The Smiths favourite and moody ballad ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ – to which the audience sung a cappella much to Marr’s delight – came from the band’s biggest LP The Queen Is Dead back in 1986, and it had many swaying in the hazy white lights. Marr’s interpretation was wonderful.
The encore comprised of two covers, most notably the seemingly improvised inclusion of the iconic anarchic number ‘I Fought The Law’ made famous by The Clash, and the extended solo Marr unleashed was truly delicious. Seeing Marr leaning over to play it up close and personal was thrilling, pulling rock poses and cheeky faces throughout and clearly enjoying the moment.
‘I Feel You’ by English electro band Depeche Mode had Marr at his swaggertastic best, rolling and hip swaying to the solid slide guitar riff. The interpretation – which was released on Record Store Day this year – quickly became a fan favourite online, and found itself a permanent worthy addition of his encore, and The Smiths soother ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was the perfect finale.
Johnny Marr has spent much of his career in Morrissey’s shadow, but with 30 solid years in the music biz to his name, it’s clear the albatross has been around the wrong neck. His music was polished, his band was fantastic and his presence was electric. Marr is not just the former Smiths guitarist anymore – he is a true artist. A Marr-vellous night out… Morrissey who?
Johnny Marr plays Splendour In The Grass tonight. The album Playland is out now via New Voodoo Records / Warner.