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Johnny Marr: ‘It was a blind spot of The Smiths, being so occupied with the media and notoriety’

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“You’re taking me back, I haven’t played these songs in 30-odd years…”, says Johnny Marr to Simon Armitage as The Smiths guitarist strums the riff to ‘Jeane’ on his 12-string acoustic. Elsewhere in the opening episode of the new series of The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed the pair deep-dive into the themes of creativity, music, lyrics, fame and more.

Simon asks Johnny why he thinks Manchester is such a source of inspiring music: “I think a lot of it is to do with working class entertainment and the history and legacy of working class entertainment. So in my case, and say in the case of the Gallaghers – Noel particularly, and say, Mani from the Roses – we came from immigrant families, all The Smiths in fact.”

Thinking about his family, originally from Kildare, Ireland, Johnny says: “What rubbed off on me was not only their enthusiasm and pretty much their obsession for music – which they still have to this day, my parents – but the awareness of the club scene, where all the show bands would play, and this thing about going out to let off some steam and be part of a community as well.”

“The Irish for example are not really that dissimilar from the Eastern Europeans in that a lot of them grew up in villages and a lot of them made their own music in their kitchens with brothers and sisters and aunties, uncles and grandparents, for entertainment – and they brought that with them. It’s in the DNA of working people, it’s not just about escapism, I think it’s a lot to do with community.”

Discussing the guitar Johnny has brought with him to the shed: “I was going to bring a tea pot, seriously. Y’know, ‘show and tell’ I thought ‘is it a bit obvious bringing a guitar?’, but the honest answer is that this is what’s really got me through the last 15 months.”

Although he confesses it may not be in pristine condition for long: “Over the years people who’ve worked with me have been really alarmed at the way I treat guitars. I love them but because I grew up in the 70s literally there wasn’t these fancy guitar stands and stuff, and I just… I kinda like the look of them just sort of strewn around. So I’ll distress this guitar, I don’t mind guitars being beaten up and knocked, like they’ve had a life, y’know?”

Reflecting on fame and the end of The Smiths Johnny said: “I was in a very very big ‘music press’ band, which now I’m older I think we could’ve done with less of that. I wouldn’t say it was our downfall but I think it was a blind spot of The Smiths, being so occupied with the media and notoriety – particularly one certain member of the group. I think that could’ve been dialled down a bit and would’ve helped the group out.”

Every episode this series Simon is writing a Haiku – tiny seventeen syllable poems often about nature or the seasons – for his guest. Simon reads this week’s with the added bonus accompaniment of Johnny on guitar:

Rose petal plectrums
pull an old tune from the breeze;
oscillate wildly.

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