Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Regarding Mark Ronson’s cover of “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before” by the Smiths.

Well, I was blind-sided.

In my gentle naiveté, I just took it for granted that anyone who 'got' The Smiths, and in particular appreciated this song as an example of Morrisey and Marr at the top of their game wouldn’t be capable of such arrogant, howling horseshit.

Which lead me to some thoughts about Johnny Marr and his pilloried post-Smiths career.

Even by the point of “Stop me…” Morrissey and Marr were still not functioning in the manner of a traditional song writing duo. They never did. Johnny was still sending guitar lines of verses and choruses over which Morrissey would sing his own vocal melodies with lyrics he had been working with, often before hearing any particular music. Sometimes it was the other way around, with Morrissey's lyrics inspiring Johnny's increasingly virtuoso multi-tasking. An early and particularly bewildering example is “How Soon Is Now”. This song would have been, purely technically speaking, a slightly simpler affair these days. But this was a world of pre-MIDI effects and click track software, so the song's syncopated juddering tremolo guitar and drum rhythm was spliced together from multiple takes. Johnny used at least one Boss Tremelo Panning pedal running through several amps. With this pedal, you set the rate of the tremolo effect, and the waveform (in this case a square wave) and depth (in this case as low as possible), hit the guitar and out comes the magickal "judder-du-du-du-du-du-du...." that throws your heart around the room. You try to strum along in the same timing and this can be done with practice, but you must change chords at the right time; that is, to the rhythm of the device, ignoring any natural rhythm you are building up. You can’t listen to yourself. You listen to the pedal’s output, and as an analogue device, the Boss Tremelo/Panning pedal itself goes out of time; it is not a stable mechanism. Mike Joyce, poor sod, had to play along to this and stay completely in sync not with Johnny but with the pedal. Thus, after about 20 or so seconds, they would understandably lose the syncopation and do more takes. Eventually they pretty much got all the parts they needed down on tape. Johnny painstakingly spliced these together, adding countless guitar overlays and effects (I've counted at least seven). Andy Rourke overlaid bass, then they asked Morrissey in to sing. Morrissey was rarely in the studio. He would rarely do more than one vocal take.

The point of this rather technical anecdote is not specifically to demonstrate Marr's genius, though it indeed does. The point lies in the punch line, which I learned from Simon Reynolds' illuminating and importantly revised 2nd edition of 'Songs That Saved Your Life'.

Halfway through this particular session Johnny got a phone call from the van hire company they had been using for their recent shows. They wanted their van back. Now. Johnny drove it back, (for some reason I think it was to Rotherham), then returned to Manchester by coach or train and continued recording. This was completely normal. Marr is and always was a Stoic. Marr managed the band at this point, because Morrissey's instant, arbitrary dismissal of numerous contenders made it impossible to hire a professional. He would express his displeasure not in words but by sulking off, simply disappearing, incommunicado, for days at a time.

People wonder why Johnny never did much of note after the Smiths, whilst Morrissey created some great work, with Steven Street, Vinni Reilly, and especially, since 1992, his Rockabilly gang of Boz Boorer, Alain Whyte et al, who co-wrote the crowning achievement of his post-Smiths career, 'Vauxhall & I'. I say this to these people: Marr wrote nearly 100 songs before he was 24 years of age. He wrote countless masterpieces before he was 21. He ran the band. He managed the band. Morrissey did nothing at all but be Morrissey. We love him; that's what he does. But Johnny Marr did what Johnny Marr did, and what many people fail to consider is that doing Johnny Marr meant managing Morrissey. His work is done. Give the man a break.