“What you’re doing’s great and very important. The questions are brilliant, really interesting…sometimes you know straightaway if someone’s going to be trotting out the same old stuff. You’ve obviously got a real feeling for the esoteric, romantic and spiritual side of it.” Johnny Marr on Isle of Noises
I was round at my parents’ house and I’d moved my cassette player to where I was living. There was this little guitar that Andy [Rourke] had given me and I’d given to my little brother. I played the riff and immediately knew it was a song. Angie had her parents’ little Volkswagen outside; she’d just passed her test, and we drove to Morrissey’s, and by the time she’d driven there she’d said about five times: “Make it sound like Iggy.” So I went from these clipped kind of funky chords to this big open thing. She was absolutely right. I’ve still got this three-track cassette recorder, which is a kind of an anomaly; it’s two-track and you can bounce it down, and we wrote all the early Smiths stuff on that.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” has just one opening verse, which is unusual for a pop song. Was the shape of the song your vision or was it determined by Morrissey’s vocal decisions?
Both of us had absolute unshakable faith that what the other person was doing was right, whether we heard it or not. Alongside that, unshakable faith in what we were doing individually. In that example, it didn’t need to go anywhere else … It would have got too conceptual, too conceived, too thought out and just too fucking crafted had I put some clever bit in there. It’d have been bottling it. Sometimes it’s cooler just to let it go, let it fly. “Rusholme Ruffians” is an extreme example of that. It’s just the same cycle. The same point being made round and round and round … It would have been the easiest thing in the world to add a device to break it up. I wanted it to be insistent.
The marriage between your music and Morrissey’s words is so fluent it’s incredible they were not conceived together.
That is proof that despite the differences in our personalities there were emotions underneath that we both share and understand about each other, whether we like it or not. Luckily we found each other and were able to put it to music. We helped each other realise our dreams and escape our situations and have success. But we also found someone that we could both match and play emotional snap with. We were both romantics.
Did your music change when you became familiar with Morrissey’s personality?
Not the way I composed or the technique, we both expressed things … there’s a lot of our relationship in those songs. That’s not to say the words are about our relationship, but the feeling in the recordings and some of the songs are a product of our relationship because we are so wrapped up in each other.
Did you ever write together?
Once, which was “Half a Person”: that was incredibly uncanny. The morning we were supposed to do the B-side he said, “What are we going to do?” I picked up the guitar and said, “Maybe it should go like this?’ and he hummed the melody whilst I found some chords. It was done in like four minutes. We did it that one time because the tape was rolling in the next room and we hadn’t come up with something. It was just a necessity. We’d decided, very unexpectedly for us, impulsively, to do an A-side which was going to be “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”. We wrote and recorded that in 24 hours. That tied us up. I put it down and the band learned it, he took the cassette away and the next morning all the words were written. We were pretty prolific.
How important was his reaction to your music; how did you present your ideas?
I’d bring a cassette round to his house, which was the main thing, or, because we were always working, either in the studio or at gigs. I knew he’d be waiting for me … my riffs would be around. When I put “Bigmouth” on a cassette for him it was that riff I’d been playing at the soundcheck for the past two weeks … Sometimes I’d stick it through the letter box and split, with a little card saying, “Check this out, check this out, check this out!” He’d digest it and call me back a couple of hours later and say, “It’s a single,” or “It’s a triumph,” or “It’s so great I even switched Coronation Street off”.
The Smiths created a style and sound unique in British music, but it was often infused with American railroad rhythms.
I was trying to draw on American music in a way that had been forgotten. I’m into writing with rhythms that are very infectious but don’t have any traces of James Brown in because I wanted my band to be different. A very deliberate and keen interest in finding rhythms that other bands around me were not using, that I liked hearing my parents play: Eddie Cochran; Elvis Presley; and because I was such a Stones nut, Bo Diddley. I always was obsessed by that beat. “Nowhere Fast” has that rockabilly rhythm and “Shakespeare’s Sister” was written entirely from that rhythm; some idea of a fucked-up Johnny Cash on drugs. It sounds half like that.
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Johnny Marr – ‘The Messenger’
Johnny: In songwriting there is no right and wrong. If there was, it would be pretty boring: everybody would be copyrighting the right side. You’ve got to respect and like the mystery of it. It’s very easy to get into the idea of formulas and systems. Almost everybody on The X Factor sings a ballad: a slow, quiet bit to set the song up, about 14 seconds; a bridge with a little build and then into the chorus at a minute. I went through a period where every record I heard on the radio followed a certain kind of pattern, where things kicked in and devices were used at exactly the maximum commercial point. Aside from that idea being utterly crass, I’m not entirely sure that it even succeeds. I don’t think humans react to music in such a Pavlovian manner. There are so many wild-card examples of commercial music over the years that betray that idea of a system and break all the rules.
When did you first become aware of song structures?
I started listening to records in a certain way that was almost analytical. My parents used to say that I didn’t so much listen to records – I studied them. I got that directly from my mother. One of the strongest memories from my childhood was her and my dad’s sister, who were both very young at the time, breathlessly rushing into the house having bought the Everly Brothers’ record ‘Walk Right Back’ and watching them play it 15 times in a row stood up at the record player. I observed the glee and the joy that they got from watching this thing go round and discussing it. From that day on I just joined in.
Up until her late-20s my mum used to do her own charts every week. She’d be sat by the radio going, ‘T. Rex have gone down: I was sure that was going to go up to number 14,’ or, ‘Bryan Ferry’s dropped down 11 places.’ They weren’t musicians but here was a culture of records and obsessive observation about songs that rubbed off. I started to clock things like breakdowns and what fadeouts were about. Production, songwriting and devices to make records were all a part of the same thing and have stuck with me. There’s a distinction between a record and a song. A song was a 45. That’s a whole discussion in itself: is a song the words backed up by some music or is it part of a whole thing?
Often the line between songwriting and arrangement can be blurred. Billy Bragg’s ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’ is heavily defined by your playing on it, but credited solely to Billy, whereas another song you both appear on, ‘Sexuality’, is a co-write.
Billy is a good example. His words are very important and standalone from the music in the way poetry can. ‘Greetings…’ is from the album ‘Talking To The Taxman About Poetry’, which is probably something he did. My part was as accompanist and musician; using the guitar as a way of adding colour. I guess I was following his melody, really.
‘Sexuality’, you’re right to say, is completely different. That was written by the two of us when I heard him singing the word sexuality with that five-note tune and this reggae skank, for want of a better word, on the one chord of G. So I said, ‘Sing that onto a cassette and let me finish it?’ I tried to turn it into a record and along the way I didn’t notice it was a song. I was just trying to come up with a tune. The end result was what I was thinking about. I had the production in mind when I was coming up with the chords, like the middle eight (singing), “I’m sure that everybody knows how much my body hates me”: I thought it needed a Patsy Cline bit. When I was producing him I was saying, ‘Make him more Patsy Cline,’ which just shows how completely abstract musicians can be.
In the studio I had a complete backing track done. I was quite nervous. I thought, he’s either going to hate it or hear a hit, which is what happened. What some people call arrangement: playing your instrument, the flutes come in there, or that’s the way the bass part goes; that’s instrumentation. The structure of chorus, bridge, verse, breakdown, whatever it may be: those building blocks in a linear way, is the arrangement. I’m very lucky because I get to work with all different types of approaches.
Writing a song as a member of Modest Mouse, stood in a room with five other guys all with different agendas trying to pull something out of the sky, is different from the way I would sit down with Kirsty MacColl or Neil Finn.
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Billy Bragg – ‘Sexuality’
Can you sense inspiration arriving?
When you’re already writing, sitting down plonking around or absent-mindedly doing something, it sneaks up on you and kind of starts to fall under your fingers. The other side of it is that it kind of can happen and you scurry around going, ‘I’ve got this really strong feeling, I need a guitar.’ I get into these slightly introspective moods where it’s time to try and turn it into some music.
A physical sensation that needs to be channelled?
Turned into something, yeah… I don’t put myself under any pressure if it’s going to be any good or pay the rent or please a critic or do anything other than be channelled into something creative. There’s another kind of mode whereby if you feel like, over a period of a few days, that you’ve got some idea and you want to write a song, you kind of have to get really quiet and need to set up a scenario where you make yourself almost bored. Particularly in this day and age where there are so many distractions.
I used to write a lot of songs when I was younger just for something to do. Passive entertainment, whether it’s sitting watching television or listening to crappy radio or whatever, just didn’t have enough gravity. I had a real serious drive to make music, a massive passion and joy for it, but there was also this feeling of dissatisfaction just in the way I felt: some kind of hole that needed to be filled up, like a nag. Not necessarily a negative thing. It could be a beautiful kind of nagging. At 12 or 13 I’d be doing something and not be satisfied with it, so I’d have to go and sit in the corner of my bedroom and play guitar for a few hours and out of that would come a song.