Oct 14, 2021
By Larry Mullin
Although Johnny Marr co-wrote ’80s hits such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”—playing riffs as lyrical as anything frontman Morrissey ever penned—the ex-Smiths guitarist is now singing a very different tune. “Spirit Power and Soul,” the lead single from Marr’s new solo EP Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 (out tomorrow) is a stark departure from the melancholic songs he and The Smiths soundtracked many an angsty adolescence with. Distinctly upbeat as many of his five solo releases have been in the decades since The Smiths’ disheartening split, the Mancunian post-punk legend tells Under the Radar that he wanted the Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 single to go even further as “somewhat of a clarion call. Then lockdown happened as I was making the rest of the record, and I was coming back to write ‘Spirit Power and Soul.’ And there was something in the spirit of the music, when it hits the chorus, that was quite empowering.”
The world’s shared pandemic marooning also fed into another of the EP’s themes: a skewed perception of time that can not only overwhelm, but also inspire. Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 proved an apt title as did its songs such as “All These Days”—with its ethereally sung lyrics about remaining resolute during “days that dissolve”—as Marr continued toiling on the music despite disrupted sleep, bizarre dreams, and generally elongated hours.
And while those circumstances were exacerbated during pandemic lockdowns, they were by no means Marr’s first nocturnal stints. He recalls being a 10-year-old in Manchester who wouldn’t bother with pajamas, but instead remained in his school uniform into the wee hours while playing guitar or reading, sometimes for days at a time. As The Smiths’ guitarist, Marr says he kept similar hours thanks to the adrenaline of being in such a singular band. Twenty years later, as a member of a younger cult band, Modest Mouse, Marr contended with sleep-busting jet lag while splitting time between Manchester and their Portland, Oregon studio.
But aside from a quirky internal clock, Marr has long avoided the eccentricities and excesses of rock stardom. For years he’s nixed booze, let alone drugs, though “being a Mancunian guitarist in the ’80s, I was once obligated to smoke pot until it came out of my ears,” he jokes. He’s also stuck to a vegan diet in keeping with his ex-bandmate Morrissey’s “Meat Is Murder” lyrics from 1985, not to mention running the occasional marathon. “I got to a certain point in life where I wanted to step up my energy and productivity. Whatever serves my creativity, and helps me think up more ideas with more clarity, is what I’m going to do. If I thought partying would make me a better musician, I’d be all for it. I have no moral issues with it,” he says.
If all that makes him sound like an enlightened elder statesman, then his handling of a recent rock-star spat seems downright sagely. Marr made headlines in September after critiquing ’80s pop vet Rick Astley’s surprise covers of Smiths songs, and his announcing of two tribute concerts to the band, alongside up-and-coming Manchester group Blossoms. Marr tweeted the cover was “funny and horrible at the same time,” and that Blossoms had not disclosed those plans during a recent meeting ahead of a show in their hometown where they shared the bill. And while some celebrities might jump at such a chance to slander another artist and boost their publicity, Marr went on to tell simply tell NME that he had “dealt with it.” He tells Under the Radar that it’s a “curious situation.” While he didn’t object to it on a personal level, or even much of a musical one, he did take issue “with the M.O., which was not cool. I don’t have a problem with Rick Astley or with tribute bands. But there’s a way of going about it. And only they can answer about their M.O.”
To put it another way: if Marr hypothetically were to plan a Pet Shop Boys tribute night, “and I’m hanging out with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, then I mention it. It’s called manners. But that’s showbiz, apparently,” he added with a chuckle.
Marr was not just equally diplomatic while discussing his ex-Smiths bandmate Morrissey—he sounded downright generous, especially considering the band’s famously tense split. When asked why he named “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” his favorite Smiths song in a prior interview, despite his guitar not being at the fore like on some of the band’s bigger hits, Marr pointed out the song is “built around the guitar riff going round and round, that’s the kernel of it.” However, Marr then orchestrated other elaborate instrumentation around that riff, such as keyboard and string sounds, that went on to overshadow the guitar. What he loves about the song “is the drama in it. It sums up how I was feeling at the time. Amongst other melancholic things in The Smiths, I hear myself in that—an introspective side, and a melancholic side. And then I just blew that up musically, with a superb performance by the rest of the group. And great composition by Morrissey.”
After going on to praise the lyrics of the frontman with whom he fell out, leading to the group’s demise, Marr describes how “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” captured what made The Smiths so special. “It doesn’t sound like any other group. We were DIY in every sense of the word; genuinely independent on a genuinely independent record label, particularly then; producing ourselves, the producer, being me, still under the age of 24; and it’s so grand. It’s impressive to me, an impressive piece of music, which I can objectivity say as a bystander and someone who analyzes music to the nth degree.”
In a career that has spanned 40 years, Marr considers himself “blessed” to have collaborated with Modest Mouse, The Cribs, The Pretenders, and especially pop singer Kirsty MacColl and yes, The Smiths—while also enjoying the contrast of his solo work. At the best of times, he’d hand over a practically complete backing track, and have it returned as The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” or MacColl’s “Can’t Stop Killing You”—both of which made him think, “Oh, that’s a good title! What a surprise.”
But now, Marr says: “I don’t really need surprises.” Instead the technicalities, craft, and inspiration of making records are plenty fulfilling, especially when it comes to writing lyrics. As if aware of the long shadow Morrissey’s singular lyricism casts, Marr matter of factly says “I love the puzzle and discovery of writing lyrics” as a solo artist. Any naysayers would be given pause when Marr points out he first took up that skillset “as a youngster when I first started writing songs. Now I have five solo albums worth of material that I laid awake at night writing, that I have a personal connection with, that I don’t have with music I wrote with other people.”
Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 is the first of four new EPs, all of which will be collected as a new double album, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, due out February 25, 2022 via BMG.