Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One

Johnny Marr + the Healers at Chicago’s Double Door

January 28, 2003

A couple years ago I read a review in the NME of an Oasis show where the reviewer spots Johnny Marr in the crowd and notes how much Johnny now looks like Noel Gallagher, who built his own career on emulating Johnny Marr. Try to follow that because seeing Johnny Marr and the Healers is a case study in Brit rock and Marr’s role in developing a sound that has influenced so many English bands that it’s now come full circle and you’re left wondering Who Made Who?

Johnny MarrIn the 80s, you were a Smiths fan because of everything they weren’t. They were not rock stars; they did not have solos (save “Shoplifters Of The World Unite,” which caused quite a ruckus among die hards); they did not indulge in rock poses; most importantly, they did not like dance music. The Smiths came out loud and clear against what they considered pat and clichéd in pop music. It is that blind, unwavering stance that attracts angst-ridden teenagers to bands like the Smiths and it is why we loved them so.

But that was years ago. We’ve all grown up a bit. In fact, it was 1987 when the Smiths took their final bow with Johnny Marr leaving the group, at the tender age of 23, to go on a recording binge with the likes of the Pretenders, the The, Electronic, Pet Shop Boys, Neil Finn, Beck and a host of others. Marr’s recording career is dizzying in its breadth and the number of guitarists who cite him as an influence is staggering. Among them the Stone Roses’ John Squire and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.

Last night in Chicago, Marr gave a lesson in Brit rock, aping styles from the very bands he so influenced throughout the 90s. Some critics may argue there’s too much aping—that they hear a lot of Primal Scream, Oasis and Stone Roses in the Healers, and they do. But I argue that like a Roman emperor who borrows a coin that bears his own likeness, Johnny Marr is indeed influenced by the bands who have shaped rock and roll in Britain in the 15 years since the Smiths demise, but not to the point of imitation.

Sinatra did not have the greatest vocal range in recorded music. But good singers will tell you that what Frank Sinatra did with phrasing is nearly impossible to duplicate. That’s what Johnny Marr does with the guitar. What sounds like a simple rhythm guitar part is in fact a deceptively complex series of suspended and augmented chords played to strumming patterns that split the rhythm and are immediately recognized as Marr’s own. It’s that deception that separates Marr from the rest. From the jingle jangle intro of his new fantastic new single “Down on the Corner” to the psychedelic noodlings that in the wrong hands would have been single-minded reverb wankering, Marr remains one of the most inventive guitarists of a generation who can take seemingly simple hooks and blend them into minor symphonies.

Where critics may have a point though is in the lyrics and singing, which are often more than a nod to the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown or Oasis’ Liam Gallagher. To a fan of Brit rock though, it’s fantastic and Marr’s voice is surprisingly strong, if not unique. Lyric-wise, he may not have Morrissey’s wit or acerbic vision, but who cares? This is a rock band and that leads us back to what the Smiths were not.

From the fog machines and the light show to the big amps and drum loops it was clear this was no Smiths rehash. Any semblance of the Smiths was washed away by the site of an Apple PowerBook, which synchronized drumbeats and otherworldly samples into a spiral of psychedelic sound. Mozzer may want to hang the DJ, but Marr is in love with the sequencer.

To be fair, there were some snoozers in the hour-long set. American audiences are often too “hip” or uptight about being white to dance to music played by even whiter Englishmen and the longer dance songs tended to drag a bit. But the Healers are a very good band fronted by a great guitarist and developing singer/songwriter. One of the many highlights of the set was a sparse rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” but a more appropriate choice might have been Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” because Johnny Marr clearly isn’t.


Loftus checks in from Detroit

Johnny Marr + the Healers at Detroit’s Magic Stick

January 27, 2003

It’s not your average show when a link to the past is in town. Parked outside the venue, an enormous, gleaming tour bus. At the club door, a glowering, goatee’d individual demanding a $20 cover charge. Inside, a packed house of—wait, is this the parents’ section? No, but the crowd onhand Monday at Detroit’s Magic Stick did skew considerably older than your average rock show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s good to get out of the house, and the premiere of Veritas: The Quest was getting boring anyway. And this was Johnny Marr, he of the Smiths, playing guitar rock and roll with a healthy bottom end provided by Zak Starkey. In fact, The Healers’ music is almost as guitar-heavy as that tour bus outside the Magic Stick was, laden with the 400 or so guitars Marr used during the band’s brief set. (Hey, they only have one album. What did you expect? An instrumental version of “How Soon Is Now?”).

At times, Marr’s lead vocals suggested Mark Laneghan fronting The Stone Roses; other times, he sounded like Richard Ashcroft after smoking a thousand cigarettes. Marr would get a pass on his at times questionable singing simply for being Marr. But fortunately, the songs—classic British rock built around looping, throaty guitars and Starkey’s crystal-clear, efficient drumming—more than made up for his vocal shortcomings.

Marr himself was a gracious host, thanking the audience profusely for the polite applause that followed each song. As the gig was co-sponsored and promoted by WDET, Detroit’s local NPR outlet, there were more than a few beard-strokers in the audience, sipping Amstel Lights and backslapping each other with regal tales of Smiths shows they attended in college. There was a contingent of foppish, mustachioed dandies in another corner. Leaning on a portion of the square bar was a woman in her late 30s proudly wearing her just-purchased Johnny Marr + The Healers tour shirt. Of course, the practice of wearing the shirt available at the concert while actually at the concert is one of the biggest no-no’s in the history of no-no’s. Close behind the T-shirt faux pas is the “request heckler”—the guy in the airbrushed timber wolf shirt who just won’t give up. “Play ‘The Dutchman!’ PLAY ‘THE DUTCHMAAAAN!!'”

I half-expected those NPR beard-strokers to start demanding Smiths covers; thankfully, they remembered their rock show manners.

MP3s from the new album: Bangin’ On and Down On the Corner (via imusic).

4 thoughts on “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One”

  1. Great article, Derek. You summed up exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to people who completely miss why Johnny Marr is such a great guitarist.

  2. id like to see him….but I’ve had that Healers album for about 6 months and listened to it maybe three times. With the exception of probably 2 songs, it ba-lows.

  3. I haven’t heard the entire album yet, but the live show really was fucking great. It’s like all this amazing ROCK was trapped inside Johnny Marr for 20 years and he finally let it out. I’ve seen him in the The and I’ve seen him in Electronic, and this was really the first time that he really BLAZED on stage…in the mode of a classic guitar god. It was great to see.

  4. Yes, excellent article Derek, no sound is quite like Johnny Marr’s. But Jake, Marr’s Mindbomb tour with the The was fantastic and have been aching for Marr to work with Johnson ever since he left after Dusk…

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