Transcripts of audio interviews with Morrissey and Johnny Marr
Transcript of a Red Door Records picture disc interview with Morrissey from 1983. Topics include: Morrissey's childhood and family life, school days, lifestyle, and coping with success.
You've said things like you have an "absolute physical necessity to write" and "if I don't write, I'll die". Could you explain that?
Well, it's really as simple as it sounds. Perhaps the strange thing is that I really can't explain it. It's just simply like existing, like you have to eat food and you have to have fresh air. That's the way I feel. Since I've written since I was very sma- very young, it's just a very natural thing. It's nothing that's been acquired, like playing as instrument or something. It's just a very natural, physical thing.
Where would you be if it wasn't for the Smiths?
I dread to imagine. Perhaps it's just too horrific to dwell upon it. Oh, it's a frightening question ...
If you say it is a necessity, do you see yourself doing it forever?
For as long as I last, yes. So if that's forever, yeah.
Well, your lifetime.
Well, I don't have any desire to do anything else.
Your lyrics, I gather, draw on your own experiences. (M: Yes.) Number 1: Do you imagine anyone else could possibly sing one of your songs?
Well, somebody else is about to - Sandie Shaw is about to. So that should be quite interesting. But I think so, yes, because although they're quite personal, they're not that obscure that other people can't sing them. And I think that is perhaps the strength of the songs. Many people can listen to them and hear things they feel are a part of their life. Oh, yes, people can sing them. I'm sure of it. They do already.
Do you think people want to hear that sort of degree of frankness?
I think they're not used to it, but I firmly believe that they do want to hear it. So, we're gonna persist. I mean, it hasn't really been that much of a battle for us because people have been very accepting so far. But I'm really convinced that people want it. People are really tired of this nonhuman approach in popular music. It's very boring and it doesn't really mean anything to anybody. People just persistently wait for somebody to say something. That's so important. That's why we're here. I hear so many records and they really don't say anything and they really don't seem to mean or imply anything. So, where does it leave us ?
I've heard someone say that your songs aren't love songs, they're sex songs. What do you make of that?
I'm not quite sure where this came from. Lots of quotes about the group are completely misdirected. But some are done in very good faith. And I don't know about being "sex songs". It sounds very brutal and perhaps slightly dangerous. They're not, of course. But there's a kind of underlying innocence in virtually everything, so I just really throw them open and however people interpret them is really entirely up to them.
Do you feel that the songs are in effect in the eye of the beholder and whatever they make of them says more about the listener?
Yes, but I think that's true of most things in life. You just see something that you want to see in a specific thing. It's very true with music. People hear things that perhaps aren't really there but they just want to hear it anyway.
Another thing I've heard is you lead a saintly life. Could you explain a bit more about that?
Well, it's really ... I'm just simply inches away from a monastery and I feel that perhaps if I wasn't doing this that I probably would be in one - which of course is a frightening thing to dwell upon. But I suppose for the type of thing that I do - singing in this group - the private life I lead is really, unbelievably peaceful and concealed, boring and closeted, so people always find it quite extraordinary because they expect me to be a wild, insane individual. But I think that's another reason why we're so important. Most people in this business are really quite stereotypical popular figures and they're very outspoken and very abrasive. But I think there's room for people who really aren't like that and perhaps slightly shy and inverted and not quite sure about many things. I think it's time for a different voice to be heard.
Do you feel your lifestyle is like that through choice or are you forced to live that way?
I don't remember making any choices. I just suddenly woke up and I was here. I think that's the case with many of us. I really didn't make any choices. I'm just here, and fate shoves you into things and fate drags you out of things and silly things like that.
Do you believe, then, that things are sort of inevitable?
Yes. I really don't believe that we have any control over our destinies. I think perhaps we'd like to feel that we do - over very small, insignificant things like the colour of socks you wear, et cetera - yes, we do. But no, not really. Most people don't make choices about their lives. They're just thrust into it and here we are and we just have to get on with it and sometimes we have to accept our lot. But sometimes we don't.
So you don't really live your life as an example to someone else or how you'd recommend someone else to live it - or do you?
I think it would be really ... ugly of me to say that I did. I'm not standing here saying "Look, everybody simply has to live the same way I do, otherwise the world will end in a week!" I'm not saying that. But just within the whole spectrum of popular music, I just think it's time for a different voice to be heard and different things to be said. That is why it is so important to me that every word that I write, are words that haven't been heard before. I don't mean words in the English language, but lines and sentences that just haven't been heard before.
From the position of your lifestyle, what do you make of the general public's obsession with sex?
I think it's a very uncomfortable obsession. I don't - although it is undeniably there - I don't feel that many people are comfortable and many people really know what they're thinking about or talking about or even doing. So, I think the basic methods that we have about everything is simply that people don't have to be cool about their attitude and they should just simply relax with themselves and simply do what they want to do - obviously, as long as it doesn't harm people. But I'm really tired of people being false and pretending that life is, oh, I don't know, depressing or happy or anything extreme. And people being really uncomfortable about live performances. I just want people to relax, basically, and look at themselves and really accept themselves.
I've heard that Kid Jensen interview. In it, you were saying that you'd led quite a tragic life. Could you explain a bit more about that?
Well, I had the most depressing teenage existence in the history of the entire human race and that, I think, is tragic enough. I seemed to be locked indoors for years and years and years and I don't really feel that I had a youth of any description. Or perhaps of some description, but it's a very frightening description. So I think that really gave me some strength and determined - made me feel determined - one way or another to go down in history. I'm not sure which way it's gonna be, but I feel that we've begun something and I'm just gonna kick very hard to be heard and just really work as hard as possible.
Did you ever consider suicide at all?
Yes, at the age of eight I did. It first occurred to me as possibly the most perfect thing. It was quite romantic. But then as I got older, I realized that I came this far and it would just seem quite pointless to do it. I thought that one way or another I'm just gonna get something out of this rag-bag of an existence. So yes, I did consider it, but it really wasn't a consideration. It was just like something quite harmonious, that I thought at a very early age when I actually realised what it was. It just seemed like a very nice little thing to do, believe it or not. Sounds quite strange, but that's the way I felt about it. But I think at the moment it's quite futile. And people should persist and we shouldn't let silly things get the better of us and destroy us. I think we have to be strong about these things.
Could I ask you what your family life was like?
It wasn't terribly happy. In fact, it wasn't happy at all. I think people ... the family was just really thrown together and there was no affection. There was no strong affection. So that was quite depressing. I think my parents particularly were always quite depressed about their lives, and eventually they had a divorce and I was in the whirlwind of that. But, I mean, you can't look back on this and say, "Well, that is why I am like this," or anything. We all have our own minds and we can change if we want to. But I don't really remember any happy times as a child or as an adolescent or anything.
How important is success to you?
Well, success means that people are actually listening to you and people know about you and that's why it is important. Not for any capitalistic reasons. But really, what we do is so worthwhile that we just have to be heard and have to be seen. And if a measure of that is a hit record or appearing on a string of television shows, then that is excellent for us. We want to reach as many people as possible. We don't want to hide and we don't want to make things difficult for ourselves. We're not going to avoid success if it is there.
What do you hope to bring to people that they can't get elsewhere?
Well, I could tell you, but it just sounds really so incredibly pompous. But it's really quite true that I really feel the things that I have to say people want to hear. Now, if I really didn't believe it, then I wouldn't do it and I wouldn't waste people's time. Because it's just very boring of me to do that. But I really believe that we have something worthwhile. The complete structure of the group, with it being a four-piece, and guitar-based songs; there's something quite different and it drags us all back to a very basic human element, which, after all, is what music is all about. It's really not about computers and such things. It really is about the human heart and just stirring people and making people realize lots of things about their lives and making people feel joyous and a sense of communication. So that is why I feel the Smiths are important, because that's exactly what we do. We reach people and people feel very moved. And people feel alive. So that is really good.
Dave McCulloch [Sounds journalist] came to do a program for us and some of us were talking about people having difficulty coping with success and he singled you out as one person he thought would easily cope with success. Why do you feel that?
I think it's because I've gone through so many years of self-development. I mean, with me, it was really a personal plan since I was quite young. And I really thought about everything very seriously, every single aspect of what I'm doing now. That's why I feel completely prepared for almost anything.
Do you have any plans at all to do with success? Do you aim to use success to achieve anything?
No. I think plans are one thing - are things that we really shouldn't make. I just literally take each day as it comes, which is possibly the best way. You avoid disappointments and you avoid any traps and snares. So, one day at a time I think, which sounds quite virtually religious and poetic. Perhaps it is. It's the best way to take life. It's the only way, I mean, in the nuclear age that we live in. It's the only way that you can live. But you can live positively this way.
After your own childhood, do you feel you'd ever have children yourself?
Yes, I'd like to. But it's really strange because I feel completely equipped to do it, and ... but I find that most people in life that would make perfect parents, they're the type of people who don't actually have children. And the people in life who really haven't a clue what they're doing, they just have streams and streams of little children and they just grow up to be horribly depressed people. But yes, I'd like to. So I think that's quite a hopeful thing within me. I want to do it.
How do you see future generations?
I think it's really up to the people that exist at this present time to form the future generations. I think the way we're going, people are getting terribly depressed about life because people feel this terrible isolation. And there's this terrible insistence that we live in some kind of very modern, computer age, which seems terrible to admit because people really just don't live like that; certainly not in Manchester where I came from. So I think people are becoming very depressed and the nineties could be quite depressing the way we're going now. But people really must wake up and change their life as much as possible and say just exactly what they want to say. And they must realize that they control - that they can control - certain aspects of life. And we must see these aspects and make people feel a bit more open and a bit more relaxed. Because people are too sheepish, really. They're too accepting of things. They're too accepting of governmental rules and certain things, and they shouldn't be really because everybody has some kind of inner strength and it's all worth while and every effort is ... it helps.
How important, do you think, is school in amongst the works?
Well, I never found it to be important to any degree. I was always really distressed by the fact that school, which is supposed to be this institution that makes you really think about life, was for me always a place where if you really thought or you were outspoken, you were instantly a trouble maker. And I always felt that school taught people not to think about things and to be very regimented and to be very accepting. So I always found it really quite destructive.
Reproduced WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.
Lengthy audio interview with Johnny Marr for Talking Music from 1987. Topics include: childhood and early family life, musical influences, his friendship with Andy Rourke, and that fateful trip to Steven's house to try and start a band...
JOHNNY MARR IN CONVERSATION
When were you born?
Halloween. Thirty-first of October, 1963. A bleak winter in England.
Yeah, I was born in Manchester and I went to school in Manchester. I spent a lot of time in Ireland cos I was born in a street full of relatives that ... all my relatives moved over from Ireland, probably about 1962. And we lived in one street with about five families and the next street was about seven families. All of me relatives moved over into these two streets. It was a really good, solid traditional musical background.
From where in Ireland?
From southern Ireland. Kildare. That really got me playing straight off. It was always guitars and accordians and stuff. I come from the traditional, very musical Irish background. Me folks, um -
Yeah. Accordians and harmonicas and stuff mainly. But me folks, they were country promoters. They put bands on in England. Which is an interesting pastime of theirs ... So there was always music around the house. They were really big country fans. They turned me on to a lot of stuff. And I spent quite a lot of time in Ireland, four months of the year, every year, with relatives.
Did your dad have another job other than promoting?
Yeah. He digs holes in roads, my old fella - which is probably why he needed something else to do! And all my relatives did the same. They came over from Ireland from working in fields and started as labourers, and still do to this day. They really love the outdoor life, all those cats. And they're all real music freaks.
Evidently your family hasn't been hit by the lack of work in the U.K. They have found work. Do you see the situation as bleak as everyone else sees it?
I do see it. I definitely see it. It didn't actually apply to me. And I think my generation of school kids, and a few kids a few years older than me, they're the kids who have been hit by it most. There were a lot of families who were completely devastated - and I know this has been really well documented in the U.S. - but it is literally as bleak as people imagine it to be. More so than the official figures suggest as well. It's always been around the three million mark, when really it's more likely to be four and a half million. And in a country so small it's really, really devastating. It's changed a lot of British society, it really has. The last ten years in Britain the social attitudes have changed remarkably. As you know, now we've got the election for government and it's no contest who's gonna win. And that's just simply because of apathy from the voters. But there's no one in it who can stand for working people in England anymore. It's a real mess. It's a conservative dream in England. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. It's a real cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true.
All cliches have a basis in fact, and this one is as hard home as you can possibly get ...
How did the music come in other than the family? Did it come in through records?
Yeah, it came in through records. My parents are young. My mother was 18, 17 when I was born and my father was, like, 20. And so they always bought records. But not the kind of '60s records you expect. They didn't go so heavily on the Stones or the Beatles. The first record I can really remember vividly being played by my mother was 'Walk Right Back' by the Everleys - which by then had actually been out a few years. But I remember it really well and I really listened to it a lot ... Jim Reeves, all that kind of stuff. A lot of bad country. In those days I remember hearing Hank Locklin, Hank Williams ... My old fella was really into Chet Atkins.
Who were the people you could not ignore on the guitar, that were a master of that instrument, then inspired you?
I have to say Keith Richard. And I know his influence is well documented and a massive influence on everybody. Being born in 1963 I'm fairly typical of the 'now' generation of musicians, certainly coming out of England. And when I was old enough to start buying records seriously - start buying the odd single a week - if it wasn't for people like Marc Bolan and Roxy Music and David Bowie then kids of my generation would have been completely screwed. Because if you're 11, you're not likely to get into Little Feat and all the progressive stuff that was happening at the time. And as a consequence we worked with John Porter, who's the only other producer we've worked with - who's a very strong influence on me personally - and we're very close friends. He really crafted a lot of the records that I started buying: the Sparks singles ... I had a lot of stuff on Island, which he regarded at the time as being some way to make bread. He doesn't understand the fascination and obsession with Sparks and Roxy Music and those early Island singles - with the great intros and great outros and things that happen in the middle with sound effects. Like the intro to 'Love Is The Drug', for instance, when Bryan Ferry gets in the car and you hear the door close and he lights up a cigarette. For someone at 11, in '74, those records were absolutely essential. Because the only other things around were Bay City Rollers or really kinda nasty, naff, groups. Because one wasn't inclined to go and search out the old Motown catalogue at that time. That came a few years later.
Well, you evolved as a musician, you played until you evolved as a person.
Yeah, totally! Totally around music. I've got to say, my whole personality, my life up until I did something seriously with the band, with The Smiths, was completely evolved around lyrics and records I heard.
What was the first concert you ever attended?
The Faces. That was a real buzz - the first real gig. So inevitably Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart became really big influences on me. But because I was a more serious musician - and this is something I try to relate to much younger kids who are into the Smiths, or me - the one thing which influenced me a lot, which Richards was really good for, was first-hand influences. I checked out Bo Diddley myself first time... One thing that's very odd is I'm seen to be responsible for, or to have helped, the resurgence of traditional guitar values. Bo Diddley's a great example. But for a kid in England in 1975 ... The first time I ever heard a strong Bo Diddley beat was Hamilton Bohannon. I was obsessed with 'Disco Stomp' by Hamilton Bohannon. I thought, what's this? Some older kid, or someone or other - because I always find out from all the guitar players, they tell me, "oh, that's Bo Diddley". So I checked out Bo Diddley. Same with the Stones. I was very hung up on the Stones and Ronnie Wood and the Faces and English guitar players who were reproducing, in a very overstated fashion, American black music. A few years ago I got very purist and I regarded a lot of the Brit invasion groups - the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Stones - at one time I thought they were bad imitations. Now I realise that what they did was absolutely perfect because they took, say, a Johnny Hooker riff or a Chuck Berry riff, or whatever... And I say again, when I had a purist attitude, I thought this is too fast and it's too unsubtle. The thing is, these groups completely overstated the intricacies in a blues riff. But everybody knows they were responsible for turning on American kids to their own culture.
It came over on the ships to the docks, the bootleg albums. They ate it up like it was breakfast cereal. And remanufactured it -
And then gave it back to the Americans! And as a consequence created rock'n'roll culture - which I do think we're at the end of, we've come to the end of that. Either rock'n'roll will die or, as I hope, it has to move into a new sphere. And this is what I'm hoping that the new generation of musicians - especially English musicians who are coming over to this country - I'm hoping that they actually realise this. Because a lot of the new bands who kids in the U.S. are only just starting to get turned onto are rehashing a lot of the things about rock'n'roll which should be dead. The superficial leather trousers mentality. I mean, I think leather trousers actually look good, but that kind of mentality - throwing hotels out of windows mentality - is something which should have died. Because it means absolutely nothing to kids 15, 14.
Why was the guitar the instrument of your affection?
I think probably because of the crappy Elvis Presley movies. That was one of the very first introductions to rock'n'roll: bad, terribly bad, Elvis Presley movies! Beatles movies were shown quite a lot; 'Help' and 'A Hard Day's Night' were shown during the mid to later part of the sixties. Beatle cartoons ... That was my only access, that and radio - which was always very, very dull in England. Until recently. It still is very dull daytime wise, but over the last few years there's been great strides made there so I know it's easier for kids now to hear more unaccessible, uncommercial music. Nightime radio's really made massive strides in England.
But there were the alternatives. There was Radio Caroline and Radio Luxemburg ...
But my generation of musicians were completely caught in the middle of two fences. We were much too young to be influenced by the things that older musicians were influenced by, older buyers like Radio Caroline and Radio Luxemburg. By then they were on the way out, and we were a product of a very mundane, very dull period in music. But something really interesting's come out of it, with a lot of musicians obviously influenced by Bolan. Because Top Of The Pops was a very, very, very important aspect of English kid's life. Everybody sees the one thing. And it was just a parade of non-descript idiots. And the ones that were actually good I was too young to actually appreciate. Maybe Free would do an appearance. Or Bad Company. But that was for older guys. But it didn't take me long to get into that. As soon as I started buying records, I started falling in with friends who were older. From then on the ball just rolled for me. And then when punk came along - which is another thing, cos I was of this generation, I was 15,14 when punk came around - I was starting to get into serious craft. I put down punk a lot because when I was first starting to be in it, a few people were kind of just expecting me to go along and pledge allegiance to the punk rock movement. And I didn't really appreciate it. At the time when it happened I was heavily into Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention... So I did kick against it. But the really important things that applied to me were people like Tom Verlaine, who's influenced a lot of what's come after him in England.
All the people you mentioned, including people like Simon and Garfunkel, are terribly melodic individuals. And you can see that in Dream Academy, and in The Cult with the Doors. You can see all that acoustics coming out. It's just screaming to come out. And it's coming out! And it's brilliant.
Well, this is why I'm saying that. This is the good influence that comes out of that period. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bands who are holding up the flag for sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Which is all very well as long as it's not taken too seriously. Because that's the final nail in the coffin. The way that it's got to move on...
The dinosaur mentality.
Exactly. And it's very superficial.
What did you study in school? Did you get any O-levels?
The school I went to - which is where I met our bass player, Andy - was a very tight-lipped Catholic grammar school. Which was turned on it's head within about two years. Cos when I went there it was a very traditional school. All the teachers wore morter boards, all the teachers wore gowns; it was very, very heavy. It was a great school on paper. It was the kind of school that parent's wanted their kids to go to cos you go there and it's like a conveyor belt - you come out with nine O-levels. And that was something that was hammered down our throats. But by year three there was a massive turn-around in the British education system, when everything was scrapped and it went comprehensive. And all the kids that I went to primary school with, who didn't make it through the exams, they all ended up at our school. Which was great because it turned this whole pompous, crappy educational mentality on its head. So the school I went to was very uptight. Thankfully it was very grounded in music. The subjects I did - I was very good at English, predicatably very good at art, music ... And all the other things that kids hated, I hated. By the fourth year I was regarded as an extremely arrogant musician, as I was outside school. I walked around all day with a guitar case and I played guitar all the time. It's odd to think that if I wouldn't have actually made records I would have had egg on my face good style. Because my whole personality was "I'm in a band", this band and that band, and I was always forever forming groups. So by year four I'd been kicked out a couple of times. I went to live with Andy. Actually, that was by year three. When I was in the third year I moved out of home and moved in with Andy.
Have you ever done a non-musical job?
No. I've never done a job. After I left school, I worked for friends who ran clothes shops. But it was never a job as such because my job was to make tapes and bring in other young people who were, quote, 'hip', and that's all I did. I left school, bummed around for a year, and then a couple of friends of mine who ran clothes shops - much older friends, who I got to know because of music - they always inevitably offered me jobs. And the second shop I worked in - by this time I had started the group - the guy who was supposed to be my boss, he paid for our records to be made, paid for all my clothes, bought the van for the group and bought all our equipment. So I've always been really fortunate because the people I've fallen in with have lived their lives around music and music culture.
Did you actually sell clothing?
No. I'd actually just stand there trying to look cool. One thing I did which could be surmised as a job was... When I left school, I went down to London and stayed there for a while. And all the stuff people couldn't get in Manchester, I borrowed a load of money and I bought a whole load of clothes and sold it to one shop. And from then on the ball started rolling. I did that for a few months: just buying clothes wholesale and selling them up in Manchester.
What was your first band called?
Johnny Marr. My first group was actually called Johnny Marr! I couldn't play a chord! (laughs) I was very hung up on the guitarist having his own group.
Where did it go from there?
It actually evolved into The Smiths at the end. I'd always form a group with Andy. I'd get some new direction, I'd get turned on to some new records, and I'd spend a couple of months in my bedroom trying to write parodies of these songs. And then I'd say to Andy, "OK, this is our new direction." One minute it was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the next minute it was Patti Smith Group.
Did you give the groups names?
Never! I'll tell you why - it's because we never had a singer. We played in school and we played in youth clubs... We'd always do three numbers because that was all that anybody knew the words to. You can only do so many covers.
What was the worst gig?
We were so young. I was always the "leader" of the group but I never wanted to get into standing up there in the middle of the group with a microphone singing my words. I never wanted to get into that. But the very first gig I played was on Silver Jubilee day. I was thirteen. We did 'Bring It On Home To Me', which we knew from Rod Stewart, a Sam Cooke song... And we got halfway through that number and the singer - he was only thirteen - he was so hung up on The Faces he thought, right, we'll get really drunk and we'll go out there... But the guy's thirteen and he can't hold a winegum! And he drank about two pints of beer and he went out there. And we were on this float, and there's all the parents out there. And the singer got halfway through the song and just threw up all over the place. So we just carried him off. And that was my first experience with rock'n'roll ... doom. So I was always very guarded of the tricks of rock'n'roll.
Your parents were obviously very supportive.
No, not at all.
Seriously. Me mother was. But when I say I lived with Andy when I was thirteen, I mean I lived with Andy: I left home. That was very difficult for them because... Looking at it now, it's one of the things I'm sure everybody can relate to as you get older and you get to understand your parents as people. It's very wierd. There's a quote, "I had a difficult childhood because my parents understood me". That was exactly right! I had a great childhood because I gave them so much hell; they were the perfect authoritarian figures for me to kick against. I was hung up about kicking against authority. I was so full of being a teenager, being young. That whole pretense of being young was it. And they were a very easy target for me to retaliate against. They weren't supportive because they didn't quite understand what was going to happen. They were always supportive in that they bought me guitars and let me rehearse. But when it got to the serious stage they inevitably got worried because I was very, very serious and I always played with musicians who were older than me. After my very first group, from then on, they were always very worried because I was hanging out with people who were obsessed by music. You know: the image, staying out and going to gigs... So I was just - plainly for them - too young to do it. But I did it anyway. And they were worried about all the pitfalls and drugs and all those kind of things.
Well, they had seen it from the inside.
Also, being the first born there was a lot of things that they... They could see disaster looming. And the thing that they were worried about, and the thing they now actually give me credit for - and this was a big breakthrough with me and the folks - was not that I was successful or I made it or any of that garbage, but just the fact I made it against all odds. Because I was determined and I really fought for it. I say I made it, but I don't mean it in a really corny way because it means nothing to me. I got the chance to make records.
You're not talking about it in a materialistic sense.
No. Well it depends. If you're looking for it and you get it then maybe you can regard yourself as having made it. But I've never looked for it.
Was Andy always a bassist?
When I met Andy we were real rivals because we were both bad boys, and he had long hair and I had long hair. We disliked each other cos we were both kinda cool. We got together because of a Neil Young badge. I had a Neil Young badge on and he came up to me. It was a 'Tonight's The Night' badge. He came up to me at school and he said (sings) "Tonight's the night"... And I thought, he knows this! This is amazing! So from then on we were firm friends. And I said, well, I'm trying to form a group with this guy. And I was very hung up on Neil Young at the time, as was Andy. So we buried our differences and he came round to my place and we played with another guy. And Andy was a better guitar player than I was - I could only play a few chords. And he turned me on to all this David Crosby stuff. There are a lot of bass players who obviously started off on guitar and then moved to bass. But he did it for completely different reasons. It wasn't because he wasn't a particularly good guitar player. It was just that whenever we tried to form a group Andy could always play bass better than everybody else. And the way it's turned out now is that he plays bass like no one else on earth.
How did you meet Morrissey?
Around about 1977 some older musicians - who'd by then had just left school so they could form groups full-time - had a go at forming groups and came into contact with Morrissey. I hung around these people; I hung around these groups. And he made a real impression. I'd never met him, but I'd seen his words and I'd heard tapes of him singing with me friends bands. And all these groups only lasted a week or two. So I knew all about him. This constantly fascinates him. I suppose it would me, if someone did it with me... And then it took until five years later, 1982... I'd got to a point where there was a certain kind of music that I was completely hung up on and I wanted to reproduce. And I was totally influenced by it. And I felt completely alone because, on the face of it, it was seen as being perverse at the time. It was - and still is - every song Goffin & King ever wrote. Lieber & Stoller... I mean, this is why The Smiths formed. Because I was very into the Red Bird label. We're talking about '81, '82 now... I was hanging out in my friends shops. I was DJing in a fashion every night in clubs. And it was a very cool, healthy scene. By then Morrissey had already done that a few years before. He'd been out to clubs and seen friends and so on; you know, he's about five years older than me. So I was doing it in the early 80s. And there was no one really, not even me friends, who could understand the Drifters, or the beauty of Sam Cooke songs. Obviously I felt very cool about it, like I had my own little elite. But I did want to form a group that pledged allegiance to Lieber & Stoller and the Red Bird label and Phil Spector and the girl groups.
Why did you think a collaboration with Morrissey would work? It was a bit of a risk.
Well, I'll tell you why. By then I had written a lot of songs and gotten into the idea of crafting songs in the same way as Leiber & Stoller had, and this overt emphasis on melody and overt emphasis on finishing it by three minutes and the look and the whole thing. And a massive element of what made us form was the Brill Building. This really straightforward, mercenary attitude toward songs. No pissing around, no hanging out in Laurel Canyon for a few months going (sarcastic) "I don't really quite feel like playing this song ". I'd gone through that kind of artistic trip and I was very into being mercenary, and very business.
I don't remember how many stories The Brill Building is, but it was just stall, piano, stall, piano -
Playing until the songs came out! Goffin & King, as you said...
Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Perfect! I used to think it was so cool, that - the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morten's production. To hear (sings) "Let's drink a toast..." Glasses chime. [Johnny is referring to the Shangri-Las track 'Long Live Our Love' - BB] Obviously 'Leader Of The Pack's' a really great example. You've got the motorcycle in the studio and all that kind of thing. It was more than a single, a seven-inch piece of plastic. The song started, it had a great middle, a great break and a great end. At the time when I was into that, no one was into that at all.
Most of your songs are very fast. I mean, timing wise. There are no six-minute epics here. They're all three, three-and-a-half minute tunes.
Exactly. Which is starting to become less and less extraordinary. I'm not saying we're responsible for it, but certainly in England we've helped that along the way. There hadn't been a two-and-a-half minute single in the English charts until The Smiths came along. And we were really put down for it. But I thought that it was actually something amazing, to be able to say what you've got to say in two-and-a-half minutes. 'William, It Was Really Nothing' was the first Smiths song I wrote with a real emphasis on keeping it under two-and-a-half minutes. And what was great about it being my very first attempt at a very short, snappy Smiths single wasn't just that I made it short for the sake of it. It was that everything I wanted to say musically, and everything Morrissey wanted to say lyrically, was said in two-and-a-half minutes.
Steve was known in Manchester as Steve the nutter.
Yeah, that's right. Which attracted me to him no end! I was fascinated by this guy. Going back to Leiber and Stoller, this guy who I used to work for gave me a video of a Leiber and Stoller interview that was on a programme called The South Bank Show. And I was watching this video, and they explained how they met. And I think with Mike Stoller, he knew of Jerry Leiber, or vice versa, from school, and he knew that he wrote music. One or the other... And he just thought, right, if this guy doesn't know me I'll go and knock on his door and say, let's write. So the very next day that's exactly what I did. I phoned up a guy I hadn't spoken to for ages and I said, do you remember that guy Morrissey? Steven Morrissey. Do you remember him? And he said, yeah. I said, give me his address. I went round - didn't even know whether he was gonna be in or if he still lived there - knocked on the door... And before he had a chance to say go away I said: I'm a guitarist, I want to form a group, I need a singer, I don't know whether you've heard of me... And he let me in. Then it was a test; both of us were testing each other. He said, what do you like? And it was like, do I say what I think I should say or do I just tell him what I like? Because I thought what I liked was exclusive to me. So I said, Marvelettes, Shang-ri Las, The Cookies, The Toys. Records like that. Phil Spector, Ronettes... Which just wowed him. And then he played me some Marvelettes records which I hadn't even heard before. And he was absolutely perfect. It really clicked because we forged our relationship on a professional basis from the word go, expecting nothing personally. And then within about three weeks it had turned on its head and we became closer than I had been with anybody else whilst still maintaining that massive professional decorum. And we decided that we were going to be great and that we were going to write the best songs of all time before I'd actually heard him sing proper, before he knew if I could really play. And we had all our grand schemes worked out. I can relate it now because it actually happened. I mean, we could have been chumps but it actually... we knew what we wanted to do. And the thing is, we were totally uncompromising. And I still do feel this now. When people get a sniff of fame they start to worry about conventions and the norm and so on. All the way down the line we were expecting to be massive, but we accepted we wouldn't be accessible and that people wouldn't understand us.
We know what the last names of all four members are. There is no 'Smith' involved here. Why was this chosen?
At the time that we formed our musical politics were so strong. And the name was really, really central. Also, when we formed and we wrote all these songs obviously the idea was to form a group, but we thought that if we coudn't find anybody perfect then we'd... We had this grand scheme of writing songs for people like Sandie Shaw - which we eventually did. And our idea was, in the building in which I used to work - which used to belong to the guy who ran the shop, who managed the group, who paid for everything, right along to the day we set foot for the very first time in America, which was the end of '82, the start of '83 - we wanted to turn that place into the Brill Building. So the very first idea - because we didn't really think about a group as such - we thought, well, we'll write stuff in there, demo it, and we'll find some girl singers like Lesley Gore. The Manchester equivalent of Lesley Gore. And we'd be our own Leiber and Stoller. And that's what we wanted to do. But it was decided we wanted to form a group. So I went back and I recruited Andy. Which was very weird because, at that time, I'd left him where I'd left off - he was still very into Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and so on. But also very into people like Ronnie Laws and David Sanborn and people like that, very into jazz. So I said, I want you to join the group, and I want you to be totally clean because this is part of our manifesto. And by the way - I'm vegetarian! And listen to this. And I gave him a crash course in all these sounds I'd gotten into over the year when I'd not seen him. And I played him the Drifters. And he couldn't understand it! He said, this is music my parents like! And I played him The Shangri-Las and he just couldn't understand that... But it didn't take too long for him to get into it. So Andy and Mike were recruited really quite quickly, within the space of a couple of weeks of each other.
Where did the name come from?
Before we'd even recruited Andy and Mike, Morrissey gave me a piece of paper with about four names on it. I can't remember what the others were but 'The Smiths' was written really huge - obviously it was the one he was hoping I'd pick. Now, we were reacting against everything. I mean, people were called Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark then. (ponders) And what other names were there ...? You know, very, very clever names. So we just thought, what was the most un-rock'n'roll, unglamourous... Morrissey takes the credit for it. I mean, it's his baby. But it was very much a part of what we were about. 'The Smiths' just seemed like such a mundane, normal... Imageless. What was very, very important for us was to have a name which, when people saw it, didn't say anything. Blank! They didn't know what the hell we were going to play! Because names had become too image orientated.
I can remember when the group first started, well, the first American exposure. Things like the necklace, the hearing aid, the flowers in the pocket...
And the glasses.
Well, he's nearsighted as hell!
He is, yeah! Have you talked to Morrissey? Have you met him?
He's an interesting cat... The flowers, for a long time, played a big part in our performance. Not only would Morrissey use flowers on stage, and the band would go on holding them, but the audience would bring flowers and throw them at the group. And that was so un-rock'n'roll and so new that in England we were viewed as very arrogant nerds. 'Nerd' would be the way to explain it over here; 'Twit' would be the way to explain it in England. It was a real stand for the twits. But not like twits who didn't know anything. That was the smart thing: we were manufactured 'twitdom'. Nerddom. And it's something which is very important if rock'n'roll is gonna move on.
The personification of this is somebody like Elvis Costello.
In essence, it's very similiar to the way Buddy Holly liberated a lot of teenagers.
Because nobody wore their glasses!
Exactly! Especially on stage... It was very important to us to do things which weren't rock'n'roll.
The bidding war started after probably six gigs, and Rough Trade won out. But the biggest break you guys ever got was probably John Peel.
Oh, of course! And it's something which we credit endlessly. Because what the Saturday Club was to British bands in the 60s, the John Peel show is that - and much, much more. Because John Peel and John Walters are very fanatical about music. And they're the only people in this horrible, big, conservative establishment called the BBC who actually put their arses on the line for groups. And one wouldn't expect it of guys so grounded in traditional... Well, John Walters, who's John Peel's producer, was actually responsible for getting us on the show. He's very grounded in blues, and jazz in particular. Give those guys credit: they knew something new and important when they heard it. It was a big break for us.
'Hand In Glove', which we didn't get for a long time over here, was the first single. Tell me a little bit about 'Hand In Glove'.
I think it was about the eighth or ninth song we wrote. And at that time we were doing something which all groups should do, and that's play four or five times - well, it's obviously easier when you first start - we played four or five times, nearly every weekday, in the room upstairs where I used to work. And we played and played and played. And we had a set together. And I remember 'Hand In Glove' coming along - I thought it was the strongest melody Morrissey had written to date. And I also thought they were the most important words he'd written to date. And we believed in that song so much we played... The first couple of times we played it, we couldn't believe it and we thought, right, we've now got our single. So we went in and recorded it. So we had it on tape. And we went to Rough Trade and Geoff wasn't around - he was busy - and someone gave me the run around... And I saw him in the kitchen - he was getting a cup of tea. So I grabbed him and gave him the cassette. And he was trying to give me the brush off. And I said to him, this is the deal: either we're gonna form our own label and put it out through Rough Trade distribution or, if you like, you can sign the group - which is what we wanted. And a couple of days later he phoned up and said, I've listened to the song and I love it, and we'd love you to be a Rough Trade group. So we signed a one single deal. But having a fairly decent knowledge of the way the music business and music press operated we then set out to let everybody try and sign us up. All the time knowing that there was no way... It was very, very important that we didn't go on a major label, especially at that time. And consequently, the British independent scene's become -
It was huge, and now it's a complete farce. But at the time it was very important for us to do it. We were very lucky to be able to be as idealistic as we wanted. Because when you've got a song that you believe in wholeheartedly, and you don't care if the rest of the world like it, as long as you see it on a piece of vinyl then that's a very fortunate situation to be in. We've not had anybody tampering with it, we've not had people advising us to put this out, or put that out, do this move, do that... We knew exactly what we wanted to do all the way down the line. And that song was very, very important for us.
'This Charming Man' followed that, with great success. Who is 'this charming man'?
I've no idea. I've no idea. I really don't. I think that's a really flummoxing lyric. Great song. That was the start of Morrissey being a truly wonderful vocalist.
I want to get into the Terence Stamp thing. 'What Difference Does It Make?' - I know that Morrissey was a Terence Stamp fan, I know he has his rootings in a lot of people like James Dean, and a lot of other folks. Were you surprised over the controversy over the use of that sleeve?
Extremely. Since then we've had much more controversy, and we've had a lot more difficulty with sleeves. But it was very odd that Terence Stamp should do that because it was a very inoffensive sleeve. I can understand in a way because, you know, it's part of his past and it's like, suddenly, somebody pulls out an old photo from his photo album. And maybe he regards himself as not looking too good - and then someone puts it on the cover of their record sleeve! I can understand him being confused as to why a pop group have done that. But he made such a fuss about it. And it wasn't actually worth it. It was only a sleeve. He didn't understand where we were coming from, he really didn't understand. That clip, that actual photo, isn't even in the movie. That's an outtake, that photo. And it wasn't an outtake because he looked particularly ugly. It was a great sleeve, really good sleeve. But that did cause quite a lot of hassle. He didn't need to get that uptight about it. We weren't really that well-known.
The lyrics that you've done over the years, and the music that you've created, range from being a vegetarian all the way to the Moors murders. The social consciousness that you've built into the music... You wouldn't have it any other way, right?
No, we wouldn't have it any other way. Because it a really important part of the way music should move on. We would have done it regardless, but now we find ourselves in a position where these things become critically important and these ethics become critically important to other people. Whereas when you first start a group your ethics are totally applicable to yourself. And then you move on. And you've actually turned a lot of people on to these ethics, and you want to move on and they don't. So you do find yourself in a position of responsibility because of what you've created. And I'm really, really proud of it. I'm very proud of it. It's the inspiration of two people who are very different - Morrissey and meself. When it works. It's a really explosive situation but that makes for creativity and it creates something really special. And the movie element was something I would never have involved in a group. It just wouldn't have occured to me. I wasn't a huge British movie fan; I was more a fan of American movies. But it's something now which is crucial. That kind of thing, that outside rock'n'roll theme, is very crucial if rock'n'roll is gonna grow up.
The perfect title is How Soon Is Now?.
Yeah. Which is a great phrase. 'How Soon Is Now' is a great phrase. Because it's obviously "I Want It Now"! How fast can you do it?... That was a very important song for us. It was an important song for me because I have two very strong influences pulling at me, both ways. One is as a guitar player and the other is as a writer. And 'How Soon Is Now' satisfied both elements. Perfectly for me, while still giving something to Morrissey which he could really work on and add his fifty percent to.
'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' was, again, damned short! Number 49 here in the States.
It seems you have to be put in some kind of category. You see, the thing with us and the label [Sire], I do understand the kind of the difficulties they have with us. But that's their problem.
Everyone has a thorn in his side. Everyone has that angst of adolescence or has that soapbox that they want to jump on.
'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' is about us. Well, Morrissey specifically. The thorn is the music industry. If you listen to the words, "how can they hear me say those words and still they don't believe me"... By the time we'd written that song, we'd been put down so much for our beliefs, in the music industry, we'd been put down for all these things that we said were dead. And then we did 'The Boy...' and it was a real pleasure that people who were actually responsible - people who were the 'thorns' in our side - were actually buying this record and championing it in the music industry. It's about all the bigotry and idiocy in the music business really. And how a lot of people who are in a responsible position actually don't know squat.
Part of that... crap that they gave you was because you said: Videos? I'm sorry, no. No. That is not what music is.
Exactly! And we feel that is very understandable and straightforward. We're made to feel like we're misfits, and we're made to feel that we're very, very difficult cos we won't do a video. And at the end of the day we really do feel that's the way the business is. The business is at fault and not us. We're musicians; we don't pretend to be actors. And we don't pretend to be directors. And I wish more musicians would... I'm sure musicians actually do feel this way, they feel exactly the same as us. But because they're told that, they're not allowed to do it. They just back down. And if all the groups actually wised up and realised that they're the ones who are making the bread, and instead of walking into a label, or a venue and saying like, oh my God! It's so good to be here. This is historic!, with some fat guy with a cigar who's counting all the books, you know - we'll do it for free... Musicians should just realise that they call the shots.
Not only that, look at how much a video costs. And it comes out of your profits!
Exactly, exactly... (laughs) You should be a manager. This is the problem we have.
What was the royal reaction to 'The Queen Is Dead'? Cos this is gonna kick up the dust a bit!
Yeah, it did. When it came out one thing that pissed me off was that the music press saw it as - well, they pretended to see it as being, OK, yeah, The Smiths are going for another shot at upsetting the apple cart and kicking up some controversy. But it's actually a really ridiculous political scene in England because of the Queen. Royalty is a very strong issue in England. Not because of the Queen, but with young people it's become more and more irrelevant because it's impossibly naive to believe that we can still be ruled by a monarchy.
When will the new album be out?
It'll be out a lot sooner than Warner Brothers want it to be out. They don't want it to be out too soon. And I understand that. I want 'Louder Than Bombs' to do well, I want it to sell well. But we did an album which is very, very important to us. We regard it as being our best album. It's called 'Strangeways, Here We Come', and it's got ten great new songs on it. I've got to say that there are a couple of songs on there - and I do feel qualified to be able to say this - which are Morrissey's best words. The greatest words he's written.
What's the upcoming projects? What's the future?
The future is to come over here with the new material. We're waiting on the new albums release because the audience have got to know it. We're not here to promote, we're not coming over to promote the new album. We wanna play, but all the group wanna play is the new material and some of the old material which we really like to play. Bits of 'The Queen Is Dead', maybe 'Shakespeare's Sister', 'Ask', 'Panic'... What made it difficult on the last tour, we started the set with 'Panic', and 'Panic' had not been heard here. But we're gonna do the same with the new album. We'll come over here and we'll start off with songs people don't know.
What will the first single be?
It'll be a song called 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before'. (laughs) Right on!! Morrissey! Yeah.
The oldest comedy line in the world, right?!
Yeah! Exactly, exactly... He's brilliant, he's marvellous. I miss him. I haven't seen him for a week and I really miss him.
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