You can’t write about Marr without mentioning Morrissey, which is both self-evident and unhelpful – for the guitarist at least.
The Smiths were musical Marmite, provoking self-knowingly gushing wonder in many, sneering disregard from most.
Or, to be more precise, Morrissey was the Marmite. Johnny Marr’s contributions to Manchester’s wildly influential band were all jam.
Without Morrissey, The Smiths would have been as ordinary as their name declared them to be. He was the arch soul of the band; fay, provocative and, as often as not, poutingly ridiculous.
Without Marr, the band would have collapsed into the black hole of their front man’s ego far quicker than the five short years it actually took. And their legacy would have been even shorter-lived.
Marr brought riffs to the table, short, punchy and catchy guitar work that was the gravy to Morrissey’s meaty musings. But meat, as we soon found out, was murder and it is Marr’s populist output, not the singer’s faux-intellectual schtick, that has helped The Smiths’ songs survive the passage of time, influencing a whole decade of Britpop in general and The Stone Roses and Oasis in particular.
The jangle-jagged opening to What Difference Does It Make or the heavily-produced tremelo-layered ripple that ushers in How Soon Is Now? make those songs, not the uptight warblings – however witty the lyrics – of Morrissey.
Marr provided foundations, walls and a roof to The Smiths. Morrissey dealt in the baubles that dazzled many, especially in the music press, but have faded over time. The structure, however, remains very much intact; musical proof of the sporting adage that form is temporary, class permanent.
Like many a great songwriting partnership, Marr and Morrissey ended up hating enough of each other’s guts to prompt the split, with the guitarist frustrated by the musical chains his front man placed around him.
There’s no drama without conflict, so they say, and the same seems true of Britain’s biggest acts, from the template of Lennon and McCartney through to the Manc magpie Gallagher brothers.
And bang in the middle of them, both chronologically and in terms of popular success, lie M and M.
The irony was that for a band who celebrated the different, who championed the socially, sexually and emotionally dispossessed, that sense of inclusivity did not extend to their fans. If you weren’t a Smiths’ fan, then those that were would, if you were lucky, merely disregard you.
The self-obsessed shoe-gazer, so anti-establishment and wary of the tribal, had found their own little tribe and despised any not among them.
Even now, those fans yearn for a re-union. The last time that truly threatened to happen was in court, courtesy of a legal wrangle over royalties.
And for Marr, there is no need. He’s carved out a career on the back of his talent, not his history.
Session man, film scorer, band leader and eclectic collaborator, Marr’s star has burned steady over the years. He’s been neither under the radar nor off the chart, preferring the respect of his peers over the adulation of fans.
His personal life mirrors the public persona. Married to a woman he met as a teen, well before he joined The Smiths, he’s the antithesis of a rock star – a teetotal vegan who gets his rush from running.
Marr doesn’t court the limelight, nor does he shun it. He’s happy to talk to the press, make pronouncements if required, but that talk is quiet and self-assured, perhaps bolstered by the knowledge that his musical legacy says more than enough about him.
Others have been more forthright.
The Stone Roses’ John Squire called him a major influence, Noel Gallagher went with ‘he’s a fucking wizard’ and even Big Mouth himself, Steven Patrick Morrissey, declared that ‘he was the master, I the servant’.
So Marr was the master and Morrissey, to steal one of his own phrases, ‘a jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place’. Harsh? Probably. True? Partly. But while Morrissey still demands attention, Marr receives it without even having to try.
The master indeed.