Before discussing Johnny Marr’s recent performance at 53 Degrees in Preston, it is impossible not to mention The Smiths gig in Preston that never was.
That fateful, hateful night at Preston Guild Hall on October 27th, 1986 when The Smiths arrived nearly two hours late on stage only for Morrissey to be, “Hit above the forehead with an object which had been thrown from the crowd. He didn’t know what it was but his head was bleeding and he left the stage. The tour manager said it was a coin. This happened during the first number ‘The Queen is Dead’” (Melody Maker quote from November 1986) – headline ‘Bigmouth Struck Again’.
Many a native from Preston and its surrounding boroughs (myself included) shuffled out of the venue that night completely devastated. Teenage dreams were in tatters.
Fast forward 27 years to Friday, March 8th, and Johnny Marr was at last returning to finish what he started in Preston. He was here to showcase his impressive debut solo album, The Messenger, in the last in a run of three intimate warm up shows before his official U.K. and Ireland tour kicks off properly in Oxford.
53 Degrees was a great venue choice and most of the sold out crowd were shocked and then delighted to discover that Marr was playing the small room upstairs. By 9 o’clock the place was full to bursting. The carefully selected and very eclectic warm up music was faded down and the stage lights were faded up.
Johnny Marr and his band took the stage to rapturous applause and cheering. He was wearing head-to-toe black this night, buttoned down shirt, fitted jacket, drainpipe jeans and moccasin creepers. Always stylish, never flashy. He picked up his trademark white Fender Jaguar guitar with its paisley strap and all eyes were on him.
The opening chords of the first track from the new album “Right Thing Right” echoed around the venue and within seconds you know that you were listening to Johnny Marr. A pure, sweet and clean guitar riff that will stick in your head for days rang out like a clarion call for attention. It got it. Solid, tight drums kicked in, the crowd started bobbing about to the punchy beat and Johnny Marr now owned this room.
Before the whooping and clapping had even slightly begun to die down, Marr and his rock solid band launched in to “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”. His vocals were confident, strong and smooth. There was nothing karaoke about this man or his performance. He was reclaiming and revisiting songs that are rightfully his and he was doing them justice. Every forty-something in the room was reveling in their regression back to being an angst-ridden teenage Smiths fan. They knew and were singing every single word to him and he was clearly feeling the affection. Not that this was exclusively a forty-plus crowd – far from it. There were teenagers, twenty-something hipsters and whole families represented in this audience. Marr and his music have a massively broad appeal.
The pace was taken up a notch with new single “Upstarts”, an instantly beguiling and relentlessly catchy air puncher of a song. Marr was really performing now – posing and swooping his guitar around for the middle eight solo – he and his band were putting on a brilliant show. They moved seamlessly on to play “Sun and Moon”, a peppy, choppy groove of a track tailor made for air guitar shenanigans. The sea of people in the room was bouncing up and down in unison. They were completely engaged and involved. No gossiping or texting going on in this gig – Marr had them mesmerized.
As the applause died down, Johnny spoke to his audience, “Hello, yeah nice to see you all…” Mid-sentence he was interrupted by a rather inebriated young lady on the barrier, stage left. She was shrieking, “I love you Johnny,” very loudly and repeatedly; he responded with, “Yeah? Woah – Have you ever seen those goats on YouTube that sound like people?…” The crowd roared with laughter and so did everyone on the stage.
The giggling was replaced with cheering when the band started playing their version of “Forbidden City” by Electronic. This is a delicate song and Johnny’s vocal delivery was soft and tender over the achingly beautiful guitar. It was wonderful that scarcely heard songs like this one were having an outing this night and stunning to hear them played live by such a talented bunch of artists.
Personnel on this tour were handpicked. On guitar and keyboard duties was Johnny’s literal right-hand man and album co-producer James Doviak from the Healers, who has worked with Marr since 2003. The rhythm section were former Haven bandmates Iwan Gronow on bass and Jack Mitchell on drums. They are all exceptionally gifted musicians in their own right and they have a great chemistry as a unit. This was unquestionably a Johnny Marr show, but his collaborators are well chosen and all deserved special mention.
They followed the Electronic track with “European Me” – a commentary on Marr’s dislike of nationalism and a piece that couldn’t have been written by anyone but Marr – his sound is unique to him. It has his stamp all over it and went down brilliantly.
He spoke again, “I was talking to Ross Jarman from (his former band) The Cribs (QRO live review) last night and he said this was a great venue to play. We intend to have some fun tonight – you can join in if you like…”
The raw power Smiths classic “London”, which he introduced the prior night in Leeds as “That London”, started a bit of agro in the crowd as the lads down the front pogoed and pushed each other around, but it took the atmosphere to another level. They were chanting “Johnny Marr!” and he responded with, “I can hear you know – don’t think that I can’t!” A lone male voice screamed, “Come on Johnny” – he responded, “Go on then I will!”
It was back to the new material that was going down a storm. “Lockdown”, a melodic and nostalgic piece with a theme referencing the life-long lasting effect that our formative years have upon us all, was very well received. Then on to the first single from the album The Messenger, which is a classic in the making. A potentially iconic Marr guitar riff and funky middle eight that begged for an audience participation hand clap. As the track faded out with just synth and drums, Johnny was jumping up and down, recreating the image from the cover photograph and there was riotous applause. He smiled and said, “Yeah, thanks – I like that one too.” Next up was the atmospheric “Say Demesne”, which seemed to transport Marr himself into his own world as he played a stunningly mesmeric solo. Haunting lyrics, impeccably delivered. This was high quality material – no fillers in this set.
The audience was snapped out of their collective blissful trance by two of the more high-octane new tracks, “Generate! Generate!” and “Word Starts Attack”. These two stompers reinvigorated the crowd and everyone in the place was dancing. When they finished, a spontaneous chorus of “Johnny B. Goode” erupted from the crowd and as they sang, “Go Johnny go,” Jack Mitchell gave them a drum beat to keep time to. Marr was clearly delighted with this. He was having a great show. He adopted his trademark stance, cocked his head to one side, brandished that Fender like a gun, smiled and said, “I feel like doing this…” – and the iconic opening riff of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” soared over the crowd. Energy levels were through the roof now – Marr was on fire. The crowd’s word-perfect vocals were deafening and the air was filled with pure unadulterated joy. More than a few grown men were crying – and it was likely that there would be more tears before curfew.
The set changed pace again with the stunning “New Town Velocity”, a slower tempo piece with exquisite and immaculately crafted ascending guitars and elegant autobiographical lyrics. Another timeless classic in the making. A very moving song, absolutely dazzling and the audience were spellbound.
The final track of the night was the futuristic and whimsical punk-pop “I Want the Heartbeat”, with its Twilight Zone-style storyline of a man who exchanges his wife for an ECG machine. This left them dancing like maniacs and screaming for more.
Marr took off his guitar and exclaimed, “Thanks for coming out Preston. You are a really good-looking bunch. Super good to be back on tour man… and ladies,” and with a cheeky grin and a wave he strode off stage. It had been a glorious gig.
The clapping and stomping started and wouldn’t stop until the man and his band returned triumphantly to the stage, which they did.
So where did he go from here?
The opening bass line of “Getting Away With It” by Electronic fired up and the crowd were whooping and cheering right from the off. They were singing, dancing and generally being utterly beguiled by Johnny Marr, who seemed to be having a pretty special night himself. As the last “I love you more than you love me” wound up the song, the enraptured crowd were being very vocal in their appreciation. There was an atmosphere of anticipation in the air as everyone waited with baited breath to see what might come next.
Johnny Marr playing “How Soon Is Now?” is what came next. The response was deafening. Nobody plays guitar like Marr and hearing him play arguably the most iconic riff he has ever written was simply too much for some. Tears of joy were streaming down faces; it was just magnificent. People were swaying together and hugging each other and relishing every second. And then it is over… or was it?
The band put their heads together in a huddle and after a few moments Marr came to the mic and said, “I’m in a good mood now – you guys put me in a good mood.”
At all the previous shows “How Soon Is Now?” had been the finale – but not tonight. Preston was being treated to one more and for many it is an all-time favourite.
At Brudenell Social Club in Leeds the prior night there was a fine chap who had a huge flag embellished with the words, “There is a light that never goes out” across it. He said he wouldn’t get the flag out unless Johnny did the song – he didn’t do it in Leeds but he is about to do it now (sorry about that Mike…). It was the last track of the night and it was wonderful.
Johnny Marr fills Morrissey’s Smiths frontman shoes with confident aplomb. He brought a fragility and warmth to this iconic song and the crowd could not have been more delighted. They were singing so loud that at certain points they almost drowned Marr out. Many have waited a lifetime to see this man play this song. One young lad turns to another and said, “I have never been this happy.”
Marr doesn’t provoke the same overt, physically demonstrative and arguably vulgar hero worship as his former band mate; the response to him is much more respectful and understated, but every bit as heartfelt and emotional. There is a certain elegance about Johnny Marr, both as a guitarist and a man, and he is treated with a reverence that he has earned and so deserves.
Transcendent show and superb appreciative audience at great little venue. The ghost of Preston performances past had finally been laid to rest.
Marr’s tour of the U.K. and Ireland kicks off in Oxford and he is probably coming to a city near you.