Johnny Marr, Electric Ballroom, Camden, 23rd September 2021
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Johnny Marr is 57. He was 19 when he approached Morrissey to form The Smiths and has been a professional musician ever since. In the last 40 years he's played with The Smiths, The Pretenders, Billy Bragg, Beth Orton, Everything But The Girl, Electrafixion, Blondie, Kirsty MacColl, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, Electronic, The The, The Cribs, The Healers, Modest Mouse, Pet Shop Boys, Hans Zimmer, The Avalanches, The Charlatans, 7 Worlds Collide, Oasis, Crowded House, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The Killers, Billie Eilish, Bert Jansch. Oh, and Black Grape....
And since 2013, he has become a solo artist in his own right. I was sniffy about this at first, scarred by how dull his album with The Healers was. But I was very, very wrong and his solo career is a joy. I would rather he dropped some of the Electronic and The Smiths songs he played live to include New Town Velocity and Generate! Generate! in his setlist. For me, that's quite a thing to say.
So on a warm Thursday evening, we find ourselves in Camden - me, Mrs JO'B, my French friend Vincent and my playwright friend Jane. Only the latter saw The Smiths (twice). Of our merry little band of ruffians, only I turned down a ticket to their last ever gig (see Ten Bad Gig Decisions).
We are excited as we head into the venue. It's rammed with our tribe - beered up, exuberant indie fans, ready to go nuts. One wag is wearing a The Smiths t-shirt, which has a picture of Will Smith and family. I like him already.
Beers acquired we stake our patch, to the left of the soundcheck, but Jane soon disappears down the front. It's fair to say she is VERY excited.
With no support, Johnny emerges to the fans hollering Johnny Marr over and over like a football chant. When I used to see Morrissey it was the same - for all the fey stereotypes of Moz and The Smiths, the gigs were always very laddish and rowdy. Pleasingly they still are.
Johnny kicks things off with a new song, Hideway Girl. It's cool, a bit Gothy...it's good. One to look out for when he releases Fever Dreams Pt 1 in October (he seems to be releasing Fever Dreams as four separate EPs rather than an album).
Before we have any time to consider this first of seven new songs, the roof is royally ripped off as Marr launches in Panic. Johnny tells us this is the first time he's been out in 2 years, but he is far from rusty - the fire in his belly is there in spades. As we're still singing "Hang The DJ", he belts through recent single Spirit Power and Soul, an electronic tinged dance stormer.
Three more new tracks follow - a brave move for an audience that's been starved of the tunes they love. But it's shrewd - he's no nostalgia act, he's like a shark, always moving forward. Rubicon is slow, brooding (has he been listening to Sigur Ros?), Tenement Time is more Gothy guitars...only Night & Day sounds more like one of his guitar jangles.
But then he gives the fans a blast of love - Electronic's Get The Message and Getting Away With It sandwich a life-affirming This Charming Man. The people around us are ecstatic. One holds his phone up for his absent friend (hilariously listed in his contacts as "Scum") while another grabs his friend yelling “how does he top THAT???”.
Photo courtesy of Dave Wear
Marr effortlessly tops it by tearing into a blistering The Headmaster Ritual. The pedal is eased briefly as we get another new song (Sensory Street) and two cuts from his last album, Walk Into The Sea and Hi Hello from Call The Comet. Hi Hello is particularly fine, with its guitar lift from There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (if Johnny can't rip The Smiths off, who can???).
How Soon Is Now? is rapturous, as Johnny is in full-on Bo Diddley mode. His last single from 2019, Armatopia takes us back dancing but he then leads a singalong to There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, ending with Easy Money - one of many of his solo cuts that has genuinely earned classic status.
More beer is acquired as we run through the encore. Sadly, Johnny's dropped Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, but he kicks things off with Counter Clock World, the strongest of his new tracks.
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is beautiful and Bigmouth Strikes Again is exactly what Marr always wanted it to be - The Smith's Jumping Jack Flash. And then he's gone. My favourite teetotal, vegan runner (he runs 10 miles a day minimum). He looks incredible, he remains a handsome devil of a guitar player and he really can sing. I used to want to see him reunite with Morrissey (and take over), but a Marr in the bush is worth two in the band, to paraphrase Mozzer.
I am not working the next day so we head for one more beer...(famous last words). As I stand at the bar, I notice a stylish, older gentleman beside me. Looking like an ageing mod / punk, super cool and inconspicuous. I realise it's Steve Diggle from Buzzcocks. I blurt out "are you Steve Diggle?" before my better sense can stop my bigmouth from striking yet again. It's too late though.
Diggle is gracious and says he is indeed. I ask if I may shake his hand and tell him how much Buzzcocks meant to me (mercifully in seconds, rather than bore the arse off him). While we wait for our beers, I ask if he'd seen Johnny, but he had been up the road to see The Specials at the request of his female companion. He asks how Johnny's show was and I tell him it was brilliant. Much better than watching Moz these days. In my head he leans in and says "what a wanker" but I may have imagined that (apologies Mr Diggle if so). I leave him to drink into the night with his friend and rejoin mine, elated.
A Smith, a Buzzcock, several beers, 2 great friends, one splendid wife and a perfect evening...I hope we see Johnny back in Camden soon. As someone once said:
"Here you'll find, my heart and I, and still we say come back, come back to Camden, and I'll be good, I'll be good, I'll be good, I'll be good".
Finally, as is documented elsewhere on this site, I am now committed to "Morrissey offsetting" so a donation has been made to the Refugee Council to balance any financial benefit Morrissey may gain from this evening's fun. While Moz supports parties like For Britain, I can have nothing to do with him, but I won't cancel everything he's been involved in, the things I loved that went before. Hope that makes sense.
I wrote more about this here - When Heroes Go Down - Dumping Morrissey.