IT TAKES ONE TO to know one… When MOJO was looking for a genius of the six strings (and occasionally 12) to introduce our 22-page special on The Who in the latest edition (August 2015 / #261), one man instantly sprang to mind: Johnny Marr.
As both a fellow innovator and also an inheritor of Pete Townshend’s artistic acrobatics, the former Smiths guitarist’s perspective shines new light on The Who, their creativity and their musical achievements.
Get our latest issue now for Marr’s insightful introduction to our 50 Greatest Who Songs, which you can listen to now, but in the meantime here’s a little chat we had with him about how Townshend, Roger Daltrey and co. were “creating pocket symphonies for walking around West London” and the impact they had on a boy from Manchester.
MOJO: What impact have The Who had on you?
Johnny Marr: They deliver as well as pretty much any band out. I saw them for the first time around the end of the ’90s, when Zak Starkey joined, and they surprised me. I wasn’t expecting anything so stripped-back. Bands with that kind of heritage – a superstar rock band – you expect a lot of production and peripheral equipment, bells and whistles.
There always seems to be an edge to what they do.
They're always quite punchy. They'd always arrive with a sense of naughtiness and menace. Glimpsing them on telly in the in the ’70s, we were aware they were royalty but they always looked quite bedraggled. You don't get the same sense of violence from the Beatles or the Stones.
Did The Who influence your songwriting? What resonated with you?
You can’t beat that run of ’60s singles. Pete Townshend’s musical, compositional style is particularly unique. Very harmonic. I can understand why Pete liked the Beach Boys so much. Something like Pictures Of Lily is so impressive. An amazing piece of music. It’s a beat group, comes out of the traps really explosively but with these super harmonic verses, which he manages to squeeze so many chords into. And does so on a Rickenbacker 12-string. That takes some doing! Then it jumps to a key change. All the while you have this dreamy vocal melody against this explosive beat group approach. Then he comes at it again with all these chords and changes, the guitars getting louder, the drums riffing like crazy. Then – bang! – you get this proto-punk riff – danga da dang dang! – with a key change. So you’re only a minute in and he's already written more ideas than most people put in four singles, and that’s before you get to the French horn solo!
“The Who always arrive with a sense of naughtiness and menace.”
There’s ambition in all Townshend’s songs, and not just the obviously ‘big’ ideas like the operas...
It's so ironic that he started out with a song called I Can't Explain, because he's the best person in rock at explaining anything! There’s a sense of agenda in Who songs, a manifesto. One of the things I like about Pete Townshend is that he always seems very busy. When you used to see pictures of him, he always seemed like he was busy in the studio plugging things in; he was busy as a guitar player and he's busy as a performer. I always found that inspiring. You didn't get the impression that their music came together from them hanging out for four or five hours waiting for something to happen. Their music was propelled by the concept, the intellect. At the same time, I love Daltrey's singing. He really gives the band a sound. Because he comes into his own from 1969 it's overlooked how good a job he was doing on those early records. The Who were creating pocket symphonies for walking around West London.
Where does Townshend rank among the all-time great guitarists?
He's the best of the ’60s guitar players by miles. Definitely my favourite. George Harrison was inventive, but I love the wildness in Townshend. His solos are brilliant – I Can See For Miles, and Slip Kid – and he was always making progress. You can hear him developing his playing. I love that fluid lead playing he was doing in the ’80s, like on Eminence Front. Then there’s his acoustic playing. Listen to the 12-string on Substitute. I’m Free is a great acoustic guitar track. And what he did on Pinball Wizard invented a whole thing. On the demos, too, you hear incredible acoustic guitar. It’s neither the pretty picking nor the proficient strum. His approach to acoustic is fierce and dynamic – completely individual, and you can hear that on Tommy and the Quadrophenia demos.
The Who never stopped striving, did they?
It’s so easily for all of us to goof off, especially when you get that big. With The Who there’s always been a passion, and a conviction that what they were doing is art, and should be high art. It’s a beautiful thing if only for the passion in that. If you ever really needed proof that rock could really mean something – look at The Who.
PHOTO: John Shard