Mancunian post-punk legends the Smiths have been shortlisted for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, but they have to be inducted; other Second British Invasion bands that also have been nominated but puzzlingly overlooked include Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and the Cure. It seems that the Hall is overlooking the ’80s acts that one anonymous insider once described as “weird outcasts from England who wear mascara” in favor of American acts of the ’90s like Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Pearl Jam.
But iconic guitarist Johnny Marr — who founded the Smiths in 1982 with androgynous, literary frontman Morrissey — feels secure that he and peers made their mark on America by helping redefine the concept of masculinity and eradicating, for an entire generation, what he calls “jock culture.”
“When we arrived in the United States in ’85 to do those big tours, we were playing in these big venues, and it was reflected on me and my band that we were good news for a generation of kids — boys and girls, but let’s say the boys, for example — who wanted to be not macho, who wanted to be a new kind of guy, without having a label of being gay or being straight,” Marr muses to Yahoo Entertainment. “All they knew was that they didn’t want to be a jock. … This was all news to me. I was picking up from our audience and younger journalists about this sort of culture: macho, aggressive. It was very old-fashioned. And we were these young men from the U.K. who didn’t matter if we were wearing makeup. … I guess it was a new way of being.
“I think there was a lot of projection on young British bands, and I’m proud of New Order, and the Smiths, and the Cure, and Depeche Mode, and being part of that movement of bands, because we did that,” Marr continues. “If we helped to wipe out a certain kind of mentality in college years, around in the 1980s, I feel that’s good.”
While Marr asserts that he’s “totally proud” of his tenure with the Smiths and the indelible mark they made on both sides of the pond, that band only had a five-year run — and Marr has accomplished plenty since then, playing with Electronic, The The, the Pretenders, Modest Mouse, the Cribs, Hans Zimmer, and many others while never looking backward. (“I’m not a big fan of nostalgia; I sort of am pathologically anti-nostalgia,” he quips, noting that fans’ and journalists’ constant clamoring for a Smiths reunion is a type of “cultural Tourette’s.”) So, after releasing his excellent memoir Set the Boy Free two years ago, he was eager to look ahead with his third solo album, the “psychedelic and trippy” Call the Comet, which imagines a futuristic alternative society through a prism of what Marr calls “magic realism.”
“By the end of 2016, I felt like I spent so much of my time internalizing my life and internalizing my story up to where I am now [while working on Set the Boy Free], that when I came to write Call the Comet, I just needed to get in the studio, just to make music. I didn’t have any plan; I just knew that I wanted to get away from internalizing the past,” Marr explains. “I spent an entire year analyzing my life, and then I was on the television news analyzing my life, and by the time the book was done, I was burnt out. I wanted to think about something other than myself.”
While the ambitious and exploratory Call the Comet was written in the shadow of the U.K.’s Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, Marr eschews the notion that it’s an overtly political album. “I was escaping Brexit and Trumpism in my studio,” he clarifies. “[The album is] anti-politics, in a way. If there is a concept, it’s me trying to think about society in the way it should be, or the way it could be in the future.”
Marr does admit that he sees parallels between the current state of the world and the Thatcherism/Reaganomics era that spawned albums like the Smiths’ 1986 masterwork The Queen Is Dead. “There doesn’t really seem to be a lot of compassion [today]. … That seems to be like déjà vu to me,” he sighs. But it was witnessing acts of compassion in everyday society, during times of extreme crisis, that inspired one Call the Comet standout track, “A Different Gun” — keeping with the album’s utopian theme as well as evoking the sensitivity and sentimentality of Marr’s best work with and without the Smiths. The song was initially inspired by the Bastille Day 2016 attack in Nice, France, but it took on new meaning after last year’s bombing at the Manchester Arena in Marr’s hometown.
“It was the feeling of everybody trying to help each other; that sort of stayed with me,” says Marr, recalling watching the disturbing TV news reports out of Nice. “I lived with that for weeks and months. I wondered if I could turn that into a tune. It was nagging me, whether I could pay tribute to the humanity, in a way. … I wondered whether it was pompous of me to even give it a go, or whether it was inappropriate of me to write it. … There are lines in it like ‘Every day is a different son, blown away by a different gun’ and ‘We’re holding to everyone for the love that we need.’ I thought that was the best way of paying tribute to people: We’re trying to help each other. I wanted it to be a beautiful thing. I wasn’t going to say, ‘Everything’s going to be all right,’ because it isn’t. And I wasn’t going to say, like, how terrible this thing was.”
Marr was recording “A Different Gun” when the Manchester attack occurred in May 2017, and he was once again unexpectedly inspired as he watched people come together: “Their amazing tribute and reaction all around the city, people laying flowers, hundreds of people singing songs. … Much like 9/11, it’s like, ‘No, no. We’ll stay in our act of defiance as humans, against attack, against terror, and against fear. Our best tribute is look what we’ve done, how everybody’s helping each other.’ … So, all of this very complicated and heavy stuff, but I had to try and turn it into a song. And I just thought, ‘OK, if it doesn’t work, I’ll leave it off the record.’ But I think there’s beauty in it, and that’s why I’ve kept it.”
Watch Johnny Marr’s entire Facebook Live interview with Yahoo Entertainment below:
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This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.