Johnny Marr’s pre-Smiths, post-punk influences: a YouTube playlist

One of the more interesting aspects of researching my Smiths biography was talking to Johnny Marr about the thriving post-punk scene of the very late 1970s and the very early 1980s. The Smiths have been glamorized over the years as having arisen in opposition to a pervasive synth-pop/New Romantics culture, but in reality, for those of a certain age – say, 17 years old in 1981 – the music scene in Britain at that time was as exciting as it had ever been, especially for those who were looking backwards for reference points whilst embracing the best of the new and experimental. I talk about this in chapter eleven of A Light That Never Goes Out (specifically on page 178 for those with a British copy already), but it might be worth quoting Johnny directly:

“What’s interesting is that, at the shop [X-Clothes, where Marr worked around 1981], there were three of us regular staff. This kid, Russell, was from Sheffield, and he was very, very into Clock DVA, Fad Gadget, Banshees, and so he had more of a goth thing going. But Julie, the assistant manager, a little older (in her early 20s), had been around the Manchester scene a while, she was very, very into the Fall and Nick Cave. And my thing was the girl groups and Motown, and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll records fell into that, because I loved the guitar playing, so I loved the Eddie Cochran records. Next door is Joe’s shop, and as Joe [Moss, future Smiths manager] and I started to get more of a friendship going, it was almost like Joe’s ethos through me bled into the ethos of my shop. So any day if you walked into X-Clothes around 11am, you’d be hearing the Birthday Party Junkyard album, and if you came back an hour later, you’d be hearing Fireside Favourites by Fad Gadget, and then an hour later, you’d be hearing, This Is Hip by John Lee Hooker that had come out on Charly that year, or a tape of the Rolling Stones B-sides that I’d put together. So all that melting pot, all that to me is what the early ‘80s is about. I’ve been interviewed a lot by the likes of MTV and VH1 and they put a mike in front of you and say, “You were the alternative to Culture Club and Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet; weren’t the ‘80s shit?” Well in actual fact, my early ‘80s were about the Birthday Party, and the Gun Club were very important to me…”

Johnny also stated, at a different time,  that “The Only Ones were really my band,” and both he and Andy Rourke were vocal, in their interviews, about their shared love of the Cure, the Banshees, Japan and more.

These conversations inspired me to put together a YouTube playlist of the best of what we might call this post post-punk period whilst writing the relevant chapters. In making the playlist public, I’ve gone back and added a few more reference points, though with the exception of Section 25 and the Fall, it shies away from the Manchester scene, which I covered in a previous YouTube playlist, Manchester (post) punk. It also eschews the jazz-funk music of the period – Light of The World, Level 42, Central Line etc. – that both bassist Rourke and drummer Si Wolstencroft stated as a major influence on their pre-Smiths trio with Marr, Freak Party. Having heard that act’s lone demo, I can attest that the instrumentals sounded much more like an amalgamation of The Gang of Four, Pigbag, Public Image Ltd and the Jam.

My specific choices are somewhat random, and not meant to be definitive, but they provide a healthy overview of that era. It’s fascinating to watch Public Image perform ‘Death Disco’ (the song that Freak Party used to audition vocalists, somewhat fruitlessly) on Top of the Pops, but it’s also important to remember that ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’ was ubiquitous on dance floors and in bedrooms alike for an entire year from its release in the spring of 1981 until it charted in April of 1982.  As Frank Sinatra once sang, “When I was 17, it was a very good year.”

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths was published by William Heinemann in the UK on September 6.  It will be published by Crown Archetype in the USA on December 6. Sample chapters, reviews, ordering and pre-ordering information at:
William Heinemann
Amazon UK
Crown Archetype
Amazon US
Barnes & Noble
Good Reads

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November 2021