There’s not many who can compete with the intensity of devotion that The Smiths generated in their all-too-brief five year lifespan. It all began that fateful day when the young Mancunian John Maher (later to be reborn as Johnny Marr) knocked on the door of local unemployed New York Dolls and Coronation Street aficionado – and sometime local punk band frontman – Steven Patrick Morrissey, with an idea to create a new kind of band. The pair’s respective gifts for guitar and lyricism soon forged a chemistry that would result in some of the decade’s most life-affirming music.
- READ MORE: Pixies’ 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked
While it can’t be denied that a key element of the band’s reputation was Morrissey’s unmistakable vocals and the strength of those unerringly astute lyrics, it was Johnny Marr’s awe-inspiring gift for working up layered swathes of heart-tugging melodies and immaculately assembled chord structures that provided the band with its unique sonic identity. Marr’s ethos was pointedly at odds with the bombastic flash of many of rock’s big players, instead opting for an authentic, Rickenbacker-flavoured jangle. Marr’s work rippled with a maturity that belied his young age, at a time when many chart-operators were fancifully trying to bring forward a synth-pop soundtracked future.
Though he took influence from iconic 60s groups like The Byrds and the early Beatles, the slick cool of The Pretenders and the diverse textural palette of The Velvet Underground, Marr’s playing style was unmistakably his own. Continuing to draw worshipping crowds to this day, as his solo career has developed, he remains one of the guitar’s most lionised players.
In compiling our list of the band’s greatest guitar moments, we’ve rifled through The Smiths’ back catalogue, beginning with 1984’s forceful self-titled debut, via the sharp-edged beauty of 1985’s Meat is Murder to 1986 opus, The Queen is Dead and culminating with 1987’s poignant full stop, Strangeways, Here We Come. Though the band’s short existence left us wanting more, there’s also a wealth of singles, b-sides and covers ripe for mining.
20. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)
Kicking off at the very end, with The Smiths’ final single. By this late stage, Marr had achieved a position of towering respect among his peers and devotees, despite the fact that he was still only 23 years old. Written and performed with a sunburst 12-string Gibson ES-335, the track is precluded by a gathering storm of layered chords, advancing gradually on the listener, which resolves into the spritely bounce of the verse, and its jangle of supporting chords rooted the key of C.
Though there’s no chorus to speak of, the verse sections are bridged by a delicate, uncertain melody which set up a wavering, ladder of notes that pace us gracefully back into the lively verse. Marr explained to Guitarist that, for the track’s concluding three-note melody he wanted it to sound, “Like a punk player who couldn’t play, so I fingered it on one string, right up and down the neck. I could have played it with harmonics or my teeth, or something clever, but the poignancy would have gone out of the melody.”
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19. Back To The Old House (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
The stripped back, acoustic arrangement of this under-appreciated gem is perhaps the purest distillation of the heart-rending magic Morrissey and Marr could conjure. While the studio version is a fine listen, it’s Hatful of Hollow’s tender performance, recorded for a John Peel session in 1983, that most are familiar with. Recorded with a Takamine EN10C at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, Marr’s eloquent fingerpicking chord sequence has our undivided attention.
With a capo on the second fret, Marr flows through some familiar C, Am7 and F shapes, though they’re lifted by a wealth of natural-sounding melodic deviations that somehow both support – and suggest alternative pathways from – the main chord sequence. As Morrissey’s affective lyric recalls memories best left in the past, Marr’s spotless, Bert Jansch-esqe arpeggios continue on into a hesitant verse-bridging sequence, in the space of any form of chorus uplift. Underlining the intense creative intimacy between the pair, Back to the Old House continues to make us misty-eyed.
Did you know?
Written shortly prior to the John Peel session, the Hatful of Hollow version was the first time the track had been recorded, with the resultant studio version coming much later.
18. Ask (The World Won’t Listen, 1986)
By the mid-80s, The Smiths’ policy of singles being stand-alone entities, which didn’t appear on any album proper, was a well-known facet of their indie identity. The major-chord positivity of the euphoric Ask was one such shining example, and perhaps the most positive-sounding composition in The Smiths’ whole songbook. Built around a constantly ascending chord structure of G, Am, C and D, delivered with some sunny riff flourishes on Marr’s Rickenbacker 330, Ask maintains a jaunty 167 bpm until the mid section’s breather, wherein a Em briefly crashes the party.
Marr infuses the arrangement with a series of overdubbed, cavorting melody lines, which dance above the song’s central spine with a twinkling grace. While Marr plays the Rickenbacker, The Smiths’ additional guitarist Craig Gannon provides acoustic backing with a Martin D-28 (also double-tracked by Marr). The result is a mood-enhancing slice of ecstatic pop.
Did you know?
Additional guitarist Craig Gannon would later claim to have originated the idea for Ask, which was refuted by Marr, in Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, Marr said “That really hurt me, that’s one of the things in The Smiths that you don’t do. No one ever had any inclination to write any songs, and that was fine.”
17. Girlfriend in a Coma (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)
Morrissey’s dark spin on the classic ‘death discs’ that dominated the radio waves of his youth, Girlfriend in a Coma is an engagingly contradictory piece of songwriting, with the ever-present, opiated circularity of Marr’s major key acoustic riff providing a stark contrast to the threatening tone of Morrissey’s regretful boyfriend persona. The beefy sound of Andy Rourke’s bass provides an embracing cradle for Marr’s blissful little melody, built around D and G shapes with a capo on the fifth fret of his Martin D-28.
His upstroke technique, and the slightly ska-like construct of the arrangement, was inspired by the Bob Andy and Marcia track Young, Gifted and Black. It’s often regarded as something of a marmite song by critics, with some seeing it as an attempt at self parody, or the band’s version of the type of quirky Maxwell’s Silver Hammer style of music hall daftness The Beatles occasionally slid into. Though, despite the higher watermarks elsewhere on Strangeways… it’s still Girlfriend in a Coma’s hooky little acoustic earworm that sticks in our grey matter the longest.
Did you know?
The B-Side to Girlfriend in a Coma – the Cilla Black cover Work Is a Four Letter Word was the final straw for the increasingly dissatisfied Marr, who quit the band soon after. “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.” He told Record Collector in 1992.
16. There is a Light That Never Goes Out (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
Considered by many to be The Smiths’ defining masterpiece, the downcast mood of There is a Light That Never Goes Out finds Marr suitably restraining himself, with an ever-changing back and forth salvo of acoustic chords that accentuate the song’s lonely street-lit glide through the streets, in search of belonging. Written sometime in 1985, Marr brought around the chords to Morrissey’s house for a writing session, as he strummed through the beguiling arrangement, Morrissey was rendered speechless “It was as if he daren’t speak, in case the spell was broken” Marr recalled in The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life.
With a capo fixed on the fourth fret of his Martin D-28, Marr kicks off the song with a stuttering Dm, Fmaj7 and G (a purposeful nod to The Rolling Stones’ cover of Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike) the song rolls forward with an earnest strum on Am7 (with alternating G bass) before moving back to Fmaj7 and a strident C and G. The song’s euphoric, transcendental chorus resolves the tension with a pulsing C major chord, before we once again find ourselves sliding back into the murky momentum of the verse. After the 10-minute recording session for the studio track, overdubs were minimal (aside from a few emulated strings, to add a cinematic flavour), as Marr recalled “Really, the essence and the spirit of it was captured straight away, and that normally means that something’s gone really, really right.”
Did you know?
Marr was keen to incorporate more diverse sounds into The Smiths’ sonic tapestry, and There is a Light…’s haunting string arrangement was actually constructed using an E-mu Emulator, as well as additional flutes performed by Marr. Further instrumental colours would be found on the next LP
15. Rubber Ring (The World Won’t Listen, 1985)
A hymn to the life-saving value of music, Rubber Ring’s very un-Smiths like arrangement intensifies one of Morrissey’s finest ever lyrics. It’s also a mean and quirkily infectious composition from a musical standpoint. As Rourke’s semi-comedic, stilted funk bassline in E pins down its tight rhythmic framework, Marr jerkily strums on the barred E minor chord on the 7th fret, while a strange and wiry little riff nibbles at the heels of the mix.
The tightly assembled structure breaks down into a tempestuous whirlwind as Marr forcefully attacks his strings, and Morrissey’s vocal becomes a ghostly, anguished yodel. It’s a thrilling listen on all fronts, and the superb segue into the piano-based heartbreaker Asleep (As heard when the tracks backed up the single release of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side) is among The Smiths’ most inspired moments.
Did you know?
The eerie audio clip of the woman stating “you are sleeping, you do not want to believe” at Rubber Ring’s end was taken from an EP of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) by Dr Konstantin Raudive to accompany his book Breakthrough. Raudive claimed to have recorded voices of the dead, though this clip is in fact his English translator, repeating one of these alleged ‘beyond the grave’ statements. Spine-tingling stuff, or a little bit naff? You decide…
14. Paint a Vulgar Picture (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)
An exquisite dismantling of both the cynical commerciality that drives the record industry, and The Smiths’ own legend, Paint a Vulgar Picture exposes the tricksters and money-hungry hustlers behind the curtain, as the band’s sublime final album nears its conclusion. Using his 12 string Gibson ES-335, Marr conjures a sense of intentional monotony as the verse trudges through C, F and G, though it serves as an ideal foundation for Morrissey’s venomous diatribe. As the track’s numerous verses stack up, Marr curiously begins shifting keys, “There’s a section in D, then F♯ is the step and it’s into B. A is the step back into D. My favourite key changes are sad, and that one is.” Marr explained. The gleaming highpoint of the track comes with the instrumental break, and one of Marr’s rarely exhibited solos. Using a Fender Strat, Marr’s melody soars hopefully out of the arrangement. Though it isn’t flashy, the artistry of this divine series of licks indicates the level of musical talent the 23 year old had reached. “The song just suited it.” Marr told The Guitar Magazine in 1997, “I always thought that if you played a guitar solo it should be something people could whistle… mind you, since then I’ve recorded solos that even Roger Whittaker would have problems whistling.”
Did you know?
The title of The Smiths’ final record referenced Manchester’s main prison, Marr later recalled, (as quoted in Mozipedia) “I was always intrigued by the word Strangeways. I remember as a kid, when I first heard that the prison was really called that, I wondered had it not occurred to anybody to change the name? It’s still befuddling, really”
13. Still Ill (The Smiths, 1984)
Springing to life with a helicopter chug of a palm muted attack, Still Ill spills out into an erratic cascade of pyramidical arpeggios around the song’s key chord sequence of Am, F and G. As a burned out Morrissey decrees that ‘England is mine, it owes me a living’ the young Marr meticulously assembles this tapestry of crystalline guitar melodies around the vocal, never once stealing the limelight, and enhancing the song’s acrid perspective with a nimble punk energy.
One of the Smiths’ earliest songs, and written the same night as The Charming Man, Still Ill was a big indicator of the increasingly bold approach Marr was taking to relatively conventional chord structures, squeezing out every drop of melody from the notes and never just settling for a strum. As Marr wrote in his autobiography, Set The Boy Free, the song’s writing was dictated by the recent purchase of a Rickenbacker 330; “The Rickenbacker would make it more difficult to fall back into an automatic rock technique, and from a sound point of view it wouldn’t be bluesy. It suited me perfectly and it steered me towards writing new songs like Still Ill”
Did you know?
Still Ill ‘s memorable ‘England is mine…’ lyric would be used as the title of an unauthorised biopic of young Morrissey in 2017. Though not featuring any of The Smiths’ music, the film paints a picture of the humdrum life that the largely bedroom-based young creative inhabited. The film ends with Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) knocking on his door…
12. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
Though Marr is an accomplished master of the Rickenbacker and Fender Jaguar, it’s the iconic cherry red 355 which would catch the eyes and ears of the next generation of indie heavyweights, namely both young Marr-ites Noel Gallagher and Bernard Butler, who would nod directly to the man by both sporting the same guitar the following decade. It was shortly after the purchase of the alluring red machine from a guitar store in New York that Marr sat down and immediately unlocked the shimmering opening chords of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.
A hazy slide from Emaj7 to Cmaj7, then a shift from Bm7 to A add 9 sets us up for a motoring rhythmic funk between A and B, moving us into the irresistibly catchy groove of the verse. It was an inspired array of chords, though on record they’d be played in a higher key. “That’s what happens with some instruments. They already have music inside them” Marr reflected in Set The Boy Free. The arrangement’s shifting mood and its wry, weary lyric led it to become one of the band’s most chart-friendly singles, and broke them further into the public consciousness.
Did you know?
Though the song is forever associated with the red 355, the band’s memorable Top of the Pops performance saw an uber-cool Marr wielding a green Roger Griffin Custom Telecaster, which was equipped with a Super Distortion humbucker.
11. Barbarism Begins At Home (Meat is Murder, 1985)
By far the funkiest piece of music in The Smiths’ song stable (as evidenced by the hilarious videos of both Morrissey and Marr dancing to Rourke and Joyce’s disco groove), Rourke’s unflagging, persistent bass line and Marr’s dynamic, Nile Rodgers-inspired chord chops make for one of Meat is Murder’s most joyous cuts.
While Marr has gone on to disparage the track, calling it a ‘corny’ throwback to what himself and Rourke were doing before The Smiths, Barbarism… is a potent, punchy workout that proves the faultless musical dynamic the three had, and also indicates the sheer versatility the then 21 year old guitarist could turn his hand to. Running beyond seven minutes, Barbarism… certainly stands well apart from The Smiths’ tightly constructed chart-botherers, and – despite Morrissey’s best intentions, penning a lyric that studied the effects of domestic child abuse – it’s a remarkably fun, smile-inducing listen.
Did you know?
Marr became vegetarian during the recording of Meat is Murder, as he recalled in Set The Boy Free; “My decision to become a vegetarian was a natural commitment to the principles of the band, and mark of solidarity with my songwriting partner and girlfriend. I didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before.”
10. Shoplifters of the World Unite (The World Won’t Listen, 1987)
Released as a single in January 1987, Shoplifters of the World Unite found The Smiths’ entering their final year in rude health. Recalling the rhythmic flow of How Soon Is Now?, the track was a rallying cry for those that didn’t follow society’s rules (and a knowing nod to the communist manifesto) But it was Marr’s spotlight-stealing solo that thrillingly shattered The Smiths’ own conventions and allowed him to make his instrument really squeal.
“That was the first time I used harmonised layering.” Marr revealed to Guitar Player “People have said it sounds like Brian May, but I was thinking of stacked Roy Buchanans.” As Marr told us back in 1997, the solo was achieved using false harmonics – a steel player’s technique – wherein the strings are touched with a right-hand finger and octave higher than where he frets, while the string is plucked with his thumb.
Did you know?
Coming late in their career, Shoplifters of the World Unite was only performed live a handful of times, and the only concert proper it was played at was at The Smiths’ final show at Brixton Academy on 12 December 1986.
9. Nowhere Fast (Meat is Murder, 1985)
This rollocking, country-inflected Meat is Murder highlight gave space for Marr to emulate some of his rockabilly heroes, and the production tricks of Sam Phillips. The train-like momentum of the verse’s back-and-forth bass notes gradually gives way to some sparkling arpeggios between A, Bm and G (though Marr tunes his Bigsby-equipped Les Paul Standard up one whole tone), before the comedically jarring opening riff that moves between G and A pops up again and the freight train skiffle groove resumes.
It’s an attention seizing track and, coupled with Morrissey’s monarchy-baiting lyric, finds the group at their thrilling best. Of particular note is the dizzying guitar break as Marr frenziedly slides down to a C♯, as well as the frequent tremolo arm bends throughout the song that wrenchy every inch of character from the chords. Though Nowhere Fast is the best example of The Smiths at their most rockabilly, the motoring bass-drive of Rusholme Ruffians on the same record also lets Marr unleash his inner Scotty Moore.
Did you know?
Nowhere Fast was filmed in-studio for a BBC Old Grey Whistle Test report in 1985, though the recording process was actually staged for the documentary. This is evidenced by a Marr toting his green Roger Griffin Telecaster, which lacks the whammy bar heard on the song.
8. Girl Afraid (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
Penned shortly after Marr had devised Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now on his brand new 355 (tuned up a whole tone or with a capo on the second fret) The dazzling Girl Afraid would become many a Smiths’ fan’s favourite. Preceded by a divine flow of flawless arpeggios, Marr’s central kinetic riff sets a danceable template as countless sprinkles of masterful melodic eloquence punctuate each section of the arrangement’s ascending note structure. It’s a song jam-packed with impressive, fleeting moments of beauty and sits among Marr’s most respected guitar accomplishments in the band.
As quoted in Songs That Saved Your Life Marr admits that the song took influence from Little Richard, “I had just got back from New York and was obsessed with Little Richard. I just kept thinking, ‘What’d sound like Little Richard on guitar?’, which is how I came up with it.” Another in The Smiths’ golden canon of B-sides, its appearance on Hatful of Hollow has rightly given it more exposure.
Did you know?
Marr’s mesmerising introduction to the song was originally trimmed off by producer John Porter, replacing it with an isolated vocal passage. Thankfully, he changed his mind and reverted back to the original.
7. The Boy With The Thorn in His Side (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
With a longing chord sequence, delivered by both acoustic (likely a Martin D-28) and a soaring Stratocaster (the first time Marr had used one on record) The Boy With The Thorn In His Side is a superb piece of songwriting. While the summery acoustics roll through an uplifting D, Am, C and G the glimmering leads playfully draw our attention away, before becoming more animated and funk-like as the song progresses.
“The rhythm part from verse two onwards – that ‘chick-a-chick’ part – it’s pure Nile Rogers…” Marr told us back in 1997, while the spritely toplines came to life after the band laid down the rhythm track, “It wasn’t until we got the bass and drums behind it that I could play the top line. It just made me feel good” Marr said in Songs That Saved Your Life. Providing a much needed ray of sunlight after the intensity of the album’s first half, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side is an endlessly joyful piece of music, married to one of Morrissey’s finest vocal performances and lyrics.
Did you know?
After much persuasion, the band shot their first music video for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side following pressure from their label, Rough Trade. “It was horrible” Marr remembered in Mozipedia, “So we just got drunk.”
6. The Headmaster Ritual (Meat is Murder, 1985)
An in-your-face, staccato acoustic guitar assault triggers the beginning of Meat is Murder, before dissolving away into one of Marr’s slinkiest riffs, effortlessly evoking those formative days on the school playing fields. While Morrissey grimly recalls the daily physical abuse suffered at the hands of his power-tripping teachers, Marr lends his chords an empathetic air with the cradle of an C♯m and B major as Morrissey pines for home.
“The Headmaster Ritual main riff is two tracks of Rickenbacker.” said Marr, “I wasn’t specifically thinking of the Beatles’ Day Tripper (even though it sounds like it) but I did think of it as a George Harrison part.” The swelling chords owe a debt to Joni Mitchell, and were written as an experiment to meld her chordal approach with a playing style that she’d adopt if she’d played with MC5 (as Marr explained to Guitar Player). Numerous guitars were tracked to work up the fat-sounding mix, including an Epiphone Coronet in Nashville tuning.
Did you know?
Radiohead covered The Headmaster Ritual for a riveting webcast in 2007. “I have shown Ed O’Brien the chords, but maybe he was looking out of the window!” quipped Marr on viewing it.
5. Some Girls are Bigger Than Others (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Concluding The Smiths’ 1986 masterwork, the roving series of arpeggios that gradually emerge from the silence following There Is a Light… are abruptly eliminated in a jarring fade-down by producer Stephen Street, only for the guitar to gradually rise and find its feet again. “I had this idea of starting it off making it sound like it’s clattery and distant, fading it out and then fading up this glorious regulated guitar line” Street explained to NME.
The lucid melodic structure of this guitar part (constructed using a capo on the 4th fret of his Rickenbacker 330, with a persistent high string jangle sounding throughout) is one of Marr’s most graceful. Its touching beauty is balanced by its wayfaring melodic and chordal deviations, swinging the mood of the whole arrangement down confused and anxious new paths. The heavy use of Boss chorus and delay helps to establish the song’s lonely, twilight atmosphere.
Did you know?
Marr was less than impressed when, after proudly delivering this sumptuous guitar part to his songwriting partner, Morrissey came up with its bawdy title “It’s true that I prefer the music to the lyrics” said a diplomatic Marr, in Mozipedia.
4. What Difference Does It Make? (The Smiths, 1984)
Here in the upper echelons of Marr’s best moments, it’s an impossible task to rank them side-by-side, but What Difference Does It Make? confidently warrants a place here for numerous reasons. Primarily, it was the world’s first indication that The Smiths’ six-string gunslinger could knock out showpiece, guitar hero moments with the best of them. Despite not conforming to any of the then in-vogue rock posturing, Marr’s laddering Rickenbacker 330 riff here was staggeringly cool, and just the right foot out of step to solidify The Smiths as not just a vehicle for Manchester’s finest lyricist, but an adept musical force to be reckoned with.
Though later Marr would be a notable layerer, here he keeps the driving momentum with a simple but rhythmically tricky repetitive pattern which spans from A, C and D tuned up one tone (though replicable by placing a capo on the 2nd fret). Though later in the track, additional guitar harmonies are introduced, it’s that omnipresent jogging riff that cements itself deep into your consciousness.
Did you know?
The first attempt to record The Smiths’ first album, with producer Troy Tate, was recorded in the midst of a heatwave. “The sessions were conducted in a sweltering heat as the basement studio had no air conditioning… the baking temperature meant the guitars were difficult to tune.” Marr remembered in Set The Boy Free.
3. Bigmouth Strikes Again
A pure piledriver. Bigmouth conjures the image of blazing fire both lyrically and musically. As Morrissey recalls Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake, Marr delivers a furious array of riffs atop the relentless western-esque undulation rooted in C♯m (though it’s recorded with a capo on the 4th fret with Marr making an Am shape). The result is an exhilarating locomotion, that – as the first single from The Queen is Dead – set the stage for the group’s upcoming triumph. “I wanted something that was a rush all the way through, without a distinct middle eight as such.” Marr is quoted in Songs that Saved Your Life, “I thought the guitar breaks should be percussive, not too pretty or chordal. I wanted a cheap, Les Paul sort of sound.”
Marr effects his slide guitar riffs with an AMS Harmonizer (oddly the backing vocal effect, conjured with the same tech would be credited to ‘Anne Coates’ in the liner notes), while in the second lead break, he melds the sound of a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty with his Rickenbacker 330. Written to be the band’s Jumping Jack Flash, Bigmouth Strikes Again is among the band’s most adored songs “Everyone wanted to put out There Is A Light That Never Goes Out as the first single” Marr told Oneradsong.com, “But, I insisted that Bigmouth…should be the first new thing people heard from The Queen Is Dead. I’m glad I did.”
Did you know?
Marr came up with Bigmouth Strikes Again during a soundcheck on the 1985 Meat is Murder tour
2. How Soon Is Now?
The unmistakable shimmer of How Soon Is Now’s tremolo effected opening chords, its transcendent, ‘Madchester’-predicting club groove and the Eagle-cry of its sliding lead riff are all fundamental reasons why this odd, experimental B-side became one of The Smiths’ most bewitching pieces of music. The trance-like orbit of the F♯ to A to B bedrock was devised by Marr on his Epiphone Casino, then influenced by the sound of oddball post-punk The Gun Club, “As I went around and around, the tune started to get psychedelic in my headphones and I knew I was on to something” Marr recalled of his demo, in Set the Boy Free.
Then titled Swampy, Marr was certain something quite special was brewing. In the studio, the application of the hot, hazy tremolo effect was something that Johnny was itching to include, by way of homage to Bo Diddley. Producer John Porter’s suggestion of doubling up the amps to create a blanketing stereo effect was the final crucial element to the song’s genius, and by the time of recording, the number of amps had expanded to four. In this pre-digital age, Porter and Marr had to carefully control the tremolo speed in the control room, to make sure every oscillation was in perfect sync.
“We turned them up, really, really loud.” Marr explained in Set the Boy Free, It was a mighty sound and the song was becoming everything it should be.” Further overdubs included the ghostly slide line, coated in echo to increase the figure’s intensity, as well a loose lead solo near the end, performed on a white Strat, “Just because I felt like it” said Marr. With the addition of one of Morrissey’s most universally relatable lyrics, the song would transcend the band themselves to become a cherished song the world over. “That was a very important song for us.” Marr told Guitar Player It was an important song for me because I have two very strong influences pulling at me, both ways. One is as a guitar player and the other is as a writer. And How Soon Is Now satisfied both elements.”
Did you know?
How Soon Is Now was notoriously difficult to perform live in the mid-80s, with Marr having great trouble recreating the rhythmic vibe of the tremolo effect. He has no trouble now, delivering breathtaking performances during his solo shows.
1. This Charming Man
The song that changed their life, This Charming Man set out The Smiths’ core ingredients, the tight rhythmic pound of Joyce, the resolute bass bounce of Rourke, Morrissey’s yearning lyrics, dramatic vocals and – central to all – Marr’s fervent chiming guitar. It also made The Smiths legitimate chart contenders, despite its suggestive lyrical subject matter and then-unconventional sound. Written by Marr in the key of G as a reaction to the success of his friends and rivals in Aztec Camera, Marr constructed the basic chord sequence on his TEAC 3-track recorder, and immediately added those hopping lead lines.
Despite many assuming the central jangly leads were recorded with a Rickenbacker, it was actually his 1954 Telecaster tuned up to F♯.This Charming Man triggered Marr’s multilayered approach to guitar writing (something he dubbed the ‘Guitarchestra’), Marr recorded around 15 tracks of guitar, including three acoustic tracks and an odd, twisted backwards 12-string Rickenbacker coated in reverb, while the perplexing decision to add the sound of a knife dropped onto the strings to punctuate each chorus adds to the song’s unhinged subtext.
Perhaps The Smiths’ most treasured single, This Charming Man continues to fill dance floors, draw in new listeners and perplex apprentice guitarists. “When music is effortless, no matter how complex or emotional, there’s something so right when you’re making it.” Marr reflected in his autobiography, “ When a group of individuals are working instinctively and intricately, thinking within milliseconds of each other, it’s as close to real magic as you can get.”
Did you know?
In response to former Prime Minister David Cameron citing This Charming Man as a personal favourite, A furious Marr took to Twitter with the savage, “David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”