Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr Live

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — but Johnny Marr is a guitar genius. And these days, he’s also a highly effective frontman with a newfound swagger.

Marr performed at the Hammersmith Apollo on the latest leg of his Spirit Power tour, with a repertoire of his own greatest solo hits and Smiths tracks from the eighties that he of course helped to write.

The concert was joyful and celebratory, and united two generations. The audience wasn’t only people of Johnny’s vintage, but included many people in their twenties and thirties who knew all the words to Smiths songs that were written before they were born.

After being heralded by wailing sirens and searchlights, Marr came on stage in a deep pink shirt and waistcoat. He’s 60 now, but still looks like he could fit into the same jeans he wore in 1987 when The Smiths broke up.

Johnny Marr brings Smiths hits to Hammersmith

You know the quality of his guitar playing before you go to the gig, so it’s no surprise. But it’s still utterly thrilling to experience it live, as that chiming guitar sound soars over the theatre on songs like This Charming Man, Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before, Bigmouth Strikes Again, and How Soon is Now.

His Fender Jaguar guitars are in the most skilful of hands – the playing magical and mesmerising.

One of the instruments I‘m sure I recognised as the guitar that Fender made with the “champagne sparkle” finish, used when Hans Zimmer asked him to play on the Bond soundtrack in 2018 and on which he also played the theme tune No Time to Die, sung by Billie Eilish.

What was more of a surprise was that, since I last saw him at a festival, his confidence, stage presence and the power of his voice have become key ingredients of his overall performance. He belted out his own anthem Spirit, Power and Soul with real zip.

After all, Marr maybe the man very much responsible for the special sound of The Smiths, but he certainly wasn’t the frontman. And for 25 years after The Smiths, he was much more in the background than the foreground — with The The, fleetingly with The Pretenders, and with Modest Mouse and The Cribs.

He was used a lot as a session musician for his guitar skills, rather than his showmanship. Now, he revels in his role as a solo artist, and has a rapport with the audience that even makes them occasionally chant his name like a football crowd. His guitar-hero poses at the end of the concert may have been somewhat ironic — he’s modest and unassuming at heart — but it’s great to see him relishing his role.

Marr has also collaborated a lot with The Pet Shop Boys and was in Electronic with Bernard Sumner (New Order) and Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys)

At Hammersmith, there was an extra treat when Tennant came on stage for two numbers with Johnny — an exuberant version of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, and Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

I asked two different groups of twenty-somethings how come they were so into the songs of the Smiths. One group said it was inheritance — their parents had played The Smiths endlessly for many years after the band split. “Our Dads are over there,” they said, pointing a bit further back in the crowd.

Another group said it was all down to social media and YouTube. In the social media age, people can share great music easily and without the era actually mattering so much. In my day, you’d go around somebody’s house with a pile of LPs under your arm if you wanted others to hear what you liked!

Everyone was totally up for the final singalong of There is a Light That Never Goes Out. The title contains a truth — Johnny Marr seems to be shining brighter than ever these days.

Thanks Johnny — the pleasure, the privilege was ours!