On hearing the news that Johnny Marr was to grace the stage of the O2 Academy Oxford, I won’t deny, I had a small weep of joy. For many, Johnny Marr is THE guitarist of his generation. All his work, from The Smiths to his stint with The Cribs to his solo debut, The Messenger, is equally innovative and equally inspiring. He was in the band that invented indie for crying out loud. He truly is an icon.
The evening begins with London trio F.U.R.S, led by brother and sister Liam and Ellie Wade. Their jangly 60s surf pop is infectious and likeable, and they are generally very well received. Debut single ‘Striptease’ goes down particularly well, with more than a little middle-aged head-bopping going on.
Soon, Johnny Marr enters the stage. The first thing that strikes you is how monumentally cool the man is. His very walk oozes infinite swag. His jacket is cool, his jeans are cool, his hair is cool, his guitar (Signature Fender Jaguar) is cool.
After sizing up the crowd for a few moments with his piercing, blue eyed glare, he launches into the opener of his new album, ‘The Right Thing Right’, a stomping belter of a track that instantly feels like a classic. Most of the crowd already know every single word. You would be forgiven for thinking that he would wait until the final moments of the show before delving into his Smiths back catalogue, but next up, and somewhat surprisingly, is ‘Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.’ But nobody seems to be complaining.
However, Marr wasn’t going to spend the entire evening harking back to his Smiths days. With his new material, he demonstrates that he’s still got it. Punky numbers ‘Upstarts’, ‘Generate! Generate!’ and ‘I Want The Heartbeat’ echo bands like Buzzcocks and Wire, who inspired Marr in his youth. They’re thrillingly urgent, and, of course, flawlessly performed.
He also plays ‘Forbidden City’, a much underrated track by Electronic, the duo he formed in 1989 with Bernard Sumner of Joy Division/New Order. It is a touching rendition – there is tangible emotion in Marr’s vocals.
A ripple of excitement passes through the crowd as the unmistakeable opening bars of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ kick in, and it’s not long before every single person has a massive grin on their face and is singing at the top of their lungs. Marr’s guitar playing is once again flawless, and the song epitomises his classic, jangly, arpeggiated style. His singing is astonishingly up to scratch too, and although nothing can quite compare to Morrissey’s idiosyncratic vocals, Marr’s voice sounds completely natural in its place. Morrissey’s are big shoes to fill, and Marr just about fills them.
After chants of “JOHNNY MARR, JOHNNY MARR, JOHNNY MARR” for the encore, Marr returns onstage, beginning with ‘Getting Away With It’, Electronic’s best known and much-loved song. It goes down an absolute storm. He follows it with ‘How Soon Is Now?’, a favourite of many Smiths fans. Marr is in his element, strutting around the stage and winking and waving at the awe struck boy in front of me who can’t believe this is happening to him. The atmosphere is absolutely electric. It seems that nothing could ever make this evening any better. But it’s Johnny Marr. So it does get better. He turns his back to us and plays the opening chords to ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and the crowd erupt, yelling the words back at him in absolute devotion. There are tears, there are emotional couples, there is exuberant and totally unselfconscious dancing. It’s a personal highlight. I never thought I’d stand metres away from Johnny Marr (JOHNNY ACTUAL MARR EVERYONE) singing that “If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”
For everyone, from nostalgic middle aged, die-hard Smiths fans, to teenagers (myself included) who wish they’d been born 30 years earlier so they could have been there the first time around, it was a dream come true. Perfect. Marr-vellous.