STORY WRITTEN BY MICHAEL CHRISTOPHER/For 21st Century Media
The term “guitar legend” is thrown around a bit too loosely. It seems like anyone who owns a secondhand six string and has come up with a memorable riff for their indie rock quartet is quick to have the title bestowed upon them. That’s why when there’s player actually deserving of the designation, it’s somewhat diluted. All that said, let’s just go ahead and call Johnny Marr, who plays Union Transfer Monday, a “Guitar God.”
Last year that’s pretty much what England’s music newspaper New Musical Express confirmed, naming Marr their “Godlike Genius” for 2013 following his solo debut The Messenger. Before that, Q Magazine gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and in September 2007 Trinity College Dublin nominated Johnny as an Honorary Patron of The University Philosophical society, joining past and present Patrons including, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker and Al Pacino. Finding a guitarist that comes close to that pedigree is near impossible.
And while age 49 might have been a bit late to get started on the solo albums, it’s not like Marr wasn’t busy beforehand. Having gotten his start in The Smiths, the iconic English rock band fronted by Morrissey, Marr created some of the most recognizable and influential riffs in music. “How Soon is Now?,” “This Charming Man,” “Ask” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” are just a few of the songs that led many to pick up a guitar in the first place, like Oasis main songwriter Noel Gallagher for instance.
Following the demise of The Smiths after an all too brief five year run, Marr spent a minute in The Pretenders, played with The The, linked up with Joy Division and New Order singer Bernard Sumner to form Electronic and more recently did two albums with Modest Mouse. On the side, he guested on albums by The Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Tom Jones, Pearl Jam, Oasis and Crowded House. So he gets a pass on the late entry into the world of solo records.
October saw the release of Marr’s second solo album Playland, which he started working on as soon as the year of touring in support of The Messenger came to a close. It finds the guitarist continuing the spirit that made The Messenger so memorable with energetic, post-punk songwriting complemented by Marr’s characteristic playing, thought-provoking lyrical ideas and poised vocal phrasing.
“When The Messenger came out I kept on writing,” Marr said in a statement. I liked that the band had a momentum going on tour and a connection with the audience, and I thought that energy would be good to capture on the new record.”
Written around a common theme of “songs that move at the speed of life,” Playland captures much of the coming of age Marr experienced growing up in the UK.
“It’s important to sound like your environment and on this record that’s London and Manchester,” he said. “The feeling of the cities and the people make it into the music.”
Monday night that city will be Philadelphia, and those lucky enough to see Marr live can decide for themselves just how much of a guitar legend he has become. Hint: it won’t be terribly difficult to reach the conclusion.
IF YOU GO: Johnny Marr performs at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10 at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St, Philadelphia. For ticket information, check Union Transfer.