45 Revolutions Per Minute: Johnny Marr On The Art Of The Pop Single

"In a way, it served as a working class art gallery..."

Johnny Marr has long been a master of the pop single.

Forging the central creative partnership in The Smiths, the Manchester band peppered the Top 40 with provocative and wildly creative seven inches during the 80s.

Later working with The Pretenders, The The, and forming Electronic alongside Bernard Sumner, the guitarist has always remained obsessed with the possibilities that a single release can open up.

The past seven years been an incredible time in his life and career, with Johnny Marr's solo discography building into something impactful, with an intensity all of its own.

New box set 'Single Life' brings together the first 10 singles of his solo era in one place, each pressed on coloured vinyl and boasting beautiful design.

Clash got on the phone to Johnny Marr last week, chatting single life, working class art, and what exactly constitutes a truly great single.

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It must be nice to see all your work from the past few years laid out on this box set.

It is nice. The box set is a few things for me, and one of them is an opportunity to take stock. See everything laid out, the fruits of your labour, so to speak. The last six, seven years as a solo artist has gone by in a flash, with all the touring, and a lot of fairly prolific recording, I guess. It’s come pretty thick and fast.

So to actually see a tangible thing like this, a box of music, is not only a nice thing, but it’s also an unusual thing because music tends to live in the ether. I’m not a particularly dyed-in-the-wool retro person but there’s a photograph inside the box set of my tattoo – with 45RPM on it – and I’ve got that for a reason. Which is that the seven inch single for me has always held a mystical position because it’s such a brilliant format.

I won’t say perfect format – any more – because the culture has changed, and people’s needs have changed. It isn’t perfect if you’re sitting on the tube. Times have changed. But it’s certainly very desirable, and a fantastic object. And that’s why I’ve got that tattoo, and it’s another reason why I’m digging this box set.

All the artwork looks really nice, it’s good for me to display the aesthetic that I’ve had with my solo career thus far.

The single is a mini-manifesto, isn’t it?

Bands like The Sex Pistols, The Stone Roses, The Smiths… David Bowie, for example. In my case, growing up – Marc Bolan, Wire, Blondie.

Those are all artists who are taking that three, four minute moment really seriously. They’re not thinking: ah, my music has got to really stretch out over an entire half of an album, or a triple album set… There’s a focus and a will at work in ‘Rapture’ or ‘Heart Of Glass’ or ‘Denis’. Or ‘Panic’ even! It’s almost as though the sense of purpose that goes into an entire album – or an entire painting – has gone into that. It’s not throwaway. 

But at the same time, it was designed to be enjoyed in the culture for a week or two and then disappear. That’s one of the great things about pop culture – it’s disposable high quality!

When I did the first solo record ‘The Messager’ I bought a jukebox. I’d never owned one before, actually. I filled it up with songs that I thought were all about this thing of the perfect, wilful, three and a half, four minute blast of brilliance. Right across the board. I had Trojan singles in there, some Northern Soul, Buzzcocks, I had some glam rock, some modern things… this thing was bang smack in the middle of my kitchen, so my family and the band were all living with this thing for a couple of years! It became a bit of a conversation piece.

It informed the sensibility of some of the songs while I was working on them. I’d be thinking: OK, would this fit on the jukebox… in terms of impact!

A good example of that is ‘Upstarts’, which is the second single. That’s a real, deliberate result of me buying that jukebox. Then it stuck with me really, over the next album, as well.

I’ve still got that jukebox – and I use it – but as well as it being a symbolic thing it serves a practicality, as I’ve been working on the songs, thinking: is this fast enough, is the intro snappy enough? Would it work on the jukebox? All of those things are really useful devises for me. It’s not some quaint theorising, or a nostalgia trip – seven inches are an interesting artistic proposition.

For example, because I was born in the 60s, I grew up around the Beatles and the Stones… you couldn’t escape it, even as a little child. My immediate family – who were all young working women – would go out on their lunchtime and buy a 45. I didn’t have that awareness at the time, but I’ve since started to think of the seven inch as a piece of art for working people.

If you take ‘I Am The Walrus’ for example – which you could argue is the aural equivalent of Hieronymous Bosch – and then realise that it was bought by lots of young women who were working in Woolworths, and young men who were working in shops and warehouses and bus stations… it became art that actual people on the street could own. In a way, it served as a working class art gallery.

That’s very true – if you look at those iconic punk singles, each one is an artistic statement on its own terms.

100%. ‘Spiral Scratch’ was the first punk record I ever saw. I was aware that this was four young ill-clad Mancunian boys that were sat at the foot of the statue in Piccadilly gardens, taken on a shitty, cheap camera, but that cover alone, even before they got into the Linder Sterling stuff, was just astonishing… because everything up until that pointed seemed to be about dragons and Roger Deane and Pink Floyd – which I’m sure has its place – but this was really startling. And the music inside matched it.

Again, when I started with the solo records, all the walls in one of my rooms was covered in loads of sleeves from seven inch punk singles – that were mine from being a kid – that I put behind plastic, just for the vibe! And I think it really seeped into the music. It certainly seeped into the artwork that I’ve done. That’s part of the tradition as well.

There is that perennial question about what makes a good single – you’ve been involved in a few yourself, from The Smiths to The The via Electronic and your own solo releases…

I think the word is ‘impact’.

You often think of seven inches as being up tempo, quick to make the point, all those technicalities are true, I guess, in that you have to pack the message, the hooks and everything into a shorter space. But that’s slightly more reductive, I think, because there are great singles that are slow – ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, for example.

I think ‘impact’ is the word. It might be a bit hokey but I sometimes think of an album as being a bit like an exhibition of paintings, where you walk in a room and you’ve got 12 pieces. With a single, you’ve just got the opportunity to show one thing that you’re into. I’m pleased that The Smiths were particularly good at that.

There was a time, say, like on the ‘Meat Is Murder’ album – which didn’t have any singles on it but still went to number one – where we wanted to go into that space, and say: here’s 10, 11 pieces of work. But then in between that we had this run of singles, which was all about: bang! This is where we’re at!

From my memory, the time that I deliberately did that was with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ because we’d had what felt like a long period out of the charts… probably only six months for something, but it was like we were coming back with a statement. Everybody wanted ‘There Is A Light…’ as a single because it was such a gorgeous tune, but I was pretty narky about it and insisted that it be ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. Purely for that reason.

It was about impact, and saying: OK, this short burst is going to explain where we’re at, right here and right now. And you can’t do that with an album, by definition. You can’t really have a conversation like this without mentioning David Bowie or The Beatles. ‘Paperback Writer’ does it in spades, ‘Fame’ does it in spades. You get pulled into a world for three and a half minutes, exploring art or philosophy, but it also has to be wildly entertaining.

There’s a live version of ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ on the box set, which was initially an album cut. Does it surprise you which songs last, and which don’t?

Yeah it does surprise me, I think, and I’m glad that you can’t second-guess that. When you’re in the midst of writing something you’re being pulled along subjectively. I’m by nature someone who likes a tune, and likes particularly for things to be said in four minutes.

It was pointed out to me after ‘The Messenger’ that it sounded like a collection of singles, like a Greatest Hits record, almost. When I’m working on those things, because I grew up learning to play, and arrange, and how records are put together – that’s how I learned, I didn’t go to a guitar teacher… I learned from glam rock records. My learning to play went hand in hand with learning to write.

I play and write the way I do because I sat cross-legged on the floor playing along to records from Sparks and The Sweet and T-Rex. Records that were unashamedly exuberant, hooky, these clever pop explosions. I’m very proud of the fact that I was a little glam rocker – it turned out to be very handy.

When I’m working on any song, I kind of have that mentality of how it all fits together, and it being concise, and exciting. When you’re in that sort of headspace you’re trying to reproduce the feeling you get from the things you’ve loved as a kid. And that’s my goal. If I get that, I’m ecstatic, and certainly satisfied when I write songs, and then you find that 20, 25 years later people still really love ‘em. You just have to shoot for that sense of exhilaration when you’re working.

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'Single Life' is out now.

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