“This is both funny and horrible at the same time,” ran the terse Tweet from Johnny Marr’s account last Friday, tagged to a smartphone video of mums’ favourite 1980s-pop crooner Rick Astley joining Manchester guitar band Blossoms onstage, to commit an inappropriately showbiz act of atrocity on The Smiths’ This Charming Man.
Marr co-wrote that jaunty, hyper-melodic classic, released in October 1982, along with Smiths frontman Morrissey, and when he picked out its tinglingly arpeggiated six-string intro mid-set at the Electric Ballroom, it was an act of reclamation that sparked instantaneous joy throughout the 1,500-capacity room, as fans seasoned and new-found bayed its lyrics of youthful longing like a ragged, ungodly choir, bringing a beaming smile to the impish Mancunian’s face.
Marr, who was last onstage at the Brit Awards in February 2019, alongside pop sensation Billy Eilish and film-music maestro Hans Zimmer, performing their collaborative James Bond theme, No Time to Die, seemed energised by the fervent response. His wiry, pint-sized frame writhed lovingly around his guitar, bopped around (and at one point pogo’d) to the high-tempo beats, and even with his jet-black mod haircut now streaked with grey-blonde highlights, he looked an enviaby sprightly 57.
After The Smiths acrimoniously fell apart in summer 1987, Marr was blamed for the split (he was exhausted and wanted out), and for some years that burden of guilt seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders. The Smiths have resisted substantial lucre to reform, and one has since seen enough of Morrissey’s diva-esque mood swings, gig cancellations and dubious politics to assume why Marr is happier steering clear.
The one thing they do seem to agree on, implicitly, is the imperative to move on creatively. For Marr, it has been complicated. Between session work, he initially shuttled through temporary stints in the Pretenders and the The, and a successful team-up with New Order’s Bernard Sumner as Electronic. He only got a solo career off the ground circa 2013-14, with two quick-fire albums in a post-punkily taut, but ever tuneful vein.
In the flesh, with a whipsmart four-piece combo backing him, a handful of tracks from the double-LP he recorded during lockdown, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, were propulsive and positive. Spirit Power and Soul fused thundering Blue Monday-style beatbox and a banging synth riff with Marr’s characteristically silvery, Chic-y fretwork, and wound up with him frugging deliriously with his guitar on his head.
Sixth up, Rubicon got a bit too droningly experimental, but it was all to tee up the sucker punch of Electronic’s sublimely graceful Get the Message, for which most of the hall joined in with the disco-dancing.
In the post-pandemic world, This Charming Man’s words of innocence and impending change felt doubly poignant, its poppy majesty all the more exceptional. And so the Smiths masterpieces rained down: Panic, with a howling bottleneck solo (you couldn’t take your eyes off Marr when he showboated), a juddering Headmaster Ritual, and a knockout How Soon Is Now?, again extra-meaningful in autumn 2021 and possessed of a rarely achowledged Smithsian quality – groove.
Marr’s voice was serviceable, but for There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, he deferred to his audience to yell forth three or four choruses a capella. By the encore, one was again mesmerised by his silky playing on Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. Closing out, the whole place erupted for Bigmouth Strikes Again, clinching a fabulous sense of empowerment, as Marr took ownership of the music he wrote almost four decades ago, and shared it out generously.