Set The Boy Free

Set The Boy Free

Title: Set The Boy Free 

Author: Johnny Marr 

Review by Catherine Osborn 

Right from the start Johnny Marr knew he wanted to be a guitarist. In the opening pages of his autobiography Set The Boy Free, he recalls how as a child he would stand and stare at a toy guitar in the window of a shop near his home. Johnny’s parents became accustomed to this ritual and one day his mother took him inside and bought the guitar for him. He carried it with him everywhere and, he writes: ‘…from then on I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have a guitar.’

Born to Irish parents in 1963, in Ardwick Green, Manchester, John Martin Maher, (he later changed his name to Marr) grew up surrounded by a crowd of extended family with a passion for music. Marr remembers his parents going out every week to see bands and parties at his grandmother’s house where relatives of all ages would play music together and dance to the latest rock and pop records. Marr writes about his growing awareness of the power of music, illustrated by the striking image of his grandmother jiving: ‘All the chairs and tables were moved back and she was up and off like a demon, elbows swinging, and shoulders bouncing as she whirled around the floor.’

Like many of his musical heroes, Johnny Marr taught himself to play guitar. He tells how his mother would stand him on a stool in front of the radio and he’d listen, totally engrossed in the music, and later try to recreate the guitar parts himself. TV music programmes were another source of inspiration and Marr remembers customising his toy acoustic guitar with a tin of white paint and beer-bottle tops to look like the ones he saw his favourite bands playing.

In 1975, when he was thirteen, Marr’s family moved to the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe and it was here that his musical tastes grew and he started to develop his own sound. Marr soaked up the diverse influences of Glam Rock – Marc Bolan was an early hero – his sister’s Chic records, sixties girl bands like the Shangri-Las and the Crystals and later punk.

Sense of yearning

Marr would spend hours listening to records and playing his guitar; analysing the sounds and techniques he heard, recreating them and then moving them on to create something new: ‘I noticed that certain chords sounded more like how I felt, like I was playing something that was personal to me and that I could relate to’ he writes. ‘I was looking for things that evoked a sense of yearning but with a kind of optimism, and that started to develop into an identity of my own that I liked.’

One of the striking aspects of Marr’s life is his unwavering certainty about his direction from such a young age. He formed his first band at thirteen and met his now wife, Angie – who the book is dedicated to – at fifteen. Marr tells how he was at a party with his band mates when he first saw Angie across the room: ‘All I could think was, “You have found her.” It was a total knowing.’

Leaving school as early as he could, Marr worked in a number of alternative clothes shops in Manchester, still pursing his goal of putting a band together. He writes about the influences that shaped him as a musician and inspired the way he dressed, and how that contributed to unique look and sound of The Smiths when they got together. You can feel Marr’s excitement as the band takes shape –Marr brings together drummer Mike Joyce, bass player Andy Rourke – and they play their first gigs together.

Understated elegance

Johnny Marr has a good story to tell and the understated elegance of his writing style makes Set The Boy Free a compelling read. Events, such as the now legendary meeting between the eighteen-year old Marr and his writing partner Morrissey and the band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops, are told without embellishment, allowing the magic and synchronicity of those moments to shine through. Marr also gives a fascinating insight into his writing partnership with Morrissey and the alchemy of how some of the best-loved Smiths songs came to life.

The themes that come across most strongly in Set The Boy Free are Marr’s unerring passion for music and his commitment to growing and developing as a musician. Marr clearly loves the music he made with The Smiths and celebrates the band’s creative and cultural impact, but he refuses to be defined or restricted by it. After leaving The Smiths Marr went on to form Electronic with Bernard Sumner (from Joy Division and New Order), The The with Matt Johnson and The Healers, with Zak Starkey and Edgar Jones. He also played guitar with Paul McCartney, The Pretenders and Beck and made albums and toured with Modest Mouse and The Cribs.

Set The Boy Free is an inspiring account of a musician’s life and a testament to the power of following your passion and your intuition. Marr’s tale is one of wonder, dedication and belief and his love of music rings through every page. As well as giving a rounded picture of Johnny Marr as a musician, Set The Boy Free helps to illuminate what made The Smiths so unique. Describing his feelings after the band recorded their first single, Hand In Glove, Marr says: ‘When it was done, I went outside and the mood of the record was all there in the street. It sounded like it was from the mist of the north and from somewhere in the past. It sounded like the future too.’

Review by Catherine Osborn 

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