“People who were supposed to be your friends would just turn on you in an instant and then literally pelt you with bricks!” – An interview with Johnny Marr
Take a listen to Easy Money, the lead single from Johnny Marr’s second solo album Playland, and it would be easy to conclude he’s just another rich rock star eager to lecture working class people about the meaning of money.
Living in Ireland, we’re arguably better-stocked than any country in the world with jewel-enrusted crusty rockers with honorary doctorates in pseudo-left wing moralising on just how little money actually means, man.
Manchester-born, of full Irish parentage, the founding member and songwriting brain behind the Smiths is well aware of the possibility his message might be misinterpreted thus.
He’s at pains to say that Easy Money – an infectious, upbeat electro-funk track that’s served as the unofficial soundtrack to RTE’s summer sports coverage – is not an attempt to point fingers at anybody, but more a reflection on his own experiences.
Marr tells Something for the Weekendm as he waits for his now permanent bandmates to arrive for the morning’s rehearsals: “The thing is, ‘Easy Money’ isn’t about greed – that was reported erroneously. It’s about our need.
“I wouldn’t write a song about greed, because when I write I try to include myself in it, which is to say I’m not interested in finger-pointing. I try to make observations. I’m not interested in complaining either, unless it’s about the government.
“I certainly don’t complain about regular people because we all have reasons for living the way we live – certainly ordinary people do. Easy Money is about how I wonder why we’re all rushing around trying to make some dough.
“I’m trying to respect that some people feel they need to do that, and it’s part of a whole observation that I’m trying to make on the whole album about why we do what we do, particularly in cities: the manic consumerism.”
Much as he tries to deny it, Marr’s own language belies the fact that Easy Money is in many ways the key to the entire album – much of the record reflects on his own upbringing in urban Manchester, an adolescence that frequently brought him in contact with people whose choices in life were far more limited than his own fairly narrow prospects.
Marr’s first solo record, last year’s The Messenger, was an urban history of sorts, a menacing and sometimes brutal rock n’ roll record inspired by and distilled through the bleak urban landscape of his home city and the disaffected people at its margins.
He speaks of days and nights (mainly nights) spent traversing the city and observing the architecture and the people, often the most vulnerable and most desperate among them. One track, Say Demesne, is inspired by a street in the city know for prostitution, and his empathy for those forced to sell their bodies is a theme he returns to again on Playland.
He says: “Playland was the name of an arcade, or a chain of arcades, in the cities of the UK in the late Sixties and Seventies, that were the home of a lot of illicit activity. Because I was in town in the city centre, all the time from 11, 12, 13, I was drawn to those arcades.
“First and foremost because music sounded really good in there and you were hearing all the kicking music of the day coming in through distorted speakers, in the same way as I was in the funfare and football matches.
“It was always about hearing chart music – this was obviously before you had stuff being beamed down to your pocket through your phone. It was pre-walkman! Unless you just walked around with a transistor radio to your ear, you went to those places to hear music all day long.
“They were illicit places, and kind of dangerous, and had an allure to them. And when I was working in town in my late teens, I knew people who were on the game – a few guys and girls who were on the game.
“As an adult, I spend a lot of time out late at night doing what I do, and I have a sort of respect and empathy for people who have to make their money on the street. And that includes homeless people selling the Big Issue too.
“That’s just the way some people have to get by. I neither satirise nor make a comment on anyone or look at people through pitiful eyes, nor am I trying to elevate them.”
Marr’s Manchester Irish upbringing is a key driver behind another of the album’s standout tracks, 25 Hours, a song encapsulates the bleak, industrial, coercive atmosphere into which many of his age were born.
“The backdrop to that was a very Catholic environment in school and home – and particularly in school – that was heavy and gothic and creepy. That just came out when I started singing the song.
“The music just suggested going through a doorway, and all of this stuff that was in my subconscious just started coming out. I’m pleased with it, because I’d like for the lyrics to be poetic, but they always have to be about something.
“There’s a bit about being pelted with bricks which, you know, happened, because I lived on a housing estate. People who were supposed to be your friends would just turn on you in an instant and then literally pelt you with bricks! That was pretty serious stuff.”
Thankfully, Marr was able to use his music to extricate himself from the life that appeared to be prescribed to him, and as a vegetarian of 30 years can count among his bigger problems the issue of whether he’s consuming enough protein from nuts and pulses, but even his lifestyle informs the lyrics of Easy Money.
Marr spent the early part of the decade living in hippie haven Portland, Oregan in the United States, playing guitar with indie band Modest Mouse, where he found living the notoriously vegan lifestyle an awful lot easier than it is in Europe, but even that he can see the downside to.
He says: “America itself is about consumerist choice anyways – it’s not that it’s deeply enlightened, it’s just a culture that’s trying to make money out of everybody, whether you’re vegetarian or a meat-eater or what!
“You do benefit from that kind of commercial enterprise. It’s not entirely about enlightenment or progression, but I’m personally glad I got into the lifestyle I have when I did, because there’s no downside.
“I certainly can’t imagine changing my choice from being a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1983, and I have, over the years, very rarely come across people who try to tell me the lifestyle I have is unhealthy. That’s a load of bollox.”
This article was originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, October 10th.