The Smiths effectively ended as a band after Johnny Marr left in 1987. Rather than blame him for the split, fans have exacted a subtler retribution. They have refused to relinquish the fantasy of a revived Smiths, indissolubly linking Marr with his former foil Morrissey for once and ever more. “I’ve probably been asked about a reunion about 8,936 times,” the guitarist said when he released his first solo album in 2013.
His third, Call the Comet, is out next month. As the prospects of The Smiths II recede, fannish dreams of it happening get more fevered. “Get a grip,” was Marr’s uncharacteristically brusque response earlier this year. But despite his old-school rock rebel get-up at Islington Assembly Hall — black lacquered hairstyle looking as though a vinyl record had melted on his head, black leather jacket, low-slung guitar — he was an emollient presence. Unlike Morrissey, Marr is not one for confrontation.
The set contained a generous sprinkling of Smiths numbers. Among them, delivered without the slightest trace of irony, was “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”. The opening chords of each were greeted with a frisson of anticipation. Camera phones were lifted to record the moment, lungs filled to bellow along. “Not bad, London, not bad,” Marr remarked.
Songs from the forthcoming record risked playing second fiddle to the past. “Thank you very much to that gentleman for dancing,” he said drily at the end of one song, pointing to the solitary groover. But the new material had a tenacious character.
Call the Comet was inspired by the tumult of Brexit and Trump. Insomuch as the lyrics could be deciphered — Marr is not the strongest singer, though nor is he the weakest — they added little to the vast amount of musical protest against the present age of reactionary politics. But the songs themselves sounded urgent and engaged.
“The Tracers” opened the show at a sprint with high-velocity spiralling riffs and “woo-oo” refrains. “New Dominion” conveyed a post-punk sense of dislocation through clanking electronic beats and echoing, dissonant guitar effects, deployed by Marr with skilful touch. “Bug” opened with an ungainly lurching beat but found its feet with muscular call-and-response riffs and impassioned vocals.
Marr’s band consisted of a bassist, drummer and a co-guitarist who occasionally moonlighted at a synthesiser. They were anonymous but tight. Meanwhile their leader commanded the spotlight with a bravura display of fretwork. Guitar solos emerged with power and clarity within songs. Changes in emphasis were made with fluid timing. The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” ended with a particularly inventive passage of guitar-playing, Marr fiddling with his tuning knobs to vary the song’s oscillating tones. The past is dead, long live the past.
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