From Billy Bragg to Billie Eilish: 21 great Johnny Marr collaborations that aren’t The Smiths
With The Smiths, Johnny Marr created a distinctive guitar style -- inspired by rockabilly, Bo Diddley, Marc Bolan and post-punk -- that continues to be influential today. He was only 22 when The Smiths called it quits and hasn't looked back since. Over the last 35 years Marr has collaborated with some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, as well as edgy indie rock groups, film composers, and more.
In the last decade, Marr has stepped into the spotlight as a solo artist and this week releases Fever Dreams Pts I - IV, a double album that has everything from down-and-dirty rock n' roll, sleek techno-rock and the kind of shimmering guitar pop you associate with his days in The Smiths. Yet there is a magic that happens when Johnny works with others. One of the great team players, he elevates just about everything he touches.
With that in mind, here's a look at some of Marr's best and most notable collaborations after he and Morrissey parted ways. This is by no means a completist list -- Marr doesn't seem to say no to much besides Smiths reunions -- but it does offer a good look at the career of one of the most influential guitarists of the last 40 years who always brings his a-game to the party.
21 GREAT JOHNNY MARR COLLABORATIONS THAT AREN'T THE SMITHS
Billy Bragg - "Greetings to the New Brunette" (1986) and "Cindy of a Thousand Lives" (1991)
Billy Bragg and the The Smiths toured together in 1985 and he and Marr became fast friends. When Billy went to make his third album, he asked Marr to play on a couple tracks, including the album's first single. Marr's shimmering style is apparent from the opening strum of "Greetings to the new Brunette." (It's also arguably Billy's best-known song.) A few years later, Marr would produce two songs on Billy's 1991 album Don't Try This at Home, including lead single "Sexuality" (which also he co-wrote) and the album's highlight, the psychedelic Phil Spector homage "Cindy of a Thousand Lives" that is unlike anything else in Bragg's or Marr's catalog. All those tracks also feature the unmistakable harmonies of Kirsty MacColl.
Bryan Ferry - "The Right Stuff" (1987)
"The Right Stuff" was the first single from Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry's seventh album, Bête Noire. Smiths fans probably instantly recognized the riff from "Money Changes Everything," the instrumental b-side to "Bigmouth Strikes Again." According to Guy Pratt, the bassist on Bête Noire, someone had played Ferry "Money Changes Everything," and he liked it so much he started writing lyrics for it. Ferry rang up Marr to ask permission to use the track and, being a hero of everyone in The Smiths, Johnny said yes. Ferry then asked Marr if he'd come in to work on the song as well. The Smiths' version was a bluesy cousin to "How Soon is Now?" but became a much slicker, more luxurious track in Ferry's Hands. Unfortunately, "The Right Stuff" came out just weeks after The Smiths announced their split in 1987, causing many to speculate (incorrectly) that Marr had left the group to play with Ferry.
Talking Heads - "Nothing But Flowers" (1988)
When The Smiths broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr instantly became an in-demand musician and collaborator. Among those who called were Talking Heads and Johnny headed to Paris where the band were working with producer Steve Lillywhite (who had worked with The Smiths, too). After a rough start to the session, Marr realized he needed to bring his own flair to Talking Heads, not just fit in. “The intro started, and without thinking I played the very first thing that came to me," Johnny said in his memoir Set the Boy Free. "Steve gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, and when it came to the next section I dived straight into a riff off the top of my head. It was exactly the right thing. The song came to life and everyone was grooving. After that it was plain sailing.” That track would end up being "Nothing But Flowers," the Afropop-inspired lead single for what would end up being Talking Heads' final album, 1988's Naked.
The Pretenders - "Windows of the World" & "1969" (1988)
The Smiths posthumous final album, Strangeways Here We Come, hadn't hit stores yet when Johnny Marr accepted the gig as The Pretenders' new guitarist, replacing Robbie McIntosh who had left the group suddenly. These would be the biggest shows of Marr's life to date as Pretenders were opening for U2 on North American dates of The Joshua Tree tour. After the tour, Marr also recorded two cover songs with The Pretenders for the 1988 Kiefer Sutherland film 1969: a sparkling, dreamy version of Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition "Windows of the World," which had also been recorded by Dionne Warwick, Scott Walker and others; and a ripping version of The Stooges' "1969" which allowed Johnny to really let loose in a way he usually didn't.
Kirsty MacColl - "Days" (1989) & "Walking Down Madison" (1991)
Along with Billy Bragg, no other artist was as associated with Johnny Marr in the '80s and early '90s as Kirsty MacColl. She sang backup harmonies on The Smiths' "Ask," covered The Smiths' "You Just Haven't Earned it Yet, Baby" and sang on many tracks that also featured Marr (including lots of Billy Bragg songs). Marr played on three of her studio albums -- he's also responsible for the punny title of her third, Electric Landlady -- and many of her singles, including her UK hit cover of The Kinks' "Days" that features some truly gorgeous acoustic work. He also co-wrote her hip-hop-inspired 1991 single, "Walking Down Madison," featuring a hard-edged, funky riff that was the first thing he'd written after leaving The Smiths.
The Pet Shop Boys - "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave" & "My October Symphony" (1990)
Johnny says he's played on more Pet Shop Boys songs that any other artist or groups he wasn't a member of. His first collaboration with them was for their masterful, dark and torchy fourth album, Behavior, and he plays on two of its standout non-LP tracks: providing spaghetti western guitar on "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave" which featured orchestrations by Angelo Badalamenti and which Marr says is his favorite PSB song he's played on; and textured wah-wah on "My October Symphony" that also features a "Funky Drummer" sample and the The Balanescu Quartet.
The The - "The Dogs of Lust," "Slow Emotion Replay" (1993)
As teenage friends in 1981, Johnny Marr and Matt Johnson vowed to start a band. The Smiths formed before that could happen but in 1988, with Marr a free agent, Johnson asked him if he would join his new full-band incarnation of The The. Johnny said yes. While his output with The The wasn't as prolific as with The Smiths, he was a member for longer, across six years and two terrific albums. The second, 1993's Dusk, is the real winner and among the best records he's ever made. (It might be the best The The album, too.) Dusk not only shows off Marr's varied work as a guitarist but also as a very good harmonica player. You can hear both on the sweaty, grimy "The Dogs of Lust" and the iridescent "Slow Emotion Replay."
Electronic - "Getting Away With It" & "Get the Message" (1991)
At the same time Johnny joined The The, he also started a project with another old friend, Bernard Sumner of New Order. They called themselves Electronic and were open to any sounds, any ideas, and could invite other collaborators, too. (Marr's longest-running group by a mile, Electronic were active from 1988 to 2001 and have never officially broke up.) While their Anything Goes attitude led to a few bad decisions -- letting Bernard Sumner rap, most of their second album Raise the Pressure -- Electronic's 1991 self-titled debut is pretty stellar and met the "The Smiths Meets New Order" expectations. Electronic's 1989 debut single, "Getting Away With It," was made with Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and was full-on disco, sweeping strings and all, with Marr laying down a rhythm guitar riff worthy of Nile Rodgers. (Fun fact: Johnny's son, Nile, is named after him.) Their second single, "Get The Message," has more of an overt Smithiness to it.
Beck - "Milk and Honey" (1999)
Beck brought in Marr to record during the sessions for 1999's funky, filthy Midnite Vultures album and he played on two songs, only one of which has seen the light of day. That would be "Milk and Honey," one of the album's best songs, and Johnny lays down some electric guitar on the song's extended, chilled-out fade, trading licks off Beck's acoustic. The other song he worked on, "The Doctor," is one that Marr says he still brings up when he runs into Beck. Maybe it will surface still.
7 Worlds Collide - "Too Blue" ft Jeff Tweedy (2009)
In 2001, Johnny Marr participated in "7 Worlds Collide," a supergroup benefit concert series organized by Crowded House's Neil Finn that also included Eddie Vedder, Radiohead's Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House), Sebastian Steinberg, Lisa Germano, and more. Seven years later, the musicians got back together to record a charity album, The Sun Came Out, that also featured members of Wilco, KT Tunstall and more. The album opens with the gorgeous, string-laden "Too Blue" which was co-written by Jeff Tweedy and Marr and they share lead vocal duties on the track, too. This is maybe Johnny's first great vocal performance and, even with all the other notable musicians on this track, his guitar playing shines bright.
Lisa Germano - "Paper Doll" (2002)
Following their collaborations at the 7 Worlds Collide concerts, Marr contributed to Lisa Germano's 2002 album, Lullaby for a Liquid Pig, delivering the kind of delicate guitarwork he brought to Smiths songs like "Back to the Old House." He also served as producer on the haunting, spare "Paper Doll," with his atmospheric playing as a bed for Germano's gorgeous voice and violin.
Modest Mouse - "Dashboard" (2007)
With his first attempt at a solo career, fronting The Healers, going nowhere fast, Marr pulled one of the most unexpected zags of his career. Though they had never met in person, Marr accepted an offer from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock to come to Portland for a writing and recording session. On the first day in the rehearsal space, with Johnny still jetlagged but inspired by playing Brock's Fender Jaguar through a cranked Fender Super Six amp, they came up with "Dashboard," which would be the first single from Modest Mouse's 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. They got along so well that the writing session turned into Marr joining Modest Mouse full time. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank became the band's first #1 album in the US. As you can hear on "Dashboard," Johnny manages to fit into Modest Mouse's world while making his presence felt. (Across the album, Marr's guitar is on the left side of the mix, while Brock is on the right.) Marr would leave Modest Mouse after the We Were Dead tour finished in 2008 but he found a new home in Portland.
The Cribs - "We Share the Same Skies" (2009)
Not long after Marr left Modest Mouse, he had a chance encounter with fellow UK expat and Portland resident, Gary Jarman of The Cribs and, next thing you know, he'd joined the band. It was an odd fit on paper: in addition to being nearly two decades their senior, The Cribs were about as tight-knit a group as you could get, made up of Ryan Jarman and his two brothers, Gary and Ross. Four was not a crowd, though. "Musically I fitted in by weaving my guitar playing with Ryan in much the same way as I did when I played with Isaac," Marr said in Set the Boy Free. "I tried to make it an agenda for us to have a very deliberate two-guitar assault.” The album they made together, Ignore the Ignorant, was their biggest hit to date in the UK, and Marr brought his style to The Cribs without altering their core DNA. A perfect example is "We Share the Same Skies" that has room for Marr's glistening jangle and The Cribs' signature "whoa-ah!' choruses.
Edwyn Collins - "Come Tomorrow, Come Today" (2010)
Scottish band Orange Juice's jangly early '80s singles like "Poor Old Soul" and "Felicity" felt like a precursor to the style Marr would create with The Smiths, so it was a nice bit of repaying that sonic debt when he co-wrote and played on OJ frontman Edwyn Collins' 2010 album Losing Sleep. The record, made after Collins' near fatal 2005 stroke, also features fans and friends Franz Ferdinand, The Cribs, Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame, The Magic Numbers, The Drums and others. Johnny co-wrote and played guitar on "Come Tomorrow, Come Today," a real corker of a song with a riff that emphasizes the connective tissue between The Smiths and Orange Juice.
Billie Eilish - "No Time to Die" (2020)
Composer Hans Zimmer has worked with Johnny Marr a few times over the years -- first on the Inception score, then again on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and then on Bond film No Time To Die. In addition to providing the signature twangy, Bondian leads and vibrato-laden chords throughout the score, Johnny also played on Billie Eilish's excellent theme song, which ended up being released nearly two years before the movie hit theaters, thanks to the pandemic. Marr told NME there were many different version of the song they tried out before taking a more minimal approach. “They’re so classy and know that if you want to do a Bond theme, it’s about doing something that’s your sound. I wanted to protect that, and in the end we just kept coming back to ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’. I think it’s a really powerful piece of music, considering it’s such a mainstream project.”