Johnny Marr: Set The Boy Free | Review

Johnny Marr will be signing copies of Set The Boy Free
Johnny Marr will be signing copies of Set The Boy Free

The hoary old rock autobiography is so often a tome tarnished by cliche. Too many turn to tales of the wrong type of M&M on the rider; sex on the road; drug excesses leading to smashed televisions and trashed hotel rooms.

No such embellishments were applied by Mancunian guitar genius Johnny Marr, who was quite literally instrumental in many of the biggest moments in the city’s music history.

His autobiography, Set The Boy Free, is as magnificent as it is matter of fact, and understandably so given that the young Maher (he changed his surname only  few years into his career) was seemingly born into life with a guitar pick in his hand. While he was far from entitled, his is an extraordinary life written as though it all came so easily.

By the time he was only 24, he’d already “been there, done that”with The Smiths, arguably the most important band ever to emerge from Manchester.

What follows (and indeed precedes) what many still consider his finest hour is a who’s who, what’s what and where’s where of iconic Manchester emblems that will tingle the spine of any fan of both guitar-based music and the city itself.

Name checks are plentiful and honest: Johnny worked at Stolen From Ivor; danced in Legends and the Hacienda; grew up alongside Billy Duffy; and just happened to knock on the door of a chap called Steven Morrissey and invite him to become a partner in perhaps the most important songwriting duo since Lennon and McCartney.

What’s so extraordinary beyond the premature demise of The Smiths is the doors that had opened to a talented yet ordinary young man.

I consider myself a huge Smiths fan yet it’s the extent of Johnny’s “extra curricular” musical activity which has taken me by surprise, particularly the accident of my having liked so much of it without realising that he was involved. Beyond The Smiths, Marr performed with Talking Heads, Electronic, The Pet Shop Boys, the Pretenders, Paul McCartney, ACR… the list is seemingly endless.

Given the ongoing controversies surrounding The Smiths legal story, Marr has also managed to produce a book which is incredibly diplomatic. Be it clever or cautious, I can’t imagine he’s upset anyone in telling what could be a troubling story to tell.

Most of all, Set The Boy Free confirms a notion which has become increasingly clear to me despite having assumed as a younger man that Morrissey was the man who made The Smiths magic. Each and every time, it was Marr who laid the foundations for songs that continue to set this boy and so many others free. With clarity and humility, Marr has captured perhaps the most amazing rock ‘n’ roll story Manchester has ever known.

Set The Boy Free is priced at £20.