Track-by-Track: Johnny Marr on "Playland" - The Former Smiths Guitarist on Each Song on His Second Solo Album | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Track-by-Track: Johnny Marr on “Playland”

The Former Smiths Guitarist on Each Song on His Second Solo Album

Nov 17, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It is after midnight and Johnny Marr has come off the stage at De La Warr in Bexhill, U.K. This is the third date of the legendary guitarist’s tour in support of his second solo album, Playland, the rapid follow-up to 2013’s The Messenger. Marr is a little worried, not because he has decided to do an interview at this late hour in a customarily hectic post-gig setting, but because for being so early on in the touring for Playland, his voice is giving him a little trouble. “Tonight I had a whole big tumbler of Throat Coat, another one with honey and lemon, and on stage I was gargling with salt water, which was pretty grim,” Marr says. “But Mick Jagger’s always done that, so I’m getting some good tips off people.”

The more Marr talks, the less raspy his voice becomeswhich, to be honest, wasn’t all that hoarse-sounding to begin with. And over an hour later, into the wee hours of the night, his flow is smooth. And he is nowhere as tired as he should be. “I don’t really sleep very much,” he confesses. “I never did.”

For fans of Marr, who permanently changed the face of music with The Smiths when he was a teenagernot to mention changing the career course of the many artists he has worked with since the demise of his seminal groupit’s his guitar playing that does the talking. But Marr is never at a loss for words. In fact, he never runs out of them. And he is never boring. He is constantly absorbing information from various inputs, be it media, books, friends, his surroundings, and regurgitating what he has taken in filtered through his unique way of looking at the world. The lyrics on Playland, which are just as instrumental, so to speak, as Marr’s guitar playing, reflect this

“I’ve grown up loving lyrics that are quite poetic,” he says. “That’s one of the great things about songs and rock music: it’s poetry without having that big, pompous weight of history. I don’t want my lyrics to be coming from a separate place than the music. What’s important to me is to not be obscure. Rock lyrics are poetry that moves at the speed of light. That’s what I’m trying to do with Playland: a whole lyrical agenda as opposed to a concept album.”

Here Marr takes us through the album, track-by-track. And you can listen along too, as Marr has posted each song to YouTube and we’ve embedded those below.

“Back In the Box”

I wanted to do something that kicked off the record with a euphoric feeling, sound, and idea. It’s supposed to feel and sound like celebrating what happens to you when you hear a really good record. Or, when you have a transcendent episode.

The title comes from the idea of when madnessfor want of a better wordis let out of the box. I like the idea of celebrating being out of the box. I read a lot about schizophrenic episodes and some of the terminology I came across, I used in the lyrics, like: “Breaking me out/From the inside and the outside,” “Hanging me up/Like the first time and the last time,” “Confusion controls.” When I wrote those phrases down, it didn’t look like a bad thing to me. It seemed like mental illness is actually better than working in a shitty job. I’m championing an altered state and connecting it to the feeling you get when you hear a great rock song or go to a great rock concert. The phrases sounded like slogans for what a good pop record or a good rock record can do for you.

Before I went to school, in the morning, I would play Patti Smith, really loud, three or four times, whatever track I was into at that time. Because I didn’t have an iPod or even a Walkman, I used to try and fill my ears up with this music and carry it around with me all day to get me through the day. I wanted my record to be celebrating that.

“Easy Money”

Arcades called Playland were very illicit places in the U.K. with a lot of illegal activity and drug use. It was a bit of a magnet for young, homeless people and prostitution. As a young teenager, these places were very attractive to me. I always thought it was a great metaphor for modern culture.

I was talking to a friend about the album being called Playland and he recommended a book to me written in the 1930s that was very popular in the late ‘70s called Homo Ludens. It’s an exposition on the function of play in culture, good and bad, the necessity for it, and what it does to us as people. As old as this book was, it described a lot of what I was already thinking about. It talks about the assumptions I was making about consumerism and escape through entertainment and sexual preoccupation. Not to criticize those things, but to draw from them, and talk about them.

I was concerned with making a record that sounded the way my band and I play live, but from a theme point of view, discussing the idea of the things we’re chasing as we’re rushing around. I wanted to have a song where I would sing about money, but in a way that hasn’t been done before. I knew if I did something somber and heavy, it would come off as being really pompous. So I decided I’d try something that was really commercial. When I had the idea of singing about money in a way that was lampooning the way we chase it, then it got me off the hook of being too judgmental and sanctimonious about it. And I really liked the idea of writing a song that people could be dancing around too and singing in a bar when they’re drunk, even though it’s lampooning the way we are. I started writing the poppiest song that I could, see if I could get away with it. It was one of the songs that took me the longest to write because it’s so repetitive and simple.

Then it occurred to me that the subject of money is not something to be lampooned for a lot of people. I wanted to honor those people, so that’s why I mention, “You an walk the street,” “Catch the fantasy,” “No way no way they sex, no way no/That’s no way to serve,” “Catch her and degree,” that’s about what it costs you to go to college. The phrases help me balance pop song without making it too inane. I have a certain amount of indie guilt about it being poppy but it was written with that intention.


Sometimes you can’t get around the lyric being dictated by the feeling of the music, no matter how hard you try. “Dynamo” was the first song I wrote for the record, from scratch. It felt like a really romantic power pop song, like a love song, but how to write a love song that wasn’t the usual love song? Make it a love song about a building. But at the end of it, if people thought they could sing it about a person, it was a two-for-one situation. I needed to make it interesting for me and I really love buildings and I love architecture so it’s about having a love affair with a building. One of my friends said it sounds like Dinosaur Jr. with Skip Spence on lead vocals. I like that.


Another one where the music came first and I had to write a lyric that was born out of the feeling of the track. The day after I’d done the Spider-Man [The Amazing Spider-Man 2] premiere concert, I was in Times Square watching passers-bywatching womenon a huge screen up in the sky. I had that opening line “Big screen real life/Be a part of the story.” That song’s about a lot of the great women-of which there have been many, from being a little boy onwardsthat have made the impression on me. Women seem to have a need and an understanding of what their sense of purpose is doing for them that guys don’t. I’m being very presumptuous here, but what I’ve learned from a couple of women is the idea of: Does this relationship with a child, with a husband, with a lover, with a girlfriend, with what I’m doing, work for my sense of purpose? This is a concept that I don’t know any guy has. That, coupled with coming up with that line by watching these people on the big screen helped me get the lyrics together in a day. Meredith Sheldon sings on that track and my daughter sings on it as well. It was very important that I have two women in my life sing on that track. Girls have a song that hopefully guys will relate to too.

“25 Hours”

It’s the most directly autobiographical song on the record. I had this bassline and I started improvising over this track in this studio and I came up with: “And this door really goes somewhere.” That completely reminded me of a time in my life when I was about 10 or 11 when I first started taking the idea of being a musician seriously and getting my guitar playing together. It felt like the first time in my life that I had an escape route. Not an escape to fame and fortune, an escape away from my social situation. I grew up in a place that was really heavy, in the inner city in Manchester in the early ‘70s, very severely Catholic background, around a lot of people who were pretty intense and I didn’t like it very much. I saw that the guitar and culture and TV and films and books would, at the very least, be my main companion, my main concern, and my preoccupation, which gave me an incredible sense of liberation that one summer. Even if I was never going to be good enough to get on stage, this thing that I was already obsessing about, which was the guitar, would beas corny as this soundsmy companion. And if I didn’t make it on the stage, which seemed remote at that age, I would be a quiet guy who played the guitar and be somewhat of a freak in order to get me away from all of this heaviness. I sang a sentence and came up with this song about having 25 hours in every day and that extra hour where you could just go somewhere. I like that the song is somewhat bombastic and a little bit darker than other things that I’ve done on the solo stuff.

“The Trap”

It started off like a lot of songs I used to write when I was younger with what I thought was a great outro. Kept going around the outro and then realized I need to stick the rest of the song on the front of it. I wouldn’t know how to describe it other than a cruise-y, dreamy pop song. It’s about how we bullshit each other when we think that’s getting us by, but we’re actually trapping ourselves, and the only people we’re kidding is ourselves. It’s the opposite of “the truth will set you free.” We rarely take the time to be honest with each other. There’s always some kind of motivation or agenda going on: “Your force and words are lies to disguise,” “It won’t work and we can’t hide it.”


Much like “Back In the Box” it is about the idea of transcendence through rock music but also sex with or without somebody else involved. I wanted it to be as slogan-y as I possibly could and see if I could make it sound like a bombastic rock track, see if I could make the idea of getting off on a rock song and an orgasm mean the same thing and tie it in with this idea of that’s what we’re running around doing anyway.

Everything about the concept of the album and Homo Ludens and Playland is about things like escapism through music, escapism through the Internet, escapism through sexual activity and mixing the whole thing up. A lot of it just comes down to sex. “And he does/The real buzz,” “And she does/The real buzz.” You could be talking about drugs. You could be talking about sex. You could be talking about sex shops. You could be talking about pornography. You could be talking about movie stars and what we project onto celebrities. Celebrities and celebrity culture often comes down to people being sex objects. Very rarely do you have people in magazines who aren’t attractive. Consumerism ties in with me as well. It’s the idea of sex sells everything. I saw someone on television saying the main thing about new Apple products is that they’re sexy. If everyone’s running around trying to buy technology that we’re fetishizing, there’s not much that doesn’t seem to be sold on sex. We’re privately so driven by it. It’s just something we don’t seem to be thinking about. It’s not good. On the record cover, I’m standing outside a sex shop. “Countdown/Push your button/Activity,” “Breathe hard, come alive/Be an open door.” If you think about it, it’s very, very obvious what I’m singing about.

“Speak Out, Reach Out”

I recorded a lot of the album in London, near the financial district, which is near the river. I love nocturnal drives and nocturnal walks, particularly when I’m writing songs. I happened to come past an ATM machine and there were a few well-heeled and definitely well-oiled, let’s called them, “city types,” in the early hours of the morning being fairly obnoxious and entirely oblivious to this young couple who were sat wrapped in their coats on the floor 20 feet away from them. It struck me as an interesting scene. Once these guys had gotten over shouting abuse at me, I was trying to come up with something for the song and, “Sophisticated minds/You are your country/Situated in a line/In my city/In a forgotten dream” came from that and by the next morning I had the whole song. “Reach out/To somebody’s god/Cos what you take is what you give,” that’s the idea of be careful what you wish for. The song is about one of those guys waking up homeless and sleeping on the falling leaves and living in a hole in the ground like the two people they were completely ignoring.

“Boys Get Straight”

One of the good things about playing live all the time is, your mind never gets too far from the stage and that’s a great thing if you’re making the music that I’m making at the moment. If you’ve always got gigs booked, you act like a band does when they’re starting out, which is to say, you write a song and you immediately put it in your live set, so a song has to work live. You don’t get too caught up in the illusion of the studio and making music that relies on laptops and backing tracks.

The lyrics were inspired by the situationists of the late ‘60s that came from Europe, mainly France. They were provocateurs. They influenced a few songs on both my solo records. I read an essay criticizing the right-on, hipster, left wing so it felt pretty good to not get too righteous looking at your own side. It felt inspired to turn the tables and say, “It’s all very well having political correctness, but it doesn’t really count for very much when you’re harassing some people on the street with your mates when you’re all fucked up on a Friday night. You’re on the same side as the enemy then. You’re just as gross as the other side.”

“This Tension”

I had the title first and I liked that, but it seemed too obvious to me to write something that sounded uptight. It seemed more of an interesting thing to be dreamy, but unsettling, something that sounded like me but that didn’t necessarily make me feel comfortable, and had a bit of paranoia in it.

“This Tension” is exploring the idea of disassociation and being around tons of people, loneliness, and a little bit of an old world stage idea, being behind a mask. The spoken word at the end is the idea of by the time you get to the end of that song, someone’s just left with themselves and not wanting to reveal themselves to themselves. I tried to be paranoid and make the end of it feel like a panic attack, but against a dreamy background.

“Little King”

It’s the idea of these entitled fuckers who treat the rest of the country and people like it’s their own resource to take advantage of and make money out of. It happened in Europe in the ‘90s and I’m guessing it’s paralleled in the United States. There was the rise of the entrepreneurquite often from working class backgroundsand it’s particularly obvious in a country like the U.K., which is such a small, little island and has a lot of beautiful places that some of these guys treat as a place to stick a parking lot. There’s a culture, encouraged by the government, of the entrepreneur in the housing market buying up the land and putting up these shitty, expensive houses and then, in turn, enticing young families to be homeowners and consequently putting people in a situation of debt for the rest of their lives because of aspiration. I don’t always do things that are so, especially straightforward, but these guys pissed me off so I wanted to put them down in a song while making it sound like a good rock song. I like the idea of finishing the record on an upbeat note.

Johnny Marr’s North American tour dates:

11/18: Clifton Park, NY; Upstate Concert Hall

11/19: Montreal, QC; Corona

11/20: Toronto, ON; Danforth

11/22: Columbus, OH; Newport Music Hall

11/23: Detroit, MI; St. Andrews

11/25: Chicago, IL; Vic Theatre

11/26: Kansas City, MO; Arvest Bank Theatre

11/28: Denver, CO; Gothic Theatre

11/29: Aspen, CO; Belly Up

12/1: Missoula, MT; Top Hat Lounge

12/3: Edmonton, AB; Starlite

12/4: Calgary, AB; Republik

12/6: Victoria, BC; Sugar Nightclub

12/7: Vancouver, BC; Commodore Ballroom

12/8: Seattle, WA; Neumos

12/10: Portland, OR; Wonder Ballroom

12/11: Eugene, OR; Wow Hall

12/12: Sacramento, CA; Ace of Spades

12/14: San Francisco, CA; Independent

12/16: Pomona, CA; Glass House

12/18: Solona Beach, CA; Belly Up Tavern

12/19: Los Angeles, CA; El Rey Theatre

12/20: Los Angeles, CA; El Rey Theatre


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