Johnny Marr is adamant that he wouldn’t ‘f*** up’ a track by The Smiths. So when the group’s former guitarist does precisely that at the start of ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby’ there has to be a rational explanation. “The rest of the band are in the wrong key,” he deadpans. “But because we’re a democracy I’m going to change my key…”
It’s not a very convincing excuse but the audience is too happy to be at the launch of third solo album Call The Comet – which is one of just two UK dates – to quibble. For the majority of people here, Marr is not just a guitar legend but a quarter of one of the most influential acts of their generation.
He’s well aware of this legacy and caters to the taste of die-hard fans, with nearly a third of the set culled from The Smiths’ catalogue alongside Electronic’s disco tinged ‘Getting Away With It’. These are ecstatically received, each one triggering a spontaneous shout-a-long, but they only bring into sharp contrast the quality of his often humdrum indie-rock solo work.
He may look the part of the rock star in his flowered shirt and leather jacket but he lacks real presence. Likewise, while his voice is pleasant it’s short on charisma even when supported by harmonies from his three-piece band. Yet if someone more dynamic was brought in to front the outfit, who had an anger to match the often socially aware lyrics, it would still be difficult to elevate the songs above generic Britrock.
Where once his jangle-pop guitar played off against funk and dance influences, now it’s firmly rooted in 90s indie rock. The blues tinged riff on ‘Jeopardy’, which Jack White could have turned to magic, is worryingly close to Liam Gallagher and twitchy former single ‘Easy Money’ has the ungainly dance-rock of Kasabian. Even the magisterial melody of ‘Hi Hello’ is a direct echo of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which is aired later in the set.
It’s only when his post-punk influences rise to the surface that he gets anywhere close to matching his former glories. The clattering pace of ‘Boys Get Straight’ and the vocal bite on ‘Bug’ bring an urgency to the material that’s otherwise absent. ‘New Dominions’, meanwhile, could be cut from late 80s Factory with its drum pads and spindly LoneLady guitar work.
These tracks will never attain the emotional resonance of his early work but maybe looking for continued musical relevance is missing the point. His obvious love of being on stage, and the reverence in which he’s held, mean that being ‘pretty good’ – as he describes his latest work – is enough to sustain his reputation.