Dickie Felton

I write about music and football

Dickie Felton brews up and settles down to a riff-tastic read: Set The Boy Free - Johnny Marr's autobiography.

Born with a guitar in his hands and a murderous desire to make music, he formed the greatest indie band of all time.

John Martin Maher entered the planet in 1963. Born just two streets from Manchester Apollo music hall.

Two decades later he was confidently knocking on the front door of local poet Steven Morrissey to ask if he’d like to form a band.

Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set The Boy Free is an epic 428 page pilgrimage through the life of a music icon.

As a child he would watch his parents head out to concerts. According to pint-sized Johnny, seeing his mum and dad hit the tiles made him think: “Going out to see a band was the best and most glamorous thing to ever happen.”

Early music influences included T-Rex and virtually everything on the radio. The fascination with the guitar happens about the same time other youngsters get obsessed with cars or trains. He is just five when he gets his first toy guitar.

Mini Marr gets a guitar at the earliest opportunity and then retires to his bedroom to practise and practise and practise.

From very early doors it was clear this kid was going to be a guitar genius.

It’s even clear to Johnny himself. It’s like there was nothing else he was ever gonna be.

The youngster isn't just content to just learn guitar parts to the records he loves. He tries to replicate the sound of records in their entirely.

It’s a one-man-band approach that helped him develop his expansive, unusual and breathtaking style. 

Great with his fingers and good with his feet: Manchester City come calling and offer the talented young footballer a potential career in the game.

But the bright lights of professional football, with fame and fortune thrown-in, offer zero comparison to a life in music.

Anyway, Marr turns up for trial at the Maine Road club wearing eyeliner. It’s a look that has yet to appear on Match of the Day.

Set The Boy Free offers both a gorgeous and gritty commentary on the Manchester music scene of the late 1970s and early 80s.


There’s the birth of the Hacienda, and the book takes reader through the many eras and characters that made Manchester magnificent.

It also offers a glimpse of Thatcher’s Britain which is cruel, cold and dark.

There’s unemployment and there’s heroin. In one episode Marr finds housemates shooting-up. Friends turn into zombies overnight. Marr grabs his belongings from the house and departs instantly.

Marr, a wise old owl even in the youngest years, wants nothing to do with anything that could curb his development as a guitarist - whether that be hard drugs or dead-end jobs.

That’s not to say that Marr doesn't end up in some strife. In one murky episode he unwittingly handles a stolen painting. Which doesn’t appear to be too much of an issue until Plod catch-up with the young man and reveal that the work is in fact by LS Lowry.

Some early escapades in Set The Boy Free are pure Only Fools and Horses - but with Manchester accents.

But there can be no doubt. Marr has no time for normal life. He needs to “escape from the constraints of the straight world to try to get on and do something creative”.

The escape is found in the music halls and clubs of Manchester. A major first gig Marr attends as a spectator is The Sex Pistols in Manchester.

Marr first meets Morrissey at a Patti Smith show. And after witnessing Patti in concert, Marr’s eyes are well and truly opened: “The world seemed different after that”.

At another gig he witnesses Fleetwood Mac turn-up for a soundcheck. Mick Fleetwood alights his Bentley clutching a glass of wine accompanied by two gorgeous women. Marr instantly realises that this is the life for him.

Marr’s love for fashion is abundant in this book. And he manages to combine working in assorted cool clothes shops while writing the music that will change peoples’ lives. 

The day he walks up the path at 384 Kings Road Stretford marks the birth of the greatest songwriting partnership since Lennon and McCartney.

Morrissey becomes a great musical partner and friend and the early days of The Smiths “start with laughter”.

Writing with Morrissey is portrayed as natural and at times mind-blowing. Early songs crafted by Marr include The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Handsome Devil.

The pair create a Smiths sound instantly. Early hometown gigs spiral into sold-out London shows and a record deal with Rough Trade.

A deal which was totally instigated by Marr. He drives from Manchester to London and hangs around the record company’s HQ all day before he can stalk an exec with a tape of his new band. Exec is suitably impressed. Within just 12 days The Smiths release their first single.

But for all the joyous Smiths releases and wild celebratory gigs, comes heaps of music industry hassle.

And it’s Marr who always seems to be the one having to sort out problems. Largely due to the fact that the band rarely had a manager. Marr takes on this mantle himself. And turns producer too. 

Meetings with lawyers, disputes with van companies, rows over unpaid debts, rampant accountants, record company pressure, helping a band mate battle drug addiction: just some of the tasks landed on Johnny’s lap.

And he had to deal with them singlehandedly. The stress of it would be an ordeal for the most experienced music business pro. But Marr was barely out of his teens. A grown man at 22 having to fire a band mate and negotiate record deals. Oh, as well as create some of the greatest records in music history.

The last days of The Smiths see Marr cut as a lonely figure. Effectively frozen out as the other three Smiths wage their unhappiness at a choice of a new manager. It’s a dismal situation with no winners. The Smiths split in 1987 - barely five years since their conception.

In the days and months following the jurassic fall-out, Marr is at his creative best. He is free.

And working with his heroes Talking Heads, Matt Johnson, and even Paul McCartney.

In the early post Smiths break-up Marr tries to make sense of himself and the world. And despairs that his group, the greatest group ever, could be torn to shreds.

He finds some solace jamming with Sir Paul and in a funny moment in the book, Marr realises that the ex Beatle probably went through the biggest break-up in music writing history.

Surely the surviving half of Lennon and McCartney can offer some words of comfort, explanation or insight into why great groups break-up?

Paul McCartney’s in-depth take consists of just four words: “That’s bands for ya”.

Things get worse in the land of Smithsdom when a row over the percentage cut of Smiths monies sees Morrissey and Marr hauled before the court in an action by drummer Mike Joyce. Morrissey and Marr lose.

In Morrissey’s own Autobiography the singer scrutinises this court case over what feels like about 200 pages. Here Marr’s assessment over those court proceedings lasts just eight pages.

There are some great friendships in this book. Marr meets Angie at 15 and they fall in love. Marr writes at great length about his friend, mentor, one-time Smiths manager, and all-round top guy Joe Moss.

There is of course the relationship with Morrissey. The pair who took on the world for five fabulous years only to reach a painful split. But this book is not and should not, be just about The Smiths.

The greatest passages concern Marr working with everyone from Brian Ferry to Electronic to The Healers, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.

It is intense reading about Marr’s work with The The. An overwhelming atmosphere hangs over the recording of Dusk.

Marr recalls the band recording Love Is Stronger Than Death, with tears rolling down his face. The song relates to the death of Matt Johnson’s brother.

Away from music involving bands, Marr is courted by movie moguls and writes the score to hit films. The really is no end to this guy’s talent.

Marr’s happiest time is in Modest Mouse. The group tour and tour and secure a US number one album. It is around this time Marr becomes teetotal and goes vegan.

It is fascinating to read about his love of running.

While recording The Cribs album Ignore the Ignorant in California, Johnny’s daily run takes on gargantuan proportions.

Initially he starts to run for five miles out and five miles back.

That becomes 10 miles out and 10 miles back.

Eventually, fuelled by endorphins and Northern Soul in his headphones, he runs a complete marathon before a day’s recording session.

It’s staggering, but Marr becomes multi-marathon-man and ends up running FIVE marathons in ONE week.

This wonderful book not only tells the life story of a Guitar God.

It’s also about re-birth, creative development, professionalism and passion for music and LIFE.

Johnny’s light will never go out.


Set The Boy Free is published by Century and is available to buy in the UK now.

It is released in the US on 15 November.

You can follow Johnny Marr on Twitter 

Dickie Felton writes about music and football.

His 2009 book The Day I Met Morrissey was a huge hit nowhere (apart from in Eccles and in Croatia). It's still buyable. In fact buy the tome here and we'll also ship Dickie's second book free: Morrissey International Airport.




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