Johnny Marr joins the Jarman brothers for another stab at the big time
For a certain demographic (mainly white males in their 30s and 40s) a certain John Martin Maher from the parish of Ardwick, Manchester can do no wrong. Better known to you and I as Johnny Marr, the former Smith - formerly the definitive and most inventive guitarist of his generation - is once more declaring his love for rock 'n' roll to anybody who’ll listen, and for only the second time has become the full-time member of a band.
The band Marr has chosen to join is The Cribs, who are eyebrow-raisingly distinct from any of the umpteen previous collaborations Marr has dabbled in since he broke up his last band and Morrissey’s heart 22 years ago.
In the intervening two decades he’s played the itinerant guitar for hire, peddling his considerable wares to the disparate likes of Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Pretenders and Pet Shop Boys and even enjoying a stint with ‘super-group’ Electronic. The results were at least interesting and often revelatory.
Lately he seems to have lost none of his erstwhile vim – his stint with American misanthropes Modest Mouse actually produced an album of considerable wonder, with Marr’s guitar and front-man Isaac Brock’s twisted lyricism combining on We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank to great creative effect.
All the more puzzling then that only the second band he’s formally joined in nearly 30 years should be self-styled northern upstarts, The Cribs. They may not be the literate dilettantes of Marr’s previous acquaintance, or even have the depth of Modest Mouse, but they’re an earnest and endearing bunch who trade heavily in misplaced but noble notions of authenticity and integrity.
The Wakefield brothers Gary and Ryan Jarman that form the core of The Cribs produced three spirited albums before Marr came along for 2009's Ignore the Ignorant. With Marr now in tow they’ve produced more of the same, only with the odd mellifluous jangle in the background. Johnny and the Jarmans (now there’s a band name) now take their sound on the road.
On the Belfast leg of their current tour, at the Mandela Hall, with a few older Marr fans mingling with The Cribs die-hards, they bound on to the stage and kick-start the compelling thrash that is 'We Were Aborted', also the opening track of Ignore the Ignorant. Mr Marr has the time of his life. Arms flailing, head nonchalantly cocked back, strutting about like a young(ish) Ronnie Wood, he’s filled with an enthusiasm no guitar god in his late 40s has any right to possess.
The set is spewed out thick and fast and new Marr-coded tracks like single 'Cheat On Me' slot in seamlessly with previous Cribs favourites such as 'Our Bovine Public' and 'Hey Scenesters'. It’s an exhilarating experience initially, the blood, sweat and tears of the live Cribs trampling roughshod over some of niceties of their album production. Live, Marr replaces the chiming subtleties of his studio fret-work for an all-out Stooges thrash and grab. They even let him near a microphone for backing vocals - this must indeed be love.
The Jarmans exude the kind of post-pubescent appeal that only earnest young men with guitars can engender. Each mumbled ‘thank you’ or ‘this is one from our last album’ is met with a crescendo of worshipful yelping. The problem is that The Cribs, as likeable and laudable as they are, don’t seem to have the chops or the tunes to sustain a whole live set. Maybe it’s an off-night, but half-way through the sheer mono-dimensional nature of their music becomes wearing.
Maybe it’s the reactionary old git in me, because most of the young students and revolutionary old gits there loved it. But then The Cribs have always provoked a loyalty bordering on fanaticism. For those of us who remember that Johnny Marr was the man who co-wrote 'How Soon is Now', 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out' or even 'Missed the Boat', a little sprinkling of magic wouldn't have gone amiss.
The fact of the matter is that creatively, the Cribs don’t need Johnny Marr and Johnny Marr doesn’t need The Cribs. A perfectly competent and passionate young band and an ageing rock legend are clearly having the time of their lives together right now, but you wonder whether the old man will get restless before long. After all, there’s a million struggling bands out there and only one Johnny Marr.