Book Review: Johnny Marr’s Set The Boy Free is an honest & fun look at the energetic life of the former Smiths guitarist and quintessential English gentleman

Here’s Johnny! For years Johnny Marr has created great music and influenced multiple generations of guitarists by wearing various musical hats. Set The Boy Free is the first time the former guitarist of The Smiths has committed the story of his life to paper. This book is a cracking read and it proves that Marr is one charming man, indeed.

Johnny Marr was born John Martin Maher to two young, Irish immigrants in Manchester in 1963. At the age of five he got his first guitar and he grew up to be a lad that was obsessed with music and clothes. As a teenager he would work at a few different clothing shops while he toyed with the idea of forming a band.

In 1982 Marr tracked down Steven Morrissey, whom he’d met through a mutual friend some years earlier. This meeting marked the beginning of a chaotic and important few years where The Smiths would release four studio albums and numerous hit singles. The group helped revitalise interest in guitar rock and independent music in England and their songs are anthems that continue to get played to this day. This period makes up a significant portion of Marr’s book, although he does tend to gloss over the band’s rather acrimonious break-up.

Marr sounds like the quintessential English gentleman in this book. He also sounds like a wonderful and affable chap that you’d love to have a beer with (or an orange juice, as he is now a marathon-running teetotaller and vegan). Unlike Morrissey’s more bitter and cynical, Autobiography, Marr’s story is instead one that is filled with a kind of romantic and misty-eyed optimism. When Marr does tackle a difficult subject like the lawsuit brought against himself and Morrissey by his former Smiths-bandmate, Mike Joyce, he gives the story short shrift, instead choosing to focus his words on sunnier things like music and songwriting. (Although in a curious twist, Marr does say that he met up with Morrissey in 2008 and that they discussed the possibility of a Smiths reunion but that this did not eventuate into anything).

This autobiography may take a positive stance towards things but this could be due to the fact that Marr realises that he has a lot to be thankful for. He met his wife, Angie when he was 15 and the pair remain happily married and together to this day. He’s the father to a grown-up son and daughter, Nile and Sonny, and there was a period where Marr and Morrissey’s friendship was a close and happy one. These elements of Marr’s memoir do not prevent him from being frank and honest at other points. Marr admits that he told a journalist he didn’t like Michael’s Jackson’s Thriller album and he describes the Twitter storm that erupted after he forbade David Cameron, the then Prime Minister of Britain from being (or claiming to be) a Smiths fan.

This book is not the most polished one in a literary sense but it is all of Marr’s own work and it is a fun and easy read. Marr is friends with and has collaborated with lots of people. There are stories involving no less than: Hans Zimmer, Paul McCartney, Neil Finn, The The, Talking Heads, The Cribs, Modest Mouse and Electronic, to name a few. Marr has a great anecdote about the time he discussed some important things with the former Beatle that’s worth the price of admission alone. Marr’s stories are interesting to read and are often filled with great advice and wisdom. For example, Marr received some advice from a teacher when he was a school boy and that was: to find something he liked, be good at it and be an artist rather than getting bored or in trouble. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it with the benefit of hindsight.

Set The Boy Free is a must-read for any self-respecting fan of The Smiths. It is Johnny Marr’s direct and grounded account of a wonderful life in music and his forays into the world of fashion. This rock autobiography is a romantic story from an energetic and enigmatic Englishman who isn’t content to just sit back on his laurels. Johnny Marr wants to continue making great music and he’s revved up by fans who know that in Messer Marr there is most certainly a light that never goes out.

Johnny Marr’s Set The Boy Free is available now through Penguin Random House.