- 10 Jul 20
From One Guitar Hero To Another... When you think of players who’ve been influenced by Rory Gallagher, former Smiths man Johnny Marr might not spring to mind as immediately as a Slash or a Joe Bonamassa. It turns out, however, that his knowledge is as heartfelt as it is encyclopaedic. “Rory was a beacon for me,” he tells Pat Carty.
In his autobiography, Set The Boy Free, the Manchester guitar wizard cites Rory Gallagher as a major influence. So we thought it’d make sense to invite him to participate in our Hot Press 25th Anniversary Rory Special. “Glad to do it. Love Rory,” he responded from his Lockdown bunker. And so we talked, and I asked him how he was first introduced to the man who would have such a profound influence on his guitar playing, and his life. Roll it there, Johnny.
"I would have been about fourteen, and by then I was really hung up on being a guitar player. This would have been about ‘75, ’76. I knew all about Ronson, and Townshend. One of my mates was really into Hendrix, and another was really into Jimmy Page and all of that. Leafing through the racks, I started to notice Rory Gallagher’s name. I shelled out for a cut price album, one of the Polydor spray paint records – they used to do a series of compilation albums. No one had told me about him and I hadn't heard him, but there was something about the way he looked, his vibe and his name, his guitar – all of those things. I think you can tell a lot about a person from a few photographs. He intrigued me. I just got this feeling that I was going to like him."
You bought the record and took it home without hearing a note?
Yeah, I did. It wasn’t like I had a lot of money either. Each record was a massive investment. That’s maybe why I opted for one of the bargain price things, but something was kind of calling me about him really. I think the vibe I got from those record covers was of somebody who was unpretentious, with no bullshit. The impression I got from just looking at him was he was someone who lived the music. That was very refreshing in those days, when everyone had dragons on their clothes and big long beards and loads of roadies. Looking back on it now, he was almost like the first lo-fi musician; he wouldn’t have been out of place in the groove scene in the Nineties.
Did the sofa match the drapes? Did the music live up to what you saw on the sleeve?
When I got the record home and put it on, it all came together. The music was straight forward but impressive and well-crafted. He was someone who was very obviously a great guitar player, but it was unadorned so the impression I got of him was matched and reflected in the music.There weren’t a lot of effects, there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary production, and the arrangements were tight. Knowing what I know now, and a lot of that is to do with being a Rory fan, there’s the inbuilt swing of a natural talent in his playing, as well as his conscious decision to be purist. He didn’t need any bells and whistles because he was good enough to be able to deliver what he wanted to express with no effects, one beat up old amp, and one very beat-up, great old guitar. He was very impressive.
Was he very different from the other things you were listening to at the time?
To be fair, the other guitar players all had their thing. Jimmy Page was an absolute master, and very impressive if you listen to his compositions. This was just before punk, so if you wanted to be impressed, people like the Townshends were already established, but BeBop Deluxe were a bit of a favourite of me and my mates because of what Bill Nelson was doing, and also Nils Lofgren. Every time you went around your mates, you were listening to Dark Side Of The Moon: that just didn’t really do it for me. I’d heard Blackmore and I’d heard lots of Hendrix, but I was sort of looking for an alternative from the big giants.
To all intents and purposes, Johnny Maher, as it says on his birth cert, is an Irish man: both his parents hail from Athy in Co. Kildare. Marr recognised the fellow Irishman in Gallagher. Go, Johnny, Go.
"I don’t know if I’d read it in the music press, but I could almost tell he was Irish. That meant something to me because I come from an Irish family. I could relate to the fact that he came from the country, because I’d spent so much of my time in Kildare. There was no one with that name at the time. I just got super-into him. If you could go back and ask – I was very young then, 13 or 14 maybe – anyone who knew me, they’d say ‘Johnny was a Rory fan’. That was my thing."
Were mates like Billy Duffy, who went on to play guitar in The Cult, of a similar mind?
Billy was very into Townshend and Ronson and Kossoff. Another of my mates was super into Neil Young. All this was about to be more refined and added to when punk came along and we all got into Tom Verlaine and people like that. We were all specialists and Rory became my thing. I was the only one who went to other cities to see him, I was the only one who slept in a bus station so I could see Rory Gallagher, I was the only one who had their hair like him, I was the only one who set fire to my guitar in a woodwork class, to try and make it look like Rory’s!
Did you have the check shirt and the whole lot?
Tell us the story about burning the guitar.
I had a Vox guitar that was vaguely Strat-shaped. I didn’t like it, so I decided to try and make my guitar look retro like his, which is quite funny. Obviously, if you go at it with a blowtorch, it’ll catch fire: that was probably the highlight of my woodwork class. I dismantled it though, I’m not that much of an idiot. I’d taken all the electrics out and the neck off. It kept catching fire, and I kept blowing it out, the finish on the guitar was pretty destroyed so I had to sand it down, and that was my attempt to have a guitar like Rory’s. That was part of me being a specialist, like later on it became James Williamson with Raw Power, but for a time there I knew all the stuff. The second record I bought, pretty much within days of my first purchase, was Deuce, and I played along with it all day. It opened a lot of doors for me in my playing.
In what way?
To get technical, I’m talking about playing in what’s called first position folk chords, moving those around, and his soloing, because before that, playing along with blues-rock bored me because it was all within this quite predictable framework. Rory was coming from quite an innovative melting pot of folk blues, with some jazz in there as well. The currency of the day was rock, Free and stuff like that. Rory was within that rock currency but his songs didn’t go on for nine minutes because he had a love of Eddie Cochran. His guitar breaks were dazzling and he could improvise like a jazz musician, but on record they never outstayed their welcome.
And that was attractive to you even then?
All of these things that made him what he was; his background in the show bands, his apprenticeship as a young teenager, playing with older musicians – I soaked all of this up. As I got to know more about Rory, it was a matter of me relating to him because my life was like that. I also joined a band of adults, everything in my life was in service to being a guitar player, I was on that path anyway – but when I got into Rory, not only did I really like his music, but he taught me the way to be as a guitar player, how to walk the walk, and live the life.
Everything was about the guitar.
There are pictures of Rory at seven or eight in short pants, playing the guitar. It almost seems fanciful now, but when I look back, the impression I got before I even knew about him was just the vibe he gave off: he just seemed to be very, very real.
Rory Gallagher was always about much more than just 'the blues'.
Rory was a hard-working guy, and I think he was very smart and very practical. Everyone will tell you that he was a very unassuming, quiet, mild-mannered person, but don’t be fooled into thinking he wasn’t intense and very, very serious. He had a sense of his own strength and power. He knew he was good. Rory always had other influences. For a start he really liked the band Love; he liked pop music as well. He was a fan of everything. He was able to play like a one man band so he didn’t need his mates to write songs for him. He applied himself to being a band leader.
Is this something he had from the get-go?
He was very young when he was in Taste, going all around the country as a young guy in a stripped-down band. I think all the aspects of being a band leader, guitar player, songwriter and performer, and being quote-unquote ‘in the music business’ were things he assimilated. For example, after being burnt as a young man and going through a very difficult and heavy situation with Taste, what did he do? He wanted someone he could trust, so he got his brother in as his manager. He was very self-sufficient and very determined. The business about him being so mild-mannered and gentle is completely true, I know because, as well as meeting him as a kid, and seeing him from the fan’s point of view, I got to know him a little bit not long before he died. But you don’t get to be that imposing and strong on stage without having some fire in you.
Just Hit Town
Tell us about going to see him in Manchester as a young lad.
That made a massive impression on me. I remember a queue of nearly all boys in check shirts and Wrangler jackets waiting in line after the show. It meant that I was going to miss the train home, but well worth it just for the chance of getting a handshake and a hello and an autograph. He took the time to talk to everyone who was waiting after he played a blistering two-hour show. It immediately said to me that if I was ever fortunate enough to be in that position, I would do the same thing, cause it meant so much to me. He gave me a pick and that’s something I’ve continued to do ‘til this day, because I know what it means to people – this little bit of plastic.
What were the shows themselves like?
What I was watching was a person who was coming on, doing something brilliant and then disappearing off into the night to play this never-ending show. Him and his band gave the impression that they just lived on the road – which is not too far from the truth – and were living out of a suitcase where all you need is your guitar and your amp. Rory always had a great band, particularly Gerry McEvoy. As great as Rory was, Gerry did the job of two people. He was the real rock of that band. Sometimes they don’t get enough credit really because they were great.
I presume all eyes were on the main man?
If you watch footage of him live, he was so in love with playing, it’s a mixture of great showmanship but also discovery, you’re watching someone who’s digging it himself: it’s not just a projection outwards, he’s also listening and having a great time. I saw him a lot and even if he played the same set, he never played it the same way. They had their cues and all of that, but you were watching the joy of discovery.
He never just went through the motions.
Yeah. Guitar players will know what I mean by this: he played to the sound. If it was a clean sound, he’d play passages that would suit that sound, and he was doing all of this within the guitar, no pedals or effects. It was just his command of that one instrument, his relationship with that instrument. Everybody knows about B.B. King and Lucille, and you think of Hendrix with the white Strat. Well, no instrument was more synonymous with any musician than Rory Gallagher and that beat-up Strat.
Were you the guy over at the side of the stage staring intently at Rory's every move?
Often I was right down the front, watching very carefully everything he was doing. For someone whose legacy is being a gentle person, he was quite terrifying sometimes when he got in the zone. You half-wanted him to acknowledge you, but half of you didn’t want him to notice you because he was so intense when he was playing, and the sweat was dripping of him. He was powerful.
Were there tricks you were trying to decipher?
Oh yeah. He was doing stuff with just hands on the guitar, which he knew was cool, he didn’t have to resort to a whole load of effects. Effects are cool, and I like them, but that wasn’t his thing, That’s why I say he was the first lo-fi musician. I remember John Peel playing The White Stripes once and saying it reminded him of Rory Gallagher, and he wasn’t far wrong. There were things like the way he would use the tone and volume knobs on his guitar as a sort of swelling effect, and, depending on how he would bend the strings, it would almost sound like a backwards effect. He would use these things called false harmonics, which is a technique from Hawaiian steel players, and, of course, the slide, and also harmonica.
Fuel To The Fire
Rory’s harmonica playing was another old sod connection for the young man in the front row. Rave on, John.
"I’d already played harmonica and, in my case, that’s an Irish thing. That was another connection I had with him. The only other musician I knew who played harmonica was the old black and white footage, from what seemed like an eternity before that, of Bob Dylan. It had been resurrected somewhat by Neil Young, but I always took it as an Irish thing. Getting into Rory made me realise I was on the path I wanted to be on and it was possible."
Was it you who told the story of him changing a string while he kept playing?
Yeah, I saw him do that a couple of times. Daniel (Gallagher, Rory’s nephew) sent me a photo of him doing it recently. While he’s playing, he snaps a string and without stopping playing, he changes the string, tunes it and carries on with the song, which I’m not aware of anyone else ever doing.
That's pretty impressive.
Well, he knew he was bad ass! But he did it in non-bullshit ways, he did it with his playing and his performance.
You touched on Rory as a band leader, did you get a similar thing from Keith Richards? Those bands followed the guitarist, rather than the drummer. Was this something you brought into your own work later on?
Yeah, from a sound point of view, their guitar really fills up so much space and, as you say, everybody’s following it. I’m pretty sure that if you stuck Rory Gallagher on Grafton Street, he’d be able to cut it on his own with just an acoustic, because his style was so big. He was probably the guy, along with Bert Jansch, from whom I got the lesson that if you can’t play an acoustic, then you’re only half a player. A big part of Rory’s thing, and Bert’s, who both Rory and I loved, was that you have be able to cut it on a National or on a Martin Acoustic or on a 12-String as well. The idea of the band following you, yes, 100%. You could say the same about Pete Townshend. One thing I probably picked up on was the idea that the person who leads a band out on that stage, the rest of the band have got to know that if the P.A. blows up and the roof falls in, he’s got it covered. Rory was the whole deal.
When you were putting The Smiths together, was he an influence on your decision not to have a second guitar player?
In a couple of bands I had before that, I was the frontman, much like what I’m doing now. What I’m doing now is a combination of the band that I was in before The Smiths and the bands that I was in after The Smiths, from a sound point of view. But what you’re talking about, the band leader up front, I’d kind of done that, so when I came to form The Smiths, it just felt unnecessary to have a second guitar player. I had a big enough sound to cover it. I think influence-wise, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Rory could have written the riff for ‘What Difference Does It Make?’
Maybe you borrowed a chord change from 'Tattooed Lady' for 'Hand In Glove'?
Yeah, I’d say that was right, because I knew all that stuff. If you listen to ‘Daughter Of The Everglades’ (from Gallagher’s 1973 album Blueprint) you can really hear his influence on me in that. People think of Rory as being a blues-rock musician, but there’s many reductive things about that which are obviously unfair. People think it’s all about solos, well far from it because on Rory’s albums, particularly the early ones, there’s twelve strings and folky stuff, his great arrangements, and his chord-work. That was more what influenced me, although maybe the riff in ‘Handsome Devil’ is not a million miles away from ‘Moonchild’.
I remember you mentioning a record like Paul Davidson's 'Midnight Rider', which has a perfect guitar solo of just a few notes over a few bars. Rory had the same thing: perfect solos that didn't need to go on and on.
I think that’s a matter of taste, but to play without saying too much is a real virtue. Rory had that in him as a person as well. It wasn’t like he was shy, he just didn’t waste words: that’s reflected in his playing, although it’s not just economical for the sake of it. There’s something very cool about a concise, well-ordered, well-composed guitar break. People like Scotty Moore were doing that and Cliff Gallup in Gene Vincent’s band but George Harrison was probably the king of it.
You're talking about a composed section of a song rather than an improvised freak-out.
Rory was good enough to be doing both at the same time, and that’s something I’ve tried to pick up. I don’t really solo that much – I do a little bit more these days – but when I do, I’m trying to not just waffle on, I’m trying to sound concise. The great jazz musicians do that, McCoy Tyner and people like that.
And The Pretenders; James Honeyman-Scott, who you've expressed admiration for?
Yes, the idea of a guitar break rather than just some waffle that is meaningless. When I got into Rory it seemed like waffly meaningless guitar and organ was everywhere, and here was someone that was ticking the flash and entertaining boxes, and he knew it, and had these great tricks, not gimmicks, and could back it all up by doing it in a very powerful way and not being lazy with his thinking. He was the whole package, because you wanted - especially in 1975 when you're a twelve or thirteen year old boy and you're into the guitar - to see some tricks and be dazzled, but Rory was too cool to just fall for the gimmicks.
When Rory did a cover version, like Leadbelly's 'Out On The Western Plain' or Sam & Dave's 'I Take What I Want', he could really put his own stamp on it.
He developed his own distinct personality. He was clever, he wasn’t just doing ‘Smokestack Lightning’ or ‘Spoonful'. He did stuff that he thought he could bring something to. By the time he came to do ‘Western Plain’ or ‘I Take What I Want’ or ‘Bullfrog Blues’, he knew enough to know whether it was going work. The life he was living, from being a young boy, was a vocation, really. In the ‘70s the show bands were much maligned, but I look back on Rory’s time with them with total admiration because there you’ve got a young kid who is literally serving his apprenticeship, putting up with all kinds of hardships, but loving it because he had a vocation.
Playing everything, even stuff he didn't like, but getting something out of it. Learning all the time.
I joined this band of absolute and total reprobates who used to rehearse in the red light district of Manchester. No one wanted to go anywhere near them, but I did it because I wanted to find out how to play like The Stooges, and Hawkwind. I guess I got affirmation that it was right to do those things from Rory. He was like a beacon for me.
When The Smiths were riding high in the '80s, did you ever get any raised eyebrows from the likes of NME, when you dropped Rory's name?
There was one or two sniffy journalists who were quite condescending about that, but well, you know, that’s because they don’t really know about music. What Rory was doing during that time was less impactful but it’s such a shame he wasn’t able to ride that out because you could just see him having a career like Bonnie Raitt. He was idealistic and such a purist, but he was no mug. He knew he had become unfashionable, which I think really hurt him, but you could see him doing a residency at the Albert Hall every year. I think he would have been given a ton of respect.
It would have come back around?
Yeah, it totally would have come back around, and it was just such a tragedy really.
There’s A Light
You got to know Rory a bit towards the end of his life. Were you able to tell him what he meant to you?
I absolutely did and he made a beautiful gesture to me. I was walking down the street and I saw him in a bar and he called me in and started talking about when Taste broke up and how hard it was to have that kind of pressure and negativity. He watched what had happened to me at the end of The Smiths and to have someone looking out for you like that was just very, very beautiful. He was very kind. We had a couple of exchanges like that which were very genuine and sincere, and he called me a couple of times. I own one of his guitars now, the one he wrote ‘A Million Miles Away’ on, which is quite an amazing thing for me. I also played his Strat.
How did that come about?
I know Daniel and Dónal – his family – a little bit, and they thought I’d like to check it out. I played his Strat on ‘How Soon Is Now’ and a few other songs in the encore in Shepherd’s Bush in 2012.
You must have been pinching yourself, holding the guitar of this hero from your childhood?
I was. I met him once in the 80s, because he’d heard of me, and then in the 90s: he was interested in me, he related to me and he rated me, that was the amazing thing. It was the connection to him as a person that I’ll never forget. When you’re a fan, you think you have that connection and you make assumptions about your heroes. And Rory turned out to be all of that and more, and the fact that he knew some of my riffs and knew the way I played was just an amazing thing. Life can be amazing sometimes.
Going back to Rory seeing a similarity in the way The Smiths and Taste split - it seems to me that in both cases, the split freed you up as musicians, to do whatever the hell you wanted.
He was a kindred spirit. I started off as a fan and then having gone through a certain kind of experience myself, although my experience was probably even more intense, more played out in the public eye and it went on for longer. But that independence as a guitar player, being your own free agent, I could relate to that. There are a few figures in my life – Bert Jansch was one of them, Nile Rodgers was another – who I could relate to on that level. We’re all guys who were never going to be in the same band for forty years. Rory was a beacon for me again; stick to your guns, do what you do for the same reason that you started off doing it, which is a love of music and the love of playing the guitar. The storms that come from the music industry, you ride those out. I wish he’d been able to ride out the last one, because it would have been plain sailing for him after that.
The story about Rory trying out for The Rolling Stones in the Seventies. That could never have worked, he'd never have taken orders in that way, surely?
I don’t think it was a good fit, but it doesn’t surprise me that he went to check it out because he was a fan of the Stones in the ‘60s, I think he went out of curiosity, really and, to use the ‘70s parlance, he wanted to go and have a blow. I can relate to that. I’ve done that plenty of times.
Is that the same thing that you do when Bryan Ferry or Talking Heads or Chrissie Hynde get you on the phone?
Yeah, I’ll go and check it out and see what’s what. You can’t imagine that as a permanent fit, cause Rory was a frontman and a song writer, but the fact that he bothered to do it shows a respect for the Stones – not a neediness but a respect.
It’s in you from being a kid . I went over to play with Modest Mouse, a band I really liked. I couldn’t see myself joining a five-piece band but it clicked and I came out of it thinking this feels really good. Career and the press and what people are going to say and all that – if you’re a musician, that just takes a back seat.
Juke Box Annie
I don't want to put you on the spot - well, no, I do. If someone came up to you and said 'I've heard you banging on about this Rory fella, what records should I start with?', where would you point them?
Easy. From my era there’s three really. There’s Deuce, Irish Tour ‘74 and Calling Card.
With Calling Card, and the next two records, Photo-Finish and Top Priority, he made a deliberate move towards, could I say hard rock?
I think hard rock is the right phrase for it.
You know the story about him having Photo-Finish ready to go, and then he threw it in the bin and started again, and Dónal had to explain it to the record company?
Photo-Finish is better than the record he was going to put out. In context of the times – Photo-Finish, Top Priority, even Defender – he was doing what Gary Moore also did. He wasn’t going to try and sound like Soft Cell – fashion’s out of your control – but those three albums are totally unique. It’s been said before and I’m sure, Pat, it’s cropped up in your work on Rory, this thing about him inventing Celtic Blues. Well, that’s right, that’s what it is. You can hear Ireland in his playing. It’s a blues feel and a blues sound and he will quote a Hubert Sumlin lick or a Freddie King lick, if you really put it under the microscope. What you hear is blues feel, and a blues and rock n’ roll education – because there’s Scotty Moore in there and there’s Eddie Cochran, and a lot of Buddy Holly. But it’s all played by an Irish man.
Are you talking about the feel of Irish music?
I’m talking about some of his solos. The word is celtic, but it’s particularly Irish, not Scottish: there’s a bit of Céilí in there.
Give us an example.
I’ll tell you where you hear it. When he takes the band down on ‘Walk On Hot Coals’ on Irish Tour ‘74. When the band comes down and he’s soloing over the top and he’s vamping – that doesn’t sound like Albert King or B.B. King or Duane Allman. It sounds like what I’ve said: it could be played on an acoustic in a pub in cork in 1940.
Irish Tour '74 has such power, if ever there was a record to make you hop up off the couch and break out the air guitar, that is it.
Yes, and listen to ‘Moonchild’ off Calling Card. Man, that is a riff! Or ‘Secret Agent’! Calling Card is a great album, and again you have to give props to his band, particularly Gerry McAvoy.
Did you hear the Check Shirt Wizard live album where heís playing those songs?
Yeah, Wheels Within Wheels is an interesting record as well.
He has Juan Martin, your man Bert, The Dubliners and Martin Carthy on that.
It’s significant that Thin Lizzy were big, all over Europe and America in the ‘70s. Really, before punk, the best gigs that I went to – and it’s got nothing to do with my heritage – were the two Irish bands. Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. It was amazing.
I could honestly have listened to Johnny Marr talk about Rory Gallagher and guitar playing all week, and he was incredibly generous with his time, but I felt it might be time to wind things up. We did a bit of reminiscing about growing up in rural Ireland, involving the bar where time has stood still in the National Stadium, red lemonade, and bags of Tayto. I thanked Johnny for being so accommodating. He answers with obvious affection.
“Anyone who’s taking the time to remember Rory is alright. He was a soulful, soulful person, a beautiful guy, but powerful.
He had this openness to everything.
Being a real musician – and by that I don’t mean flash, I mean the life of a musician being better than everything else – that was what I related to, that’s what I expected and that’s what I assumed about Rory: that the life of a guitar player was better than everything else. I was already feeling that, and my assumption was one hundred percent right and I have him to thank for its effect on my life.
Need more Rory? Of course you do! Here’s The Rory Gallagher: 25 Hot Press Playlist to keep you going.