Johnny Marr - Adrenalin Baby (Live Album)
by Oliver Rose
Only contemporary audiences can truly appreciate the utter tragedy of The Smiths’ breakup. “No!” you cry; “I was there! I wept at the final single, knowing it was my last chance to gullibly buy the song on five formats at once.” Well (many million box-set reissues later), foolish you. The real problem is actually tethered very much to the moment, and it’s not the premature end of a fantastic song-writing partnership; neither is it the abhorrent appropriation of the band’s legacy as hipster cliché, or the hideously unclear answers we get from inquiries into the end of the band. No. The true shame of those heroic behemoths’ fall is the paltry platter of unappetising alternatives that we, their beloved fan base, have been left to snack sheepishly on. Adrenalin Baby is the latest instalment in that profoundly ironic “reissue, repackage, repackage!” legacy of The Smiths; a solo Johnny Marr live album that perpetuates the myth of iconographical eternal youth and, granted, whilst it does so without the unfounded conviction of Morrissey’s latest efforts, it’s a frankly stale affair to say the very least.
Between 1988 and 2009, it was Morrissey who reigned as “post-Smiths” legend – most of the discography was good and when it wasn’t, he worked fast enough that it didn’t matter. But whilst he took an unforgivable five years to construct the steaming horseshit-heap of last year’s World Peace Is None Of Your Business, the indie world turned its heart-shaped sunglasses to his old friend, the jangle wizard Johnny, whose debut album, The Messenger, it was promised, would rain down upon the devoted in 2013.
Now, herein lies the ultimate flaw of Adrenalin Baby – Marr’s solo material wasn’t even that good to start with. The Messenger and Playland (solo album #2, released in 2014) fell way short of the greatness achieved by Moz and co. in the ‘80s. Consistently poor lyrics, forgettable tunes, naff singing, a frightening lack of jangle and poor art direction made these records collectors’ items and little else. Disappointment doesn’t cover it – and on both occasions, I allowed my expectations to be unrealistically high; there were absolutely no grounds for my childish hopes. Because let’s face it, what did Johnny Marr do between 1988 and 2009? When the good St. Steven’s First Of The Gang To Die soared to #6 in the UK charts in 2004, Marr was writing and recording with his band, The Healers. (If you need a clue, only one of them was known to be alive and well by the general public, and he has a fairly substantial habit of making people wish he wasn’t…)
Adrenalin Baby then, suffers for all the reasons you might expect. Aside from a ludicrously long take of Getting Away With It (a song that was stale and dull before it was even released), the LP is strewn with horrors: Marr’s singing is even worse than normal in a live setting and the instrumentation is, in its forced, energetic live state, similarly lacking. But worst of all, the set is dotted with old Smiths songs we know and love – old Smiths songs we know and love when sung by Morrissey. These fragments of the past are like shards of glass in an already stale sandwich; unwelcome, groaning renditions of titanic tracks that are famed for their camp, idiosyncratic delivery. These blasphemous streaks in the performance leave but a ghostly vapour of profundity; a skid-mark in the skinny jeans of indie legend; a foul, foul taste in the mouth of any true Smiths disciple. As if to frantically rub salt in the gaping metaphysical wound gashed open by this sonic injustice, Johnny rounds off his heretical impression of Bigmouth Strikes Again sounding surprised – “Woah…that’s a good one”. “Was”, Johnny; “was”. He goes on to ham-fistedly tackle I Fought The Law, as well – I know.
I went to see Johnny Marr last October on this very tour, when it came to the De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill. He performed with incredible energy and seemed to be enjoying himself. But I remember feeling something there and then that must have sown the seeds of the rage present in this review. He opened the encore with that incendiary riff from The Smiths’ Still Ill, before ripping into a rich-sounding, fuzzy rendition – and then he sang, and the magic died. Here was my hero sounding like something he wasn’t supposed to – trying far too hard. I don’t know – I guess I buried it. Maybe then, my biggest gripe with Adrenalin Baby, is not how average the solo material is, how uninteresting live versions of it are or how crushing it is to hear half-arsed Smiths covers played with inappropriate, anthemic intentions – it’s probably just that I’ve been forced to relive feelings of disappointment that I’d only just managed to suppress before.