How Johnny Marr wrote the Smiths' debut single
13 May 2021, 07:00
The legendary guitarist shows Radio X how composed the Manchester band's classic track Hand In Glove.
Hand In Glove was The Smiths’ first single, released on 13 May 1983. It was the start of an illustrious career for singer and lyricist Morrissey and guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr. But the genesis of the song was not without some drama as Marr tried to capture an elusive riff…
In fact, as Marr explained to Radio X’s John Kennedy at a special evening of conversation with the Manchester musician, the main guitar line was influenced by David Bowie’s classic Rebel Rebel and the funky work of Chic’s Nile Rodgers.
Speaking at An Evening Of Conversation With Johnny Marr at Radio X in June 2018, the guitarist explained that the idea came from his early years learning the instrument.
“Once I’d learnt Jean Genie, I was kind of like I don’t need to know anyone else’s stuff now,” he admitted. “That was kind of my passport - everyone was like ‘What can you play?’ Well I can play Rebel Rebel! About three years later, they’d say ‘How are you getting on?’ I’d say… well I can still play Rebel Rebel."
At the start of 1983, Marr was searching around for songs to give to The Smiths when he was struck by inspiration.
He went on: “I was round at my parents’ house and they had this old crappy toy guitar.
“I was playing this riff that I thought was a Chic hit. I thought I really like that, but I had no means to record it.
"Angie [Marr’s girlfriend, now wife] had just passed her driving test and her parents had loaned her this little VW Beetle that we used to sort of hang out in.
“I said, ‘Get me round to Mozzer’s!’ Cos he’s got a tape machine. So we got in the car like I was going to have a baby, you know?
“So I’m in the car, trying not to change this riff - cos you just change stuff, you know? So all the way though this 20-minute ride to Mozzer’s, Im playing the riff.
“Angie always leaves me to it when I’m in that nutty headspace, but maybe because it was boring for her… she said ‘Make it sound like Iggy!’ She loves Iggy Pop. So I just took that Nile Rodgers thing and just played Iggy Pop chords. She said, ‘Yeah that’s cool!’ And I was like, Oh really!
“So it’s a Sunday evening, we get to Morrissey’s house. I prayed that it was the one night of the year that he didn’t leave the house! He opened the door and I’m stood there with this guitar. He said ‘What’s happened?’ I said, ‘Check this out!’
“He knew me pretty well by this point, so he said OK, went and got this little tape machine. I was on the stairs in his hallway and I started putting it down. As I was putting it down, I thought, this song needs another bit - Rebel Rebel!
“And that became Hand In Glove, which was the best Smiths song at that point, I think.
“We were rehearsing, either the next day or the day after, and I showed Mike and Andy. I said, check this bit out. Andy, who’d played with me since being 14, goes ‘I’m sure that’s Rebel Rebel’.
“Funnily enough, David Bowie and Nile Rodgers had their biggest ever hit by working together. Coincidence? I think not!”
The rest was history - Hand In Glove was the first Smiths single and despite not troubling the main UK charts, it was the start of a brilliant career.”