Thirty years ago, Electronic saw a meeting of minds between two Manchester musical icons with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. The Smiths guitarist and Joy Division / New Order man found each other in an unusual time and place to embark on "the thrill of the unknown" with their new musical project.
Successfully crafting the guitarists' love of six-strings and synths into an alliance to explore new ground would yield hits Tighten Up, Getting Away With It (featuring The Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe), Get the Message and Feel Every Beat. In a new in-depth interview to celebrate their 1991's self-titled debut's 30th anniversary, Marr talks to Jason Draper about a special time and musical partnership.
Listening back to the album 30 years on, what are your feelings about it now?
"Well, it really strongly brings back that sense of time and place, because it was a very unusual time that Bernard and myself found ourselves in – and not by design. For me personally, it was a very important time in my life, because on a day-to-day level, I was still very much dealing with the fallout from the breakup of The Smiths, and a lot of the nonsense that was going on behind the scenes and in the media and all of that, when I was still very young.
"But then, at the same time, I was embarking on a very exciting and kind of mysterious sort of adventure – the thrill of the unknown with Bernard. And furthermore, more importantly, we realised that pretty much as we were going, right on our tails, like a tidal wave coming up behind, was this complete revolution in the culture in our own city – which pretty much became the most important city in the world, culturally, for a while.
"But when Bernard and I got together, initially, there was, of course, the musical agenda. We were excited about that. And I can look back now and say, well, there was a certain amount of us finding a bit of sanctuary from both having been in these intense Manchester groups. And we were getting to know each other, too, because we didn’t know each other that well on a personal level. But that we got to know each other very quick. And Bernie had moved into my house. So Electronic became what we were doing.
"But as I say, at the same time, unbeknownst to us, ecstasy started to arrive, and the Haçienda suddenly started filling up, which no one would have imagined. And house music and Technotronic and MIDI and Macintosh computers and flares and 808 State S’Express and club culture. It all kicked off like a week after we first started. And then we found ourselves with some other people, right smack-bang in the middle of it and being affected by it – and affecting people by it. And in my case, I was only 24. So, you know, my hometown suddenly became the centre of the universe and I had this new songwriting partnership, which we were working on every day. And we just gathered momentum really, really quickly. And off we went. It was an amazing time. So I hear all of that in the songs."
So you guys are writing Electronic as that’s all exploding…
"Oh, yeah. Yeah. Us and the DJs – people like Mike Pickering, and Graham Massey from 808 State, and Mark Moore in London and the Boys Own people and, you know, Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold and the Shoom lot. There’s a roll call of people who were being affected by what was going on in the culture and in club culture, in pop culture.
"And, you know, with what was going on politically in the outside world. And then other people who were just club-goers and promoters. And this was all about to come as we were getting started. We didn’t really have a plan about what we were going to be. We certainly didn’t expect that we were going to be a supergroup. We were probably very naive. But what do you expect when you get Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe involved ? And your first single is the biggest hit you ever had in America? Neil and Chris getting involved early on was significant of course."
What do you sort of recall of putting Getting Away With It together with them?
"Getting away with it happened because Pet Shop Boys and Bernard and I had some mutual friends. And the word kind of got around that Bernard was doing something aside from New Order, and he was doing it with me. And then Neil and Chris have always been very creative collaborators with, you know, Dusty [Springfield] and Liza Minelli and Bowie – and we just kind of got put together, really, by friends on a social basis. But Bernard and I had been feverishly concocting ideas and ideas. And then we made this plan.
"Neil and Chris had plans to come up and go to the Haçienda for the first time. And Bernard and I were working out of the bedroom of my house at first, and then I built a more elaborate studio in my house. And I’ve always tried to arrive at any kind of collaboration not empty-handed. Still, to this day, I try to come a little bit prepared. So either the day before the Neil and Chris’ arrived – or I think probably the day they arrived, on the Saturday afternoon, I went in the studio and wrote. We needed have something to start with, so I wrote the chorus, this chunk of music, which was the instrumental of what turned out to be Getting Away With It. So I had the chords and the topline, and David Palmer was also living at my house at that time – he was in The The with me, he was most known for being in ABC, a really cool, amazing musician. So David programmed the drums.
"This was in the afternoon when Neil and Chris were coming up. So when they arrived, I had this kind of chunk of music going round and round, which became the chorus of Getting Away With It. I think Neil very quickly had the lyrical hook, and he was going to go away and write the words. So within probably about 20 minutes, we started working on it. And then Bernard came up with the verse chords, and I remember Chris doing the baseline, and then Neil arranging it, saying, “This bit should be around that bit twice,” and so all four of us just really kind of got in with the ingredients and we had this backing track. And then we all went out to the Haçienda, as you as do. And the next day we reconvened at some point in the afternoon wrote a second song together, The Patience Of A Saint, which started off with as Chris’ idea with a dreamy, suspended sort of comedown kind of atmosphere to it. Which makes sense (laughs)."
On Getting Away With It, you even go so far as to – very briefly – do a little solo. Was that a sign of newfound creative freedoms in a different creative framework?
"Yeah, I think. Well, the whole of the album is definitely and example of me making a creative change. It’s been said before, and it’s no exaggeration that Bernard had to pretty much beat me over the head with a stick to play the guitar on that album. I would say, “I just want to play keyboards.” And he kept saying, “Everybody’s gonna blame me.” But when we got the track together, I did the solo at the end of the making of the record, Neil and Chris did some more stuff on it, Neil wrote the lyrics and Bernard sang on it, and then Neil did the BVs. There was an instrumental hole there, and I always knew that it needed a guitar solo.
"I guess, looking back on it now, I was probably thinking, Well, it should have a Balearic sound. That was kind of in the air at the time. I guess that was the first acoustic guitar solo that I’d done. I’d sneaked one solo in on the last Smiths record, but yeah, for me, it was a little bit of a breakaway. And I was glad to have done it."
When Getting Away With it became a hit, did you feel like it was a nod that, whatever Electronic was going to be, you guys were heading in the right direction?
"No, it was more like, Oh, shit, we better make the rest of the record and it better be good! Not surprisingly, Neil and Chris getting involved gave us a big focus. The reason I say that is because when we got together, Bernard and I had no professional aspirations as such. We sort of had this vague idea that for a year or two we would put out anonymous, white-label acid-house 12-inches on Factory. I think really we were probably a bit naive there too.
And other than that, what was in my mind was – well, the example that was set by David Byrne and Brian Eno, actually: two people from two groups coming together and using the studio as an instrument, which – this is obviously years before people have got studios on their laptops now. We all know people make records in their basements or in their bedrooms now, but that was an early thing back then…duos. And if you’ve been in a very strict Manchester four-piece guitar group, which both of us were, that idea of it being a duo with people we can collaborate with, bringing in guest singers, trying guest producers. Whatever technology we wanted to use.
"If we wanted to use a sample from an Ennio Morricone film, we would do that. If we wanted to get a remix done by Technotronic, we’d do that. And that was a really original idea to me and Bernard. But it turned out that, as is often the case with these things, some of our peers were thinking along the same lines. I was really impressed by Mark Moore with S’Express. And Bernard collaborated with Technotronic. And we looked at what Nellee Hooper was doing with Massive Attack. And that was all very fresh – particularly for myself, who was, you know, really still trying to dodge the fallout – the burning buildings falling – from the press.
"I guess I had this almost schizophrenic existence. Plus, I was a member of The The at that time as well. So on a personal level, it was so creatively new for me. And still being so young, and all Mancunian peers, whether they were in bands or not, we were all getting up in the morning to a brand new world, with new fashions and new music, new sounds, new graphics, new technology, new drugs to do those things. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that it was a kind of cultural revolution."
What other songs stand out from the album for you?
"The standout track for me, without a doubt, is Get The Message. First of all, it sounds like a magical song. It did from the moment I wrote the music for it. But then, particularly when Bernard wrote his parts for it. I just really think it was it was a great listen – still do. I play in my live set to this day – I realised that no other band sounded like it before. Particularly New Order and The Smiths.
"When it came out as a single, and I occasionally heard it in a clothes shop or on the radio, I was able to stand back and go, That is a unique record. There may be some elements where you know it’s me because of the guitars, and obviously it’s Bernard singing it, but it just completely has its own place. We never did anything like it since. I was really so happy when Bernard did his vocal on it. I think it’s a great vocal. It felt like I’d really been allowed to make a breakaway. And also, what was going on as well was – it really felt like the times, but without having a pounding four-four beat or house piano.
"And then, the opening track, Idiot Country, has a real good, unusual sound to it, with the wah wah and Bernard’s singing. The chorus is super-pretty and quite beautiful. I always really like that.
"They are particularly close to me, these songs, because when I created the music for those with Bernard, it was a magical time in my life, personally, for all the reasons I’ve already stated. I was living in a cultural revolution, at the real centre of it, and I was escaping a very negative scenario. And I was young and I was building a successful songwriting partnership with someone who was really at the top of his game."
You mentioned that you were both just starting to get to know each other a bit. What spurred the idea for you and Bernard to start collaborating in this way? And what kind of routine did you find?
"I think the impetus had come because Bernard decided that he wanted to do something outside of New Order. And then The Smiths split, and we’d worked together just really briefly in 1982, on a record for Mike Pickering on Factory Records that Bernard was producing. We bumped into each other around and about a couple of times, and I guess we had respect for each other without knowing each other too well.
"Then I happened to be in San Francisco when New Order were playing. It was the last night of a tour and we started talking about working together that night. I was doing a Dennis Hopper film called Colors – that’s why I was in the States – so I went off to do Colors, and then Bernard came back to Manchester, and we reconvened when I got back from that movie. And we started to work out how we’d work together as writers, and we just got along very well.
"We lived in each other’s pockets for nine years. That surprised a lot of people, and it a big surprise to me and Bernard. We worked together every day – 12 hours, 13 hours, every day, for years. I would go and work with The The, and Bernard would work with New Orders throughout that nine-year period, but Electronic ongoing. And then when we went on holiday – when we took a holiday – we would go on holiday together.
"Our process was – not surprisingly, really – was that sometimes if I had a musical idea, Bernard was experienced enough to let me run with it. I would create a musical backing track and then he would get involved – either he might play bass guitar, or he might change some chords or produce me. And then vice versa. An example of that would be Feel Every Beat. I came up with the backing track, again with David Palmer doing drums, and it was just something I did for fun. And then Bernard came along, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got this, I’m not sure it’s us.” And he was like, “You’re crazy. Why didn’t you play me this a week ago? Don’t mess with it. Leave it as it is. You’ve done it.” And I’d kind of put that together in a day.
"But then the other side of that coin would be something like Some Distant Memory, which was Bernard’s baby that he was crafting. You can hear Ennio Morricone in it, and you can hear some classical influences in there,. And Soviet was another one where I just left Bernard to it. I was aiding and abetting, and maybe adding some suggestions. And so we had those two methods of working where we both helped each other.
"And then the other way would just be us, nose-to-nose with two guitars, which happened on Tighten Up; or side-by-side on the keyboard for six, seven hours or whatever – or a few days, which happened on songs like Try All You Want and Reality. So they were our ways of working. As I say, we were part of that new idea of breaking away from the format of a rock group.
"Bomb The Bass were the same. So it was very exciting. We had no rules, and that was one of the reasons why Bernard wanted to do something away from New Order. It’s both a blessing and a curse with groups when you have this chemistry. It can sometimes feel restrictive and political – a little bit like rules that you want to step out of. So with Electronic, we felt that we were no-holds-barred. But quite quickly it was reflected onto us – because of the success of Getting Away With It – oh, we’re a supergroup. We genuinely weren’t anticipating that."
You named San Francisco as the seeds of your collaboration. I believe your debut live show was in LA, also on the West Coast, supporting Depeche Mode. How was it to support one of the biggest bands in the world with a project whose music hasn’t even been released yet?
"Well, let’s put it this way: When I was out on stage in front of 70,000 people for the first time with the new group I was in, the first song on the setlist was called New One. And then I think the second one was called Wednesday. One of the songs was called Donald because Donald Johnson, from A Certain Ratio was on it. So to say we were kind of winging it is an understatement. But we did well, and I’ve met people over the years who went to that gig and loved it. It was pretty good.
"But Getting Away With It came out quite early, and that had been a very big hit. It was a biggest hit I’d ever had at that point in America. That gig came about because we were working on the record with Neil and Chris later on, after Getting Away With It came out, and we were finishing up mixing The Patience Of A Saint at Jimmy Page’s studio, in Oxfordshire someplace, and our manager, Marcus Russell, came to the studio one Sunday afternoon and said “Depeche Mode are doing these two huge gigs at Dodger Stadium, and they want to know whether you would open for them.
"And Neil and I walked off to go for a walk around the grounds, leaving Bernard and Chris, and Neil and I, as I remember, were sort of rolling our eyes, going, “What a silly suggestion. We haven’t even got record finished yet. Can you believe the absurdity of that suggestion?” And by the time we got back, Bernard and Chris, had agreed to do it. That’s my memory of it. Me and Neil kind of looked at each other, like, “OK. Well, we better make a thing of it.” And then when we got there, Happy Mondays happened to be recording Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches in LA, so for a week, Sunset Strip was all people walking up and down with curtain haircuts and flares, and eyes wide as saucers. I don’t think LA had seen anything like it since 1966 ! [laughs]."
You were finalising the album when you played that gig. Did playing the material live shape the final record?
"It did. Because making Gangster was – I almost think of that song as architectural work. It sounds very pretentious, but Bernard had brought – that was one of the first ideas that he had. And it was living on floppy disks, which was a fairly new thing. And he had the beats and the arrangement, and it lived like that for quite a long time. And Bernard is very skilled at beats. He’s all about the details. And so it lived like that for a long time. And I’d not been used to writing and living with songs from the beats up. But he knew that it was going to be a thing – and I say 'architectural' because it felt like putting a building together.
"And then we come back to it a couple of months later, and he tried a few different basslines, so it was all built like that. But the gig – making it into a live thing where we had to go and play it on a stage really made it make sense. It’s an unusual track. And there’s a couple of tracks from Electronic’s career where, you know it’s Bernard Sumner, and he could have done it in New Order, but he had to do it away from New Order for it to happen as he needed to do it. Soviet is another one. So the gig was another way of us becoming real, because we were almost anti-group. We were almost trying to escape our pasts, in a way.
"We’re both proud, without a doubt. I was proud of The Smiths, Bernard was proud of Joy Division and New Order, but we were young enough, and we wanted to break out of it. Bernard had new things happening in his life as well. And when I think back to where he was, in a new relationship. And the Haçienda was now a whole different beast – and that was a big part of his life, for better and worse. And he’d been touring and touring with New Order for a long time. I think he wanted to break out of the pressure of being the lead singer of that band that played arenas in America. And he wanted to enjoy the creative side of the Haçienda. He had put so much business into it, and so much of his time, and it had been stressful. For it to finally be full, and the soundtrack of it being this pumping, ecstatic, new technological music – I think he wanted to experience that, and he wanted to be inspired by it."
You said you’d planned to originally maybe just put out a few white labels – is that why there was such a delay between Getting Away With It and the album coming out? And when the album became such a hit, with Melody Maker calling it one of the greatest albums ever made, did you expect that kind of response?
"When I said that we were going to do white labels, that’s true, but we were definitely making an album. We didn’t really know what I suppose. Understandably, we were also looking for some common ground. So the fact that we both liked Ennio Morricone was important. The fact that we both like Chic was important. The fact that we both really loved David Bowie’s Low was very important, because that was something that – before Electronic, I’d rediscovered Low, and on the last Smiths album I’d written a piece of music on the Emulator. It became the start of the song Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, which just so happens to be my favourite Smiths record. That was the result of my experimentation with the Emulator II – which I’d hired because it was so expensive. And that was inspired by Low by David Bowie.
"So Bernard and I have these touchstones, from a songwriting and guitar point of view. The Kinks were important to us – we both loved The Kinks. But because of what was going on in the Haçienda, fairly quickly this tsunami of what became rave culture started to appear – acid house was happening as we were starting. We thought, OK, well, you know, white labels. We thought we were going to be much more anonymous than we were. But, yes, one of the reasons why the album took so long to make was, I was still working with The The and Bernard had some New Order commitments. But really, it’s because we had too many ideas. That was the good news. The bad news was that they were unfinished. But when the album came out, I was amazed at how well received it was.
"I can remember the day the press came out, and our office saying, “Oh, man, you just had this amazing review in Melody Maker” – or Rolling Stone, and really all of this business. Because behind the scenes, I was still getting pressure from third parties to get back with The Smiths. So I felt – without being a brat about it, it felt like something of a vindication. Particularly when I heard what Bernard had done on Get The Message. Because to me, there’s no greater vindication than your work, really, the music. And I think the album got in the Top 10, certainly. It might have got in the Top 5. Number 2? There you go…"
You mentioned thinking of David Byrne and Brian Eno – opposing styles coming together. We live in a musical world that’s increasingly genre-blind. Can you hear the album’s influence in the indie-dance crossover music that followed?
"Yes, but I hear that in some other records from that time as well. I hear that in 808 State – that might just be me, because I think their music’s endured very well. And, even though we were a pop group, and 808 State were in the charts, we had a fairly progressive mentality. We had – I wouldn’t say an indie mentality, but we still were the people who had been in Joy Division and The Smiths. So we had that kind of progressive attitude – even if we were writing commercial music, Bernard and I never felt mainstream or 'straight'."
There’s some subterfuge there.
"Yeah, yeah, of course there is. So you know, the one thing that was… I’d forgotten, but thinking about it now, that I personally was very into – this doesn’t really answer your question – Feel Every Beat was a really big favourite of George Michael’s. I heard that he based his song Freedom on that. When we met him a couple of times, he was really into the groove and the piano on Feel Every Beat. He quizzed me about that. He was a fan and really sweet. He was knocking around sometimes.
"But yeah, I think a few years ago, when it just became a no-brainer that, let’s call them indie guitar groups, played alongside sequencers, I was hearing things that did remind me of Electronic. I don’t think they were necessarily inspired by Electronic, I just think they were having the same idea, but later on."
What was it about Electronic that made it a natural space for collaboration?
"That’s a really good question and I know the answer. It was because Bernard and I both started out as guitar players in bands, not lead singers. So as successful and established a lead singer as Bernard Sumner is, he doesn’t have that wanker mentality – that has to hog the limelight all the time. And in New Order, as well as being the lead singer, he’s a musician. So when we got together, we worked together as musicians – almost to a fault, in that we would have such elaborate backing tracks waiting for vocals to happen last.
"And guitar players are very into collaboration. So that’s Bernard’s first instrument. So I’m working with someone who is not like a regular lead singer. And, to be fair, Matt Johnson is the same way – you know, guitar-playing singer, and he’s collaborated with quite a number of people too. So there’s that love of music for music’s sake, and lack of crazy ego.
"So I think that was a part of it. And, again, you can’t separate Electronic from the times, where – I won’t say DJ culture was in full swing, but the art of the remix was about to start happening, so there was a much less precious, more open-minded attitude towards your work. Because there’s nothing less precious than giving your songs away and they come back and not one note is the same. We were all at this thing that was like: Is it a good listen? Is it as good as Kraftwerk? Is it as good as Chic? That was where we were at.
"But I think, for Bernard himself, a slightly different agenda was put on us that was different from some of the other groups because of who we were. And because we had hits. That was the other thing that sort of that fed into the rest of Electronic, because Get The Message was a hit, Getting Away With It was a big hit, then For You on the second album [Raise The Pressure] was a hit. Forbidden City was a hit. So quite early on, not only was it made obvious to us that we were never going to escape who we were, in interviews or otherwise, but then when we started having hits, we couldn’t possibly be that anonymous band who were putting out white labels.
"It’s a nice dilemma, but it affected us as we went on. It’s all very well admiring obscure acid-house records, but we were expected to have hits. The critics expected it, the label expected it, and we probably expected it ourselves. I think I did anyway."
You mentioned DJ culture. I believe you DJ'd throughout Manchester yourself in the early '80s. Did you kind bring any experience of that, in terms of knowing how to fill a dance floor to Electronic?
"What helped from that period was knowing about grooves. I was DJing just as part of being around town, just before The Smiths formed. So it was 1982 and, you know, Hamilton Bohannon’s Let’s Start The Dance, Material’s I’m The One, which has got Nile Rodgers playing on it – that stuff never really left me. So when it came to making stuff for dancefloors, I drew on that, it’s kind of in my bones a little bit.
"I knew how to play guitar and some keyboards, and actually play guitar and program basslines that would work on that kind of club music. So it’s post-punk/disco, really. You hear that in the baselines with Reality, for example, which was complete Italia house. I just couldn’t wait to start doing something like that. I think that was the first complete backing track we did as Electronic. And Bernard was, as I say, having to really encourage me to play guitar. And I was just like, “No. Let’s leave it as a synth track.”
"But all I learned about programming, I learned from being in Electronic. I learned so many techniques for breaking out of guitar music, which I then brought back into guitar music later on, and what I’m doing to this day. There are some things that I learned from programming about – it all gets a bit Sound On Sound magazine, but I learned lots and lots of things about record-making that stays with me from those days."
Electronic - Electronic (Special Edition) is out now