The Smiths – Pretty Girls Make Graves

Folk music, as if you didn’t already know, is a major influence on Johnny Marr.

The first interview he did purely as a ‘musician’, that I’m aware of, was for (UK-based) Guitarist magazine in 1984. At the time I was just starting to become interested in the thing that seems to regularly occupy the mind of anyone who picks up a guitar, namely – the gear.

Johnny on cover of Guitarist, sporting an impressive ‘do.

So in the interview Johnny satiates that need and talks about his early arsenal of instruments (why is it that guitars are always referred to as weaponry?), poses with his Gibson J-series acoustic etc, but also speaks at length about influences.

Most at the time I recognised – Marc Bolan, Stones, Beatles, Byrds, Patti Smith Group – and a few I thought I might of heard of – Nils Lofgren, Nile Rodgers, Rory Gallagher (also in the same edition of the mag, weirdly). Some I had no clue though, such as when he revealed his pre-Smiths British folk guitar heroes, exotic names such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourne & Martin Carthy. This seemed odd at the time, and still does now.

I can’t recall anyone else in that independent music scene in the same era talking about this stuff.

So pre-internet I sought to try and discover these artists, which in the end was via some borrowed TDK C90 mixtape. Honestly, once I heard it, I couldn’t get behind it, wasn’t into it at all.

Fast forward a few years and I’m listening to The Stone Roses ‘Elizabeth My Dear’, the White Album and then eventually Nick Drake. This is music that draws inspiration from the same place as my previously hated mix tape and so it is a very short hop over to Bert, Pentangle etc.

There’s a great interview, in two parts, on YT where Cribs-era Johnny talks at length with Paul Morley about folk music and its influence on both his career and uncompromising approach. At one point, he agrees with Morley who suggests that you can really hear these influences in The Smiths, particularly the early output.

There are some obvious tunes to pick out – ‘Back To The Old House’, ‘Please, Please…’ – but for me Pretty Girls Make Graves is the one that most has that off-kilter, Anglo-Saxon, esoteric, in-the-woods-at-4am vibe to it. The same feeling I get from Nick Drake’s ‘Three Hours’, ‘Chambertin’ by Bert or Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Scarborough Fair’. The ‘Cello Version’ of PGMG recorded with Troy Tate during the early album sessions, has it in spades.

It’s this version that most closely resembles how Marr played the tune in 1983 and 1984, which brings me to my recent video. I studied a couple of sources; a gig from Derby in ’83 and the treasure trove that is the Rockpalast ‘84 TV show. Disappearing down the rabbit hole for a minute, there is key difference between them. In the ‘84 footage he plays a version of the skankish guitar part evident on the official album release. Annoyingly the camera veers away just as he starts playing it, so in the end when transcribing I aimed for an approximation that worked. To be honest if I was to play this live myself, I’d probably stick with the ’Derby’ version. I think it sounds better.

After uploading my JM-related videos I’ve got into a habit of sharing them to a FB group, created by Brian O’Grady, dedicated to learning and studying all things Johnny. I added my post, then not long after Josh Wong posted an alternate version that de-mystified the part in verse three. Community power in action.

Both videos are below. I recommend playing the tune at 4am in the woods for the complete esoteric English folk experience. Just don’t watch anything from the ‘Rural Horror’ sub-genre beforehand.

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