List some late 20th-century British bands that electrified culture in provocative ways, and the Sex Pistols and the Smiths should be at the top, underlined in messy ink. The former were a blast of welcome loudness, filthiness and funniness in the mid-1970s, while the latter were similarly bracing, fusing the pretty with the sinister (take the Smiths’ 1984 debut album: oceans of jingle-jangle alongside songs about the Moors murders). The instigators of both bands were working-class, charismatic guitarists with something to say, who now, at 61 (Steve Jones) and 53 (Johnny Marr), want to set their stories straight.
It was Sex Pistol Jones, not wide-eyed frontman John Lydon, who said “what a fucking rotter” on teatime TV – a phrase that sounds rather quaint 40 years on. Jones’s autobiography is anything but quaint. “You know that bit in A Clockwork Orange where the main guy has his eyes forced open to make him feel like shit every time he remembers what a rotten cunt he was?” he rails early on. “That’s pretty much how writing this book is going to feel for me.”
Off we go: a “shit upbringing”. Maternal neglect. Sexual abuse by a stepfather. A taste for breaking-in reaching jaw-dropping heights (literally) when Jones tries to climb a chimney at Battersea power station; a lust for burglary that (incredibly) includes stealing amps at David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust shows. There’s little bravado here, though, and many moments of poignancy, such as when the very young Jones wants Diana Dors to be his mum, or when he is sent to a remand centre for reasons he has never understood. His book’s title speaks volumes, although these stories are told without sadness. As he says later: “If life’s pissing on you anyway, there’s no point hitting at it with your umbrella.”
Through the fame years, Lonely Boy is often eye-wateringly funny (it is brilliantly and unapologetically ghostwritten by Ben Thompson – Jones is dyslexic, but went through edits). Delicate souls might find phrases such as “rumping a bird” rather ripe, while scenes involving Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and a bathtub are pretty grimy.
Jones is good at puncturing myth, though. Take his band’s seminal 1976 gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, which inspired the likes of Joy Division and Morrissey to be musicians: “They just looked like a standard bunch of northern cunts with moustaches and kipper ties from where I was standing.”
Even when he’s documenting his recent, teetotal years in LA, where he hosts a successful radio show, he counters the Alan Partridge-gone-to-Hollywood stuff (“Russell Brand got me into transcendental meditation”) with an understanding of his daftness. He’s “a semi-retired sexual deviant who doesn’t really act out so much any more”, which is sensible. His book’s a delight.
So is Johnny Marr’s, but he’s a very different beast. Jones was never “keen on guitars”, Marr was never not (his first chapter details a magical encounter with one hanging in his local corner shop between “buckets and brooms” – he wasn’t yet five).
Marr’s working-class upbringing was nourishing, not negligent: his teenage mum and aunties played music to him constantly, making it the centre of life. As the sole author of Set the Boy Free, his voice is romantic not rowdy, more cosmic than chaotic. On his music-loving teens: “Wherever I went I’d hear about someone with a guitar or a drum kit. Maybe it was because I was looking out for it, or maybe it was looking for me.”
Marr’s meeting with Morrissey – the biggest selling point of this book – is approached sweetly. At first, Morrissey’s “a guy with glasses” he meets after a gig. A few years later, after watching a Leiber and Stoller documentary, Marr realises whose door he has to knock on. He writes with palpable joy about their friendship and music, a mood often ignored in light of the band’s messy split five years later, in 1987. The last face-to-face contact Marr and Morrissey had – an afternoon pub session in 2008, during which they discussed re-forming their band – is dealt with simply but emphatically: “Our communication ended, and things went back to the way they were, and how I expect they will always be.”
But Set the Boy Free – a telling title again – is much more than an obituary for a brilliant band. It’s also a love letter to the women in Marr’s life – his wife Angie, whom he met at 15, and musicians such as Kirsty MacColl and Chrissie Hynde (no bathtubs this time). It’s also a guide to how to keep changing and moving on with your creative life – Marr joined younger bands, made film soundtracks, and in his 50s has released strong solo albums. “It was never in my stars to be doing the same thing for ever,” he says with a whiff of apology, and neither was it for Jones. Bands often burn fast and bright, but they certainly leave trails of powerful light.
Lonely Boy is published by William Heinemann (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40. Set the Boy Free is published by Century (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40