Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The artists that time forgot: The The

Breaking through to the musical mainstream has never been easy. And even for the fortunate few who make it, there’s still no guarantee of a lasting legacy. In this series, we look at some of the acts who once made a big splash in the music scene, but ended up as a minor footnote in pop history.

Few bands captured the cultural malaise and societal polarisation of 1980s Britain as incisively as The The. Matt Johnson’s genre-hopping, politically-charged and frequently brilliant musical project went from strength to strength over the course of the ‘80s, amassing fans and plaudits without ever diluting the potency of his ‘existential blues’.


But while The The are not a forgotten band and still have fans enough to fill the Albert Hall, there’s a growing sense that Johnson – who has recently re-emerged following a 16-year hiatus – may be doomed to miss out on the enduring recognition he deserves. Indeed, when we consider the grand musical narrative of the 1980s, The The are unlikely to get a mention, despite being regarded by critics at the time as one of the most important acts of the decade.


So as The The launch a new celebratory live recording, ‘The Comeback Special’, it’s worth exploring how this came to pass. What exactly happened to derail Johnson’s career, and why has his band fallen from popular memory?


A cryptic moniker


Tracking Matt Johnson’s early career isn’t straightforward. By 1983, the year of The The’s first studio album, he had already recorded and released a solo album, 1981’s ‘Burning Blue Soul’, as well as at least three further (as yet) unreleased efforts, ‘See Without Being Seen’, ‘Spirit’ and ‘The Pornography of Despair’.


According to Johnson, “I knew from the age of five I was going to be a singer. As a 13-year-old playing village halls and people’s garages in the glam rock era, that really appealed to me.”


For years, he had been relentlessly pursuing his musical ambitions via a series of concurrent projects and experiments. He was a talented multi-instrumentalist highly regarded by several major labels. And yet, his career was not going to plan. He had a tendency to abandon his own material. His efforts to establish a band clashed with his inclination to play all of the instruments himself.


Johnson had been recruiting musicians since 1977 and ‘The The’ – coined by bandmate Kevin Laws –eventually made their live debut at London’s Africa Centre in 1979. But by the early ‘80s, there were no band members left. It had become a cryptic moniker for Johnson’s solo output, and there wasn’t much of that to speak of. A handful of 7” singles put out on Some Bizarre Records had led to a significant deal with CBS Records. Since then, however, The The had released just one single, ‘Uncertain Smile’, while efforts to record a full album in New York City had been thwarted by the drug-induced chaos of Johnson’s lifestyle.


He returned to London, having spent a lot of CBS’s money, with just two finished songs to show for his toils. It’s remarkable the label stuck with him, and even more surprising that they allowed him to abandon his unfinished recordings and start afresh in North London in 1983.  At least the band were gigging again. A weekly residence of concerts at London’s Marquee club in May 1983 gave The The much-needed momentum, with Johnson teaming up with some post-punk pals for the shows, several of whom would eventually appear on the now long-overdue debut album.


Johnson was still spending a lot of time rewriting his songs, perhaps due to the nature of the subject matter. As he has said of his work, “My songs were always written from a bit of an old head on young shoulders when I was in my early 20s. The songs were always quite philosophical and thoughtful, and I tried to probably write about some of the bigger issues on life.”


This is the Day


Finally, in October 1983, Johnson would reward the record label’s patience with the delivery of ‘Soul Mining’.


From the pulsating drums of opener, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All My Life)’ to the uplifting quasi-Caribbean synth groove of closing track ‘Giant’, ‘Soul Mining’ is an idiosyncratic classic. While it’s of its era in terms of the musical reliance on punchy synths, bass keys and drum machines, the album doesn’t sound like anyone else. In part, this is due to Johnson’s directness as a lyricist and as a singer. He’s capable of moving from a whisper to a bellow within seconds, and he’s unafraid to press home and repeat key lines for dramatic effect – “My mind has been polluted / And my energy diluted” on ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow’ or “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of our country” on ‘That Sinking Feeling’.


The best moments of ‘Soul Mining’, however, are lower key, subtle and lingering. The understated fiddle tucked away behind the accordion on ‘This Is The Day’; the unforgettable Jools Holland piano solo on ‘Uncertain Smile’. Neither of these singles made a dent on the UK charts, yet both ought to be considered amongst the decade’s finest releases.


While not every contemporary reviewer identified ‘Soul Mining’ as a masterpiece, the album received plenty of attention. Rolling Stone stated that, “In the current sea of synth-pop sludge, Soul Mining stands out,” while Don Watson of NME claimed that “[Johnson] has the command of music’s immense possibilities to carry them through without self-indulgence.”


Further down the line, Johnson would indeed succumb to bouts of musical self-indulgence, but in 1983 he was in total command of his abilities, and the decision to shelve his earlier recordings looked as though it had paid off. A hit with the critics, ‘Soul Mining’ made it to number 27 on the album charts (and would eventually be certified Gold), not bad given the album’s problematic birth.


The 51st state of the USA


Johnson’s disillusion at the state of Britain (and the world in general) in the 1980s was already evident on ‘Soul Mining’, and this theme took centre stage on its follow-up, ‘Infected’. Released in November 1986, the album painted a bleak picture of British decline, with Johnson pouring scorn on the idea that Britain was now anything more than an American colony.



From the title track and opener onwards, ‘Infected’ is an electrifying record full of unexpected pleasures. ‘Out of the Blue’ is one of the most unusual blues you’re ever likely to hear. ‘Sweet Bird of Truth’ is a bold commentary on the US’s bombing of Libya, while the brilliant ‘Angels of Deception’ continues the critique of American hegemony in equally visceral fashion.


Speaking of the cinematic ‘Heartland’, which became the band’s best-selling single, Johnson explained that, “I’m attacking those working-class Tories and middle class who still think Britain is on a par economically with France and Germany... I wanted to write a classic song which is basically representative of its time...”


Even today, ‘Heartland’ still feels relevant:


Beneath the old iron bridges, across the Victorian parks / And all the frightened people running home before dark / Past the Saturday morning cinema that lies crumbling to the ground / And the p*** stinking shopping centre in the new side of town.


By now, Johnson’s music had been given its own sub-genre by the media – ‘existential blues’ – and, it seemed, the more disillusioned he became, the more positively his audience responded. ‘Infected earned a series of four-star reviews, graced the NME’s albums of the year list and even snuck into a Q Magazine 2007 retrospective on the 100 Best British albums. Commercially too, the album was a minor hit, reaching #14 and remaining in the album charts for 30 weeks.


Despite ‘Infected’s sizeable production costs (circa £150,000), Johnson insisted upon a further vast budget to complete a full set of videos to accompany the album. The record company caved to his demands, and the finished production – a first within the music industry – was broadcast on Channel 4 before being sent on the road in lieu of a live concert tour.


Johnson had proved with ‘Infected’ that he was no flash-in-the-pan, but he was also cultivating a reputation for being difficult – a disgruntled outsider who refused to jump through the usual hoops. As he puts it, “I’ve never had a cosy relationship with the British press. I didn’t like them, they didn’t particularly like me. Some bands got very close with journalists and featured heavily in the press, I kept my distance. You pay a bit of a price for that in Britain, if you’re not part of the old boys club, and I was always happy being an outsider.”


His misanthropic persona was undeniably part of the appeal in 1986, but when the band’s fortunes began to wane, it would ultimately leave Johnson isolated and struggling for support.


The beaten generation


Questioning the nature of God is always a fun way to start an album, and this is where 1989’s ‘Mind Bomb’ begins, Johnson taking on the biggest theme of all and encouraging the listener to “Ask yourself / Whose voice is it that whispers onto you?


With lines like “Good morning beautiful / Goodbye world”, the album opener ‘Good Morning Beautiful’ is ominous even for Johnson, and it’s followed by the most incendiary song ever to be set to a shuffle beat. ‘Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)’ is a full-frontal assault on organised religion that holds up worryingly well 30 years after its release. This is Johnson at his best, telling it as he sees it, with no filter and no fudging his position. The music is equally spectacular, a four-minute burst of melodrama complete with soaring strings and holier than thou male choir.


The rest of ‘Mind Bomb’ can’t live up to its opening ten minutes, but it doesn’t matter. By track two, the album is already a success. Notably, Johnson had now opted for a full band setup, ditching the synths and electronic drumbeats in favour of more organic tones. And, while he’s lyrically at his peak on the album, the musical arrangements are at times a little pedestrian, despite the presence of former The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. ‘Kingdom of Rain’ suffers from this problem, as does ‘Gravitate to Me’, which just isn’t interesting enough to be rescued by its enlivened lead vocal.


Much better is lead single ‘The Beaten Generation’, another track that holds up well today, with its references to the country’s youth “being seduced by the greedy hands of politics and half-truths”. Marr gives it his best here, and the chorus certainly owes a debt to his old band. ‘The Beaten Generation’ scored The The a first appearance on Top of the Pops and helped ‘Mind Bomb’ to a #4 placement on the UK album charts.


However, while the band was hitting new commercial heights, 1989 was a year of personal tragedy for Johnson with the death of his younger brother, Eugene, provoking what he’s since referred to as “a slow-motion collapse.” A lengthy world tour – ‘The The Versus The World’ – was followed by a live film of the same name, and a further studio EP, ‘Shades of Blue’, was released in 1990. But it would be three years before Johnson resurfaced with another album, evidence that he was finding work to be an uphill struggle.


The The’s fourth album, ‘Dusk’, strikes a more sombre tone from the outside. Moody acoustic guitars and organs accompany ‘Love Is Stronger Than Death’. The harmonica introduction on ‘Slow Emotion Replay’ is an elegiac reworking of ‘This Is The Day’s optimistic accordion. Lyrically, Johnson has turned inward, admitting that, Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”


His audience had clearly missed him – ‘Dusk’ charted at #2, produced three top 40 singles and gave rise to another world tour. But while Johnson has a soft spot for the album, it lacks the invention of The The’s earlier work. ‘Helpline Operator’ and ‘Sodium Light Baby’ are so slick that they could have been written for a Bryan Ferry solo album. They’re both decent enough tracks, but there’s a sense that Johnson is taking the ‘existential blues’ label too literally, making bluesy and atmospheric music that lingers in the background rather than tugging at the heartstrings. ‘Lung Shadows’ passes by unnoticed, ‘Bluer Than Midnight’ is formulaic gospel-influenced blues balladry, and album closer ‘Lonely Planet’ attempts to flip the ‘Slow Emotion Replay’ chorus on its head with worryingly trite results: “If you can’t change the world, change yourself.”


Inertia and the Comeback Special


What Johnson described as a “slow-motion collapse” was slow indeed. While The The were relegated to the sidelines during the explosion of Britpop in the mid-90s, Johnson was hardly inactive. There was a Hank Williams covers album, another full-length film, another unreleased album (the label didn’t like it) and a subsequent label change, with Johnson and his bandmates moving over to Interscope to work on 2000’s ‘NakedSelf’ record.


NakedSelf’ is an unremarkable album, with the exception of ‘Swine Fever’ and its potent lambasting of consumerism, but this can largely be explained by the problems Johnson was experiencing during its making. “I was funding everything myself and losing a lot of money because we had no record company support. Radio stations were contacting us directly to get copies of the album. You can’t take it personally; the whole industry was going through a meltdown.”


Having been ground down by his label troubles and a gruelling 14-month tour, Johnson’s live appearance at the 2002 Meltdown Festival would mark the last The The performance for 16 years. What was initially a self-imposed break from the industry became a prolonged period of inertia. In his own words, “I was going through an infertile period in terms of creativity, a bit lost… I was tied up with personal events in my life that got the better of me.”


There were a few film soundtracks and a couple of new songs, but ultimately Johnson would only return to the limelight after the sad death of another brother, Andrew, in 2017. According to Johnson, Andrew’s passing proved to be the catalyst for ‘The Comeback Special’. “It stimulated that sense of urgency. I did a lot of soul-searching... I feel in a way as if someone’s turned on the oxygen supply again. I feel energised and excited.”


Twilight of a champion


Writing for The Quietus in 2014, John Doran suggested that one of the reasons The The tend to get overlooked by contemporary narrators of musical history is that they’re uncategorisable. “It would be daft to say this fact has hurt Johnson to any great extent – several of his albums have sold very well indeed – but there has never been any genre or revival scene for people to hitch his wagon to. Because of this, paradoxically, in some respects, The The still feel like a cult band – albeit one that operated from well within the mainstream.”


Johnson doesn’t seem too bothered by this. He has consistently claimed that he’s far happier on the fringes than in the limelight, and there’s no reason to doubt him. In a recent interview, he explained that “I would have been a hell of a lot more successful if I’d done things in a more conventional way, but I don’t regret anything… It’s more useful as a songwriter to be an anonymous observer.”


The downside of his position is that it’s hard to get people to pay attention to anonymous observers. Despite the fanbase anticipation for ‘The Comeback Special’, in the age of streaming, playlists, and musical echo chambers, it’s harder than ever for the world’s most algorithmically-inconvenient band to gain airtime with a wider audience.


All of which adds to the sense that, despite being as relevant as ever, The The are destined to remain a hidden band, omitted from the grand musical narrative but forever revered by those in the know.


Tom Kirkham

www.tomkirkham.co.uk / @finestworktom

Image: Matt Johnson - Wikimedia Commons

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