UPON A TIME: Itʼs a well-worn cliché to describe music made by passionate, maverick souls as “timeless” but on visiting the songs of THE THE, itʼs hard not to think of them as complete outsiders. These unique, prescient, fevered songs resonate with basic truths about the human condition and seem to exist beyond the perishable dictates of fashion and style.
Listen closer, however, and it becomes clear that THE THE songs are not so much time-less, as time-full; packed with an awareness of precious moments, vanishing hopes, urgent social pressures, fervent memories, so that they might better be thought of as melodic time- bombs, primed to go off in any century.
THE THE is, and always has been, Matt Johnson. Though his creative life was nurtured under the sodium glare of Londonʼs street lamps in the late 70ʼs and early 80ʼs, reacting to punk and fighting against the trite Thatcherite pop of the early MTV era, thereʼs a vast scope within the material. His genre is all his own. It is music of long shadows, high hopes, channeled anger, feverish passions and sweetly disturbing poignancy. It is pop and rock, blues and folk, soul and polemic. It spans alienated electronics to twisted cinematic soundtracks, guitar tumbling swing to crimson ballads, rants and prayers to diaries and hymns.
The glaring, jarring wonder of Johnsonʼs catalogue is the fundamental underlying assumption that songs matter, music matters, lyrics matter, and they should be firmly built upon urgent truth, with truth on top. Everything sounds like it HAD to be made, which may partly explain why there have been comparatively few THE THE records over the years. Indeed the absences in-between releases once prompted a journalist to remark that entire music and fashion movements come and go during Johnsonʼs ʻrestʼ periods.
ONCE I WAS: Matt Johnson was a couple of years too young to be hit by the full impact of UK punk. His urge to make music was a matter of inner demons rather than surrounding scenes. The son of East London publicans who used to promote gigs, he grew up with John Lee Hooker, Screaming Lord Sutch, The Kinks and the Small Faces performing at family venues. Going through phases of fascination with The Beatles, Motown and Glam Rock, he was already performing gigs at the age of 11 with his schoolboy band, Roadstar, and by the age of 15 had left school in order to further learn his trade in a Soho recording studio.
At 17 Johnson formed THE THE by placing a classified advert in the NME. It read; “Influences; The Residents, Syd Barrett, Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground.” They made their debut as a prototype electronic duo at Londonʼs Africa Centre on May 11th 1979, the week Margaret Thatcher was elected to power, and began clawing their way onto indie labels 4AD, Cherry Red and Some Bizarre, the former releasing a 1981 debut “Burning Blue Soul” as Matt Johnson.
Within 3 years, Johnsonʼs nom-de-studio, THE THE, after abandoning two still-born albums, “Spirits“ and “The Pornography of Despair“, would release the most critically-acclaimed album of the year, 1983ʼs synth-noir classic “Soul Mining”, on Epic/CBS Records. Charting the limits of the soul within a pop career, while surrounded by big business and cynical 80ʼs music, was never going to be a smooth ride, but Johnson had a dedication that bordered on insanity, with studio psychosis in New York and Hunter Thompson-style road trips, behind the recording of early singles “Uncertain Smile” and “Perfect”.
A further three years along saw the mammoth multi-media “Infected” project and Johnsonʼs journey into the heartʼs darkness, risking death filming the stunt-filled, ground-breaking long-form video in Peru, Bolivia, New York and London. The album led to THE THE breaking through commercially, despite radio bans on the political singles “Sweet Bird Of Truth” and “Heartland”.
No phase of THE THEʼs progress has been without drama to match the intensity on record. By the time of the globally railing “Mind Bomb” album of 1989, and itʼs banned single about the impending clash between Islam and Christianity “Armageddon Days (are here again)” – Johnson was pushing engineers and producers towards nervous breakdowns whilst mind-surfing on meditation, grape diets and magic mushroom tea. He recruited his old friend, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, to join the band and toured the world, culminating in three sold out nights at Londonʼs Royal Albert Hall.
The evolution of Johnsonʼs writing is tightly bound with his personal odyssey. The hauntingly beautiful singles from 1993ʼs UK No. 2 hit album “Dusk” – “Love Is Stronger Than Death” and “Slow Emotion Replay” – are shaded by family bereavements. The accompanying full-length film of the album, “From Dusk ʻTil Dawn” directed by long time collaborator Tim Pope and shot in an atmospheric New Orleans and New York, delicately captured in 16mm monochrome the yearning trapped deep within the recordʼs grooves.
Having subsequently shipped out to New York, preferring to conduct from afar his ongoing tussle with the meaning of British-ness, he pulled off a vindicatory feat, re-interpreting Hank Williams songs on 1995ʼs “Hanky Panky” – It was voted one of the finest country albums of the year in the US and hailed by Williams’ biographer Colin Escott as amongst the finest ever cover recordings of Hankʼs classics.
AND THEN: The last ten years began with the most critically acclaimed album of Johnsonʼs career, “Naked Self“, released through Trent Reznorʼs Nothing Records on Universal, and lyrically targeting globalization and consumerism with songs such as the pulsating “Boiling Point” and the grinding “GlobalEyes” as well dealing with the usual small matters of love and death in the eerie “Phantom Walls” and wistful “Soul Catcher”. The release was followed by a grueling and successful 14 month world tour and yet after returning from the road Johnson abandoned itʼs two New York sister albums, “Gun Sluts“ and “Karmic Gravity“, and performed his customary disappearing act.
Having moved back to East London from New York a few years ago, Johnson set about building his own recording studio, setting up his own record label (Lazarus), creating his own radio broadcast (Radio Cineola) and launching his own small publishing company (51st State Press). Subsequently these last few years have seen a protracted period of intense writing, recording and photographing – for films, documentaries, exhibitions, books and spoken word projects – as Johnson combines his love of blending the visual, aural and lyrical into cinematic packages; the fruits of which are only now beginning to emerge, as a series of lovingly home-made CD/Book releases on his Cineola imprint label.
Starting with “Tony“, the soundtrack to the critically acclaimed debut feature from his younger brother Gerard. A brutally black humoured psychological thriller, it follows a week in the life of an alienated London psychopath with severe social problems, and a moustache. Both film and music dive into a contemporary London underworld of misfit characters that slip through the expectations of acceptable behaviour. Both Johnsons plough furrows so familiar to their surroundings and history.
The second volume in the series “Moonbug” follows renowned photographer Steve Pyke on his extraordinary journey to meet, interview and photograph his childhood heroes – the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon. Directed by award winning filmmaker Nichola Bruce it features a specially commissioned soundtrack by THE THE.
Now free of corporate shareholder business demands from the old music industry, once again Matt Johnson is poised to deliver music that speaks to a patiently waiting audience, music of today and, perhaps, the future. After years of being regarded as overzealous due to his desire to talk about globalisation, environmentalism and religious extremism, (both in song and interview) Johnson entered the new century with a catalogue of music more in tune with recent events than most. Concerns of country and planet do not, however, dominate. There is as much about lust and sexuality as politics and spirituality.
Few who recall the song from the 1980s, and many who will discover it in the 21st Century, will be able to resist a soul-shiver as the words from “This Is The Day“ touch a shared raw nerve of hope and confidence: “This is the day your life will surely change. This is the day when things fall into place”
Adapted from an article originally by Roger Morton, 2002
Photograph by Johanna Saint Michaels