When it comes to angst-filled 80's songwriters, two names frequently crop up: Those of Mr Steven Morrissey and Mr Bernard Sumner. Perhaps because he wasn't signed to a hip indie label or even enjoyed the Stateside success of Morrissey/New Order, Matt Johnson of The The is more often than not criminally overlooked.
In ten years, The The have released four albums of somewhat stunning beauty. Though essentially a vehicle for a solo Johnson, supporting characters have included
Jools Holland, Nenah Cherry and Sinead O Connor. Some cast.
Why tell this story now? If you're interested, the recently released London Town box set collects the aforementioned four albums: 1983's Soul Mining, 1986's Infected, 1989's Mind Bomb and Dusk from 1993.
On the surface, Soul Mining seems pretty much average early/mid 80's synth pop. But underneath, the darker undertones that would come to the hilt later on are there for all to see. The Sinking Feeling has Johnson musing that "I'm just a symptom of the moral decay
that's knawing at the heart of the nation". Flip the coin, and there's the catchy pop of This Is The Day and Uncertain Smile. The latter, at least the equal of anything the Smiths were doing at the time, has Jools Holland bashing on the ivories in some style,
which almost makes up for him having Robbie Williams on "Later..."
As a sign of Johnson's work pace, compare this: In the three years it took him to get a follow-up together, the Smiths had released two more studio albums. And when he did finally get round to recording Infected, he realised he was going blind through the nervous exhaustion caused by his somewhat excessive lifestyle.
Think about "Banned Singles". You think Relax or any other from a number of songs banned for being basically about sex. Be it with someone of the same sex, someone underage or someone usually found in a field. Whatever. The lead single from Infected was banned because it was too political. Sweet Bird Of Truth's lyric about a US Air Force pilot being shot down was judged a bit sensitive at the time. Sony
Records were advised to remove the stars & stripes from their London office for fear of a bombing.
Musically, Infected had a slight New Order-esque rock/dance feel to it. Lyrically, it
was brutal. The title track dealt with the (then recent) AIDS outbreak. To this day, Heartland remains more than a little relevant:
"This is the place, where pensioners are raped,
and their hearts are being cut from the welfare state..."
"All the bankers getting sweaty, beneath their white collars, as the pound in our pocket, turns into a dollar."
"...this is the 51st state of the U.S.A"
Written at a time when Britain was seemingly becoming a US Military Base, it should scare you shitless that the words still ring true today.
Elsewhere, songs dealt with guilt: sexual guilt from frequenting prostitutes and guilt of being "just another western guy/with desires that couldn't be satisfied". On closing track The Mercy Beat, our hero, tired by life is confronting the devil who when he "asked the angels for inspiration...bought me a drink...he's been buying them ever since".
Infected is a disturbing, brilliant listen and easily one of the top five albums of the 80's (yeah, doesn't sound much, I know). But by 1989, Johnson had taken a full turn, musically.
While Infected worked around soundscapes featuring multiple layers of synths, guitars, horn sections and backing vocals, Mind Bomb saw a transition towards the more
traditional guitar/bass/drums combo.
Of course, it was not just any combo. The new The The featured Johnson as frontman/guitarist, James Eller (ex Julian Cope band) on bass, David Palmer (ex-ABC) on drums and one Johhny Marr on guitar/harmonica. This being The The, it wouldn't be the same without bizarre artwork. The back of Mind Bomb portrayed a dove of peace viciously skewered on a rifle bayonet. Nice.
Much like it's predecessor, Mind Bomb featured lyrics that gave the impression that Johnson was working with some kind of crystal ball. From Armageddon Days Are Here (again):
"They're five miles high as the crow flies, leavin' vapour trails against a blood red sky,
Movin' in from the East, towards the West, with balaclava helmets over their heads.
Islam is rising, the Christians Mobilising..."
Despite this one song, two themes develop. Side one is, basically, about God. But it's anything but a happy-clappy affair. Religion comes in for a healthy beating. Hearing lyrics such as "God didn't build himself that throne/God doesn't live in Israel or Rome" makes you wish Matt Johnson had been your R.E. teacher at school.
Side two is about love. But again, in anything but the usual manner (after all, this is an album we're advised by the sleeve notes to "play very loud, very late, very alone with the lights turned very low"). The lyrics tell of overwhelming desire in incredibly deep detail. Cover versions from Will Young may not be forthcoming.
So to 1993, and Dusk. Recorded with the same personnel as before, with the addition of keyboard player D.C. Collard (who was in the Jo Boxers, remember them? Thought not), it was The The's biggest hit album, charting at #2. Here, the political/religious musings of previous albums are nearly all but gone. Indeed, on the sublime Slow Emotion Replay (one of Marr's best moments, both during and after Smithdom) has the lyric "Don't ask me about war, religion, love, sex or death".
Compared to the previous three albums, Dusk requires more patience. Despite the obvious single qualities of Slow Emotion Replay, casual listening will bring only frustration. It's littered with screaming harmonicas, honky tonk piano and Johnson's dark thoughts: "The only true freedom is freedom from the heart's desire" or "Why
can't love ever touch my heart like fear does?".
And yet there's the flipside, which is always going to be there when a song titled Love Is Stronger Than Death is around. Blind optimism from a man once called "permanently 17"? Stranger things...
The period covered by the London Town boxset has been wisely chosen. Following on from Johnson's pure teen angst years found on his Burning Blue Soul or The Pornography Of Despair sets but closing just before undertaking new projects (such as an album of Hank Williams covers), it showcases one of this countries finest songwriters, who wrote as politically as Billy Bragg and as sexually as Morrissey.
Obviously, for most of us buying the box set is out of reach, but the individual albums shouldn't be. How much can I emphasise the brilliance of these four slabs of genius? A lot.