I think it’s fair to say that 2017 does not feel like a good time to be alive. Not only do we have a moron in the White House, a thug in the Kremlin and a zombie shambling around inside Number 10 Downing Street, but a chunk of ice as big as Delaware has collapsed off the side of Antarctica, scientists have announced that we’re now in earth’s sixth era of mass extinction, gonorrhoea has developed resistance to most antibiotics and become almost untreatable, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has procreated.
It’s surely a sign of these bleak times that I’ve found myself listening again to the music of post-punk / alternative band The The.
In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically awkward name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson. Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey. Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records – Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.
The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums – Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993) – which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era. I heard about the band while I was at college though, to be honest, I resisted listening to it for a long time because the set of students I knew there who were The The fans happened to be a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84). (That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault.) It wasn’t until the late 1980s that my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape and I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time. The result was love at first listen.
© Some Bizarre / Epic
Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks; and despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they came with a precise, shiny, synth-y polish that – unlike a lot of 1980s music – still sounds fresh and invigorating today. However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim. He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much of what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square. I have to say, though, that in terms of horribleness the last year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money and I wonder if that’s why I suddenly find the band very relevant and listenable again.
Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front – his words didn’t get buried in the mix. Thus, when I played my The The collection again recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day. When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines along with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…” The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.” It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes happily beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from The Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).
Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2017: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.” Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.” Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”
Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON. Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”
Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising. He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’ (and early-dyin’) country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams. On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising enjoyable. Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”) and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).
Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ. (I should say he was influenced by Hank’s hazardous lifestyle as much as he was by his music. Whenever he suffered an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as incurring burns on his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.”) He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.
The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band. Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.
Thereafter, the band appeared to drop off the radar. But Johnson remained busy in a slightly different field, working on movie soundtracks (still under the moniker of The The). In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme. He also contributed to two films directed by his brother, Gerard Johnson: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and bullied man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer; and 2014’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters. For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective. Sequences like the one at the end of Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one at the start of Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.
© Lazarus Limited
Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past 15 years have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to make another fully-fledged album. However, the wait seems to be nearly over, for recently a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry states that a new album is currently ‘in progress’.
In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue. Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.