The The (Contemporary Musicians)
The post-punk rock movement of the early 1980s was a battlefield strewn with the corpses of one-hit wonders. One of the few survivors was Matt Johnson, founder and frontman of The The, who succeeded by adopting the flag of angst that his new wave peers had left behind. While other bands succumbed to the perky sounds of prevalent chart hits, Johnson clung fiercely to his own agenda. His songwriting focuses on self-degradation, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and general anxiety about being alive. The appeal of Johnson's music largely stems from the self-revealing language he uses throughout his lyrics. Whether the theme is political and social commentary or sexual love, he bares his soul in an achingly authentic manner.
Johnson, born in 1961 in the East End of London, is one of four sons of a pub owner. His father's Two Puddings pub employed as musical acts the likes of David Essex, Rod Stewart, and the Small Faces, while Johnson's uncleho owned several London dance halls and nightclubsromoted artists like Muddy Waters and the Kinks. This early exposure to the excitement of live rock performance led to the 11-year-old Johnson's formation of a band with several school friends.
After leaving school at age 15, Johnson was determined to pursue a career in music. He contacted just about every British record company before De Wolfe, a small publishing house in London, employed him as their tea boy and eventually assistant engineer. Absorbing every aspect of the music business he could, Johnson used his spare time to record his own demos and later placed an advertisement in New Music Express that led to an early incarnation of The The.
The The initially consisted of core member Johnson and part-time musicians such as Keith Laws (keyboards), Tom Johnston (bass), and Peter Ashworth (drums). The hiring of supplemental performers to augment Johnson's vocals and guitar would become the pattern for future The The recordings. In 1980 the band released their first independent U.K. single, "Controversial Subject," while Johnson worked on a solo album, Burning Blue Soul. These releases made a small impact on the British alternative scene, but it was the synthesizer-based 1983 LP Soul Mining that catapulted the band into the British Top 30 and ultimately became a gold record.
Showcasing session musicians like ex-Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, Johnson fully realized the potential of his open-band policy. Meanwhile, the lyrics on Soul Mining only hinted at the lonely despair Johnson would express on later releases: "All my childhood dreams are bursting at the seams/And the cancer of love has eaten out my heart." Soul Mining included a broad mix of themes, but musically, The The had yet to find a voice until the 1986 release of the harder-edged Infected. The album focused on heady political issues, exemplified in songs like "Heartland," a harsh commentary on the influence the United States has had on Great Britain: "Well it ain't written in the papers/But it's written on the walls/The way this country is dividing to fall/The ammunition's been passed/But the wars on the televisions will never be explained." The first single, "Sweet Bird of Truth," finds a dying American pilot over the Gulf of Arabia filled with self-doubt. It was quickly banned in Great Britain after the controversial U.S. air attack on Libya. Johnson himself perhaps best summed up his songs when he observed in Melody Maker, "They're like crystallized feelings. When people put the stylus on the record and hear it, the song bursts and it melts. The songs come to life in people's hearts."
Minor commercial and global success finally came in 1989 with the release of Mind Bomb and the Top 20 U. K. single "The Beat(en) Generation." Special guest Johnny Marr (former guitarist for the Smiths) lent his expertise to Mind Bomb and shared co-writing credits with Johnson on "Gravitate to Me," a powerful incantation to attract a destined love. Johnson's songs had now evolved into more melodic statements, and he continued to utilize acoustic and electric guitars to drive the beat.
It was Mind Bomb's "The Beat(en) Generation," though, that became the vehicle for Johnson's acerbic intellect to reach a new audience. In the song, he describes a new generation of youth "Reared on a diet/Of prejudice and misinformation/ Hypnotised by the satellites/Into believing what is good and what is right." In Melody Maker, Johnson described his feelings after writing the song: "I've noticed a change. There's a tragic degree of ignorance but people I talk to are wondering what it's about; they're starting to question their lives and their environment."
The more introspective Dusk, released in 1993, continued Johnson's partnership with Marr and many of the musicians from Mind Bomb. Dusk featured a newly stripped-down instrumentation comprised of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, and harmonica. The hit "Slow Emotion Replay" helped push the album into the Number Two position on the British charts. Although The The still did not achieve widespread commercial success, Johnson's insightful lyrics received critical acknowledgment. Rolling Stone's Thorn Jurek called The The "a band in full command of its gifts at the very beginning of collective musical discovery." Johnson's writing, according to Jurek, is "in the language of raw need" as he admits in the track "Slow Emotion Replay" that "Everybody knows what's going wrong with the world/1 don't even know what's going on in myself."
Johnson took an unpredictable musical turn when, in 1995, he released Hanky Panky, a cover album of the songs of country music legend Hank Williams, Sr., whose lyrics typify the melancholic edge for which The The strives. With a new lineup, Johnson mixed obscure and popular Williams songs with The The's raw sound. Johnson's discovery of Williams's talent and subsequent research into the country legend's psyche led to strong emotional feelings that translated into The The's reworkings of the songs. As Johnson commented in New York, "Country didn't like [Williams]. They thought of him as an oaf, an unsophisticated, unreliable drunk. They threw him off the Grand Ole Opry, and the moment he died, they reclaimed him and rewrote history." The combination of the two artists seemed logical. A USA Today reviewer stated, "There is something both dark and sweet about Johnson's sound that's akin to that of the youthful Williams," while People magazine called Hanky Panky "a compelling experiment."
Each evolution of The The adds a new set of variations to the twisted psychological profile of Johnson. His inner struggles are laid bare while he searches for meaning in the violent and seemingly godless world in which he lives. The The's songs seem to grab the listener by the throat and never let go until he or she has swallowed whatever fresh pain and suffering Johnson has to offer. Johnson's philosophy is one of dissatisfaction, and he will no doubt continue to express it until he achieves a sense of control and evenness in his life. As Johnson revealed in Details, "I had therapy, but I got bored. I've tried drugs and promiscuity, but that's like drinking salt water: The more you do, the emptier you get. I suppose I just want to feel more alive, and I'm trying anything I can get my hands on. But nothing seems to satisfy." Until Matt Johnson is satiated, he is making sure through his unique brand of music that the world feels his loneliness and heartache.
Burning Blue Soul, 4AD, 1981.
Soul Mining, Epic, 1983.
Infected, Epic, 1986.
Mind Bomb, Epic, 1989.
Dusk, Epic, 1993.
Solitude (consists of EPs Shades of Blue and Dis-Infected), Epic, 1994.
Hanky Panky, Sony/550 Music, 1995.
Details, April 1993.
Melody Maker, May 13, 1989.
Musician, April 1987.
New York, March 1995.
People, March 6, 1995.
Raygun, March 1995.
Rolling Stone, February 4, 1993.
USA Today, March 17, 1995.