Matt Johnson: The Genius Behind THE THE
About a mythical band project that somehow feels comfortable living partially in anonymity.
To call THE THE a band in the traditional sense would not do justice to the ideas of founder Matt Johnson. Since the son of East London publicans began his musical career, he has preferred a more or less loose network of musicians rather than a permanent line-up. Over 300 artists, including Neneh Cherry, Sinead O’Connor and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, have accompanied the lone musical innovator live and in the studio since 1979. His music crossed many thresholds and brought out a wealth of influences and styles, ranging from danceable pop to country, and everything in between. Still, it seems that this mythical band project that has had so many changes feels comfortable living partially in anonymity.
The pub Matt grew up in was called “Two Puddings” and turned out to be a kind of haven where celebrities and criminals alike got together every night. Because Matt was a little too young to get properly caught up by British punk music, he grew up listening to artists like John Lee Hooker, Shouting Lord Sutch, The Kinks and the Little Faces. With all this musical hubbub that he had around him, it was very difficult for Matt not to end up linking to it. This precociousness led him to form his first band called Roadstar at the young age of eleven. With fifteen he quits his studies to dedicate himself fully to his dream of having a band. On the verge of reaching the eighties, he had tried forming a duo called The Marble that was not much successful, but that would be the preamble to a remarkable sequel of profitable years for his listeners and followers.
At the age of 17 Johnson published a classified ad in the NME which read: “Influences: The Residents, Syd Barrett, Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground.” Shortly after, Matts band project began to breathe life. With the companionship of Keith Laws, THE THE make their live debut as support for Scritti Politti at Londonʼs Africa Centre on May 11th 1979. Soon they play with bands such as DAF, Clock DVA, The Birthday Party or Cabaret Voltaire.
Matt Johnson released the album Burning Blue Soul in 1981 and signed with Epic a short time later. The official release story of THE THE, however, begins in 1983 with the single “This Is The Day”, or more specifically the album Soul Mining. The platinum honoured record Infected, released in 1986, finally brought the attention he was hoping for. The pounding, offensive beats and Matt’s voice worked great together which made the album sound extremely voluminous for the time.
“I was spending too much time searching for vehicles for my inspiration.”Matt Johnson
After a three-year hiatus, the 1989 released Mind Bomb then marked a turning point in THE THE’s work. Matt went on world tour for the first time, supported by none other than Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, ex-ABC drummer Dave Palmer and bassist James Eller. Some claim that literally everyone involved in the production of the album was on the verge of a mental and physical collapse, given the demanding requests that Johnson imposed on himself and on others. One can assume that the realisation of a job of such level, is not exactly a bed of roses. Johnson himself once recalled: “My residual interest in religion and spiritual matters had been rekindled. I was spending too much time searching for vehicles for my inspiration. I have done some things that left me ‘burned out’ several times, but it was interesting to experience the states of mind that these entailed.”
With the blues-oriented record Dusk (1993) and the critically rejected album Hanky Panky (1995), which only contained interpretations of songs by Hank Williams, Johnson consistently continued on his path. The wait for new THE THE pieces did not end in the years to come either. Still, Johnson always refused to release mass-produced singles and went his own way instead.
Matt Johnson, sometimes a poet, sometimes critical of himself, sometimes sunk in the deepest pain that love usually brings with it, sometimes with gloom and darkness, sometimes in a deep-rooted attack on the political system, but always speaking of basic truths. Of our human condition and his very own vision of how things should be. The music he created will always allow future generations to find out that there was a group that was not afraid to say things as they are, that shared the experiences of common characters in each of their songs. No matter how desperate the situation, the people who remember the 1980’s original and those who will discover it in the 21st Century, will always find a hint of hope, as the lyrics of “This Is The Day” make its way into their ears: “This is the day your life will surely change. This is the day when things fall into place”..
Featured Image by Alessandra Sartore