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The The

+ {Matt Johnson] + {The Gadgets}

A one-man-show for the most part, and led by the enigmatic singer/multi-instrumentalist Matt Johnson, The THE traded cultdom for the pop-rock mainstream during the 80s and 90s, only for the mainman to succumb to bouts of illness. But for these periods of inactivity, Johnson might well’ve become a household name, although with his use of the definitive article (twice!), his long-time project was unforgettable and quite unique. When the maverick JOHNNY MARR teamed up in between lucrative (and during) times with The SMITHS and ELECTRONIC, respectively, The THE peaked on 1989’s Top 5 “Mind Bomb” set.
The brainchild of Johnson as a side-line to his synth-friendly exercises with The GADGETS (alongside Plain Characters alumni Colin Lloyd Tucker and John Hyde), and confirmed as a live act as Maggie Thatcher took over the reins as British Prime Minister on 11th May 1979, The THE could hardly have picked a better time to rail against societal misnomers. As a 16-year-old into punk much like everyone else, Matt had stuck an ad in the NME to find musicians to fill a void in his SYD BARRETT/VELVET UNDERGROUND-like combo; demo cassettes were touted at the time (“See Without Being Seen” and “Spirits”), although only one track, `What Stanley Saw’ (licensed to Cherry Red Records), duly saw the light of day on V/A compilation, “Perspectives & Distortion”.
Deep from a studio in Swadlincote, south Derbyshire, London-born vocalist/guitarist/pianist Matt Johnson (b.15th August 1961), Keith Laws (synths), photographer Triash/Peter Ashworth (drums) and cartoonist Tom Johnston (bass) emerged in 1980 with the 4 a.d.-endorsed single, `Controversial Subject’; the fact of the matter was that neither of the latter pair performed on either side of the B.C. Gilbert & Graham Lewis-produced disc.
Maintaining his link to WIRE and fellow engineer/label boss, Ivo Watts-Russell, but released under his own MATT JOHNSON moniker (until its timely exploitation delivery into the Top 75 in ‘93), BURNING BLUE SOUL (1981) {*7}, was indeed, in effect, a THE THE recording in all but name, Matt being the sole contributor to its grooves. Having formerly supported the likes of CABARET VOLTAIRE, THIS HEAT and D.A.F., it was hardly surprising that the record took its cue from the mantle of indie electronics. Bleak and brooding and stepping away from the SOFT CELL’s and the DEPECHE MODE’s of the day (alongside these combos The THE had contributed the excellent `Untitled’ to a Some Bizzare Records V/A compilation), Matt experimented with distorted instrumention/samples and heavy-breathing vox, the best results coming in the ENO-meets-DURUTTI-esque, `Red Cinders In The Sand’, `Song Without An Ending’ and `Another Boy Drowning’.
After a Some Bizzare one-off, `Cold Spell Ahead’ (alongside Laws for the final time), The THE secured a deal at Epic Records, unleashing a couple of groovy 45s, `Uncertain Smile’ (a minor hit) and the Postcard-esque/SUICIDE-succinct `Perfect’. The long-awaited and much-anticipated SOUL MINING {*8} was eventually released in the late autumn of ’83.
Johnson’s critical favour and cult standing saw the album gate-crash the Top 30. An entrancing, ambitious indie-pop record with a brooding undertow, the keening `This Is The Day’ stands among the best of MJ’s work, while the set’s claustrophobic lyrics marked out the man as a bedsit commentator par excellence. Helped out by JOOLS HOLLAND on a revised take of `Uncertain Smile’, and augmented by Jim `FOETUS’ Thirlwell and solo artist THOMAS LEER (synths/keyboards) – for live work, ex-ORANGE JUICE drummer Zeke Manyika, was added – pop simplicity turned into the sublime on the title track, `The Twilight Hour’, `I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life’ and the MAGAZINE-esque `The Sinking Feeling’.
A couple of years in the making, INFECTED (1986) {*9} was The THE’s tour de force, a scathing attack on the industrial, economic and moral wasteland that was Thatcher’s Britain. Nowhere was this better articulated than the malignant power of the album’s centrepiece, `Heartland’; Johnson berating 80s material gain and America’s all-pervasive influence through gritted teeth. The pumping electro-soul of the title track, meanwhile, dealt with sexual obsession and the AIDS crisis; the attendant Devil-masturbating video causing a storm of controversy. Other highlights included the tortured `Out Of The Blue (Into The Fire)’ and the breathy duet with NENEH CHERRY: `Slow Train To Dawn; MJ’s mastery of mood and atmosphere, together with a crack who’s who troupe of guest musicians (David Palmer, Roli Mossiman, Steve Hogarth, Jamie Talbot, Jeff Cline, Warne Livesey, ANNA DOMINO, ANDREW POPPY, ANNE DUDLEY, among them), making this one of the most realised albums of the decade. Accompanied by Tim Pope’s full-length video/film (which was aired, much like the brill `Sweet Bird Of Truth’ 12”, on Channel 4), the record also gave Matt some belated Top 20 success. Spurred on, the restless maverick subsequently recruited a permanent band to turn The THE into a group proposition, namely ever-ready drummer David Palmer (ex-ABC), bassist James Eller (ex-JULIAN COPE) and, of course, ex-SMITHS guitarist Johnny Marr. Though the resulting album, MIND BOMB (1989) {*8} was The THE’s most successful to date (Top 5), its caustic barrage of political ranting lacked the twisted pop subtlety of its predecessor and left some critics unimpressed; a guest spot for SINEAD O’CONNOR on `Kingdom Of Rain’ made up for the pop tones of `The Beat(en) Generation’.
Pity then that Hogarth had to join MARILLION to supersede FISH, at a time when The THE seemed to be spreading like wildfire across the globe; in the time it took to record fresh material, re-issues and a couple of covers (e.g. FRED NEIL’s `Dolphins’ and Duke Ellington’s `Solitude’) were at least solace for fans who’d bought the EP, `Shades Of Blue’, in early ’91.
Retaining the same core of musicians, while already adding keyboard player, D.C. Collard, The THE eventually resurfaced with a full-length album in the form of DUSK (1993) {*7}. Previewed by the harmonica howl of `Dogs Of Lust’, the record saw Johnson once again wrestling with his inner demons in his disturbingly insinuating way. A mid-life dark-night-of-the-soul, the singer had rarely bared his soul or expressed his despair as affectingly as on the very SMITHS-esque `Slow Emotion Replay’; MARR literally wringing the pathos from his chiming guitar. This cathartic collection of urban blues nevertheless ended on something of a more hopeful note with `Lonely Planet’, Johnson coming to some kind of peace with himself and the world. The record deservedly reached No.2, becoming his most successful release to date and making up the critical and commercial ground lost with time out.
Of course, the ever-restless Johnson turned his hand to something completely different for the band’s next full-length release. HANKY PANKY (1995) {*4} was a tribute album to his hero and country star HANK WILLIAMS, although only the track `I Saw The Light’ was of much note. Given short shrift by critics, the record saw Johnson going out on a limb (on everything from `Honky Tonkin’’ to `Your Cheatin’ Heart’), no doubt alienating many of his long-time fans, although he’d been distant from them for some time after relocating from Sherman Oaks in California to New York. Then again, anyone familiar with the work of this elusive genius knew to expect the unexpected.
Not the most prolific of artists by any stretch of the imagination (although 1997’s “Gun Sluts” was rejected by Epic, thus rendering the partnership over), Matt/THE THE emerged blinking into the harsh electronic light of the new millennium with NAKED SELF (2000) {*6}. Released on Interscope’s Nothing Records (home to NINE INCH NAILS), the record only just scraped into the Top 50, and featured flop single, `ShrunkenMan’; part 1 of a soon-to-be defunct series that rounded off The THE’s tenure as a band. While other members had come and gone, stalwart guitarist/co-scriber Eric Schermerhorn (a refugee from IGGY POP’s band) had virtually taken the vacant berth of Collard.
Becoming a recluse since the band’s final gig at the Meltdown Festival (as a guest of BOWIE), it was only filmmaker Johanna St Michaels that kept his most recent work… er fresh, but still in the can – so to speak. One free download release in 2007, `Mrs Mac’, surfaced, and the odd V/A tribute set by way of 2009’s “The End Of The Day” was slim pickings for fans until Johnson (aka The THE) was finally enticed by filmmaker brother, Gerald Johnson, to score, TONY (2010) {*7}.
A further OST (also subtitled “A Soundtrack By The The”), from the documentary award-winning director Nichola Bruce, MOONBUG {*7}, was given a low-key release in March 2012. With both sets it seemed he’d gone full-circle, returning to three decades past and his time as a “Burning Blue Soul” indie star. Topping off his brotherly trilogy of films by way of HYENA (2015) {*6}, Johnson/THE THE captured the essence of the urban sprawl and menace in his own inimitable brooding aplomb. Once again, instrumental, and relying on the mechanics of electronica, pieces just fell into place. The deeper into the set, the darker it became. Four nocturnal nips of `The Invisible City’ (`Raid’, `Reign’, `Rogue’ and `Reap’) sowed the seeds of an, at times, disturbing score, culminating with the doleful but wistfully-titled `Everybody Want To Go To Heaven (But Nobody Wants To Die)’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/MCS/BG // rev-up MCS Jan2014-Apr2015

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