The The's Thatcher Years

Guardian - May 12, 1989
By Bruce Dessau

Matt Johnson tells Bruce Dessau how he's managed to mix pop and politics

Matt Johnson looks intimidating. With a haircut just the respectable side of skinhead, the physique of Ben Johnson, and a pair of knee-high motorcycle boots he cuts a dash of menace in the West End gentleman's club where we met. While his four LPs to date boast an elemental basso profoundo rock-belt, it is all the more unsettling, then, that when he opens his mouth an East London burr emerges.

As his alter ego, the tortured soul of The The, "Mind Bomb" is Johnson's fourth album in a decade. While the band played their first concert as a quartet in the same month Margaret Thatcher first played Prime Minister they soon slimmed down to a one-man non-gigging operation, allowing Johnson free rein to dispatch a distinctly personal mix of rock and roll, political persuasion, and psychic examination.

Strangely, Johnson's records are released by the reactionary CBS corporation. It was the lure of Johnson's early atypically prissy track, "Uncertain Smile," that attracted the hitmen, but signing the teenage prodigy was not simple thanks to Johnson's manager Stevo. A pocket battleship of a man, Stevo has made a reputation out of his professional eccentricity.

In the past he had sent teddy bears to meetings in his place and had inserted clauses demanding a regular supply of jelly babies into recording contracts. In Johnson's case, he merely demanded that the managing director of CBS, Maurice Oberstein, sign his charge on a lion in Trafalgar Square at midnight.

If CBS seems an unlikely home for the left-field sensibility of Johnson, there is a logic to it. "A large label actually gives you more freedom than an independent. If I was still on 4AD Records, I'd be paying everyone's wage packet so they would keep close tabs on me. CBS have got Michael Jackson and George Michael to foot the bills, so I more or less do as I please."

With an eight album contract, Johnson's current work-rate allows for the prospect that he will still be with the label in his fifties. Nonetheless, Johnson's reluctance to promote his records by regular touring has resulted in sleepless nights for the accountants. All parties are smiling now that Johnson has formed a live band for an imminent world tour that includes former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.

Until now, Johnson has had to depend on the media to disseminate his messages of doom and gloom, interspersed with some homespun global optimism. A recent result was his debut appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his stab at Thatcherism, "The Beat(en) Generation."

While Johnson has considerable respect for Elvis Costello's recent anti-Thatcher outbursts, he has misgivings about browbeating the public with his opinions. "You can't go on about the Government all the time or you begin to sound like a scratched record. Everybody who wants to know how bad things are knows by now."

One of his rare live outings in recent years, however, was during the last election, when he loosely affiliated himself with Red Wedge and played a brief acoustic set on their consiousness-raising tour. "There are as many problems with that as with Top of the Pops. You tend to be patronising and preaching to the converted."

Johnson's dissaffection has led to a withdrawal from the specifics of party politics. He shares a feeling among a growing number of musicians that the post-Live Aid pop has been unfairly burndened with a responsibility to effect change, ultimately a hopeless task. "The causes are worthy ones, but the syndrome of concerts and records as a way to solve them are becoming tired. What is needed is an overall effort to weave a kind of fabric of feeling which can effect a climate a change."

Accordingly, in the pipeline is a potential alliance with the ecological pressure group, ARK, where pop, comedy, and theatre has united to save the planet. "Politics is the froth on the surface. You have to get underneath to understand what causes the conditions."

Go Back