It's hardly a surprise to learn that Matt Johnson, that most untypical of pop star types, experienced a less than typical upbringing. Born in London's East End, his father was a well-respected publican who owned the notorious Two Puddings pub in Stratford - also know as The Butcher's Shop in a nod to the violent incidents, including gangster-style shoot-outs, that occasionally took place on the premises. The pub was often frequented by an assortment of sportsmen, villains and showbiz celebrities.
"Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, the Kray twins, The Small Faces...they all used to drink there," Johnson recalls. "I remember Jackie 'The Giraffe' Charlton popping for a pint of keg the night England won the World Cup in 1966. There was always one celebrity or another passing through and I suppose, being so young, I took it for granted."
"I didn't think of it as a strange upbringing at the time but, looking back, I suppose it was a bit unusual. The pub was situated on the Stratford Broadway which is like a dual carrigeway, so me and my brothers weren't allowed out on the street because it was so dangerous. So our friends tended to be the grown-ups who came into the pub. From the age of three or four, the customers would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I'd always say that I wanted to be a singer or an actor. It wasn't long before I started going down to the cellar to play with the musical equipment when the pub closed."
By the time he was eleven, Johnson attempted to escape the numbing tedium of school life by forming his first band, Roadstar, which specialized in Deep Purple, Free and David Bowie covers and performed regularly in local town halls and youth clubs.
"I was always a fairly destructive kid," he recalls. "A naughty little bastard. I used to love breaking into places. Not necessarily to steal things; just for the thrill of breaking in. Also I was a bit of a bugger when it came to cars. Not stealing them - just taking a Coke bottle and smashing my way in for the sheer hell of it. I'd even go around the streets breaking off people's car aerials and putting potatoes up their exhausts. Me and my younger brother also used to take up position in a second-floor window and shoot people with air rifles. Slowly though I realized that it was more fun to create things than destroy them. So I started taking the band more and more seriously,. It was like a full time job until I left school."
Spurred on by the gift from a cousin of a copy of Tony Hatch's tome, "So You Want To Be in the Music Business", the 15-year old Johnson determinedly wrote off to every British record and publishing company asking if there had any work available. Eventually he received a reply from De Wolfe, a small publishing house based in Soho, and was appointed tea-boy and all-round gofer.
"I started learning very quickly and graduated from tea-boy to working in their eight-track studio. I'd be putting in these exhausting twelve-hour days, then going home and disappearing into the pub cellar where I had my little tape machine and my effects pedals. I'd be living on a diet of Foster's lager and Dunhill cigarettes, because the cellar was full of that stuff and nobody missed it. I wasn't thinking, in ten years' time, I could be a pop star if I carry on working as hard as this. I loved doing it and I just felt it was the way to go."
At 17, now working at De Wolfe as an assistant engineer, Johnson placed on advertisement in NME which ran: "Singer/instrumentalist seeks musicians to form band. Seeks musicians to form band, influences to include Throbbing Gristle, Residents, Syd Barrett. Enthusiasm more important than ability." After auditioning an endless stream of wholly unsuitable jazz and funk enthusiasts, Johnson finally hit it off with Keith laws, a synth player Keith Laws, a synth player with similarly eclectic tastes, and The The was born.
The band was quickly assimilated into London's burgeoning post-punk underground, supporting bands like Wire, DAF, Prag VEC and This Heat. After one particular Wire show at London's Notre Dame Hall, Johnson fell into conversation with band members Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis., who offered to produce a couple of The The tracks. The resulting tapes fell into the hands of 4AD supremo, Ivo Watts-Russell, who immediately offered to release a record. The The's debut single, 'Controversial Subject' / Black & White' appeared in summer 1980.
"That single had a certain naive charm to it," says Johnson, "But I still regard it as a load of pretentious gobbledygook,. In those days, I was using a lot of mixed metaphors and obscure language to camouflage the fact that I didn't have anything to say. It was completely awful. Actually, Ivo rang me up a few months ago and suggested putting out 'Controversial Subject' on CD. I hadn't heard it for ten years, so I asked him to send me a copy and promised him that I'd go with my initial reaction to it. If it gave me goose bumps, I'd authorize him to reissue it. If it made me embarrassed, I'd let it die a death. So my first reaction was, Jesus Christ, this is awful! So I rang him back and said that I was sorry but I just couldn't put it out again. Maybe in ten years' time, I'll accept it for what it is but, for now, I'm happy for it to remain in total obscurity."
|Burning Blue Soul - 1981|
The jury is still out on whether Johnson's debut album is simply a hodgepodge of levered bedsitter images or a masterpiece of torment and anguish on par with Dostoevsky's Notes From underground. unarguably, there are few albums is the rock canon that make for such harrowing listening. Only Nico's Marble Index, Lou Reed's Berlin, Joy Division's Closer, Scott Walker's 4 and John Cale's Music for a New Society could hold a candle to it. With Burning Blue Soul, Johnson employed drum-machines, samples and abstract guitar shapes to articulate a solipsistic sense of self. From start to finish, it offered claustrophobic intensity and chronic self-obsession in ample doses. Probably the record least likely to inspire the listener to jump into a pair of bright purple slacks, rush out into the street and encourage passersby to join him in an impromptu hokey-cokey around the park.
While The The were veering between a two and a four piece, Johnson was encouraged by Ivo to record a solo album. This led to the 1981 release of Burning Blue Soul, which he now regards as his official debut.
"I'm very philosophical about my own past," he says. "Everything that I am as a person is a consequence of the experiences I've had. So I would never completely disown 'Controversial Subject.' At the same time, I tend to ignore it when I stop to think about my musical history. It was only with Burning Blue Soul that I started to express what I was really feeling rather than just going for stuff that rhymed and so on. That album was a big turning point for me. I was aware of how extreme a record it was when i was making it. I felt as though I was pouring my life into those songs. But there was nothing contrived about it. The whole thing was fueled by instinct."
"It's always been an album that has fiercely divided people. I listened to it last year for the first time in ages and the thing that struck me immediately was the sheer volume of ideas. Musically, there's all these loops, odd percussion and sample. I had accumulated this knowledge throughout working in the studio and Burning Blue Soul was like a huge outpouring. It was like the same with the lyrics; like this huge avalanche of thoughts and feelings. I remember thinking when we were mising it back then that, if anything, it was too personal, too close to the bone. That's why I decided to distort the voice to make it less direct, so that the songs would sound less naked. That's where The The's vocal technique comes from."
"Of course, it's easy for people to dismiss Burning Blue Soul now as the product of teenage angst. There is that element to it but you have to look beyond that, there's a lot of humor on there as well. The sound quality leaves a bit to be desired but you have to remember it was recorded for just 1,800 pounds. It's the rawness and the looseness of the production that makes it work. Twelve years on, it still possesses a strange power and that's why I'm flattered that 4AD is reissuing it on CD. I stand by it."
By this time, Johnson had hooked up with Stevo, the turned-loony-entrepreneur who had helped transform Soft Cell from minor club turn into international superstars with the success of Tainted Love. Steve has persuaded Johnson to contribute a The The track to his inaccurately spelt but appositely entitled Some Bizarre album.
|Soul Mining - 1983|
With his ground-breaking second album, Johnson steered an ingenious course between the gaudy optimism of the so-called New Pop and the manic pessimism of post-punk experimentation. The result was a euphoric collection of lush depression that established him as a songwriter par excellence. This was dance music for people who opted to throw their party invitations in the dustbin before settling down for the night with a bowl of Scotch broth and a complete works of Kafka. With 'This is the Day' and 'Uncertain Smile', he managed to pull off the rare trick of creating instantly accessible pop of bewitching insouciance that hung in the gut like a severe intestinal disorder. With the epic 'Sinking Feeling', he proved that lines like "I'm just a symptom of the moral decay that's gnawing at the heart of the country" could hitch a rider to a tune that would keep the milkman happy. Ten Years on Soul Mining endures as one of the landmark records of the 80s.
Meanwhile, after going through some 13 band members before emerging as a one-man unit, Johnson had been frustrated in his attempts to sell The The to record companies.
"I'd been rejected by virtually every one of them," he says. "But the ultimate indignity was getting turned down by Rough Trade for the third time. A lot of people would have called it a day at that stage and got a proper job but I had such incredible self-belief. I was very fortunate in that respect. I took all these rejections my stride and was still determine when Stevo came along and hit my life like a whirlwind."
By spring 1982, Steveo had been appointed The The's manager and was sufficiently established with Soft Cell to convince doubting A & R men that Johnson was worthy of patronage. Phonogram / Decca agreed to invest 8,000 pounds in a one-of the singles 'Uncertain Smile', to be produced in New York. Stevo maintains that their attitude was along the lines of, OK, let's give this weirdo a chance.
Enterprisingly, Stevo threatened to pull out of the deal at the last minute unless a waiver was signed enabling Johnson to shop elsewhere. After completing the recording of 'Uncertain Smile' (a reworking of the earlier 'Cold spell Ahead') they ditched Decca and allowed CBS to secure the rights to the single for a reported 75,000 pounds.
The protracted negotiations with CBS were conducted with typical Stevo eccentricity. While the majors wrangled with each other, CBS head Maurice Oberstein decided to confront Stevo over dinner at a West End restaurant. But when his secretary phoned Some Bizarre she was told that Stevo would only be available under his own conditions. Oberstein was instructed to turn up at Trafalgar Square where the deal was signed in the pouring rain at 3 a.m, while sitting on one of the loins. Even today, Stevo rates the Matt Johnson signing as one of the strangest episodes of his eventful managerial career.
At first, The The seemed like obvious candidates for immediate chart fame. Both 'Uncertain Smile' and the follow-up, 'Perfect', proved moderately successful but, to the chagrin of CBS Johnson made it clear that he was not about to fashion hihimself as a purveyor of conveyor-belt pop songs. Early in 1983, he entered a 24-track recording studio to work on his second album, the forbiddingly titled Pornography of Despair. Unhappy with the recording, he decided to consign it to the vaults, where it remains to this day.
"I guess it's the missing link in my career," he says. "I'm asked about it so frequently that I've started to talk myself round to the possibility of releasing it at some point. There's bits of it that work really well, but I've never been convinced that it really gels as an album. I was probably right not to release it back then but, eventually, I might be persuaded to put it out."
|Infected - 1986|
When matt Johnson casually announced that his Infected project would be based around the idea of desire as an illness and the manifestations of desire on a global and individual level, one might have been forgiven for suspecting that he was getting too big for his breeches and that an artistic folly on the scale of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds was in the works. In the event, from the gale force opening of the title track the closing strains of 'The Mercy Seat[sic]', Infected was a sustained surprise and perhaps the most surprising thing al all was just how effective it really was. This was agit-pop dragged to the screaming limit, a tightly constructed set of songs fueled by illicit substances and rampant egomania. Best of al was the savage introspection of 'Out of the Blue' (Leonard Cohen meets Charles Manson) and the poignancy of 'Heartland', which delivered a decisive smack in the chops in Britain, viewed quite rightly as a corpse eaten out with envy, impotence, greed and failure.
Later that year, he returned to New York to work on Soul Mining. Several weeks of trashed hotel room, extravagant drug intake and intense mania resulted only in an aborted session.
"It was well out of hand," Johnson recalls. "I'd been doing all this Ecstasy and, when the time came to go into the studio, I was spinning out of my head. Stevo got hold of some Quaaludes to bring me down but that only made matters worse. The engineers were sitting there waiting for something to happen and all I could do was stagger around and walk into furniture. In the end, we gave up, fired a car and drove to Canada. Eventually, we returned to London to make the record with Paul Hardiman."
Soul Mining was finally released in October 1983, featuring Jim (Foetus), Zeke Manyika, Thomas Leer and Jool Holland among its guest musicians. Despite a celebratory critical reception, it peaked at a disappointing 27 in the UK allbum chart.
"When it was released, CBS were attempting to persuade me to go on tour for promotional purposes. They were saying that if I didn't go on the road, the record would never sell more than 30,000. Well, of course, I refused and Soul Mining went on to sell a lot of records over time. People still go on about it at great length to the point where I get a bit sick of it. In fact, I was thinking about having it deleted so I wouldn't have to talk about it ever again."
"I've gone on record as saying that Soul Mining was the first Ecstasy album. Copious amounts of the drug were consumed during the recording but, unfortunately, Soft Cell beat us to it with 'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret'. So The The were actually the second Ecstasy band."
Before launching himself into the rabid travelogue that was to be Infected, Johnson endured a prolonged spell of illness: "I had a kind of stuttering physical breakdown. I virtually lost my sight at one time and I thought for a while that i was actually going blind. My doctor told me to take it easy for a while but, er, I didn't."
He recovered and resurfaced briefly to play a couple of rare live shows with Marc Almond and record one track, 'Flesh and Bones', for a Some Bizarre compilation. Then he threw himself into Infected, an extravagantly ambitious project which employed a mind-boggling cast of 62 musicians, four directors, three co-producers and a painter. For the video which would accompany the album, Johnson swaggered through Harlem brothels and Bolivian prisons; was bitten by a monkey in Peru and was chased by a gang of crazy communists in Iquitos, having been mistaken for a local capitalist. Employing the services of Peter Christopherson, Tim Pope, Alister McIllwain and Mark Roamanek, the Infected video was a magnificent achievement - the album of the same name was arguably his first masterpiece.
"Of course," he says casually, "a lot of it was made on vast amounts of cocaine. But not all of it...a few of those songs were written on a mixture of Ecstasy, speed and vodka. I was like a madman infected by a virus. I wasn't a very pleasant person to be around. There was all this raging intensity that just had come out. It was very cathartic in that way. It was like spending 18 months in the centre of a hurricane. But that's the way it had to be. Otherwise, it just wouldn't have worked. Sure, it was ambitious. What I did when I set out was to dissect the symptoms and causes of the decline of the Western empire. It seemed perfectly natural for me to deal with all that through the medium of songs. The hurtful thing is that you get ridiculed for taking those ideas on board. You get turned into this caricature of a miserable bastard, which isn't true of me at all."
|Mind Bomb - 1989|
Widely perceived as Johnson's 'barking mad' period, this album could plausibly he regarded as his attempt to write an 'Astral Weeks' for the fin de siecle. Far from the brilliantly erratic collection of seedy vignettes that made up its predecessor, Mind Bomb sounded completely integrated and highly compressed. Having reorganised The The into a fully functional rock band (including Johnny Marr on guitar), Johnson opted to up the ante even further than before by setting out to overthrow the authorization world order. Sleepless nights followed in the corridors of power and Time magazine hailed Mind Bomb as a revision of TS Eliot's 'The Wasteland' but, for his pains, Johnson was pilloried from here to Timbuktu as an ego gone AWOL. For all of its breast-beating self-regard, Mind Bomb showcased some of his most accomplished song writing to date, with the brooding menace of 'Good Morning Beautiful', the blissfully beautiful 'Kingdom of Rain' and the mutant funk of 'Gravitate to Me' making a claim as some of the most invigorating music to merge in the late '80s.
"But, obviously, people are put off if they're sold this idea that Matt Johnson is a manic depressive. But I've always dealt with stuff that hasn't had much of a place in popular music, and I make no apologies for that. Why should it be considered taboo to deal with certain subjects in a song? It's ironic really. These days, people are slagging me off for not writing about political and social issues. When Infected came out, they were suspicious because I was dealing with themes like AIDS, heroin, test-tube babies and nuclear terrorism. You can't win."
Although early versions of The The had played regularly in London, Johnson had always resisted the lure of the road. However, it was during the sessions for Mind Bomb that the notion of The The as a regular, touring and recording entity began to take shape.
"I'd read some article where Billy Bragg was quoted as saying that I was scared to confront political issues head-on and that I hid from technology. Out of the blue, he rang me up, said that he'd been misquoted, and invited me to do some gigs for Red Wedge. So I ended up playing two shows with Zeke Manyika in 1987. It was such a powerful experience that I was forced into considering the idea of a permanent band that could do a lengthy world tour."
In 1989, shortly after terminating his eight-year association with Stevo, Johnson unveiled 'The Beat(en) Generation', his first Top 20 single and the first The The release to feature the new, expanded line-up that included Johnny Marr (guitar), James Eller (bass) and Dave Palmer (drums).
"I suppose "The Beat(en) Generation' was the first attempt to make a custom built, radio friendly single which would draw attention to an album," Johnson says. "I'd reached a point where I realized that I had been making life difficult for myself. Commercially, I'd always made the wrong moves for all the right reasons: three year gaps between records, refusing to play live, not having an easily digestible image. In retrospect, I couldn't have done it any other way. At least it let me acclimatize myself and allowed me to do things my own way without having to deal with that king of exposure that pop stardom brings."
In May 1989, Johnson delivered Mind Bomb, his most controversial album to date. "On the this album, I'm dealing with human spirituality and human yearning for God," he told me at the time. "I'm taking a vast overview this time around. I've always been spiritual but now I've read a lot about religion, mysticism and cultism and it's all starting to filter through." He also claimed at the time that, in contrast to Soul Mining and Infected, the album has not been fueled by anything stronger than orange juice.
"Er, well, that wasn't quite true," he now admits. "Mind Bomb was made during long periods of fasting and meditation, with vast intakes of grapes and magic mushrooms. I think it's fair to say that I did go round the twist when I was making that record. I'd spend months on my own in the studio, reading The Bible and the Koran, taking all these mushrooms, and letting all these extreme thoughts take hold of me. My mistake was thinking everybody else was going to go along with these ideas."
"Everywhere else in the world, the album was pretty much accepted on its own terms but, in Britain, I was given a firm kicking. In retrospect, that probably did me a lot of good. I would say that I've got more of a distance on some of those ideas now. But I still stand by a lot of it, especially the songs about institutionalised religion. Half the problem was that, if anything. Mind Bomb was ahead of its time. Since its release, a lot of the rap bands have started talking about the same kind of things. Also, Sinead O'Connor is now going on about the same things I was saying four years ago. I can see what she's trying to do but it's not going to work for her. People basically don't want to get these ideas across, maybe I should try writing a book."
|Dusk - 1993|
On his fifth album, Johnson stuck with the bank that had served so flawlessly on Mind Bomb and crafted an album that eschewed the universal for the nakedly personal. By now, the lyrical themes (spirituality, human decay, lovelessness and religious turmoil) were familiar but, this time around, he was not claiming to carry all the answers in a bulging haversack, instead turning to the world with a realistic shrug. From the startling beauty of 'Love is Stronger Than Death', through the post-glam stomp of "Dogs of Lust' to the eruptive 'Lonely Planet', Johnson opted for a shapely simplicity in preference to the convoluted musical structures of the recent past. With the harmonica-driven 'Slow Emotion Replay' (more than a faint nod to Soul Mining) and the existential blues of 'Helpline Operator', he demonstrated his ongoing willingness to walk the tightrope with the world's problems balanced precariously on his shoulders. The message of Dusk is a simple one: "If you can't change the world, change yourself." Johnson's creative evolution continues to fascinate at every turn.
After a grueling world tour which took in 100 sellout shows in 22 countries through Europe, North America, Australasia and the Far east, Johnson went into his customary period of hibernation before emerging at the beginning of 1993 with the highly acclaimed Dusk.
"Perhaps the most obvious difference with that album is that it is so pared down compared to all the others. Doing the world tour gave me the chance to look at the songs closely and see what I like and didn't like in them. Consequently I became more sensitive to the idea of dynamics and the songs written for Dusk became more and more concise."
"It's probably fair to say that Dusk is my most emotionally direct record. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I'd reached 30, which always seems to be a natural turning point, especially for men. It seems natural to take stock of things at that juncture. You start noticing the changes in your body - the fact that it takes longer to recover from punishment than it used to. But it's not all negative. As my father says, "Every age has its compensations, and I'm definitely much happier than I was when I was 21."
When he was interviewed around the time of Burning Blue Soul Johnson was quoted as saying that he could imagine himself retiring from music at the age of 30. These days, as he prepares to enter his most prolific phase, he can visualise himself writing and performing deep into the next century.
Future plans include a trio of cover versions (Hank Williams, Robert Johnson and John Sebastian); an album of hymns; an albums of orchestral music; an album which will involve flying to the world's danger spots, recording what he finds along the way; an album with Jim Thirwell; more collaboration with Johnny Marr; setting up a new band in New York to experiment with funk-rock fusion; expanding The The as a production company; composing soundtracks and developing screenplays - including a The The feature film starring Norman Wisdom.
"The one thing I've always wanted to do with my work," he says, "is to make it stand the test of time. That's why I've taken so long over the albums - they're built to last. In that respect I've succeeded up to now and I don't intend to take out the pipe and slippers and retire to my log cabin. I look at people I admire like Lou Reed, Leonard Cone and Neil Young who are doing their best work in middle-age. That's a huge inspiration for me. I mean, Christ, I'm only 31. Feasibly, I could still be playing football for England."
"When I start writing songs for an album, I work with an acoustic guitar or a keyboard. By the time I've moved into the portastudio to make demos, I've generated hours and hours of material and I have to sift through and discard any ideas that aren't working. Loads of material is throttled at birth so there's never a lot of spare material lying around. 'Lip Tripping' is one of those songs that I could never make up my mind about. But I listened to it recently and realized that it had a lot of potential. At the moment I have a lot of tracks in a similar vein so this might be an indication of the direction of the next album. To my ears, it's very much in the spirit of Burning Blue Soul - very loose and edgy. Then again, people will probably turn around and say it's more like Infected or Mind Bomb. Then again, they might just think it's bloody horrible!"