1961-1971 Matt Johnson was born and grew up in London's East End. His father was the publican at The Two Puddings, a famous Stratford pub often frequented by an assortment of sportsmen, villains and show business celebrities. The Johnson family lived above the pub and, as a child, Matt would often sit on the stairs listening to the bands and jukebox. Johnson's uncle ran a network of dance halls and nightclubs throughout the East End, promoting a diverse range of entertainers from Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters to Long John Baldry and The Kinks.
From a very early age Matt Johnson had but one ambition: to become a singer. When he was 11 years old, Johnson and some school friends formed a group, Roadstar, whose repertoire consisted largely of cover versions. His musical taste had been shaped by the glam singles of Marc Bolan and Gary Glitter plus, more importantly, The Beatles' white album (the only LP in his parents' house).
Matt left school at age 15. His immediate future had been influenced by a book, So You Want To Be In The Music Business, by songwriter Tony Hatch. One of its appendices was a "contacts" section listing all the British record and publishing companies. Johnson wrote to them all, eventually receiving a reply from a small publishing house called De Wolfe in London's Soho. He became the company's tea boy.
Nearly three years later, Johnson was made assistant engineer in De Wolfe's eight-track studio, responsible for recording auxiliary music and jingles. After hours, he used the studio to work on his own demos. Matt's own musical roots were now firmly planted in the rich diversity of post-punk--The Residents, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Thomas Leer--as well as long-time favorites John Lennon and Tim Buckley.
The The was formed while Johnson, then 17 years old, was still working at De Wolfe. The immediate precursor had been a group called The Marble Index, a duo with collaborator Charlie Blackburn. When that partnership ended, Johnson placed an advertisement in the New Musical Express. It was answered by Keith Laws (now a research psychologist at Cambridge), and their musical ideas coalesced into The The--a name suggested by Laws. The lineup comprised Johnson on vocals and guitar with Laws on WASP synthesizer. The group also made copious use of samples and drum machines, recording backing tracks in a small Brixton studio owned by another London band, This Heat.
Tom Johnston, today a respected cartoonist working for several national newspapers, became The The's manager. In May 1979, the new group made its live debut as support to Scritti Politti at the Africa Centre in London's Covent Garden.
1980-81 The The became a part of London's burgeoning post-punk underground, supporting such groups as DAF, Scritti Politti and This Heat. Through those gig connections, Johnson met the members of Wire, who offered to produce a couple of The The tracks. The resulting tapes came to the attention of Ivo Watts-Russell, who was then forming the independent label 4AD. In the summer of 1980, The The released their first UK single, "Controversial Subject" b/w "Black & White."
A little later, Johnson and Laws expanded The The into a quartet lineup, with manager Tom Johnston on bass and Peter Ashworth (now a successful photographer) on drums. The new line-up were regulars on the London club circuit, playing such venues as the Bridgehouse in Canning Town, the 101 Club and, with The Birthday Party as support, the Rock Garden (from which the group was banned after a frustrated Matt Johnson smashed the club's p.a. system).
In 1980, Matt Johnson also met an aspiring young promoter named Stevo, who wanted The The to support Cabaret Voltaire. For this performance, The The were paid with a crate of beer--but it was the beginning of a long and important relationship during which Stevo became The The's manager.
The four-piece lineup survived only a few months before Johnson stripped it down to the original duo. The following year, Keith Laws quit the group and The The briefly comprised Simon Turner (guitar/vocals), Colin Lloyd Tucker (guitar/vocals) and Steve Sherlock (saxophone). But already Matt Johnson was working on a new concept, away from a rigid group format and towards one in which The The would be a creative launching platform for collaboration with any number of musicians and singers. Among the subsequent honorary The The members: Neneh Cherry, Sinead O'Connor, Zeke Manyika, Thomas Leer, Jim Foetus and Jools Holland. The name also encompasses nonmusical contributors including Matt's brother, the painter Andy Johnson, who has been responsible for much of the band's vivid artwork.
After the indie chart success of the first single, The The returned to the recording studio in 1981 to record "Cold Spell Ahead"--a song later to be transformed into "Uncertain Smile"--for Stevo's fledgling Some Bizzare label. At the same time Matt Johnson was working on a solo album called Burning Blue Soul for 4AD. Despite the solo credit, the album is considered to be The The's debut LP. The blueprint for many of the ideas which later came to characterize The The's music, Burning Blue Soul was also one of the first albums to use drum loops and sampling.
1982-1983 Stevo signed The The to Epic Records after first recording the new single "Uncertain Smile" in New York on Decca Records' money. (Decca, however, neglected to demand a signed contract prior to funding the recording.) In December 1982, "Uncertain Smile" reached the lower end of the British chart. Despite its modest commercial impact, the song enhanced Johnson's burgeoning reputation as a rare and convincing talent.
The The had already recorded an album with the title The Pornography Of Despair. But Johnson, unhappy with the results, consigned the tapes to the vaults; in October 1982 he returned to the US to start work on a new album. However, only one track, "Perfect" (with ex-New York Doll David Johansen on harmonica), was ever completed; it was eventually released as the UK followup to "Uncertain Smile."
The early part of 1983 was spent writing and recording the new album, the prelude to which was a single called "This Is The Day" featuring Zeke Manyika from Orange Juice. In the summer, The The embarked on a month-long residency at London's Marquee Club, which included contributions from Manyika, Thomas Leer, Mal Malinder from Cabaret Voltaire, Kid Montana, Jim Thirlwell (aka Jim Foetus) and Marc Almond.
Soul Mining, The The's first Epic Records album, was released in the autumn of 1983. Among the musicians featured on the sessions were Manyika (drums), Thomas Leer (synthesizers) and Jools Holland (piano). Its honesty and musicality resonated far beyond the small fan base created by The The's previous releases: Soul Mining, co-produced by Paul Hardiman, became a British Top 30 album and eventually earned Johnson his first gold record.
1984-1986 Matt Johnson's career has often been characterized by his absence; whole trends and movements come and go during The The's rest periods. In 1984 he became very ill and much time passed before Johnson was to return to The The. He resurfaced briefly to play a couple of UK shows with Marc Almond; he recorded one The The track, "Flesh and Bones," which appeared on a Some Bizzare compilation. Otherwise, nothing.
The following year, 1985, Johnson resumed his career. Working in isolation and at very much his own pace, he spent months writing songs for a new album. In the studio, however, Matt brought in a number of collaborators, including the Astarti String Orchestra, Neneh Cherry (vocals), Jeff Cline (acoustic bass), David Palmer and Zeke Manyika (drums) together with Warne Livesey and Roli Mossimann, two unknown producer/musicians introduced to Johnson by Jim Thirlwell (Livesey and Mossimann have subsequently become top producers in their own right). The album's other production/arrangement credits included Gary Langan and Ann Dudley from the Art of Noise.
It took a year to record, but Infected--and its four singles--properly signaled Johnson's emergence as a songwriter of real and enduring quality; his Iyrics articulated yearning and conflict, the music was at once both cathartic and instinctive. Infected remains a harsh and consuming masterpiece.
Prior to Infected's release, Johnson embarked on an ambitious plan for an album-length video, a film to complement the often-cinematic quality of the music. The work of four directors, including the acclaimed British film maker Tim Pope, the film was shot in a variety of locations, from brothels in Harlem to a remote prison in Bolivia, the banks of the Amazon to a disused gas terminal in south London.
Infected sold over a million copies worldwide. It was on the British chart for 30 consecutive weeks, along the way qualifying for a platinum disc. The first single, "Sweet Bird Of Truth," was a song about the dying thoughts of an American pilot shot down over Arabia; its release, however, immediately preceded the US bombing mission over Libya and the single was subsequently deemed too sensitive for British airplay. "Sweet Bird" was followed by three other singles--"Heartland," "Infected," and "SIow Train To Dawn"--all of which made the UK chart.
1987-1991 Although early versions of The The had played regularly in London, the group had never toured. Despite Infected's success, Matt Johnson resisted pressures to create a touring lineup; instead he spent much of 1987 traveling the world on a promotional schedule that included viewings of the Infected film. It is estimated that the video, screened on both terrestrial and satellite television around the world, had a potential audience of between 50 and 75 million people. It also won the Best Long-Form Video Award at the 1988 Montreux Film Festival.
Eighteen months later, Johnson returned to the studio. He pieced together a more permanent lineup which could also tour, his ambitions fueled by two shows he played in 1987 with Zeke Manyika as part of Red Wedge, the touring ensemble created in support of Britain's Labour Party. These were The The's first gigs in five years.
The new The The featured ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, ex-ABC drummer Dave Palmer, and bassist James Eller, formerly with Julian Cope. They were augmented by Sinead O'Connor, the co-vocalist (with Johnson) on "Kingdom of Rain."
Mind Bomb was released in May 1989. It pointed to an overt, political and religious stance which widened Johnson's songwriting frame of reference: Time magazine called Johnson an "existentialist blues singer" and likened Mind Bomb to T.S. Eliot's epic poem "The Waste Land." The album provided The The with their first Top 20 single when "The Beat(en) Generation" made #18 on the UK chart. The projected follow-up "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)," which included specific references to Islam, had to be withdrawn because it directly coincided with the Salman Rushdie/Satanic Verses controversy. It was replaced by "Gravitate To Me."
Following the release of Mind Bomb, The The toured for the first time. Opening in Portugal, the band (with the inclusion of D.C. Collard on keyboards) played 100 sell-out shows in 22 countries through Europe, North America, Australasia and the Far East. 365 later, on July 14, 1990, the tour finished at The Point in Dublin. Immediately prior to that date, however, The The appeared at London's Royal Albert Hall for three nights. The final show was filmed by director Tim Pope and the resulting long form video, The The Versus The World, was issued in February 1991.
At the same time The The released a four-track EP, Shades Of Blue, featuring "Jealous Of Youth," the studio recording of a song first heard as part of the band's live set; "Another Boy Drowning" recorded in concert at the Royal Albert Hall; "Solitude," a Duke Ellington song recorded as a duet with D.C. Collard on piano and "Dolphins," written by Fred Neil and recorded by Johnson as a duet with Johnny Marr.
By the late summer of 1991, Johnson was back in the recording studio working on a fresh repertoire of songs. His experience of recording the EP foreshadowed the ideas he wanted to incorporate in the new album: stripped-down production values in which the quality of the songs was given space and room to develop.
1992-95 Released on November 2, '92 in the UK (January 26, '93 in the US), Dusk featured the same band that had played the world tour: Matt Johnson (electric and acoustic guitars/keyboards/vocals); Johnny Marr (electric and acoustic guitars/harmonica); D.C. Collard (Hammond organ/acoustic piano); James Eller (bass guitar), and Dave Palmer (drums). The album was co-produced by Matt Johnson and Bruce Lampcov. The first radio track, "Dogs Of Lust," was accompanied by a Tim Pope-directed video available in both "clean" and "X-rated" versions (the latter done to a Jim Thirlwell remix).
Dusk went to Number Two on the British national chart. "With Dusk," wrote Rolling Stone, "Matt Johnson displays his maturity as a songwriter, and The The reveals itself as a band in full command of its gifts at the very beginning of collective musical discovery."
On May 6, 1993 The The began a world tour with a New York City performance broadcast live to the leading alternative rock radio stations in the US. Two days later came the MTV world premier of the video for the track "Love Is Stronger Than Death." The making of this video began when director Charles Vanderpool and his wife, producer Marilyn Vanderpool, requested for The The's song to be the soundtrack for an AIDS awareness video--their contribution to an April '93 benefit in Baltimore, MD. Through film footage and still photographs, the Vanderpools' video showed real people of all ages and races with AIDS and HIV, all of whom gave their permission to be filmed.
When Johnson was shown the original clip, it was decided to integrate Tim Pope's acoustic performance footage of the song with the Vanderpools' work for an additional video for "Love Is Stronger Than Death."
On June 12 in Irvine, California, The The began the "Lonely Planet Tour" (through August 5) of headlining dates plus four arena shows supporting New Order. Joining Matt Johnson in the touring lineup were D.C. Collard and Dave Palmer along with new U.S. recruits Keith Joyner (guitar, backing vocals), Jared Nickerson (bass), and Jim Fitting (harmon-i-ca).
On September 7 in Quebec City, The The began a seven-week tour (through November 28) of North American arenas supporting the headlining Depeche Mode--including a landmark five nights at The Forum in Los Angeles. The departing Dave Palmer was replaced on drums by Andy Kubiszewski, whose credits included Nine Inch Nails, the Cleveland Orchestra, and synth band Exotic Birds.
In May '94, the Shades Of Blue and Dis-Infected EPs were combined in the US Epic release Solitude, which included re-recordings of "This Is The Day" and "Infected."
The The's sixth full-length album, Hanky Panky, will be released in the US on Epic Records on January 31. (One track, "Honky Tonkin'," was previewed on the Tonnage alternative compilation, released November '94.) It is a collection of eleven songs originally made famous by Hank Williams, Sr. including "Weary Blues From Waiting," "I Saw The Light," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm A Long Gone Daddy," and "There's A Tear In My Beer."