The The - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Rants against religious fundamentalism, political ineptitude, and rampant globalization don’t usually go hand in hand with pop music but The The has made a thirty year career from the prolific marriage with groundbreaking results. As the brainchild of vocalist Matt Johnson, The The has existed in various incarnations since their inception in 1978 with Johnson and his inspired experimentalism serving as the group’s lone constant. Rising to prominence in the early 80’s the band successfully integrated loops and samples into an alternative synth pop format, essentially serving as the frame work for Johnson’s blatant lyrical attacks on organized religions and big government. Not exactly Top 40 radio fair yet The The did manage to gain a platinum selling level of success while on a major label with their sophomore full length, Infected (1986 Epic). Instead of capitalizing on his success Johnson continued to push the boundaries of his socio-political content with subsequent releases before stalling in the mid-90’s after completing the notoriously dark experimental album, Gun Sluts in 1997, which his label refused to release and still hasn’t seen the light of day. The The may not be a household name but they did serve as a huge influence on like-minded bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine who took Johnson’s trailblazing lyrical content to heart and made it their own.
Matt Johnson was born on August 15, 1961 in London’s East End and grew up fascinated with the music he saw performed at his father’s pub, The Two Puddings. By age 11, Johnson had formed his first band, Roadstar, with some school mates performing covers by Marc Bolan and The Beatles. By age 15 he had dropped out of high school to pursue a music career in earnest, finagling a job as a “tea boy” at the small publishing house De Wolfe in London’s Soho district. Equally influenced by post punk artists like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle and the protest songs of John Lennon the young artists began using synthesizers to create eerie soundscapes with his growling baritone vocals providing much of the melody. Johnson officially formed The The when he joined forces with multi-instrumentalist Keith Laws who actually suggested the moniker. After gigging around London’s underground scene The The entered the studio to cut the single, “Cold Spell Ahead” for the small independent Some Bizarre label. Unhappy with the results Johnson later retooled and renamed the song “Uncertain Smile”. During this time Johnson was also recording a dark and moody solo album, Burning Blue Soul (1981 4AD), which not only served as a blueprint for all of his subsequent The The material but was the first “un-official” The The release. The album also marked the first collaboration between Johnson and his artist brother Andrew who would design all of The The’s highly abstract album covers. After signing to the Epic label Johnson spent the majority of 1983 recording The The’s proper debut full length utilizing numerous collaborators like Jools Holland of Squeeze and Zeke Mayika of Orange Juice. Soul Mining (1983 Epic) continued to combine drum loops and samples with synth pop but mostly steered clear of the socio-political rhetoric that would infect Johnson’s later compositions. On the strength of the synth pop single “This Is The Day” the album went gold in the UK and established Johnson as a buzz worthy artist.
Johnson was largely absent from the public eye for the next two years as he battled a prolonged illness. By the time Johnson resumed work on the next The The release Laws had left the group leaving Johnson to write and record at his own pace. Over a year in the making, Infected (1986 Epic) showcased a remarkable leap forward into multiple genres including synth pop, epic post rock, folk inspired protest songs, and Gothic war marches. In order to round out his sound Johnson brought in different collaborators like vocalist Neneh Cherry, former ABC drummer David Palmer, and the Astarti String Orchestra. Infected eventually achieved platinum status in the UK and established Johnson as a literate and groundbreaking artist hell bent on tackling socio-political issues. The second single, “Sweet Bird of Truth”, about an American airman dying in the desert of Arabia after bailing out of his war plane not only presaged a Middle East conflict with the western world but was pulled from British radio play after the U.S. bombing campaign of Libya in 1986. Rather than tour the record Johnson devised an ingenious marketing campaign by making a feature length film version of Infected with different directors shooting avant-garde videos for each song. The shoot took Johnson from a Bolivian prison, to a broken down gas terminal in south London, to the brothels of Harlem and the banks of the Amazon River.
After nearly a decade as a studio project Johnson took The The to the next level and enlisted a full time band that included former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, drummer David Palmer, and former Julian Cope bassist James Eller. The The’s third full length, Mind Bomb (1989 Epic) was almost exclusively a socio-political album infused with blatant criticisms of organized religions. Despite its controversial themes, Mind Bomb was the most critically lauded album of Johnson’s career and spawned The The’s first Top 20 single with the alternative protest song, “The Beat-en Generation”. The The subsequently embarked on the first international tour of their career with their final show at London’s Royal Albert Hall released as the live film The The Versus The World (1992 Sony). Inspired by the band’s raw live sound Johnson wasted no time in crafting a follow up album. Stripping away his political bent, Dusk (1993 Epic) focused on intimate and personal themes paired with infectious alternative pop sensibilities. Unlike previous albums, Dusk also showcases The The as a complete band with all five member (touring keyboardist D.C. Collard was now a full time member) contributing to the songwriting process. Dusk was another critical hit and a commercial success due to the rockin’ yet risqué single, “Dogs of Lust”. The band embarked on the international “Lonely Planet Tour” and also served as the opening band for renowned acts like New Order and Depeche Mode.
Shortly after the “Lonely Planet Tour” Johnson decided to take The The into a different direction and effectively dissolved the band’s full time line up, once again reducing the group to a one man studio project. Johnson returned as The The in 1995 with the peculiar, Hanky Panky (Epic), an album of reinterpreted Hank Williams covers that beguiled both critics and fans. After two albums of eclectic pop music Johnson decided to return to his avant-garde experimental roots for his next release. Gun Sluts (1997) is allegedly mired in doom laden soundscapes and was described by Johnson as the darkest album of his career. Unfortunately his label saw no commercial viability in the material and Gun Sluts was shelved indefinitely leaving many fans to wonder if they would ever hear Johnson’s avant-masterpiece. The The remained reclusively quiet for the next five years until Johnson signed with Trent Reznor’s Nothing label and released The The’s sixth full length album, Naked Self (2000). Featuring a new cast of collaborative players Naked Self is the rawest album The The ever released and serves as Johnson’s long awaited rock recording. The The remained on hiatus for the next 8 years with Johnson focusing his talents on political writings and audio visual concept art leaving many to wonder if another The The release would ever be released. Johnson resurfaced in 2007 via his official website with the online single, “Mrs Mac” along with the title track for Gun Sluts, although Johnson claims the long lost The The album of the same name will remain on the shelf until he deems it fit for release.