The The – Matt Johnson’s Hidden Gem In British Rock History

The The is an English alternative rock band formed in 1979 by Matt Johnson. Their music effortlessly mixes a range of instruments with honest, meaningful lyrics sung in Johnson’s heavy voice. Albums feature some upbeat melodies as well as some more jarring ones and the band tackles each style well.

Matt Johnson

The The History

The The had modest beginnings; in 1977 Matt Johnson began looking for other band members while writing some music himself. In 1979 Johnson and a friend and colleague recorded their first album, “Spirits”, which was never released.

The The made their debut on stage on May 11th, 1979 at London’s Africa Centre. At this point, Johnson was vocals, electric pianist and guitarist while his friend Keith Law was on synthesizer and tapes. It was in fact Keith Law who suggested the name “The The”.  

In 1980 drummer Peter Ashworth and bassist Tom Johnston were added but they did not remain long. Back to being a duo, Matt Johnson and Keith Law began performing with band such as Wire, Cabaret Voltaire, and This Heat.

About a year later, Keith Law left the band as well, leaving Matt Johnson working solo for a time. In 1981 he released his album “Burning Blue Soul”, which was originally considered a solo album but has now been reissued as belonging to The The. During his solo years, Johnson collaborated with a slew of different artists and worked on different projects.

Burning Blue Soul Album Cover

Soul Mining

1983 saw the release of The The’s true debut album, “Soul Mining” which featured some of their biggest songs, “Uncertain Smile”, “Perfect” and “This is the Day”. The album ranked at #27 on the UK album chart and was well received by critics. NME wrote, “In days when the pop song has been reduced to the reiteration of catch-phrases, Matt Johnson flexes a rare literary flair.”

Soul Mining Album Cover

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The song “This is the Day” which reached #71 in the UK in 1983 starts off with a twinkling melody like the sound of water droplets falling onto a pond. The tune then slides effortlessly into the verse, accompanied by the warbling sound of accordion. The chorus is catchy and to the point. The lyrics are well-constructed and unique; all in all, this song is more than an average pop song. You can give it a listen here.

In fact, the entire album has a little something more to it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what sets it apart, but the collection of sounds and instruments blended with the pure and poignant lyrics creates an album that is clever and catchy. You will find yourself listening to the songs again and again. It has been described as a “hidden masterpiece” and in 2007 found itself on UK newspaper The Guardian’s list of 1000 albums you must hear before you die.

Infected

In 1986 The The released their next album, “Infected” which featured the UK top 30 single “Heartland” which was described by Johnson as “probably the best song I’ve ever written”. The song opens with jangly piano keys set over provocative strings. Johnson’s voice is deep and strong in this song, almost harsh. The instrumentation gives the song a dark, intense atmosphere, because Johnson wanted a song politically representative of the time. Check it out here.

 “Infected” is a unique album because Johnson decided to make a video for each track, each directed by a different director. He convinced CBS Radio to advance him 350 pounds, which was a hefty sum of money at the time, especially for a smaller scale band. The completed film aired on UK and US television.

Compared to “Soul Mining”, the album “Infected” shows The The’s darker side, with bleak lyrics and melodies that are tense and grim.

Infected Album Cover

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Mind Bomb

By 1988 The The was no longer a solo act. Johnson gained ex-The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, as well as bassist James Eller and drummer David Palmer. Together this group recorded the album “Mind Bomb” which ranked at #4 on the UK chart.

Mind Bomb Album Cover

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Thanks to guitarist Johnny Marr, this album offers a slower, more polished sound in comparison to the two previous albums. As before, the songs’ subjects cover love, politics and religion.  

Johnny Marr

This album features one of their most popular songs, “The Beat(en) Generation”, a smooth and clever song with political lyrics that still ring true today. Lyrics such as “The beaten generation – reared on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” make this song timeless. You can listen to it here.

From 1989 to 1990 the band embarked on a world tour and keyboardist D. C. Collard was added on to the four-piece band, making them five. These five released another album in 1993, “Dusk”, which debuted at #2 on the UK album chart. After this, Johnny Marr and James Eller left the band. In the ensuing years, we see many other talented musicians join the ever-constant Matt Johnson.

Recent Times

Since 2003 The The has been on hiatus and Matt Johnson has been working primarily on soundtracks.

The The is a unique band, perhaps because it has been touched by so many different musicians who have all brought a little something of themselves to the music, spurred on by the loyal Matt Johnson, the only constant member of the band. The music offers layered, complex instrumentals paired with clever and meaningful lyrics; it’s a band that has stood the test of time and is still relevant even today. The The is definitely a hidden gem in the history of British alternative rock.

Here’s a more recent interview between Matt Johnson and Johnny Marr. 

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