A MASTER OF ALL TRADES
Fiona Russell Powell - Time Out - December 1983
What do you do when youre a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician but have no locks, pretty frocks or weird image, an uncooperative record company and look like a Blue Peter presenter? How do you react when you produce three of the most enchanting singles of the year (Uncertain Smile, Perfect, This Is The Day) which get very little airplay and are squashed under by rubbish? Sit back, starve and get virtually ignored by the media while others Copiously plagiarise and stolen notes Echo back at you in mono on the John Peel show.
One tends to become depressed, which is what happened to Matt Johnson, aka The The. But what was a long time ago he refused to compromise either himself or his music, it paid off and he is one of the few non-pop prostitutes on offer in the record shops today.
A friendly, cheeky 22 year old born and bred in East London, Johnson lived in Stratford for most of his life where his parents run a pub called The Two Puddings. He is also so talented its untrue under the pseudonym The The ( I dont want to use my real name, Id hate to become public property), Matt has been responsible for some of the best pop songs to have been written over the last four years. A jack and it seems a master of all trades, he writes the music and lyrics to all of his songs, plays every instrument, and produces and mixes the records, while his brother Andy Dog Johnson provides some inspired artwork for the sleeves. When forced to play live, which he dislikes, he uses friends to fill in on the background instruments, friends like Marc Almond, Thomas Leer, Peter Ashworth (the photographer) and cartoonist Tom Johnston.
In 1980, when Johnson was just 19, 4AD released his first album Burning Blue Soul, described by the NME as the most psychedelic album to come out in years. Way ahead of its time, Johnsons LP had an enormous influence on Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes (apparently The Teardrops Cope has since admitted that Burning Blue Soul is one of his all time favourite records). Inexplicably, the record was almost completely passed over by the music press Johnson couldnt understand it: That album with people like the editors of the NME, I dont exist as far as theyre concerned because Im not fashionable or part of any contrived movement. They dont give a fuck about how good someone is. Thats unfair as Ive got where I am through sheer hard work and a gift I was born with. I didnt take any acid to come up with that album Salvador Dali said he never needed drugs to do those paintings, he said: I am the drug. And thats how I feel.
Stevo, the eccentric manager of Soft Cell and supreme at Johnsons label Some Bizzare, spotted him, put a track of his on a compilation album, and decided to help him clinch a record deal. He arranged the now famous meeting with a CBS executive where business was discussed sitting astride one of the lions at Trafalgar Square. It worked and Stevo got The The a £70,000 contract. Three singles followed and Johnson recently released his second LP Soul Mining, voted record of the month recently in The Times. Journalists whod previously ignored his efforts are now proclaiming him the musical genius of the 80s, but Johnson hasnt forgotten the earlier, crueller reviews: Im afraid I do bear grudges I know I shouldnt, but I just keep quiet and laugh while theyre having to eat their words now.
Johnson has the big label Depressing hanging over his head like a mushroom cloud. His lyrics are soul searching, emotional and personal, often asking the big ones: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? But he doesnt wallow, he deals with reality in the most uplifting and positive manner possible. If you ever feel depressed, just put Soul Mining on the turntable and itll cheer you up instantly: It really irritates me when people say Im depressing. Theyre just trying to label me but Im an individual, Im speaking to people rather that at people. And I just want to strangle people who call me a Lou Reed copy theyre talking from ignorance, because of the big meal the press made over my meetings with Leonard Cohen (who turned out to be one of Matts biggest fans) Theyre the kind of people who support this new pop sensibility, you know, its good to be fun, whacky, all dressed up and prancing about being superficial, cos thats fun and thats 80s well, thats just bullshit as far as Im concerned. Im just very passionate and sincere about what I do.
The The are putting the final touches to their 1984 masterplan a world tour, a re-release of Burning Blue Soul and the release of a special LP for fans called The Pornography Of Despair. Take that title with a pinch of salt. Matt Johnson writes great and classic songs he is, and probably will remain, the most important pop artist to emerge this decade.