Favorite Bands: The The

The The, aka Matt Johnson and an always-shifting list of band members, has had quite an interesting musical history.  Numerous alleged albums never released or rejected by labels (See Without Being SeenSpiritsThe Pornography of DespairGun Sluts, and Karmic Gravity) and extremely hard to find singles are balanced out by six official albums, three soundtracks, and one box set.  [I’m yet to order those soundtracks, as they’re import-only.]

Johnson’s writing style is quite different from a lot of post-punk and college rock bands from the same era.  His lyrics can be both volatile and tender; he was never afraid to say what was on his mind, whether it was anger or love.

His first album, Buring Blue Soul, was released in 1981 under his own name and features a more angular sound inspired by Wire (BC Gilbert and Graham Lewis worked with him on a few tracks). It’s a bit of a strange album, but it’s worth it just to hear how creative he was at the beginning.

1983’s Soul Mining, however, is considered one of his best albums, featuring a full band sound, excellent production and tight songwriting. Some of his best-known songs are from this LP, including “This Is the Day”, “Perfect” and “Uncertain Smile”. [Check out the phenomenal extended piano solo, played by Squeeze’s Jools Holland, in that last track.]

In 1986 he released an eight-song opus about love, sex, hope and death called Infected, complete with an extended video production featuring visuals of all the tracks, filmed all over the globe. It’s harsh and unrelenting, but it’s an incredible journey from start to finish.


(this one features the vocals of Neneh Cherry, just a few short years before her own breakout)

He followed that up three years later in 1989 with Mind Bomb, featuring a wider world view: war, violence, politics, post-Reagan/Thatcher life, and yes, even love. It also features Johnny Marr, fresh out of the Smiths and the Pretenders, who would stay with him for one more album.


(a breathtaking duet with Sinead O’Connor)

In 1990, he’d sneak out a single that remains one of my favorite The The tracks, “Jealous of Youth”. It would also surface a few years later on the Solitude EP.

In 1993 he returned for another full-band album, Dusk, which fit quite nicely into the sounds of commercial alternative rock, and gave him some serious airplay. That didn’t keep him from releasing his bare emotions, however…

He followed it up two years later with…a Hank Williams cover album? I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorite The The albums as I’m not entirely sure what he was aiming for here, but hey… it’s still pretty good!

He wouldn’t reappear for another five years, with 2000’s Naked Self. It’s a much calmer affair…moodier, but calmer. It’s definitely worth picking up.

…and from there, he vanished from public view, working here and there on scores and soundtracks (Moonbug, Hyena and Tony, all under his The The moniker, plus numerous art films) as well as an occasional shortwave radio show over the years, only resurfacing recently with his Radio Cinéola box set and a documentary called The Inertia Variations. At the moment there’s rumors he’s working on a new album, but time will tell…

Thirty Years On

Yeah, I’m pretty sure y’all saw this coming some time ago.  My unhealthy obsession with the music of 1988 deems it necessary that I do the occasional thirty-years-on post this year.  But hey!  This time I’ll focus only on the music and spare you the personal stories you’ve heard enough times already.  This’ll be like my Blogging the Beatles posts from a few years back, taking my favorite music from my favorite year specifically from a listener’s point of view.  I don’t have any set schedule or plan for this series , so it’ll most likely be sporadic, depending on the release dates and so on.

I decided to use the classic Guns n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” (or as my friend Chris once call it back then, “Welcome to my Uncle’s”) as my header video for this introduction for a few reasons.  Even though the track had been released back in July of 1987, it was still getting heavy airplay alongside their other classic single “Sweet Child o’ Mine”.  Originally I was not a GnR fan at all, lumping them in with all the other hair metal bands of the day.  But on the same token, they were essentially the hardest-sounding band out there at the time.  A quick look at the early January pop charts and you’ll notice that pop music was leaning perilously towards the ‘lite’ side.  It was refreshingly inclusive and included multiple genres and performers, sure, but you’ve got to admit that there wasn’t much of a spine to many of those songs.  GnR was the much-needed exception to that rule.

It was time to look a bit deeper into the independents if I was going to satiate my need for exciting music.

The Inertia Variations

I don’t know how Matt Johnson does it, but he always manages to say what’s been on my mind.  In this case, thinking about what life gives and takes away…and our part in it.

The The hasn’t released any rock albums since 2000’s NakedSelf.  He’s slipped out three soundtracks (Tony, Hyena and Moonbug) in the last few years, and just this year he’s released a box set of sounds and commentary from his occasional shortwave radio show, Radio Cinéola.  It contains exactly one new The The song, “We Can’t Stop What’s Coming”, dedicated to his recently-deceased brother Andrew.

I think I need to give his early albums a spin again.  They’ve always been a hard listen; they’re not painful, but they pull no punches whatsoever.  They’ll pull the curtains down to reveal the shittiness of the world, but at the same time they’ll also reveal how beautiful and precious it is.

The Inertia Variations is a documentary made about his inability to release anything new over the last decade and a half other than his soundtracks.  I have not yet seen it (he’s currently touring it around the UK) but I’m hoping it’ll be available to us here in the US sometime next year.  It’s an interesting title and idea, really.  It’s about a man stuck in stasis, unsure of where he wants to go, or if he wants to go anywhere at all.  It’s not entirely laziness, it’s also an inability to find purchase on stable ground.

And I’m sure we’ve all felt that.  Whether we want to admit it or not.

Step On My Old Size Nines

For some reason the above Stereophonics track popped into my head the other day. It’s one of their older tracks from Just Enough Education to Perform (such a wonderfully acid way to describe a hack writer, I think). They’re an excellent Welsh band that sort of fell into my lap during the HMV years and I’ve been following them ever since. They just came out with a new album a few weeks ago (Scream Above the Sounds) which is definitely worth a listen.

Here’s a few tracks I think you might like from them as well. Go and check them out!

The kids would all sing, he would take the wrong key

Last Friday saw the release of a major compilation from the Who entitled Maximum As & Bs, featuring nearly all their singles from their first release as the High Numbers to their most recent.

I’ve been a somewhat passive Who fan in the past, knowing most of their more famous songs from listening to classic rock radio as a youth, but I never really followed them too closely until years later.  I found them very similar to the Kinks; they were an acquired taste and you kind of had to understand their very British influences in order to really appreciate them.

So of course during the course of Friday afternoon I streamed the collection from Amazon, and found it quite fascinating.  Like most bands from the 60s (yes, even the Beatles), the band flailed around for a few years trying to find their footing.  There’s a lot of mod posturing and moon-June lyricism going on in the early tracks.  They managed to get past this most of the time, thanks to Pete Townshend’s wit and amazing riffs, John Entwistle’s thundering bass lines, and of course Keith Moon’s manic drumming.  Roger Daltrey’s of course a great singer, but those first couple of years are a bit shaky for him; it felt like he was trying too hard to fit his powerful voice into quiet songs.  By the time they came to Tommy, though, they were a powerhouse and a rock radio staple.

[Granted, their concept album era of Tommy and Quadrophenia isn’t for everyone.  I myself find both projects a little too ridiculous, but they both contain some stellar songs that stand on their own amazingly well.]

This compilation is quite long, covering multiple decades (and is essentially a cd/digital repackaging of the singles box sets they released recently), so you may want to take it in a cd at a time, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

A dreaded sunny day…

smths tqidr

Last Friday saw the reissue of the fantastic 1986 album by the Smiths, The Queen Is Dead.  The expanded package includes a lovely remaster of the album itself, with the addition of numerous demos from that era, single b-sides, and a live performance at Great Woods in Mansfield MA (of course mislabeled as “Boston”, as is normal for that venue).  The cd package also includes a dvd of the Derek Jarman mini-film, as well as a hi-fidelity remaster of the album.

The Queen Is Dead became my favorite Smiths album soon after I picked it up, which, if I recall, was not that long after I ordered their final album from Columbia House.  It’s their most solid and consistent album that’s not a singles compilation, in my opinion.  While some love the brutalism of Meat Is Murder or the doom of the debut (or the poppiness of Strangeways, Here We Come, for that matter), the consensus is usually that TQID is their best moment.  The songs are tight, exciting, and playful.  Johnny Marr’s guitar work here is top notch, and Morrissey is clearly having fun being the smartass intellectual lyricist.

I almost always gravitate to this album over their others.  While I love nearly all their work, this one is the most positive and uplifting, the most fun to listen to, even with the one-two punch downers of “I Know It’s Over” (mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head…) and “Never Had No One Ever” (I had a really bad dream / It lasted twenty years, seven months, and twenty seven days…).  They’re balanced by the silliness of “Frankly Mr Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu”.  The lead title track is an amazing kick-ass jam and is one of their hardest, loudest tracks they ever committed to tape.  [The reissue offers a ‘full version’ that goes on for nearly a minute longer.]

If you’re a passing fan of the band, I do suggest picking up this reissue; its remaster provides the album with a much fuller, warmer sound (the original mix suffered from too much treble and loudness, at least in how I’ve heard it).  I’m also happy that they provided us with the original twelve-inch crossfade of the two b-sides “Rubber Ring” and “Asleep”, which makes the two songs connect in a very Abbey Road medley sort of way.