Perhaps the news may have slipped under your radar this week, but in the new issue of Uncut magazine, Matt Johnson confirmed he’s working on the first The The album in 15 years. While for most, this is of little significance at all, for others like myself, this is the greatest music news in quite some time.
Johnson founded The The in 1977. Although members came and went, he has always remained the driving force behind a band who remain something of an anomaly in the music scene. Despite their albums being critically lauded and constantly included in ‘Best Of’ lists, it’s rare to hear a band who claim inspiration from The The. But then, how could they? What the band inspire most is passion, soul and a powerful message. Couple those with a debut album consisting of 80s drums, warped pianos and tribal chanting and maybe then you’re influenced by The The.
I’m talking about Soul Mining – their debut album which last year got a deserved 30th anniversary release. It was a rather dodgy cover of This is the Day by Manic Street Preachers in 2011 that first piqued my interest in The The and although the Welsh band’s version is a little too polished and clean compared to the original behemoth, it was enough.
At the time, Soul Mining was relatively well received but it’s only with hindsight that the music world has come to appreciate it in all its haunting glory. The album isn’t just a collection of songs – it’s a journey. I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow begins the trip with ear-splitting drums and straining vocals, Jools Holland steps in to provide a glorious piano-solo on stand-out track Uncertain Smile, while we finish with the epic GIANT. Using the word ‘epic’ as it was originally intended of course.
Because we’re talking about a band that isn’t content with slapping some songs together and chucking them into a record store, we’re talking about crafting an album that has a beginning, a middle and an end. A story. A craft that continued with the tense, claustrophobic second album Infected. A personal favourite of mine.
To promote the album, the studio gave Johnson £350,000 to make a video for each song – a pretty large amount for a relatively small act at the time. The videos saw the film crew genuinely being attacked by Communist rebels during filming in the Amazon, almost coming to blows with drug dealers as they filmed in a brothel and Johnson filmed putting a loaded gun into his mouth “to see what it felt like”. Making Infected took its toll mentally and physically on Johnson. Who in today’s music is willing to actively suffer for their art?
I do wonder whether The The could make it if they were starting out here, in 2015. In an age of impatience, cheap thrills and gap-year bands, who wants to peer over the wall at the reclusive musician next door? Do the audience want to see a guy laying bare his tormented soul on stage? Is it cool?
Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr joined the band for the next two albums, Mind Bomb and Dusk, two albums with vastly different themes on their minds. Mind Bomb was the second album from the band that I bought and I vividly remember holding the booklet as the CD played, reading the lyrics in awe at how a band could admonish politics and religion with such abrasive poetry and not be considered one of music’s greats. A band for all genres, three years later the mournful Dusk came out with more accessible – but no less terrific – sound.
Maybe the band simply weren’t prolific enough to make the big time. In an 18 year career, they only churned out 6 releases after all. And with albums as sonically diverse as theirs, it’s always hard to please current fans and bring in potential fans.
The mid-nineties saw Matt Johnson go solo again, keeping the The The moniker. An album of Hank Williams covers came about in 1995 (hey, I never said they were perfect). A long wait followed before the underrated 2000 release NakedSelf. Compared to other albums, maybe this doesn’t quite have as much bite but with songs like GlobalEyes and SoulCatcher it still trumps what most bands can offer. Since then, Matt Johnson has been content to score various documentaries and films, shying away from public view.
The return of The The may go unnoticed by most, but for the select few who have seen the bleak greatness, it’s the return of the prophet. A pioneer who just might remind people that there is life beyond the indie nonsense clogging the airwaves.