[29 July 2014]
Of all the intense young men making art from angst in the UK post-punk/New Wave scene of the mid-80’s, The The‘s Matt Johnson was perhaps the fiercest. Exhibiting a near-pyromaniacal obsession with images of hell and burning, this was a man who seemed to make music from inside the flames of his own private purgatory.
The video to the title track of The The’s 1986 album Infected saw Johnson growling the song while strapped to a gurney like Hannibal Lecter, before being torched alive by Bolivian peasants. Meanwhile, the single’s limited edition “torture” sleeve pictured the singer stripped to the waist in a hotel room, neck veins bulging, seemingly in the throes of some psychic meltdown, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Aged 14 at the time, I had just seen Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and for a time in my schoolboy mind, Johnson became virtually interchangeable with Sean Chapman’s character, a gleaming torso-ed Faust about to unleash Hades from a box.
Infected brought The The a modicum of chart success, and having recruited ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the act crept further into mainstream consciousness with 1989 ‘s Mind Bomb, which proved prescient in its concern with Middle Eastern politics and religious fundamentalism (both East and West).
But it’s The The’s 1983 debut, Soul Mining—here remastered in a lavish 30th anniversary edition replete with bonus tracks and remixes—that’s widely regarded as the band’s most enduring achievement.
While his earlier solo effort, Burning Blue Soul (1981) had been mired in lo-fi murk, for Soul Mining Johnson ditched the demo tape aesthetic in favour of a lush, multi-instrumental canvas, roping in collaborators including Jools Holland, Orange Juice drummer Zeke Manyika, electronic DIY pioneer Thomas Leer, and J.G. Thirlwell, AKA Foetus.
The result was a strikingly original slice of melancholy synthpop, mixed with elements of industrial and African music (the now-iconic cover art even featured one of Fela Kuti’s wives as painted by Johnson’s brother, Andy). Employing xylophones, harmonica, fiddles, and accordions alongside the samples and keyboards, it’s a perfectly balanced marriage of the organic and the synthetic.
Soul Mining takes off like a rocket. On opening track “I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)”, a sampled voice intones a countdown. Over a hurtling beat shackled to a funk bassline, we hear the sound of sirens and rushing warheads. When Johnson’s caustic vocal kicks in, it’s the voice of a manic paranoiac in the eye of a hurricane: “I’ve been filled with useless information / Spewed out by papers and radio stations”, he splutters. With its panic-button urgency, the track could almost serve as a New Wave prototype for the shock-and-awe assaults Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad would unleash five years later on Public Enemy‘s sophomore recording, It Takes A Nation Of Millions.
But behind the new production values, Johnson’s soul was still burning. Soul Mining‘s lyrics are an exercise in brutal self-dissection, the confessional journal of a coruscating creative personality emerging from the chrysalis of youth. It’s the way Johnson offsets the rage and anguish with melodic pop of crystalline purity that makes Soul Mining such a unique proposition.
By contrast, “This Is The Day” is like plunging into cool spring water, a lilting ballad buoyed along by breezy accordion and bursts of sunshine synth. It’s a rueful reflection on dashed hopes and wasted potential—barely out of his teens, Johnson sounds like a man waist-deep in midlife regret: “You could have done anything if you’d wanted”, he croons in his breathy baritone. “This is the day your life will surely change”, goes the chorus, with the forced optimism of the desperate.
Desperation was a running theme in the Britain of 1983. The country was scarred by recession and inner city riots, as unemployment soared to levels not seen since the 1930s. Though Soul Mining eschews the explicit politics of The The’s later work, its grooves are soaked with a pervasive sense of dystopia. Bonus track “Perfect” includes a reference to the Specials’ “Ghost Town”, while the chorus of “The Sinking Feeling” yokes Johnson’s parlous mental state to the state of the nation: “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country,” he snarls.
“Uncertain Smile” is the album’s seven-minute centrepiece, a glowing New Wave take on blues and country with a chorus borrowed from Cole Porter: “I’ve got you under my skin where the rain can’t get in”. For the coda, Holland launches into a piano solo of epic proportions. Unfolding with a smoky majesty. It’s Soul Mining‘s most sublime, redemptive moment.
The other standout is “Giant”, an ever-morphing electro-funk colossus that sits astride a monster bass hook, and culminates in a euphoric tribal drumming sequence courtesy of Zeke Manyika. Johnson, an early adopter of Ecstasy, has described Soul Mining as “the first Ecstasy album”, and “Giant” sounds like the blueprint for a new species of avant-garde dance music. But this is Matt Johnson’s dancefloor, and behind the titanic groove, the lyric is typically Faustian: “I’m scared of God and scared of hell”, Johnson howls, “And I’m caving in upon myself”. Released the same year as New Order’s “Blue Monday”, “Giant” sees Matt Johnson dancing in his very own disco inferno.
“Giant” was intended as the closer, but in the US, Epic tacked on “Perfect” as a bonus track, much to Johnson’s annoyance. This re-release restores the original tracklisting, with “Perfect” relegated to the bonus discs. It’s a dreamy pop gem which, despite Johnson’s misgivings, was in fact the perfect last word for a record that strikes such a bittersweet balance between light and shade.
The The never quite recaptured the glories of Soul Mining. By the time of Infected the band’s music had begun to slide toward chest-beating bombast, as Johnson set out to (in his own words) “dissect the symptoms and causes of the decline of the Western empire”. But as he railed against US imperialism and the ills of globalisation, The The’s music had lost something. It would never again sound so fresh, so nuanced and so human.