It’s always seemed to me that Matt Johnson’s band never really fitted in with scenes and styles, but just got on with doing their, and pretty much chiefly, his thing.
I first came across the band in 1983 with the track Uncertain Smile getting a fair bit of airplay and appearing on free tape given away by weekly Sounds magazine. Their synth/dance/pop sound was not a million miles away from more commercial bands at the time, but Johnson seemed to be marking out a very different path with his lyrics.
After buying the official debut album, Soul Mining, I moved on to the deeper and darker sound of Infected. Again, the style and sound of this album was a world apart from anything else I was listening to in 1986. The opening title track has a very poppy sound combined with a typical bombastic mid 80’s production sound, which could well prevent a new listener exploring further. This track hints at the journey to come, but the descent in to a depraved, strange kind of Britain, along with stinging references to the USA, is just around the corner.
Rob helpfully recalled that this album was available with an accompanying full length video. I haven’t had the time to catch up on YouTube, but distant memories are that this was a disturbing watch.
Listening to Heartland again is a sobering experience. There are things happening again today in this country which echo the urban decay and social breakdown which Johnson was highlighting in 1986. He does a masterful trick in laying out all this angst and tension on catchy tunes with hooks that stick in your brain for weeks afterwards. “over the mountain tops we go, just like all the other GI Joes, EE-AY-EE-AY—-adios!”, from Sweet Bird of Truth, is still knocking around my head after 26 years!
The crazy, jazzy opening on Twilight of a Champion leads on to a final track that is no more optimistic than the rest of the album, leaving you with an image of a tortured soul with a finger on the trigger, as it were.
I expect my fellow members will trump me on this one, but I find it hard to think of a case to say to someone, “if you like XXXX, then try listening to The The’s early work”. Matt Johnson’s reputation amongst his peers, if not the record buying public, grew after this album. It’s not everyone who could find Johnny Marr wanting to join his band for the next album. I didn’t stay the course with The The and later albums remain a mystery to me. Though I’m pretty sure I have something to look forward to.
Rob listened: Never one to shirk a challenge. How’s this Graham? “If you like Phil Collins, then try listening to The The’s early work, because Phil Collins is shit”.
I had a few friends for whom The The was their big musical awakening. My sense is that for many of them it was also a dead end. They seemed to stick with ‘Infected’ and ‘Soul Mining’ as destinations rather than stepping stones. Maybe they were. As Graham has said, it’s hard to put your finger on why. They weren’t radically different to some of their peers but their feel was wholly removed. They were dark, sweaty, grimy, uneasy. I do recall finding myself sitting through the full length video for this album on Channel 4 one night in 1986 and being completely spooked by it, so much so that I avoided listening to the band in any great depth. So, i’m glad Graham brought ‘Infected’ this evening but, even 26 years later, it still sent a few shivers down my spine.
Nick listened: I bought a handful of The The albums several years ago when I was ravenously consuming stuff from the late 70s and 80s that seemed to have formed the backbone of taste for people a little older than me, but which I’d just missed out on by a few years: Wire, Kate Bush, Talk Talk, The Blue Nile, Echo & The Bunneymen, Talking Heads, Gang Of Four… there seemed to be a really rich vein of ‘sophisti-pop’ amongst this cohort; ambitious, eclectic, studio-based, unafraid of pop hooks or the mainstream, but not quite… Dire Straits, or Madonna. The The weren’t my favourite of this period of investigation (Talk Talk and Talking Heads probably win out there) but I did like them alot, especially Infected and Mind Bomb. I hadnt listened to them in ages, and it was great to delve back into Matt Johnson’s recognisable, but slightly weird, world.
Tom Listened: Well…I thought his voice was a dead ringer for David McComb of The Triffids but the songs are placed in a very different musical setting to those of the Australian band – The The’s songs seem to be very much about the paranoia of the here and now (or, to be more precise, the mid eighties) as opposed to the bucolic, arcadian beauty of the Australian outback of days gone past.
I remember back at the time being confused about The The….I recall being very impressed by a song called ‘Life’s What You Make It’ that must have come out around the same time as Graham’s offering and thought that I would buy the parent album, the recently released Infected (I also remember having a conversation with a girl who ‘wanted to get Infected’ at which my lovely brother immediately quipped ‘well, Tom’s your man’. How we laughed!) Well, it turns out that Infected was not by the other alliterative ‘T’ band of the 80s and whilst, like Nick, I feel there is some distance between The The and Talk Talk at their best, it was interesting to hear Infected at last and revel in those mid 80s (because it is very much a mid 80s kind of record) sounds again.