Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Heartland of The The

Craig Stephen offers a part-album review, part career overview of Matt Johnson’s extraordinary The The:

In 1986 the airwaves were blasting out an aural pollution of chart-friendly guff by the likes of Whitney Houston, Chris de Burgh, Berlin, Sinitta and Level 42. Australian soap opera actors, Page Three models and soft rock acts all added to the agony. It was safe, bland and apolitical.

Into this quagmire of mediocrity came a song by a band that stated that Britain was a territorial outpost of the United States and that Thatcherism was evil. “This is the 51st state of the Yooo Esss Ayyy,” sang Matt Johnson, the frontman and writer of the band magnificently monikered The The.

While only a minor hit in the UK, the single had an immense effect on the likes of myself and others crying out for something different. Lyrics like this were just so far out of the mainstream loop, offering an alternative view of the supposed “greed is good” manifesto punted to a country riven by class division, the deliberate destruction of traditional industries, and the huge increases in levels of unemployment.

“This is the place, where pensioners are raped/ And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state/ Let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey/ Let the bums count their blessings while they count the money,” went one verse and it was hard to disagree with any of it.

‘Heartland’ was the teaser single from The The’s third album, Infected, released in the same year to massive acclaim. Infected only contained eight songs but every single one was a thing of beauty. No fillers on this baby.

On ‘Sweet Bird of Truth’, another single, albeit not a chart botherer, Johnson took on the troubles of the Middle East and specifically America’s military encroachment there. It begins with a mock radio conversation between a pilot and radio control in which the use of napalm is requested and approved.

The album took Johnson to another level. He’d released two early albums, one resolutely experimental and in his name alone; the other, Soul Mining, a classic of the early 80s, containing two exceptional singles, ‘This Is The Day’ and ‘Uncertain Smile’. Soul Mining was an odd collection for the time, rooted in post-punk but featuring synthesisers - the weapon of choice of the New Romantics - and contained touches of the nascent New York club scene. It was critically acclaimed for its uniqueness but sold little, however subsequent reissues have sold well, a testament to its timeless qualities.

 On Infected, Johnson was frustrated with the way the world was swinging behind neoliberalism and the betrayal of the working class, especially in the track ‘Angels of Deception’.

Jesus Wept, Jesus Christ/ I can't see for the tear gas and the dollar signs in my eyes/ Well, what's a man got left to fight for/ When he's bought his freedom/ By the look of this human jungle/ It ain't just the poor who'll be bleeding …”

Matt Johnson was the centre point for the band and the album, and drummer Dave Palmer was the only other regular musician to be part of the team. There are cameo appearances for Neneh Cherry (pre-‘Buffalo Stance’), Orange Juice’s Zeke Manyika, the Astarti String Orchestra, and arrangers Andrew Poppy and Anne Dudley. It also featured Louis Jardine on percussion, and there’s credits for all sorts of people such as producer Warne Livesey and various engineers, but Johnson’s name is all over this.

To promote Infected, Johnson made a video for each track which cost about £350,000, a then unheard of amount for an act that hadn’t been active for over three years, had a cult following and were on an indie label, Some Bizarre. The film followed the track listing so it began with ‘Heartland’ which was shot at Greenwich Power Station in London. A chunk of the cost was due to the crew going into the Peruvian jungle to film, Johnson clearly not wanting to do things by halves. The indigenous people that the crew used as guides introduced Johnson and co to the hallucinogenic concoctions used in their tribal rituals, with predictable results. Johnson admitted that while he was completely out of it for the filming he was bitten by a monkey, cut a stranger with a knife in a bizarre blood brother ritual, and grappled with a snake. The opening scene of the title track has Johnson strapped to a chair on board a boat sailing down a river in the jungle.

‘Out of the Blue’ was partly shot in a New York brothel with police protecting the crew from the dealers inhabiting a neighbouring crack house. During the filming of ‘Twilight of a Champion’, Johnson placed a gun with live bullets in his mouth. Just for the hell of it.

Infected: The Movie was given a bona fide premiere, in London, and was aired twice on Channel 4 and later on MTV. A video was issued at the time but it is yet to be released on DVD. Both the album and the film received rave reviews from the then influential music press, with Melody Maker’s reviewer stating: “Kicking concepts of democratic creativity in the kidneys, Johnson has justifiably come out with a one-man vision of terrifying proportions” while the glossy Q magazine described the album as "grim stuff, with the lyrical tension well-matched by the music”, and picturing it as a collision between Soft Cell and Tom Waits. Which is uncanny as there is a strong Waits influence on Infected – particularly the vocal technique on ‘Sweet Bird of Truth’ – and Waits was touted and approached to be the record’s producer. 

The weekly Record Mirror felt that “What becomes clear, however, is that we are dealing with something special ... Infected might not be a particularly optimistic record, but it is rather a good one.”

As well as numerous appearances in the end-of-year album lists, Infected made Q’s 100 Greatest British Albums, 14 years after its release. The CD version accompanying the LP included three 12-inch remixes, but the 2002 remastered reissue didn’t even bother including those. It’s probably overdue a deluxe super special eight-edition release with free postcards.

The effect of such an ambitious project as Infected took its toll on the protagonist and he took a couple of years off. When he returned to the studio it was with a band, and the line-up included former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, James Eller from Julian Cope’s backing band and Palmer. This was certainly a marked deviation from the previous album. Less fancy instrumentation, more back-to-basics rock and pop. And again, eight tracks all stretching as far as Johnson could spin them in terms of the clock. Even the artwork was more in line with the move toward minimalism, a generally white cover with Johnson’s face jutting out. Could’ve been a Pet Shop Boys album if you didn’t look closely enough.

 Mind Bomb was still an excellent work and the title wasn’t too far off the mark. It was at times slow and required patience, but that fortitude would bear great fruit for the listener. ‘The Beat(en) Generation’ was a full-on pop song that made the Top 20 in Britain. Not that it was ever a radio-friendly fluffy DJ pleaser as the lyrics of the first few lines will attest.

When you cast your eyes upon the skylines/ Of this once proud nation/ Can you sense the fear and the hatred/ Growing in the hearts of its population/ And youth, oh youth, are being seduced/ By the greedy hands of politics and half truths.”

It may have been released in 1989 but those lyrics apply now in a country bitterly divided economically, socially and geographically.

While it wasn’t as loved by the critics as its predecessor, Mind Bomb remains one of the finest albums to carry The The’s name, with one writer observing that it was: "slow, expansive, looming into inexorable life with a rage that smouldered rather than flamed.”

Four years later The The were back, for the album Dusk, with the same line-up of Johnson, Marr, Eller and Palmer with various guest appearances, though no one with the profile of Sinead O’Connor who guested on one track from Mind Bomb.

It was something of a retreat in terms of Johnson’s usual ambitions; the lyrics were more apolitical and the arrangements more restrained. The singer sounded less heretical, shifting from the politics of the world to the politics of the individual, for example on ‘Lonely Planet’s chorus: “If you can't change the world, change yourself.”

There’s a sexual element to the album, and it’s hardly concealed: the single ‘Dogs of Lust’ hardly needs much explaining, but here’s a teaser: “When you're lustful/ When you're lonely/ And the heat is rising slowly.”

There’s love and desire all over the album but also a snippet of the subject matters so beloved of albums of yore. Back we go to ‘Lonely Planet’ and the closing line of the extended second chorus which, after numerous intonations of that call to change yourself, turns around to state: “And if you can't change yourself then change your world.”

The band was ditched for 1995’s Hanky Panky, a nod to the artist providing all 11 tracks – Hank Williams, writer of country and western standards such as ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, ‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘Honky Tonkin’, all of which are covered by Johnson and his backing band of people with names like Reverend Brian McLeod and Gentleman Jim Fitting. That it was better received in the United States than the UK reveals the nature of the songs. But it was one for the devoted only. 

In the time since, The The has barely been heard. There’ve been occasional releases, such as the low-key bluesy Naked Self album from 2000 and a pair of new tracks for a compilation album 45 RPM: The Singles of The The. Then, for 14 long years, barely a peep, nothing much more than obscure soundtracks, download-only singles and a couple of one-off singles for Record Store Day. Late last year came The Comeback Special: Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

Whether the “comeback” is another one-off or a tangible return to the album-tour-acoustic radio session circuit remains to be seen. The brilliant ‘We Can’t Stop What’s Coming’ for Record Store Day 2017 suggests The The are still very capable of writing and recording excellent songs. But if there’s no new material I can still wallow in four fine albums of individuality and class.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

(This is not a) Classic Album Review: The Clash - Cut The Crap (1985)

Craig Stephen continues his extensive overview of The Clash and its wider musical legacy (see multiple posts about “solo” Joe Strummer and The Clash elsewhere on the blog):

And this is not a typical album review. You kind of can’t with something so universally despised by critics, dismissed by Clash fans, and even rejected by its creator. Cut the Crap truly was a disaster of epic proportions, a stinker extraordinaire that as a Clash fan myself I’ve only ever given one or two spins as the headaches proved too much.

Instead, this is the story behind the making of the worst punk record. The personality clashes, the sackings, the accelerated decline of the world’s best rock band of the time and the incredible mistakes propelled by egos and insecurity.

The decline of the Clash began, perhaps, in late 1982 when drummer Topper Headon, by then a caricature of a human being due to his Colombian-scale consumption of heroin, was sacked. A year later the band’s main songwriter Mick Jones was gone too. The two musicians in the band had left. And manager Bernie Rhodes, who could be credited with the band’s early success but also with sowing division, was now back at the helm. Joe Strummer turned to Rhodes’ ruthless situationist streak to cut out all the superfluous, superficial, middle class BS.

Pete Howard was first in, replacing Headon’s replacement Terry Chimes, while Jones was still in the band. Howard would soon take a call from a wired Strummer telling him he’d “sacked the stoned cunt” and demanding to know if he was on Jones’ or Strummer’s side. Howard, clearly knowing where the power lay, affirmed he was pro-Joe. Nick Sheppard, once the guitarist with pseudo punk band The Cortinas, was roped in first, followed by Gregory White whose name wasn’t rock’n’roll enough for the band so became Vince – after Vince Taylor. They were both replacements for Mick Jones.

The trigger for the album which was initially called Out of Control was the 1984 tour that featured several new tracks. These gigs signalled a return to punk rock, or Rebel Rock as it would be dubbed by the band. There would be no dub tracks, no soul-fun workouts, no kids singing … it would be all about the music, and they’d only play with Les Pauls.

The Clash were now a band but not a unit. Strummer and Paul Simonon the only other surviving member, were the new Clash; Howard, Sheppard and White were self-professed guns for hire, taking a weekly wage. And in time even Strummer and Simonon would become secondary to Rhodes’ inflated sense of worth.

A mini tour of California in January 1984 played to smaller venues than the stadiums that they had the year before, and was generally regarded as successful. While the classic Clash songbook prevailed, there was space for new songs like ‘Sex Mad War’, ‘Three Card Trick’ and ‘This is England’. A particularly impressive track, ‘In The Pouring Rain’ (it’s on the Future is Unwritten soundtrack), was aired at some gigs during 1984 but wasn’t included on the eventual album, presumably because it just didn’t fit.

With the return of a punk sound came the unwanted return of gobbing. Which at a Brixton Academy gig in March 1984 so incensed Strummer he threatened to kill someone. And wasn’t joking about it.

Strummer was sporting a Mohican – not quite à la The Exploited - and there was a militaristic ambience about this new act, including calling the new members recruits who were part of a platoon, rather than a band. There were dictums left, right, and centre and Howard equated it to being in a religious cult like the Moonies.

On a 10-day tour of Italy in the autumn of 1984 in aid of the Italian Communist Party, Strummer was absent from rehearsals and there was a single soundcheck, in which they hashed through ‘Be Bop A Lula’ before heading to the pub. Strummer was reportedly drinking two or three bottles of brandy a day.

It was a difficult time for Strummer after hearing that his mother and been diagnosed with terminal cancer, on top of his father dying at the beginning of the year. This led to the postponement of the recording of the appropriately titled Out of Control. With Strummer looking after his ailing mother, Rhodes took “complete control” and that was where it all began to go wrong. The recording of the album involved session musicians with actual members sidelined. Rhodes tinkered with it to his delight … to inevitable results.

Meantime, the band did a busking tour of the north of England in May 1985, stalking Welsh rockers The Alarm from gig to gig just to wind them up. The end came at a festival in Athens, Greece, sharing a bill with The Cure, The Stranglers, Depeche Mode and Culture Club, in July 1985.

 There was still a single and album to release, and due to a legal agreement the record label couldn’t avoid its duties even though they probably would have been keen to just ditch it and hope it went away. Which is what Strummer felt as he had left for Spain before ‘This Is England’ had been released as a single in September 1985. In Granada, Strummer produced an album for punk band 091 and worked with Spanish popstars Radio Futura. He even bought a Dodge car to drive around and eventually dump, and film-maker Nick Hall was so intrigued as to what happened with it he made an entire documentary around it, called I Need A Dodge. The film was of course a bit more about a mere car owned by a rock star: it told the tale of why Strummer went to Spain and what he did there.

Cut the Crap was released in November 1985 and as predicted by everyone was without exception derided. It was a messy, punk’n’hip hop ramble with incoherent, childlike lyrics and inane chants like We Are The Clash. None of it was coherent, none of it was pleasant listening, and the electronic drums were unbearable… And it really wasn’t punk rock. Only ‘This is England’, which was a brutal take-down of Thatcherism, greed and war, and ‘North and South’ escaped some of the savaging.

Strummer told his bandmates he was going to pen a hand-written admission of guilt in 1930s Soviet-style lettering saying he made the wrong decision. It was intended to go in all the still influential music weeklies such as NME, Sounds and Melody Maker, as well as The Guardian and wherever else. It never did appear.

It is easy to consider that this was a disastrous period for Strummer, Simonon and The Clash legacy, which was certainly tarnished by the misadventure but initially the band seemed to be doing something right. They were playing some good gigs and festivals, and the new songs didn’t sound like the lumpy, degenerate, half-baked monstrosities that they would become in Rhodes’ hands. The return to basics project after stadium tours and hob-nobbing with Michael Jackson’s manager and film stars was the right decision to make at the time. It was the execution that failed. It was tainted by Rhodes’ control freakery, the impact of family issues and bad decisions. Dealt with professionally, Cut the Crap or Out of Control as it more likely would have been called if Rhodes hadn’t had so much power, could well have been a decent album, made by people that actually wanted to make it work. One day someone will release the original demos.

'This Is England' ... 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Album Review: Vietnam - This Quiet Room (2022)

There’s probably a fairly decent grassroots biopic or screenplay lurking within the minutiae of the Vietnam backstory.

From the band’s punky activist Wainuiomata roots in 1980, to live gigging in small suburban halls, to studio sessions which yielded one solitary EP, all the way through to a couple of high profile television appearances, Vietnam’s flame burned brightly if all-too briefly.

When the band broke up in 1985 they were destined to become a mere footnote in the storied history of Wellington’s 1980s post-punk scene. Until 2016, that is, when the eponymous EP was picked up, expanded, and re-released by Spanish label, BFE. A reunion gig followed in early 2017, which led to fresh momentum and new work. That meant recording sessions in locations as culturally diverse as Sydney and Levin, with the result being the album that eventually became ‘This Quiet Room’.

Released in early 2022, and preceded by punchy advance single 'What Have I Done?', the album is an absorbing collection of tracks conceived both during the band’s original incarnation, and those of a more recent vintage; one part throwback to a bygone era, and one part excursion into state of the art post-punk, circa 2022. There’s a strong (old) new wave feel, there’s power pop, some jangle, and no little amount of social commentary.

There’s also a very cool cover of Wire’s 'Kidney Bingos', which threatens to be the best thing here. But that would perhaps be an injustice to the remaining 10 tracks on offer. Listen out too for Leon, a brief interlude featuring original drummer Leon Reedijk, who passed away in 2017.

Band originals Shane Bradbrook (vocals) and Adrian Workman (bass, synths, vocals) are on top form throughout, and their presence is key to pulling all constituent parts into a very cohesive whole. ‘This Quiet Room’ is a compelling comeback from a long lost band, a triumph over adversity even, and if some bright spark ever does script that biopic, it’ll just as likely be the first-ever Vietnam movie with a happy ending.

This review was originally published by NZ Musician (link here).

Monday, December 27, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: Marlin’s Dreaming - ‘Trophies’

There’s just something so very “deep south” about the jangly lo-fi indie of Dunedin’s Marlin’s Dreaming. ‘Trophies’, off the band’s 2021 album, Hasten, is merely the latest spin on a form of intoxicating melodic guitar pop the region has long since been famous (infamous, un-famous) for. ‘Trophies’ is our final Choice Kiwi Cut for 2021.

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: Unknown Mortal Orchestra - 'That Life'

UMO’s ‘That Life’ was quite simply one of the earworms of 2021. Here’s what art-popper-extraordinaire Ruban Nielson said at the time of its mid-year release:

“I saw this painting by Hieronymus Bosch called The Garden of Earthly Delights and in the painting there was a mixture of crazy stuff going on, representing heaven, earth, and hell. When I was writing this song, “That Life,” I was imaging the same kind of “Where’s Waldo” (or “Where’s Wally” as we call it in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK) of contrasting scenes and multiple characters all engaged in that same perverse mixture of luxury, reverie, damnation, in the landscape of America. Somewhere on holiday under a vengeful sun.”

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: Chaos In The CBD & Mongo Skato - 'Brainstorm'

Raised in Auckland but now based primarily in the UK, touring and releasing music under the Chaos in the CBD moniker, production duo - and brothers - Ben and Louis Helliker-Hales have developed a solid global following in dance music circles across the past decade. There’s been a series of consistently top notch releases over that period and this year’s Brainstorm EP was no exception. The title track, which is a collaboration with another local artist Mongo Skato, oozes so much deep house warmth it was the most obvious choice cut on the release.

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: Anthonie Tonnon - 'Two Free Hands'

Anthonie Tonnon’s ‘Two Free Hands’ dates all the way back to 2017 but it was included on this year’s Leave Love Out of This album so it qualifies as a 2021 choice cut. Tonnon never ceases to amaze with his rare ability to write and produce perfectly crafted pop songs which frequently snub lyrical convention and musical formula. ‘Two Free Hands’ is just one such example, and Tonnon has made a career out of combining his instinct for the experimental and the avant garde with an uncanny knack for pure pop vibes. He is, without question, one of Aotearoa’s most underrated artists.

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: The Chills - 'Monolith'

During a year (and in a world) full of upheaval and uncertainty it’s sometimes reassuring to know that some things never change. Especially when that “thing” has been around for decades and involves the mercurial ability to produce clever, quirky, intimate pop music on a whim. Step forward Martin Phillipps and The Chills, with another understated pop masterclass in the form of 2021 album Scatterbrain. It probably won’t win any shiny gongs or be acclaimed as the band’s “best ever” in years to come (because it definitely isn’t that) but it still has enough personality and warmth to be considered yet another primo addition to the band’s ongoing legacy. ‘Monolith’ was the scene-setting album opener and one of my own favourites ...

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Album Review: Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks of God (2021)

First things first: Manchester Orchestra are not from Manchester, England. Nor are they from Manchester, anywhere else. Manchester Orchestra are not even an orchestra. They’re an Atlanta, US-based alt-rock four-piece, and the band’s 2021 album, The Million Masks of God, is album number six in a career that dates all the way back to 2004.

Over the course, the band have appeared at big festivals such as Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Reading, and despite having an otherwise relatively low profile outside of their homeland, they’ve clocked up an impressive number of live television performances on US variety/chat shows like the Late Show with David Letterman (4 times), Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! … if I hadn’t heard the band’s music, you could say it’s exactly the sort of mainstream rock resume I’d normally be a quite wary of and steer well clear of.

 And yet, here we are, late into 2021, and The Million Masks of God is shaping up to be one of the very best new release albums I’ve heard all year. I’d heard snippets - or singular tracks - lifted from the band’s previous full-length outing A Black Mile to the Surface (2017), all of which left enough of an impression for me to pick up The Million Masks of God almost as soon as it was released.

I initially thought the band might have some loose connection (or shared membership) with Seattle indie-folkers Fleet Foxes, such is the similarity in style, and the frequently layered vocal offerings of singer Andy Hull are not all that dissimilar to those of Fleet Foxes main man, Robin Pecknold. Albeit Pecknold and Fleet Foxes rely more heavily on actual harmonies than filters and studio wizardry such as over-dubbing.

The Million Masks of God feels like an assured and self-aware release, an album with a range of lyrical themes - although death does seem like the most predominant concern - and a blend of musical styles. With Hull’s vocal delivery perhaps becoming the album’s most consistent feature, and arguably, along with clever wordsmithery, the glue that holds it all together.

It’s an album of emotional peaks and troughs, where soft acoustic moments sit comfortably alongside edgier or heavier rock-out flashes. Where grand orchestral flourishes push hard up against what I suspect is the band’s more natural (collective) instinct to just relax and let everything breathe. Where the production is often lush, yet the arrangement occasionally sparse or spacious.

Nothing ever feels too rushed or forced. There’s conflict and contradiction to be found on The Million Masks of God. Equal parts joy and sadness. You get the sense on some songs that Hull is genuinely working through issues as he sings about them. Whether it’s mortality, afterlife, or perhaps that most confusing of life perennials, a human relationship. Searching for an answer without ever really being certain about the question.

Whatever else it is, it’s a brilliant listen, a journey, and a stick-on certainty to be one of this blog’s albums of 2021.

Highlights: ‘Angel of Death’, ‘Bed Head’, ‘Telepath’, ‘Dinosaur’, and ‘The Internet’.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021: Leisure - 'Flipside'

I’m not going to lie. I’m partial to the odd bit of 70s-style soft rock. Or yacht rock as it may sometimes be called. Just not too much of it. Small doses etc. I just don’t like to talk about it. Or write about it. In fact, I give a mate of mine some grief occasionally for admitting the exact same thing, whilst harbouring my own dirty little secret. It’s a nostalgia thing, a throwback to a 1970s childhood, when that sort of stuff dominated mainstream radio. When we had very little else other than mainstream radio. Which may or may not be my excuse for listening to a fair bit of Leisure over the past year or so … shamelessly lush, soft disco-infused tracks like ‘Take You Higher’, ‘Mesmerised’, and this Choice Cut, ‘Flipside’. All great slices of pure pop. All of which can be found on the Auckland band’s recently released Sunsetter album.

(Choice Kiwi Cuts 2021 is a series of blogposts which seek to highlight the best tracks released by New Zealand artists over the course of the calendar year. Not necessarily the “best” in any commercial sense, but those which have proven to be the best additions to this blogger’s music collection)