For almost four decades, Matt Johnson and his rotating cast of bandmates have fused optimism, despair and political prescience into a distinctive brand of existential blues
In 1979, Matt Johnson placed an advert in NME looking for likeminded fans of the Velvet Underground, the Residents and Throbbing Gristle to form a band with him. The The started life as a duo, then a four-piece, then a singular entity with a rotating cast of musicians that has included Johnny Marr, Simon Fisher Turner and Gail Ann Dorsey. (“I like to think of the The as a fluid thing,” Johnson told Melody Maker in 1993. “People can work with me, then stop for a bit, then work again.”) His own commercial breakthrough came with Uncertain Smile, reaching No 68 in the charts in 1982, and it represented an even bigger breakthrough for him as a songwriter: it ushered in a rich period of cerebral pop songs that married evocative lyrics with saleable melodies. Recorded for the album Soul Mining, this great song became a classic thanks to a staggering extended piano outro by Jools Holland. The former Squeeze man apparently turned up to the studio in summer dressed in full leathers and riding a vintage Norton motorbike. Once inside, he hammered out the improv on a baby grand in one take – but for a drop in at the end – before promptly leaving. “Me and [producer Paul] Hardiman were just … well, you know when you’ve got something,” Johnson told the Quietus when Soul Mining was reissued in 2014.