It was only a matter of time before someone named themselves The The

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‘I think of The The as being a blank wall I can paint in any musical style I want to’ – Matt Johnson

As a lazy, cidered teen I knew a guy who was known as The Dean. The “The” was important, turning him into a character of mythological status and uniqueness. Once, provoked with a little psychedelic pharmaceutical, I spent a long time trying to decipher what exactly this mythical “The Dean” was – because I knew that at some point the man had been transcended.

Quite a difference, from that one wee word (and some drugs). The importance of the definite article in a name is something that will be familiar to any fan of pop musicit is the most phenomenally popular word and source of petty argument. So much so that Tyler Schnoebelen, a Stanford PhD, analysed the US Billboard charts of 1890-2012 to track its usage. Despite a late start, “The” featured in 3,913 from 8,758 names – nearly half. But for the first decades of recorded music, it was almost absent.

Despite a few outliers “The” began appearing in earnest only in the 1920s, usually with the construct “Bandleader and The Orchestra”. However, its usage was looser, largely interchangeable with “Bandleader and His Orchestra”.

“The” plus some kind of noun started to become more prevalent as the idea of a more condensed pop group started to form, and it was largely a style pioneered by black artists who could not often penetrate the charts – although some made it. The Ink Spots formed in 1934, as did The Delta Rhythm Boys (who would remain active until 1987). Illustrating the changing trend in names from the earliest decades to the inter- and post-war period, The Royal Harmony Singers, formed in 1936, would find their fame in the 40s and 50s as The Jubalaires.

“The” bands seeped and crossed into the mainstream and by the mid-1950s the charts were becoming dominated by the definite article. The industry had learned how to commodify and market the sensational pop that was forming out of the cross-pollination of what was being sold as “rhythm and blues” and “rock’n’roll”.

“The” peaked in the mid-60s just as The Beatles (who in 1959 had used the earlier format as Johnny and The Moondogs) were capitalising on the genre-alchemy, techno-, and ideological innovation. This moment of congealed egos, political distinction and audio-visual transmission was perfect for the statement of intent and individuality that is “The”.

Really, it was only a matter of time before someone named themselves The The.

In the midst of post-punk, when it seemed obvious to many that music should be directly political, Margaret Thatcher stood outside 10 Downing Street on 4 May 1979 and promised “Where there is discord may we bring harmony”; exactly one week later, The The made their debut, third on the bill to Scritti Politti and PragVEC at the Africa Centre in London.

The The and the Reagan-Thatcher political alliance soon became enemies. The precocious and ambitious Matt Johnson (who had been in Road Star and The Gadgets) had started the band with an ad in NME, but it soon became an expansive project of interchangeable collaborators working on music and film centred around his tortured songwriting. He even said in 1986, on the release of Infected, that he might at some point no longer appear on The The records as he didn’t want to be an old has-been “like Lou Reed or whatever”, but that The The could live on – which would curiously echo the many incarnates of The Ink Spots and The Jubalaires.

For Johnson it was “a name that didn’t give any musical preconception – I think of The The as being like a blank wall I can paint in any musical style I want to”. Early member Keith Laws, now a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire, had suggested the name, and Johnson’s big synth-noir early sound had made it.

Shy and conscious of commodification, The The rarely played live or made appearances. In a later conversation with his 90s guitarist Johnny Marr, Johnson spoke of the “anonymity” and “tongue-in-cheek” nature of the band name. But he was as determined to be heard as he was to remain hidden and the vague non-meaning of the name, turned on its head by its context to a double declaration of intent, is part of its legacy – a statement that cannot be pinned down.

It is a delicious irony that the emergence of the pop group as a cultural unit should give rise to the emphatic “The”, and a group called The The which eschewed that form,  although for those 90s years The The did return to the conventional guitar-based group that their predecessors pioneered. Heavily influenced by The Beatles, Johnson had been submerged in the White Album as a child. These guitar-band years coincided with Britpop, which can itself be seen as an extension of the Beatle genealogy. One might argue that The The hold some status as a morphing frontrunner to Britpop, from a post-punk origin.

Johnson’s lyrics engaged with politics but never left much room for a listener to think and form their own thoughts. Usually, they took the shape of harshly didactic aphorisms decrying in cinematic fashion what we would now call neoliberalism. It was hardly a moment for subtlety, and Thatcher-era youth of a certain ilk found it perfect – danceable, but not willfully ignorant.

Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 has the era sloping off as the The The were getting going. Reynolds seems to conclude that the mesh of pop and politics that was emblematic of post-punk was a failure. It feels both teleological and true to say that any real political ambition Johnson had was always futile; that no matter how big his synth and how inclusive his fans, the smiley-faced capital of neoliberalism was bigger and more expansive and only just beginning. His political and economic habitat was soon to be enemy soil. The welfare-oriented Labour party would be swallowed by New Labour and the music industry would commodify once grassroots spaces, quantifying their product and their audiences. Things radical became ®adical.

Connectivity and consumerism fanned the flames. If the creative explosion of the 60s and 70s was a reaction to the early capitalist attempts at maintaining class deference through institutions such as Tin Pan Alley – as many, such as Jason Toynbee, writing in Popular Music Matters, a collection in honour of Simon Frith, contend – then since around the time of punk that explosion had eaten itself through self-referentiality, its creative permutations becoming a series of superficial stylistic changes with token, tractionless political posturing.

Johnson was aware he was swimming against the tide, but his drive would push him to do it anyway – and perhaps to speak of “failure” is simplistic. Musicologist David Wilkinson critiques the Reynolds view on the era in his cultural materialist study, Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure In Britain (2016), arguing that to quantify moments of music in time as failures or successes is itself a capitalist quantification method – that we tacitly see cultural product like any other, which can fail simply by not shifting the required units for a healthy margin. Both Wilkinson and Frith see the political engagement as secondary to the social cohesion and even identity-forming aspects of music. In Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book The Songlines, he tells of Indigenous Australian musical culture, where, as their creation story involves the singing of the physical world into existence, songs exist to this day providing maps of the land physically, spiritually and culturally. These songs are passed down inside clans, the very tangible and walkable story of their roots and land, where they can still reliably find sacred sites, food, shelter, their brethren and themselves. Many would argue that the way pop music shapes our identities and the groups we are, or are not, members of is incalculable.

For The The fans, cult took shape around Thatcher trauma-bonds and perceived intimacy. From the last days of an influential printed media and zine culture, the un-Googleable The The became the focus of those early cyberchat spaces with fans sharing their stories of idolatry. Last year I found one hilarious account that told of one man’s mission to get Matt Johnson’s signature on his bespoke The The numberplate; the investment fans put into listening and exploring these stories was a labour of love. But as our relationship with music is inseparable from the political system from which it emerges and the industry it moves through, music is also bound to the technology by which we consume it. The The’s career spans the introduction of the biggest thing to hit the shelves in music since notation in the 9th century: digitisation. The fragmented digital network seems like an infinitely pessimistic development for many who view it through the prism of the guitar-based music and engaged charts they bonded with in previous decades. Digitisation poses problems, but it is also the source of the most vitality and creativity in today’s music. Johnson’s preference to create music in the studio, with fluid collaboration, that would be digested by individuals plugged into headphones and poring over liner notes, preempts the model of the digital network. Digitisation affects our relationship with music by at once opening our access and algorithmically altering our experience. But its impact is not fully understood. As ever there are proponents seeing it as a way to a future multilateralism of musical consumption and detractors seeing it as an anathema.

Likewise, for every The The fan there has been a detractor with a snigger – to be expected for a working-class guy who speaks forthrightly about global geopolitics. Bits of The The do seem dated and naive, but Matt Johnson’s sheer drive created a body of work that has fused into the lives of many. As Thatcher marked the beginning of The The, it was in 2002 as Tony Blair was secretly planning to invade Iraq that The The quietly stopped producing pop music. Which could be seen as another pessimistic marker of “decline”, if one chooses to dis-privilege the meaningful way The The is bound up with people’s lives.

For the last 15 years, Johnson has directed his drive towards film soundtrack work and his other publishing businesses. His global political polemics have largely been replaced by work with the Save Shoreditch movement, an architectural preservation project in east London. Until, in April 2017 – on that day of commodified retro-celebration, Record Store Day – a server-crashing limited edition vinyl was released, followed by a curiously quick V2. The track is a tribute to his late brother, Andy Dog, the artist who designed many of The The’s iconic images. Backed by Johnny Marr and another old hand, Zeke Manyika on drums, it starts with his trademark cinematic soliloquy and continues:

Music and identity are temporal: those sounds that we bonded with so fervently follow us through our lives, rooting us in our selves. Some musico-sociologists argue that like the Indigenous Australians we use music not only to express ourselves but also to create ourselves. It not only accompanies us on a path but shapes that path. We cannot stop moving along that path and neither can music – with all its developments. It is bound to death and change and memory, and the cohesion it provides helps many to deal with both life and that thing that is coming. On a good day, you could pass that off as success.

 

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‘This whole weekend was a dream come true’ … Monterey Pop Festival, day three (Sunday)

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Although devoting the whole of Sunday afternoon to Indian classical music might seem a bold move, in fact there could have been nothing better suited to thousands of California hippies who had been up half the night and were exhausted, zonked out on Monterey Purples, or otherwise spaced out, than a lesson from the master of the sitar.

Ravi Shankar

Having spent 15 minutes tuning up, after which the audience applauded enthusiastically, the Indian sitar maestro (the only artist at Monterey to be paid for his appearance; everyone else just got expenses) proceeded to play for the next three hours or so. That’ll teach ’em. Now the western world, or a significant part of its younger generation, would get to hear what George Harrison and a few others had been on about. This was not “raga rock”, these were ragas – the real deal.

Here’s the 18 minutes or so that DA Pennebaker shot for his movie. Around six and a half minutes in, note Jimi Hendrix, and then Mike Bloomfield, enjoying the show. You can also spot Monkee Micky Dolenz, taking a break from tinkering with his new Moog synthesiser, among the appreciative audience at the end. Shankar’s gracious verdict was: “This is not pop, but I am glad it is popular.”

It’s the last night of the festival, and time for the Sunday evening show.

The Blues Project

Al Kooper had just quit the band but seems happy enough (at around 9:53) watching them perform Flute Thing, featuring the talents of Andy Blumenfeld. It goes on a bit, and rhythm guitarist Steve Katz looks bored at times: you sense he can’t wait for Al to give him a call and sign him up for BS&T so he can have fun, score chicks, and make some money. All of which duly happened.

The Group With No Name

After a brief reappearance by Big Brother & The Holding Company, to be filmed playing Ball and Chain again after the sensation Janis had caused on Saturday, The Group With No Name took the stage. Michael Lydon, for once, got it right, predicting they “may well not last long enough to get a name”. No one seems to have recognised, recorded or recalled anything they played. The band was led by Cyrus Faryar, a founder member of The Modern Folk Quartet who had also played with The Whiskeyhill Singers. Devotees of the Elektra label may remember an album called The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds; Faryar did the weird but wonderful narration. Now 71, he lives in Hawaii and still performs.

Buffalo Springfield 

Not seen and heard enough of David Crosby with The Byrds on Saturday night? No problem: he’s back, this time with Buffalo Springfield, nominally standing in for the recently departed Neil Young. Stephen Stills seems happy enough but I don’t sense Richie Furay is especially impressed. The soap opera would soon be resolved when Steve and Dave got together with their new English best friend Graham, leaving Richie to take a trip to the country to form Poco. For what it’s worth, here – as introduced by Monkee Peter Tork – are his favourite group, “The” Buffalo Springfield.

Furay got to sing Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing and A Child’s Claim to Fame and they also did, at breakneck speed, this pretty good version of Bluebird.

The Who

England’s finest showed what they thought of all this “peace and love” nonsense with an edgy, in-your-face show that culminated, as My G-Generation f-faded away, in a brutal assault on his guitar by Pete Townshend. Despite a dodgy sound system that left them somewhat underpowered, The Who’s set was excellent, and made their name in the US, although the bawdy-music-hall-esque “mini opera” A Quick One While He’s Away stuck out like a cucumber stuffed down a bass player’s trousers. You can hear the full set here (sound only), but let’s face it, what we all really want is to see a bit of good old-fashioned GBH (guitar body harm) from Pete while John Entwistle plucks defiantly away at his bass until only Keith Moon is left bashing away, before kicking his drums over, like someone who knew he would die before he got old.

The Grateful Dead

Pennebaker’s crew were sleeping on the job here, failing to capture any footage of what by all accounts was a typical really-loose-except-when-it-was-really-tight Dead performance, on their home turf, by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Pigpen and Bill Kreutzmann. Garcia had appeared at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963, playing banjo with The Wildwood Boys. The Dead’s set comprised Viola Lee Blues, Cold Rain and Snow, and Alligator/Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks). Luckily we have the audio, all 34 minutes and 55 seconds of it, and it’s terrific.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix warmed up for his US concert dates in July – as support act to The Monkees – by reinventing the electric guitar and proving himself, already, its greatest exponent. Opening with a killer-diller version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor, he continued with Foxy Lady, Like a Rolling Stone, Rock Me Baby, Hey Joe, Can You See Me, The Wind Cries Mary, Purple Haze and a Wild Thing that made the original, by The Troggs, seem about as wild as a sleepy kitten. Oh yes, and he set his Stratocaster on fire. Unlike Townshend’s earlier act of premeditated violence, however, this was more a crime of passion; Hendrix seems almost sad about it. But then he had just spent half an hour making love to the instrument. Here’s the trailer for Jimi Plays Monterey.

The Mamas & The Papas

Hendrix would have been a hard act to follow for anyone, and The Mamas & The Papas were tired, bleary, and not at their best. Even so, it’s a bit unfair to dismiss them as “pop shit” (thank you, Country Joe McDonald). There wouldn’t have been a festival without them and in a sense this group, with all their hippie-dippery, summed up what it had all been about: a “love-in”, if only for three days, a celebration of youth, a brief glimpse of a better world. They sang their hits …

… and then Scott McKenzie gave a fine performance of Phillips’ Monterey anthem San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) …

… and the whole thing finished with Dancing in the Street.

Eric Burdon later paid tribute to the festival in his great song Monterey: “The people came and listened/Some of them came and played/Others gave flowers away, yes they did/Down in Monterey./ Young gods smiled upon the crowd/Their music being born of love/Children danced night and day/Religion was being born/Down in Monterey.”

This weekend, 16-18 June 2017, Burdon was back at Monterey for the 50th anniversary of the festival (Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Booker T Jones returned as well, and Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Norah Jones, also played). It’s poignant to reflect on the many musicians who didn’t make it this far, some of whom did not even survive the 1960s, and to wonder what became of all those beautiful young people, frozen in Technicolor and in time.

One of them, Mama Cass, declared 50 years ago tonight: “This whole weekend was a dream come true.” Two days before the festival began, a young man named Donald Trump had celebrated his 21st birthday. It’s not the fault of the musicians, or the gentle people with flowers in their hair, if the dream was to prove an illusion.

Links

The greatest music festival in history – New York Times article
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/opinion/the-greatest-music-festival-in-history.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

A bloody battle over Monterey – Jann Wenner, in a 1968 Rolling Stone piece, on the failed attempt to stage a second festival in 1968, which he calls “a bizarre enactment of the entire American tragedy”
http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/a-bloody-battle-over-monterey-pop-festival-19680406

Those interested in hearing more music from this era should subscribe to psych67’s excellent YouTube channel, full of hidden gems and rarities
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrnU6fBzCoGraOVTn-sSpKQ

 

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‘Your mother gets high and you don’t know it’ … Monterey Pop Festival, day two (Saturday night)

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Barely time for a quick wash-and-brush-up at the huge Monterey camp site, and off we go again. There was a lot of excitement on Saturday night over persistent rumours that The Beatles were going to make an appearance. I think we’d probably have heard about it by now if they had done. But who needs the Fab Four when you’ve got San Francisco’s Fab Five …

Moby Grape

One way not to get into the Monterey Pop movie was to demand $1 million to appear in it, which is where Moby Grape’s manager went wrong; producer and co-promoter Lou Adler declined, and not politely. Another bad idea was by Columbia, their record label, who had just released five flop singles – that’s 10 tracks from their first album – simultaneously. (What was wrong, or right, with the other three?) Local heroes Moby Grape pressed on regardless to the cult status they still enjoy today. They had three good guitarists, one of whom, Peter Lewis, was the son of Hollywood star Loretta Young.

Hugh Masekela

The Monterey Pop Festival may have been based in part on its established jazz equivalent, but there wasn’t much jazz on show over the weekend. The exception was the South African trumpeter and political activist, Hugh Masekela, who had been living in exile in the US since the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. This is a fine performance.

Masekela and Big Black, his brilliant percussionist, had played on the recording of The Byrds’ So You Want To Be a Rock’n’Roll Star in January and their awe-inspiring new single, Lady Friend, which brings us to …

The Byrds

It’s like watching a couple you have known for years break up, sad but morbidly fascinating. “Your mother gets high and you don’t know it!” announces David Crosby, a ubiquitous and excitable presence throughout the weekend, to an enthusiastic, if baffled, audience. Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman, cool as ever, make a mental note to cross Croz off their Christmas card list and look forward to performing The Notorious Byrd Brothers as a trio. Why can’t he just shut up for a moment? Meanwhile, Michael Clarke’s purple plant-pot wins the Silliest Hat at Monterey award in the face of some tough competition. The Byrds opened with Renaissance Fair and continued with Have You Seen Her Face, Hey Joe, He Was a Friend of Mine, Lady Friend, Chimes of Freedom, I Know My Rider and So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star. It’s a ragged set, but the magic is still there, and you can listen to the whole 17 minutes (without the Croz introductions) here. This is my favourite.

Laura Nyro

You either get Laura Nyro or you don’t. If you get her, you will love her (but not, I assure you, as much as I do) and want to tell everyone you meet that a) she was the greatest female singer-songwriter of all time and b) she was fantastic at Monterey. Either way, don’t listen to the critics – Michael Lydon in Newsweek said she was “melodramatic”, a “disaster” and the low point of the festival, but then he didn’t like Hugh Masekela either so what does he know? Laura left the stage in tears, thinking some of the audience had been booing her, but it was probably just Lydon: everyone else loved her, too.

Jefferson Airplane

Viewed from this distance, the Airplane seem more important for social than musical reasons. They certainly caught the spirit of the times but to me, much of their music is posturing, with slogans for lyrics and a certain smugness about their stage presence. There again, I loved them as much as anyone at the time and there’s no denying they were one of the hits of the festival from the opening bars of Somebody to Love. White Rabbit, She Has Funny Cars and several others followed. I thought High Flying Bird was pretty good. And Grace Slick still has the cutest nose in rock.

Otis Redding

After Booker T & The MG’s had warmed the crowd up with Booker Loo and Green Onions, the great soul man walked on to the stage and straight into music history with a sensational performance that sealed his reputation as a major artist with a huge new audience. From Shake to Respect, from I’ve Been Loving You Too Long to Satisfaction, the man defined what “soul” is. To round off Saturday, something even better: Try a Little Tenderness.

Before the year was out, Otis would be dead, aged just 27. RIP.

Just the Sunday shows to go. Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix await us tomorrow.

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