‘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 music: it 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.
Last modified: October 12, 2017