Artist: The The
Title: Uncertain Smile
Description: album track, Soul Mining
Label: Some Bizzare
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984
I can find no record of a bullet-headed statue erected near Matt Johnson’s birthplace, so we may assume there isn’t one. This is a crying shame. Although his illustrious career, effectively solo, as The The, has not always translated its musical value into monetary – only two of his singles have seen the inside of the UK Top 20, although his third and fourth albums Mind Bomb and Dusk went Top 10 at what we may now label his glory years in the early- to mid-90s – he has proven a diffident, single-minded avatar of content-based pop music, a man drummed out of the awkward squad for being too awkward and never one to compromise his mission statement. Or have a mission statement.
You get the sense that Soul Mining, his first commercial release as The The after some years as a solo artist, then a duo, then a band, then a solo artist pretending to be a band on the post-punk indie fringe, has now been folded into the canon of Great Lost Albums of the 80s. Although for those of us who clasped it to our gnawed hearts, it was a Great Found Album. It was Stevo’s misspelled label Some Bizzare and Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD that became Johnson’s key patrons. He was always a magnet for collaborators, who buzzed around in the forcefield of his creativity while he remained his own nucleus.
I adore Soul Mining. In my house, it has never gone out of fashion. I purchased it, a year late, while living in a brutalist halls of residence in Battersea and writing bloody awful poetry as a release from the privations and humiliations of life on a grant in a subsidisded tower block opposite a park that served hot meals and provided a weekly laundry service. Johnson’s beef was with the modern world of “moral decay” and “piss-stinking shopping centres”, “bruised and confused by life’s little ironies”. I etched his edict on my chest: “Something always goes wrong when things are going right.” At least, I felt-tipped it into my diary. If The The were about anything, it was pithy epigrams you could adopt as your own.
How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself?
I can’t give you up ’till I’ve got more than enough.
You’re just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country
How quickly I came to rely like life support on these seven lengthy compositions of aching urban melancholy with a martial beat, Johnson’s voice not technically brilliant, but authentic, low, growling, wounded, soulful and gamely straining for truth. Andy Duncan was the drummer on four sevenths of the LP, including keystone track Uncertain Smile (which had been a single in a prior version, laid down in New York with flute and saxophone for the US label and substantially re-recorded in London for the LP). His vivid, metronomic beats sound deceptively electronic in origin, but to the trained ear their analogue warmth comes through in the fills. The whipcrack style, followed through, is a signature of the album. Soul Mining is a suite that holds its sonic nerve.
A constantly revolving door of 14 musicians are credited on Soul Mining (16 if you count David Johansen and Harry Beckett who provided harmonica and trumpet for Perfect, later added to the record), including Orange Juice’s Zeke Manyika on drums when Duncan isn’t, and yet it abides a Matt Johnson joint.
Surely his most famous guest star among the multitude is Jools Holland. In 1983 not yet a national treasure at the BBC – in fact, only two years as an ex-member of Squeeze, and just carving out a presenter’s niche on The Tube – lays down what might ordinarily be boxed off as a piano solo but is in truth no such thing on Uncertain Smile. Originally intended as the traditional break in proceedings but spliced together from two takes, it not only engorges the song with improvised musicality, it gives it a second act. Who said there are none of those in pop?
Uncertain Smile could, by rights, be faded down at three minutes and nobody would have asked for their money back. It’s already a copper-bottomed attention-grabbing lament to romantic loss and solipsistic regret, whose heartbreak is grounded by references to pouring sweat, watering eyes, howling wind, “orange-coloured shapes” and the unpleasant sensation of “peeling the skin back” from your eyes. While lacking the basic verse-chorus-verse infrastructure (it’s more intro-verse-instrumental-bridge-verse-instrumental), it’s not really an experimental proposition: boom-thwack drum beat, strummed acoustic, synth chords, insistent guitar riff, some doo-doo-doos, and a protagonist who wakes up in his pit, misses his ex-girlfriend and tries to pull himself together.
After the requisite three minutes, it has done its work – moved your toes, mined your soul, made you think about your own sorry life, inserted a nagging refrain under your skin (“where the rain can’t get in”) and left you wanting more. But it’s not over yet. There is more.
At 3.25, Jools sets suavely yet demonically about his boogie-woogie piano and, for the next three virtuoso minutes, makes a watertight case against any future swipes at his propensity to ruin a perfectly good rendition on Later with a twelve-bar blues workout on the ivories. He may have become a willing parody of himself as the years have varnished his reputation and sealed him inside that suit, but Jools is an incredible pianist, a musician raised in an era where virtuosity was ideologically discouraged, and rather than work against the clipped, aphoristic protestations of Johnson, he effectively takes the baton from him and offers a “reply” to the talky stuff that’s gone before.
The result is a game of two halves that beat as one. I know Jools’ solo so well I can air-finger it on imaginary keys. God help us all if there was an actual piano there.
Matt Johnson hasn’t recorded as The The since 2000. He’s into soundtracks now. He was into soundtracks then, come to think of it. Uncertain Smile certainly scored my life at a difficult age, when the idea of a perfect day seemed anathema. And even though the shopping centres no longer stink of piss (maybe they never did), it’s still soundtracks my life and the moral decay that’s still gnawing at the heart of the country.