The The, Uncertain Smile (1983)

thethesoul mining

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.

Advertisements

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959)

DaveBTakeFive

Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Title: Take Five
Description: single; album track, Time Out
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1970

How do you pinpoint when you first heard one of the most popular jazz hits of all time? Especially one recorded before your parents had even got married. It feels to me as if Take Five has always been in the background, either as the accompaniment to some TV show, laid across a montage or played over a testcard. I may have first heard it in the womb in late 1964 and early 1965, or in my cot thereafter. I usually stick a pin in 1970 as the year I first became aware of which songs I was actually hearing through the radio (the birth of a collector and archivist), although TV theme tunes lodged much earlier, as there’s a feted reel-to-reel recording of me, aged two, parroting the themes to The Monkees, Z-Cars and Dee Time into a fuzzy mic, much to my Dad’s glee.

In a way, it’s immaterial. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Take Five is the best-selling jazz single of all time and the first to sell a million copies. But since jazz was never really a singles club (and Take Five was a five-and-a-half minute album track by birth, talked down to three for release as a 45 with Blue Rondo A La Turk by CBS boss Goddard Lieberson), it’s the wrong yardstick. What’s remarkable about it is the fact that an instrumental workout in quintuple time inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck had heard on tour became a hit at all.

I’ve stated elsewhere that jazz entered my life in a more conscious way in the mid-80s, when the form was infusing much of the modern indie pop I was listening to (blimey, including The Cure) and sounding a lot like summer. Also, I’d met a card-carrying jazz musician and expert, fellow art student Dave Keech, whose influence on my musical outlook was as seismic as that of Frank Wilson, my first 6 Music producer, 20 years later. Both men bent my ear away from the pale-faced 4/4 rock that dominated my core. Ironic, you might say, that the first jazz entry in The 143 should come from a white pianist and composer, but the two-tone multi-ethnicity of postwar jazz is what made it so appealing to so many kids in the shadow of the Atom bomb, as likely to tap a toe to the cool jazz of Stan Getz, Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. (By the way, don’t be impressed by the way these names trip off my typing fingers; I had literally never heard of these people before Keech became the jazzmaster to my Grasshopper at Nene College.)

Brubeck’s writing partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond, who composed Take Five, was also white. (I just read on Wikipedia that he bequeathed his royalties to the American Red Cross, who still get a “check” every year. What a swell guy.) We have Joe Morello to bow down to for that smoky beat, and Eugene Wright for the sparing stand-up bass, although it’s the foregrounded alchemy of Brubeck’s languid ivory-tickling and Desmond’s airy sax that clinches the tune. You don’t need to be a scholar to surmise that jazz is less about the composition and more about the execution. In this, it’s closer to eternally interpretable classical than the fixed formulas of pop. It’s not dance music, and can be appreciated seated, but let’s not dismiss nodding as anything other than a valid and primal response.

It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind. In this, it’s pretty unique among the “songs” the comprise The 143. We’ve welcomed Archangel by Burial, whose voices are only fragments; I can easily see Green Onions finding a seat here; something from John Murphy’s 28 Weeks Later soundtrack is shortlisted; and distinct passages of Autobahn are instrumental, another essential tune that’s very possibly coming over the hill. But Take Five goes further than all of these contenders, because, in the collective bones of the Quartet, it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, or how it will it all turn out. In this and only this respect is it like the TV series Lost.

Recorded jazz is almost a contradiction in terms. But it’s how we preserve and the Time Out rendition is as near as dammit. Purists will tell you that it’s better on vinyl, too, where, for instance Morello’s kick drum really kicks. I will take this on advisement, for I have not the hardware to play vinyl. Certainly, the key jazz sides I taped off Keech in 1984 were flat and pre-digital, and they were my tablets of stone for a good few years.

Some detail. I will always love a tune that begins with a beat, because the drum is the only instrument I have ever been able to master, but how unintrusive the intro on Take Five, the ride cymbal almost literally tickled and the snare tapped by expertly pulled punches. And how regular and conventional the 5/4 quickly becomes. The high alto coos like a pigeon; it summons images of summer breezes, ceiling fans and open windows – jazz on a summer’s day – while that piano doggedly presses its delicate but hard-wearing underfelt into place beneath. (You may say it’s a thankless task for the bandleader with his name above the title to keep insistently looping that piano signature, but where would we all be without it?) I think I’m right in saying that only on the album version does Morello get to “go round the kit” quite as much as the full length permits. I’m latterly so hooked on the five-and-a-half-minuter I can’t even recall what the foreshortened precis sounds like. It’s unfettered at executive length and yet never reckless or indulgent.

I’m listening to it now. Background music? By definition if you take into the account the way Take Five entered my consciousness by osmosis without ever introducing itself and how snugly it provides accompaniment to imagery. But only if you treat what happens in the background with the utmost respect. True “background music” is exposed if you listen too hard to it. Not this.