This meticulous 464-page bio of Matt Johnson was published in June 2018. I didn’t actually pick up on that fact until late 2019 when I was looking for some ideas to offer to Rachel as potential presents from Santa.
I didn’t get round to reading it until early March and then I had to spend a bit of time gearing up for my imminent retiral from work, meaning that I ended up making my way through its pages in a more piecemeal fashion than I normally would. I did intend to post a review almost right away but got distracted by a few other things.
Long Shadows, High Hopes is a very unusual offering when it comes to a music bio. Neil Fraser has no connection whatsoever with the music industry. He is someone who has openly said that he wasn’t a huge fan of the music of The The, knowing little other than the albums Soul Mining and Infected and he recalls that he didn’t ever meet Matt Johnson until 2012 when Fraser was putting together a book on the Newham area of East London as it was undergoing a radical, and often controversial regeneration in advance of that year’s Olympic Games. The author spent some time over the coming years persuading his subject matter that he was worthy of a bio and that he was best qualified to carry out the task. Once it was agreed, it would take four years (2014-2018) of intensive research and numerous interviews to piece everything together. The end result is an excellent read, especially for fans, but in saying that, it is one that might just be a tad rich for others given how much detail is gone into. It’s certainly been a long time since I’ve seen a music bio bring so many people on board to tell the story.
One thing that does become clear as the story unfolds is that the author, in getting to know his subject matter personally from hours spent talking to him, does become a fan of the man and an increasing admirer of his music, possibly for the reason that Matt Johnson’s approach to songwriting and recording is akin to that of a writer who is determined to deliver a perfect article, chapter or entire book.
I knew a little bit about Matt Johnson before reading the book, almost exclusively from the stuff that had appeared in music papers and magazines each time he was promoting a new album, with further knowledge gained from Johnny Marr‘s autobiography in which he said being in The The was just about the happiest he has ever been as a recording and touring artist. I knew that they went back a long way, to a time before The Smiths had even formed, but I wasn’t aware until now just how close that friendship is – the friend who was walking with Matt Johnson in the cold light of morning as recalled in the opening lines of Love Is Stronger Than Death, was none other than Johnny Marr. But that’s just one of countless instances that increased my knowledge and understanding.
It’s a book that is particularly strong on Matt Johnson’s pre-fame years, with a childhood that came wrapped in music thanks to his parents running a pub at which many well-known bands performed in the 60s, through to him catching a break in the mid-70s when he left school with no qualifications but ended up working for a recording studio where he really did develop his love of experimentation and gadgetry. The characters that populate the early pages are tremendous, full of illuminating tales that do go some way to explaining the complex nature and personality of the musician, not to mention his determination to do things his way.
The story doesn’t flinch away from or sugar-coat, some of the less happy incidents in Matt Johnson’s personal or professional life. There’s a brutal honesty about making consistently bad decisions around contracts and management, as too those bouts of excessive drinking and drug consumption that often made him far from great company.
There were a couple of times when the book threatened to lose me – me being a non-musician didn’t quite follow or understand some of the technical parts where guitar pedals, mics, various types of keyboards and recording methods in the studio are dissected in detail. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before there was a return to the main story.
It’s astonishing to realise that Matt Johnson has been in the music business for more than 40 years, albeit there have been extended periods of radio silence – the part of the book covering the first decade of the 21st century when it really did seem as if he had quietly faded into obscurity is very illuminating, taking the reader on a journey that encompasses New York, Gothenburg and London.
It’s a book that I know I will return to and read again, hopefully in a way and manner that befits it rather than the stop/start nature of earlier this year. It did get me to go back and reassess some of the music – particularly the albums Mind Bomb, which I’ve long thought was weak beyond the singles, and Naked Self which I bought in 2000 out of a sense of loyalty but never quite appreciated its songs. Reading some of the context to the making of the album was a huge help.
Looking back, it was always going to be nigh-on impossible for Matt Johnson to maintain the ridiculously high quality of the two early 80s albums that brought him to the attention of those of us who like our music to be just that little bit outside of the mainstream but remaining radio-friendly. Soul Mining (1983) and Infected (1986) are among the records I have listened to most in my life and are the two that most fans quote as ‘the best’ – it’s no surprise that the sings from those records get the biggest reception at the live gigs. But, as the book demonstrates, there was a lot more to the singer/composer prior to these albums, not forgetting just how much he would go onto achieve in later years, including the wholly unexpected comeback a few years back, just as the book was being finished….it’s almost as if Matt Johnson, reading over the early drafts – purely for the purpose of fact-checking – realised there was as much a need for him to be writing and performing today as there has always been.
It was 1982 when I first bought a single by The The.
mp3: The The – Uncertain Smile
It was later given quite an extensive work-over in the studio during the sessions for Soul Mining, including an immense piano contribution from Jools Holland to replace the flute and sax solos favoured by producer Mike Thorne.
mp3: The The – Uncertain Smile (album version)
The book reminded me that Uncertain Smile had actually emerged from an earlier single by The The – one that I’ve only ever had a cassette copy of from a home recording by a mate. It’s now been sourced digitally.
mp3: The The – Cold Spell Ahead
This dates from 1981 when The The consisted of Matt Johnson and his pal Keith Laws, with the latter now a very well regarded figure in the field of psychology. Indeed, it was Keith Laws who came up with The The as the name of their fledging outfit….