As mentioned a few weeks back, I’m not long finished reading Long Shadows and High Hopes, a highly enjoyable and enlightening biography of Matt Johnson.
The book provided a reminder that The The owe a huge debt to Thomas Leer, a fairly obscure Scottish musician – and by obscure I mean not widely known as he’s had a lengthy music career going all the way back to 1978, albeit there were periods of time when he was inactive.
Thomas Leer was born, as Thomas Wishart, in 1953 in Port Glasgow, a very working-class/blue-collar town some 20 miles west of the actual city. It relied heavily on shipbuilding and manufacturing for its existence, so it was no surprise that from the late 60s onwards, like so many other similar British towns, it went into a sharp decline from which it has never really recovered. It’s a town I’m vaguely familiar with and if Wishart/Leer was displaying any sort of artistic merit, especially in electronic music when it was very much in its infancy, he would have been given a tough time by his peers. It’s a town where conforming with the norm is often a pre-requisite for survival.
By the mid-70s, he had moved to live and work in London, at one point forming a punk band before deciding that electronica was his forte. Buzzcocks may well have shown the way in terms of writing, recording and releasing self-financed singles, but Thomas Leer was probably the first to do it as a solo artist in that his debut was recorded in his bedroom and that every single note and vocal contribution came from him. Nobody else played on the single and nobody had any input to the production and distribution side of things – the only thing he didn’t do was physically press the record.
Matt Johnson has often paid tribute to Thomas Leer, and he does so again in this book, making it clear that the Port Glasgow man was the main influence in him pursuing the sort of music he wanted to make with The The.
I hadn’t realised Johnson’s first job, as a 15-year old having left school with no qualifications, was in the music industry in a recording studio in the Soho district of London, which provided him with access to equipment and technology to pursue his dreams – he had already, as an 11-year old, been part of a band that had performed shows in the London suburb in which he spent his teenage years. The first band, Roadstar, had been guitars, bass and drums but he wanted to do something entirely different and the debut single by Thomas Leer provided something of a template.
In due course, the pure electronica of The The would be supplemented by some great pop songs and thus bringing Matt Johnson a fair deal of commercial success while his influencers remained resolutely underground. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than John Peel playing either side of that debut.
I mentioned earlier that Thomas Leer would have likely had a hard time growing up in Port Glasgow but quite incredibly, there was someone else of his age and from the town who shared his interests. Robert Donnachie, who would later take the stage name of Robert Rental, moved to London with Leer and in due course, he too would release a self-financed electronica single in 1978:-
The following year, the two of them hooked up to record an album, The Bridge, which was issued on Industrial Records, the label established and run by Throbbing Gristle (click here for more – it’s an impossible task to try and summarise who and what they were).
Rental died from lung cancer in 2000, but Leer remains active today, having also had a period in the 80s when he was signed to ZTT Records (home of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) as one half of Act, in which the words to his music was sung by Claudia Brücken, formerly of Propaganda. I’ve long aspired to write a piece on Act, there was a draft from around three years ago kicking around somewhere but I suffered from a severe laptop crash a few weeks back and a number of draft efforts have been lost forever. I suppose this song is kind of appropriate:-
I do find it astonishing that Thomas Wishart and Robert Donaldson emerged from a town such as Port Glasgow. They would have had no local points of reference in terms of experimental music as they were growing up and they weren’t immersed in any sort of art school or college scene.
I’ll be honest, and this probably comes through in this piece in that there’s a lot of facts and not much in the way of opinions, but I find what they did in 1978 isn’t terribly accessible or even enjoyable, but there’s no doubt that without them, much of the great music that would emerge in the 80s, including that of The The, just wouldn’t have been possible. It’s amazing, in all walks of life, how often the story of the pioneers is overlooked while those who come along later and make something popular are lauded, feted and commemorated.