Book Review: Long Shadows, High Hopes: The Life and Times of Matt Johnson & The The

I put Long Shadows High Hopes on my Kindle in June 2018 and was super excited to read it. Why then did it take me this long to finish it? Let’s just call it inertia. See what I did there?

I found the opening chapters rather a slog, so I’m sure that had something to do with my lack of progress. Of course, I do understand that the book had to start at the beginning, and I was going through a ‘not reading physical words’ phase. Most of my books are consumed in audiobook format.

Goodreads says I started reading it on 9 May 2019 so not as bad as I thought, but still …

I picked it back up this month and this time it took. I spent time reading it and listening through the back catalogue of The The’s albums, which a lot of the time meant I would stop reading and just listen to the music again, in my new home office with my studio monitors actually installed properly. And boy oh boy, what an experience!

Neil Fraser has clearly grown up with Matt Johnson’s music in his ears. This is a book written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It really helped that context about the political landscape was included, although it could hardly not be, given Matt’s lyrics.

All the legal stuff was pretty grim to read about, the initial Cherry Red contract through to the collapse of the Sony deal. I guess it’s still the same now, only it’s Spotify et al who are raping the artists. I know that one of my other favourite artists, Suzanne Vega, has been going through legal battles to get her back catalogue released, going so far as to rerecord her catalogue for her compilation albums (which are great, by the way!) At least now there are more accessible avenues for self-distribution, and the The The fan site takeover was a genius move.

Matt Johnson on stage at the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom
© 2018 Cams Campbell

I’m super glad that the book got as far as the Comeback Special Tour of 2018. I did manage to get a ticket for the Glasgow Barrowland gig and it was fucking superb. I was also pleased to read about the gig at the same venue in 1993, the one where Johnny Marr showed up. I was at that one too, although that was in my drinking years and I’m not sure how much of it I remember. Not much to be honest. The Comeback tour though – I was sober for that and got pretty close to the front. If you’ve been to the Barrowland, you’ll know what that means. What a show.

Barrowland Sign
© 2016 Cams Campbell

Of course, Matt’s story isn’t done yet, and that’s a beautiful thing. We can look forward to whatever Matt’s working on, knowing pretty much that we’re gonna love it whatever it is. I wasn’t a super fan of Burning Blue Soul, but other than that, Matt’s oeuvre has accompanied me through life and has helped me and inspired me more than he will ever know.

Those inertia years though. Jeezo. I can so relate to that, albeit without being a recording artist. I particularly enjoyed reading that part of the book, about the inspiration coming from The Inertia Variations by John Tottenham and the death of Andy.

Quotes and Comments

I highlighted some passages and made notes as I read through the book and I’ll share them here.

Amongst the wall-to-wall requests for musicians, or budding musicians, into the Pistols or The Clash, he spied one that was different. Looking for a bass/lead guitarist into Velvets/Syd Barrett.

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Well, well, well. The Velvets and Syd Barrett. Of course! I’d have been tempted to reply to that ad myself!

‘Red Cinders’ begins with a muffled drum loop that spends a minute accompanied by flashes of noise stabs, the whole thus far being a good demonstration of how exposure to the studio had heightened his appreciation of the atmospherics he had discovered in film soundtracks as a boy. At one minute a guitar riff bursts into play and disappears almost at once to allow another, much funkier drum loop to take over, again with various noises put through various effects boxes. Around halfway things take a more industrial turn and the track continues in this vein. Although it is perhaps a minute too long it serves as a good introduction to the album, letting listeners know that they are going to be taken on a journey of some kind, something that the album cover probably gave away before the vinyl was put onto the turntable.

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I loved that the book goes into individual tracks in this way. I didn’t hear Burning Blue Soul until it was rereleased on CD and I never cared for it much to be honest. It was nice getting some context from the book and relistening to it. I particularly enjoyed learning about the studio techniques Matt was using then, and of course about how he picked up those techniques through his time at De Wolfe.

From the beginning the conjoined twins of ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ were separated. The first half of that track was the source material and the latter section was forgotten about. The job was to now transform the sound and effectively create a new song. Three key instruments made this possible. Firstly there was an upgrade in rhythm box. The Roland 808 drum machine was much more effective at creating a driving rhythm, its continuing use some three decades and more later testament to its qualities. Over its insistent groove came an equally rhythmic bass line, played by Matt on Thorne’s electric Fender Precision bass guitar. It was also the first time he played on a Rickenbacker twelve-string, which he employed for the main rhythm and riff parts. With the rhythm in place the rest came easy and strings from Thorne’s trusty Synclavier were brought in at intervals along with some sax and flute by Crispin Cioe of the Uptown Horns. The final, and what turned out to be winning element, was provided by an instrument that Matt had become transfixed with on a shopping trip to Manny’s on 48th Street, New York’s ‘Music Row’.

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It was a xylimba, a mallet percussion instrument, with wooden keys over a single box resonator. This was used to add another, much faster, rhythmic groove. The decision to open the track with this riff was a master-stroke. The first few bars of the finished ten-minute recording consist of the xylimba pattern and 808 hi-hat taps, with the 808 kick drum introduced for a few bars before a snare fill brings the guitar riff in and the song suddenly fills out in all its recognisable glory. By delaying the start of the song-proper in this way, Thorne provided club DJs with the sort of intro that could be used to mix from one track to another and, when the song was familiar, announce its presence in a way that was designed to get people onto the dance floor.

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I LOVE this kind of detail! It also inspired me to look up Cold Spell Ahead and I found a recording on YouTube. I’d heard OF it, but not actually heard it. And so that wonderful sound is a xylimba – now I know!

One thing that helped grease the wheels of the Some Bizzare social scene, and enhance the sense that they were a band apart, was ecstasy. Some five or six years in advance of the ‘discovery’ of the drug by a group of DJs and clubbers in Ibiza, there was an even more exclusive coterie of people who had experienced it at a time when hardly anybody outside of America had heard of it. Johnson was initiated via Stevo and Marc Almond. “There was this girl who used to bring them in, Cindy Ecstasy was her name. You know those coat hangers that have that white cardboard strip on them, I suppose to stop the trousers getting creased? She would put the pills all the way along the inside of those, on all her clothes, taking a hell of a risk, and you would get a phone call, ‘Cindy’s in town’, or ‘Cindy’s coming to town’, and we’d all meet up in a friend’s flat in Knightsbridge. It blew my mind the first time I took it, and I think it was a lot stronger back then, though everyone says that don’t they. But it was powerful stuff and we got quite heavily into it, and so that influenced Soul Mining.”

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It was super interesting to read about the drugs that Matt and the band were using at the time. I’m no stranger to some of these myself, but I had no idea that it was going on in the UK as early as it was.

[I’ve Been Waiting for Tomorrow All My Life] Ignoring the philosophical nuggets that this idea throws up it is clear to see that this lyric is Johnson’s first overtly political one, as he rails against society and what he sees as the machinery that has created it. The lines, I’ve been filled with useless information/Spewed out by papers and radio stations, about the subtle propaganda of the state, were written a few years before Margaret Thatcher was famously quoted, in a Woman’s Own interview, as saying there was no such thing as society, intent as her government was on completely reshaping it.

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Matt Johnson, the prophet, something he would prove to be more than once. It’s crazy how much his art shows the hypocrisy and the intent of politics and politicians, crazy but beautiful. I would love to see what kind of lyrics Matt would be writing today, right now, if he were to get in a flow state and let the energy flow through his brilliant mind.

After a serious amount of head-scratching and discussion it was decided that the beautiful-sounding Yamaha C3 baby grand piano sitting there in the live room might be the answer, and Annie Roseberry, who had made the suggestion, was asked if she knew of a good candidate. She suggested Jools Holland, who had tinkled the ivories with Squeeze until they had split the previous year, and was now better known as compere of Channel 4 music show The Tube. It proved to be an inspired choice, as Johnson was to relate to Kevin Foakes at an event to celebrate the reissued box set of Soul Mining some thirty-one years later.

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It proved to be an inspired choice? A-fucking-men to that! Although DC Collard also crushed it on the Comeback tour. It was great to read that passage about Jools’ coming by, nailing the solo and then them all going out for breakfast. It’s always been one of those stand-out musical moments for me that solo.

There were also a fair number of distractions. Moving into his own place in Carysfort Road was one of them, and the freedom to party was another. By this stage the goings-on at Stevo’s house in Hammersmith were well on the way to getting out of control, as many of the participants are willing to testify. Mal Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire remembers going round all the time. “Stevo’s house in Hammersmith was like the gang headquarters. You couldn’t be on Some Bizzare and not go round his house. You would go there before a night out, or you would end up there after you’d been on a night out.” According to Skinner, “Stevo would make you listen to this dark industrial music on speakers the size of doors and you couldn’t escape, you had to listen. He decided you were listening. And he would do this with journalists too, or record company heads.” It was like Stevo, at some point, decided to throw a party and the thing just carried on, for days, weeks, months. It was relentless. Johnson’s own recollections sum up the general vibe.

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I had to send this to one of my pals, as this could have been written about him. Just change the name Stevo to Rossco, ha ha. I spent many nights in his flat in Edinburgh being made to listen to Ministry, Front 242, Revolting Cocks and a mix tape he’d made called ‘the Car Crash Tape’. I was yearning for Wish You Were Here and a crash, but never got that until long after the sun had come up.

‘Sweet Bird Of Truth’, written at the tail-end of 1985 and recorded in January 1986, detailed the thoughts of an American pilot whose plane has been brought down over the Gulf of Arabia. There was no doubt a certain amount of unease amongst the CBS executives when they considered that the lyrics echoed reality somewhat, as during the raid on Libya, an American F-111 bomber had been shot down over the Gulf of Sidra, killing both pilots. If truth be told, Johnson himself was somewhat spooked by fact following fiction so rapidly, though he was to point out to more than one journalist who interviewed him at this time that the gift of prophecy was hardly required, just a television set and an interest in the news. The words of the song had come in a sudden rush one night when he was on ecstasy.

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I was fascinated to read about the words coming in a ‘sudden rush one night when he was on ecstasy’. I’ve read a lot recently about the use of MDMA in therapy sessions and have long held a personal belief that it can open up channels to the source without the energy’s being corrupted in the way that alcohol can corrupt it. For the record I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism for 15 years and have ‘some experience’ with drugs. I choose other means of connection now though.

The song had been banned by Radio 1, for the use of the word ‘piss’, but as most intelligent observers noted, this was an accurate way of describing the sort of soulless shopping centres in the deprived heartlands of Britain. The moral arbiters of taste didn’t see it that way and demanded that an edit of the track with the offending phrase removed was done before airplay could be granted. ‘Heartland’ may well be Johnson’s greatest achievement. Historian and analyst of UK foreign policy, Mark Curtis, thinks so. “I heard Infected when I was a postgrad student at the LSE. It was probably ‘Heartland’ that really struck me first – just an extraordinary song and words. **‘Heartland’, I would say, is the greatest political lyric in British music.” **

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Yep. It’s certainly the political lyric that woke me up and it’s as relevant today as it ever was.

“Mind Bomb was done on magic mushrooms; I had piles of books… I was meditating… doing all sorts of really deep, freakish things and getting into all this heavy Islamic stuff. Also Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. I was trying to use consciousness as a type of microscope/telescope to delve deeper into the world around me. Ultimately, I did freak myself out a bit as I probably went too far but, in the end, everything seemed to simply boil down to love and fear and the realisation that all we see in this life is a manifestation of one of these opposing frequencies. I was also keenly aware, though, how the ego can pollute these kind of enquiries and mess everything up.”

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The book was worth reading for this paragraph alone. It has me wishing I could hang out with Matt Johnson sometime and have a conversation about these kinds of things.

It also inspires to to do things like write a book review, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I dunno, maybe I did in high school, but I doubt it, given how wayward I was back then!

Why Did I Never Create?

Reading Long Shadows, High Hopes has made me ask questions of myself and wonder why the fuck I never even considered trying to be creative as a teen / twenty-something. Music was the biggest thing for us next to BMX riding, and it remains so today. I do play, but I’ve never felt that URGE to write that I get from reading about Matt’s younger years.

Is it too late? Is it fuck. I’m going to write. I’m buzzing on the back of having read this book and from some of the content I’ve been watching by young content creators who seem to be fearless in putting out their thoughts and opinions. Does it matter if I have an audience? Hell no! I’m going to keep doing it until I run out of things to say, and if it appeals to anyone, so much the better, but if it doesn’t, I’ll feel good about getting thoughts out of my head anyway.

On the Road

It’s perhaps interesting that the book I finished just before I got through Long Shadows, High Hopes was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have some journal entries that I wrote whilst reading that that are along the same lines as what I’ve just written about creativity. I found that book to be incredibly inspiring and got me thinking that some of my experiences are actually pretty interesting and could make for some good content.

Matt’s Back Catalogue

It feels like I’ll be in a The The consumption phase for quite a while now after having read this book. For one thing, how come I never got into NakedSelf? That’s just weird. I put it down to timing – in 2000 I was working overseas, although that didn’t stop me from finding Kid A. I didn’t listen to NakedSelf until just last week and I’ve listened to it twice today already. I put it on my AirPods walking through Glasgow at night a couple of nights ago and it was spectacular.

I have seen Johanna St Michaels’s Inertia Variations, but it’s not available anywhere that I can find right now and I would dearly like to watch it again. Shame.

“The Human Race is about to Reap What it Sows.”



It has to be five stars from me for this one. It’s not even up for debate. A solid, indisputable five stars. Well written, well researched, detailed