Matt Johnson music

I have long wondered when that time would arrive when Matt Johnson would finally get his due. As pop music's most unflinching songwriter, he has spent the last two decades producing consistently brilliant music. And while he enjoyed modest popular success in the 80s, he remains, in my mind, one of our generation's most underappreciated talents.

Well according to the advertising executives at Dockers(TM), that time is now!

The latest commercial from the kings of khaki features an ensemble of white people jumping about in slow-motion contentment to a pleasing refrain from The The's 1983 single "This is the Day".

For me, stain-resistant pants are just about the last thing that comes to mind when I listen to the music of Matt Johnson. Things that do come to mind include: "I'm so fucked." and "My heart is a poisoned nostalgic eggplant of pain."

Johnson is angst-rock's alpha male. His lyrics are relentless and brutal confessionals, "so intense, so close to the bone, they can make you blush."

And his self-doubt is infectious. He gets in your ear, and he gets into your head. His misgiving maxims soon become your own:

I have been waiting for tomorrow all of my life.

How can anyone know me when I don't even know myself?

I'm a pretty easy-going guy, but I reached a point in college where the inner-chattering became so intolerable, that I actually took my cassette copy of Soul Mining, wrapped it in heavy bands of duct tape, and hurled it from my dorm window. But it found its way back to my stereo, like that cursed monkey toy from the Stephen King story. I have no doubt Matt Johnson will be playing at my funeral. I won't request it. Some guy in a black coat will just emerge from the bushes and raise a boombox above his head Lloyd Dobler style.

So how is it that Johnson has found his way into a Dockers commercial? (Oh, and did I mention that Johnson is stridently anti-corporate?

There are a few possibilities. He was scewed by his label. Or he just needs the money. Or maybe its all a big joke, and Johnson is sitting back laughing, like Marcel Duchamp, at the thought of getting a toilet bowl into MoMA.

Whatever the case, it stands as one of commercial music's great Bait and Switches.

Tim Scanlin, a mate of mine and fellow The The apologist writes:

"As founder and sole permanent member of The The, Matt Johnson wields one of the most incisive, razor-sharp wits in all of rock, and chances are it's duped you. 'This is the day, your life will surely change,' you've probably found yourself singing, triumphantly nodding in time with the band's 1983 electro-pop hit, 'This Is the Day.' Admit it.

Too bad the chorus is a sarcastic jab at self-delusion, and the song is really about deep-rooted depression, the unforgiving march of time, painful nostalgia, and insomnia-induced self-loathing. Ouch."

The song, like much of the album, has a formally sunny disposition. The beats are canned, there are harmonicas, xylophones, and a clap-machine. The keyboard player from Squeeze even shows up, and it doesn't get sunnier than Squeeze. But what is sweet on the lips burns in the throat. Give the song a good couple of listens and you will quickly realize that the chances of this "being the day" for Matt are about as legitimate as Walter Mitty piloting a B-25 over Dresden.

Johnson had this to say about the song:

"My life had just changed dramatically and would never be quite the same again. Just 21 years old and writing a song about money not being able to buy back time. A sweet and sickly nostalgia sickness pervades even from such a young age. It's very odd. I can't remember the first time that I started feeling that but that's a personal dilemma for me, really, trying to live life in the present but trapped between fantasising about the future and dwelling on the past. It's certainly more relevant to me as a 40 year old than when I wrote it at 20."


Maybe Matt Johnson has a plan. The Men in Pleats will like the commercial, they will see something of themselves in it, they will buy his CDs. Johnson will enter their thoughts like a virus upon a host cell, and a dark dystopic abyss will open up in their irredeemable souls and it will swallow the Men in Pleats like so much stuffed crust pizza.

Having said all this...

I didn't post "This is the Day." You can find it on the great Soul Mining CD. The Docker's version is an alternate mix which you can find on the great Solitude CD.

I've posted 3 songs in the evolution of Soul Mining's "Uncertain Smile."

The first is a very early single, recorded by a teenaged Matt Johnson. The second is original the 12" version, with flute and saxophone. The third is the album version, with aforementioned Jools Holland's keyboard solo.

"Unrequited love. It was a very innocent song. It was written about somebody I was quite obsessed with at the time. And it was completely unrequited and unfulfilled. Perhaps a lot of the best songs are like that in a way, you just have to find a vehicle to contain all of this chaturbate passion and emotion and if it can't be the person you really want to be with, then the next best thing is a song or a painting or something."

If you are going to buy Soul Mining, I recommend you pick up an older pressing and not the new re-master. For the re-master, Johnson decided to excise the magnificent song "Perfect Day", another miserably chipper jingle that would sound great in a Turning Leaf wine commercial.

Unlike Alex I didn't grow up here

But NY has a reputation as a place that people come to pursue their dreams, so I moved up here to leech off the dreamer-vibes of others while not really pursuing any dreams of my own. Also, unlike Alex I don't really listen to lyrics too good, so almost all my songs have the words "New York" actually in the title. And only 2 of the artists featured in this post really comes from New York. Native schmative.

Bobby Bland is from Memphis and almost certainly isn't talking about NYC in "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City". But it makes me think of New York, possibly because Jay-Z re-made it a few years back. And Old Man Pepsi Dick is building a basketball stadium in my backyard and thats New York enough for me. Ace Frehley is from the Bronx or maybe Outer Space, depending on when you last renewed your Kiss Army membership. Ace was always my fav Kiss member growing up. Also Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were my favorites. If you ever get a chance to see the documentary "Tribute" please jump at it. Its a tragi-comic look at cover bands struggling to make it by. Best part (of many best parts) is that in the Kiss cover band, the Paul Stanley is a black guy. Thats the f**kin American dream right their son.

Queen isn't even American, but Freddie Mercury is as New York to me as Lou Reed. Like a gay Lou Reed. Or a gayer Lou Reed. I was never a huge Queen guy but my heart breaks whenever I hear this guy sing. This genius mash up, via Smash, uses the vocal line from a Freddie Mercury demo called "New York," which can be found on Freddie's solo box set here. New York City for Freddie is conceived as pure livejasmin emotion and energy. The song is a passion play, where Freddie is pursuing and pursued by the city at the same time. "New York, you're gaining on me, New York, you're just that one step far away..." Its a place that saps as it rejuvenates. You could argue that its cheezy as hell but then you'd be a jaded hipster, you jaded hipster neo-rockist asshole gayhater. This song is awesome. Maybe even as awesome as "Native New Yorker," via Odyssey, a soft dance pop band that were mostly born in the Caribbean. When I listen to this song I get to escape into the fantasy life of an aging 70s dancing queen. I struggle to scrape out a living during the day, and chase love through the night. I may look soft under the disco lights, in my billowy satin blouse, but all those bittersweet yesterdays have left me hard as nails.

As for UKs Genesis, well what can I say about Genesis that shouldn't have been said already? Actually, they have some pretty decent early songs, this one included, with Peter Gabriel before he went solo and well before he started humiliating his old man. A clever Amazon reviewer claims this song "foreshadowed the rage of punk, but in 7/8 time."

Rakim's "New York (Ya Out There)" is a head-nodding valentine to the street. This version is an alternate (and I reckon superior) mix to the original single, which you can find on the Boiler Room soundtrack. Im not sure where I got this version to be honest. But I do know that the chorus is spoken like a true New Yorker:

"New York... No Doubt"

Wynonie "Mr. Blues" Harris

Midway through the NYC-centered mini-mix you'll find above, Wynonie "Mr. Blues" Harris describes a city that'll "make you do things that nobody understands." I wonder if he means paying $2,300 a month for your studio apartment, $350 for that pair of perfectly distressed jeans, and eight bucks for the pack or Parliaments you smoked during a Smith Street bar crawl that reintroduced you to the half dozen people you'd normally pay to avoid?

I've lived in the city, on-and-off, for twenty-five years - two or three of them probably took a decade from the other end of my life. But aside from passing infatuations with Memphis and Nairobi, I've never considered living anywhere else. I'm not sure why that is: NYC living takes a toll on your health, your relationships, your ability to earn enough money to leave NYC when the mood strikes you (or the weather gets to be as unbearable as it was this weekend). On the other hand, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, risking your life on the Cyclone (and following it up with a bottle of wine of Brighton Beach), or just staying up late and drunk with your closest friends (who tend to be so brilliant that you're humbled in their presence, but try your best to keep up), can make the whole thing seem worthwhile.

So today and tomorrow, a salute to my much-maligned and perpetually in-decline hometown.

Three of the seven tracks I've posted reference 125th Street in Harlem: Nice & Smooth find themselves on 125 & St. Nick; The Velvets score smack on 125 & Lex, and Wynonie Harris comes to 125th & Eighth Avenue, and discovers that, even in 1947, "New York will turn a man into a woman/And a woman into a man." "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" isn't the most honest song about the city (things do happen like that in NY, and they happen like that all the time), but thanks in part to the nod to James Brown, it is my favorite Joe Tex song. And "Romeo and Juliette" is as good as Lou Reed got after breaking up the Velvets, and the closest he came to realizing his lizard-brain street-poet persona:

"Let's Get Rid of NY" is a Randoms song Yo La Tengo used to cover once in a while. (I'm not sure they've done it since 9/11, which put a new spin on: "Fashion that is always fashion/Airplanes that are always crashin'/People askin' 'how'm I doin?'/I think NY is just a ruin!") Tomorrow, part two, with songs by Cab Calloway, Olu Dara, Jim Carroll, Bob Dylan, and Big Star.

Ann Arbor Michigan and the late 60s

As was typical for a teen guitarist growing up in Ann Arbor Michigan in the late 60s, Deniz Tek worshipped The Stooges and The MC5.

I was deeply influenced by these bands and a huge light bulb went on inside my head when I saw what they could do to people in a live performance. The attitude and spirit was beyond anything. People were driven to madness. "That", I said, "That is what I want to do."

Not quite so typically, Deniz moved to Australia in 1972 to attend medical school. He formed a band who called themselves "Screaming White Hot Razor Blades", briefly changed their name to the Spinal Tap-ian and more Oz-appropriate "Cunning Stunt", before settling on "TV Jones". TV Jones dressed glam but their sound was cut heavily with proto punk, mixing originals with plenty of Stooges and Alice Cooper covers.

If Bartletts ever publishes a guide to Liner Note Quotations, I'm submitting the following from the Deniz Tek website:

Early on TV Jones found a petrol spill waiting for a match in the youth of Wollongong. A tough blue collar steel town, 50 miles south of Sydney, the kids at the Charles Hotel were primed to go off on anything that would blast them out of the ennui of early 70's rock.

Oh, to be young in Wollongong...

When classes would let out on friday, Tek would hitch down from Sydney, play gigs over the weekend, get "a free meal and a few bucks and free beer" and return sunday night. Now Australia's cultural history (if its film industry is to be believed) is chock full of tales of sociological displacement; cultures clashing in offbeat and eccentric ways in the offbeat and eccentric small towns that pepper the country's outlands. But even so, I couldn't imagine a more unlikely place to host this key moment in Austalia's rock evolution, than that pub in Wollongong. But moving to Australia was maybe the best thing that could have happened to Deniz Tek. Had he stayed in Michigan, his music would likely have been lost among all the fanboys and wannabes. As it was, he found fresh and fertile ground - indeed the youth of Wollongong take great pride in their fertility. He got to wind the clock back, break upon the scene.

So then the band dumped him:

Rob: (laughs again) They were all sitting around telling him he was Mister Bad Vibes on stage and they wanted to be a bit more, you know, um, welcoming to the people... more commercial. It wasn't exactly like their music was all so left of field anyway. It was quite accessible stuff - it was rocking! But nevertheless, they couldn't tolerate it... Deniz probably gave the audience a few vacant stares and a few glares and was doing a lot of various moves and stuff like that, the sort of thing that people around Sydney had never seen before, really...

...They got this sort of milquetoast character [to replace Tek] to sing sort of more in the British vein, I suppose, more of the upper range shrieking a la... that type of thing, you know?

Deniz: The guy's name was Paul Greene, and he came on the stage with TV Jones as the new singer wearing jump suits, a big moustache and kind of a poofy feathered haircut. And he had a snake, too, so they could cover the Alice Cooper aspect. And of course, we all know where that all ended up!

Thats from an interview in the Noise for Heroes fanzine, and "Rob" is Rob Younger who founded the now-legendary Radio Birdman with Deniz Tek a year after his eviction.

After Radio Birdman's storied run, Tek formed the really facist sounding band "New Race" - whose lineup included hometown heroes Ron Asheton(Stooges) and Dennis Thompson(MC5). He also did a turn as a naval aviator, is an adopted member of the Crow Tribe, and works today as a Doctor of Emergency Medicine in Montana. This all makes him easily the coolest doctor in the world. I would have put him second after Dr. Fink from The Revolution but it turns out that a "License to Funk" is no longer recognized by the American Surgical Hospital Association.

"Monday Morning Gunk" is the only recording by TV Jones ever released, and its a corker. Its from a 1973 cassette studio demo, that the french label Revenge Records released as part of a compilation of Deniz Tek rarities and bootlegs in 1989.

Radio Birdman remade the song and included it on overseas versions of Radios Appear

Finally... Anyone know if TV Jones was names after this 60s toy?:

"TV Jones was a barking poodle made by Remco in 1966. TV Jones and his meowing-friend Pussy Meow each stood about 9-inches tall (the other Playmates were smaller) with movable legs and rooted hair. They were packaged in a plastic red and blue and pink and blue televisions."