If you are a graphic artist of a certain age, or a fan of The The, then you will be aware that Andrew Johnson sadly passed away at the beginning of this year. Though I wasn’t aware of who he was back in the mid-eighties, the covers of The The records such as Soul Mining and Infected sat amid my piles of vinyl and his unique and colourful style was an instantly recognisable part of 1980’s design culture. It wasn’t until 2011 that I became aware of the family connection, when conducting research on the Two Puddings pub, for my book about East London that led me to Andrew’s website - View From Windowsill Bay. I revisited his website in late 2012 and his then most recent blog post revealed that he had been diagnosed several months earlier with a brain tumour. Reading his matter of fact words about this illness it is remarkable to consider that in April of that year he had been given just six months to live. A few months later I started work on a biography of Matt and was hoping to meet Andrew at some point to conduct an interview, keen to include him in the narrative as a crucial contributor to the history of The The.
Sadly, due to to his continuing ill health, this was never to be and our only conversation was limited to a handful of short emails, one of which included his memory of seeing The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in 1976 and years later discovering that he appears in the background of one of the famous photographs of the small crowd of in-the-know people waiting on Oxford Street before the gig started. He also told me about visits to Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed, the sci-fi bookshop then in St. Anne’s Court, Soho, pointing out that the staff were usually so stoned that it was a wonder anyone bothered taking books to the till to pay for them instead of opting for the easiest five-fingered discount in town.
Though it is the artwork for his younger brother’s record sleeves that he will be most remembered for, he left behind a large body of work, that to my mind at least, is much more satisfying. Having an older sister who went to art college meant that I was privy to the joys of looking through artists sketchbooks at a young age and they often contain wonderful work that never really sees the light of day (even artists who never achieve fame have their paintings framed and on someone’s walls, but sketchbooks tend to sit on shelves out of sight).
The beauty of the sketchbook is that is contains work representing the immediacy of putting pen, brush or pastel to paper. It captures a moment that no finished painting really does. It reminds me of the adage that many musicians hold, that the first take is nearly always the best one, the version that successfully captures the essence of the music and contains its real soul. There is a wonderful economy of line and brush-stroke in these works by Andrew that is in marked contrast in mood to the angst on display on most of those record sleeves. His love of comic strip art is also evident in many of his sketches. What also comes across is a sense of humour, that is often gentle, quirky and quintessentially English. Also, a love of nature, befitting of an artist who finds themselves retreating from the city towards the landscape - in this case, Suffolk - where Andrew spent the last years of his life, enjoying the environment on his doorstep, walking through it and observing, the way an artist is wont to do, those small moments of simple beauty in nature.
I would recommend a visit to Andrews blog, which remains on the Internet. Here you can see some of the work from his sketchbooks, as well as his prints and even artwork from his childhood, including drawings of his beloved West Ham United. Not only was he a fine artist, but also a very good writer, with an unfussy voice and an economy with words that mirrors his draughtsmanship. I expect he inherited this from his father, Eddie, as the sense that you are sitting in the same room listening to them, is familiar.
Andrew Johnson was a fine illustrator, some of his fully realised work reminding one of the great artists of the field whose work furnished books or prints in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Many of these did so for the Curwen Press, whose print works in Plaistow were within walking distance of the pub he spent his childhood years living above.There are plans to publish a book of the best of Andrew’s work, and hopefully too, some of his writing. Matt had been working on this project for some time with Andrew and with the help of Kevin Foakes (aka DJ Food) it will be brought to fruition. Expect another post when a publishing date approaches.
Sometimes it seems to be so dark we forget that we are not alone. All it takes is the smallest flicker of light to reveal the truth. And that truth is - we are legion. Some of us were lucky to be present as Matt Johnson broadcast his Radio Cineola Election Special from his Shoreditch home - all twelve hours of it. Many more listened in throughout the day. Some contributed to the show, either dropping into the makeshift studio or talking via skype. Some interviews had been pre-recorded. The whole thing was being filmed by Johanna St Michaels for the forthcoming documentary Radio Cineola: The Inertia Variations. Over the course of the day listeners heard, Brad Lochore, and Lucy Rogers, geo-political analyst William Engdahl, Tim Pope, David Edwards from Media Lens, Zoe Hepden, Neil Clark, Denis Masi, John Kelly, Neil Sanders, Marian St. Laurent, Neil Maskell, Zeke Manyika, Stefan Dickers, Steve Pyke, and Matt himself, as well as a number of listeners who phoned in to ask questions. Artists, film directors, journalists, political analysts, writers, musicians, actors, photographers, educationalists and fans of The The. All with something interesting and heart-felt to say about the state we find ourselves in.
This wasn't just about the election in the UK. It was about the wholesale rejection of a manufactured reality that has been created by the so called elite, in an attempt to enslave the majority. As depressing as another five years of Tory despotism is, it would be a mistake to think that Labour could offer a real alternative to the right-wing shop front of the bankers and their self-serving chums. The two party system is a dog and pony show to distract the masses from the reality of the permanent unelected government. Labour's manifesto was more or less identical to the Tory one on all major issues give or take a few details. The truth of the matter is that privatisation of education and the NHS is a given no matter who pretends to be in charge. Neither party has spoken out about TTIP, and if Labour ideologically is supposed to reject Corporatism, the reality of a Labour party true to its own name that will do so is something long gone. Britain has been sold-off to the highest bidder, something successive governments have overseen. Whilst talking about immigration in a bid to instill a jingoistic outlook in the populace, the foreigners who really have damaged our sovereignty are the mega-rich ones - corporations or individuals, who have been given tax breaks, and tax evasion loop-holes to ease the syphoning away of the wealth supplied by the citizens of this country, now more correctly termed the product. As Sun Ra once said, "It's after the end of the world, don't you know that yet?"
So three cheers for Matt Johnson for dedicating his time and energy in order to shine the light, to keep the fires burning, and bring together just a handful of voices of dissent. As the broadcast progressed towards its conclusion, there seemed to be a fitting echo of 1987, when Thatcher tightened her vice-like grip with a third term and The The released Infected - as bold and melodic a statement of political disaffection as any. We are still the 51st State, and we need now more than ever the collective response to the lunatics running the asylum.
At the end of the night Matt said, "Looking at these exit polls is filling me with depression really." And of course it is designed to do just that. To make us feel like we are alone in the dark. But then there is a flicker of light and we realise we are not alone. We are in fact legion. We are the silent majority and we have to lift up every voice.
Forgive me for the name of this post but I couldn't resist. It is one of the answers I have given when asked what I am currently working on. Just to clarify, it will be the authorised biography of Matt Johnson. Those with even a modicum of good taste in their record purchases back in the eighties and nineties will need no introduction. In fact you may be one of the many who have been wondering what happened to Matt as The The (assuming you have been following his recent soundtrack releases) since his last album - Naked Self - was way back in 2000 and his last public performance was at David Bowie's Meltdown festival of 2002? You might have bought the recent vinyl remaster of Soul Mining and be wondering if the planned remaster of Infected will include the legendary film, screened to acclaim on Channel 4 at the time of the album's initial release.* You are possibly prone to contemplating whether the almost mythical Pornography of Despair will ever see the light of day?
I can't promise answers to all these questions but can promise a great story, not just about the life and career of a musician who has managed to retain his artistic integrity and credibility while so many others have succumbed to the nostalgia circuit, but about how the music industry has changed along the way, how the London where Matt was born and currently resides has changed and, sadly, how the political climate that Matt described with such insight on Infected and Mind Bomb, remains much the same, only worse.
In covering the entire career of The The - as it is still ongoing (yes), I will be including everything of note up until the time the manuscript has to be delivered to Scott Pack at The Friday Project next year. Updates will appear here, as well as tasters and unused material, so if you are a The The fan don't touch that dial...so to speak.
* word on the street is...very possibly...