By DAN MACINTOSH
Matt Johnson, the only consistent member of the London band The The, led his tight rock group through a healthy portion of songs during this SoCal stop on the group’s Comeback Special tour. Many times, Johnson performed in front of video images of his former self. Back in the ’80s, he was a longhaired, serious young chap. These days, though, he’s a shaved-headed, more mature serious man, not hesitant to talk about his children between songs.
One imagines there were many in the audience tonight that have also aged since they first discovered The The’s music. The melodically hooky “This Is the Day” was likely appreciated like a mantra for fans of the group’s early work. Lyrics like, “This is the day, your life will surely change,” expressed a sincerity rarely found in the much more cynical alternative music of the day. It was, simply put, a song of hope.
The The’s career took many twists and turns after that, though, as Johnson began to infuse many of his songs with pointed political/social commentary. “The Beat(en) Generation,” for instance, found his generation seemingly in a poorer position than the famous Beat Generation of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Johnson also noted how “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)” was withdrawn as a single because of the whole Salman Rushdie death threat at the time.
Johnson took an even more unexpected sideroad with the release of Hanky Panky, his unique collection of Hank Williams covers. He performed “I Saw the Light,” which is usually a spiritually celebratory song, that sounded anything but evangelical in Johnson’s hands.
The The was a rare straight-forward rock band (with touches of dance music thrown in for good measure) during the oftentimes frothy and superficial ’80s. At the outset, Johnson addressed the many contemporary cellphone-obsessed in the audience by asking them to put their iPhones away. He said his band is an old-school band, and he wanted all to have an old school experience.
In many respects, The The music is also questioning music. Whether it was questioning the logic in building skyscraper-saturated cities that block out natural sunlight, the untamable power of lust or the danger in religious fundamentalism – all subjects addressed in various songs throughout the night – Johnson’s music remains eerily relevant. The year on the calendar may have advanced much, but the peculiarities of human behavior haven’t changed all that much since many of these songs were recorded. This left Johnson’s voice as one that needs to be heard; perhaps, now more than ever.