It was the sleeve of ‘The Nightfly’, the 1982 debut solo album by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, that made me buy it. It features Fagen as a late night jazz DJ, rolled-up shirt sleeves, loose tie, Chesterfield smouldering as he waxes lyrical into an old RCA mic. The time on the clock, 4.09am, Sonny Rollins on the turntable. On the back cover, there’s a house at night with a solitary light on in an upstairs window, the sound of Sonny Rollins drifting in on the late night air no doubt.
Talk to almost anyone of a certain age and these are evocative images indeed. You’ll hear stories about transistor radios under pillows, snagging sounds drifting in on the night air as the dial is slowly tuned… Radios Caroline, London or Luxembourg, Peel on Radio 1, pop from distant German stations passing in and out in the dead of the night, avant-garde Dutch stations jabbering away, French jazz, Donald Fagen.
Turns out The The’s Matt Johnson has a thing about the wireless too. This three-disc collection, ‘Radio Cineloa: Trilogy’, “a broadcast by The The”, is his own radio station in a boxset. It’s an idea he’s been brewing for a while.
From his east London base, he’s been serving up radio shows since 2010. There’s a whole bunch online at thethe.com, a series of ongoing broadcasts, 15 minutes long, featuring music and chatter from Johnson and a raft of friends and collaborators.
This set starts with ‘The End Of The Day – Cineola Volume 4’. Wondering where Volumes 1-3 got to? Well, they’re all soundtrack albums. Volume 1, ‘Tony’, appeared in 2010 and is the score to the film of the same name directed by Gerard Johnson, his little brother. Volume 2 is 2012’s ‘Moonbug’, the music from a film by Nichola Bruce that, along with photographer Steve Pyke, tracks down the surviving Apollo astronauts, while ‘Volume 3’ is the soundtrack to another Gerard film ‘Hyena’. They all come as hardback CD books, which, along with this new set, build into quite the collection.
So anyway, ‘Vol 4’ reminded me of ‘The Nightfly’. It’s very much a moody, late night listening set, a collection of The The covers by friends old and new. Beyond Thomas Leer, Elysian Fields and maybe Gillian Glover (her dad, Roger, you may recall played bass in Rainbow and Deep Purple), you’d be hard pressed to recognise the guests, which is to Johnson’s credit, I’m sure there’s no shortage of “big names” wanting in. And unless you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll notice the songs they’ve re-imagined aren’t exactly his greatest hits. That said, it does open with ‘This Is The Day’ by Thomas Feiner, which is a gorgeous, slow, stripped back gravelly version of the ‘Soul Mining’ cut.
The other two discs are where things really get interesting. ‘The Inertia Variations – Cineola Volume 5’ is where Radio Cineola spreads its wings with Johnson’s soothing tones tackling John Tottenham’s poem of the same name. Even if you don’t know ‘The Inertia Variations’, you will almost instantly recognise the theme of procrastination and general time wasting.
The opening lines are gloriously Matt Johnson. “You would think by now that people would know better/Than to ask me what I have been doing with my time”. Funny, moving and thought-provoking, the poem is backed by a The The soundtrack, taken from a film based around the broadcast. The 85-minute documentary, also called ‘The Inertia Variations’, debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June and sees Johnson examine his “troubled relationship with celebrity and the creative process”.
Better still is ‘Midnight To Midnight – Cineola Volume 6’, which is a redux of a 12-hour broadcast Johnson made during the 2015 UK General Election. The marathon show had a loose theme of democracy and this abridged version features music and snippets of interviews conducted during the broadcast with activists, analysts, scholars, philosophers, journalists and broadcasters from all over the world. It’s thoughtful, inventive, but most of all it’s a real sonic treat, an ambient piece on its own that bears repeated listens.
Matt Johnson remains as enigmatic today as he was when you first clapped eyes on him as the 80s pop star. Discovering he’s getting up to stuff like this is a treat. That we have people like him in our world, creating his own world, with little need for encouragement or endorsement, is the very real pleasure of this set.
That he’s going large next year with the first The The live shows in 16 years is a typical Johnson curveball. He sold out the Royal Albert Hall, Brixton Academy and the Troxy in a blink. It will, no doubt, put him and The The firmly back in the limelight, which in turn will, no doubt, make him shift uncomfortably, but it will fill up the old bank account and please many old fans. Which version of The The you prefer is up to you. We know which one we like. And we like it a lot.