We visit lead singer Matt Johnson’s home to talk about a beautiful song that has soundtracked intense highs and extreme lows
Some songs haunt you forever. There’s an unspoken emotional contract between the soul and a song that binds you together from the moment you hear it, until the day that you die. Songs that soundtrack moments of unadulterated joy, periods of intense unhappiness, or just nondescript train journeys. Songs that just live with you, in every city, in every house. Ghosts that watch over every moment.
One of my ghosts is “This Is The Day”, the 1983 single written on an omnichord by Matt Johnson, lead singer of London post-punk band The The. It’s a paean to emerging from adolescence with the world in front of you, self-inflicted sleepless nights, and an inability to quite grasp the sheer enormity of it all. It’s about time slipping through your fingers, and self-doubt – but mostly, it’s about change, and the lack of control we have over it.
“This is the day, your life will surely change,” pleads Johnson, addressing himself. “This is the day, when things fall into place.”
Despite the themes of the song being pretty much universal, it’s inaccurate to say that “This Is The Day”, taken from their acclaimed debut album Soul Mining, was a hit – on its release 35 years ago, it achieved a modest No.71 in the charts, although a re-recorded (and vastly inferior) version released ten years later hit No.17, and led to a performance on Top Of The Pops.
While “This Is The Day” may not have bothered the billboards, its status as a cult classic endures. Johnson tells me in the east London home he’s lived in for decades that “people have got married to the song, people have conceived children to the song, and people have been buried to the song.” It’s no surprise to me that the song makes an entry on the “Songs that make you feel unexplainable longing” subreddit.
“This Is The Day” began to haunt me during my late teens in Liverpool; it was a song that would always get played as the sun rose, whether I was stepping out of some city centre flat alone, or singing along to it with my friends at our afterparties. It’s commonly understood that the best pop songs pull equally from euphoria and melancholy, and “This Is The Day” always felt like such a triumphant way to acknowledge inertia. But what was once a bleary-eyed anthem to me became something so much more over time. It developed into a fixture in my life whenever I experienced intense loss or extreme joy. Its emotional weight is such that I can stomach – even enjoy – the song’s accordion.
While my home city is globally recognised as the place that gave the world The Beatles, to me it’s always been the spiritual home of a romantic new wave – bands like Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, China Crisis, The Mighty Wah, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Sonically and aesthetically, The The fit seamlessly into that list, regardless of the north and south divide.
The song is now three and a half decades old, almost to the day. Matt Johnson has made a surprise decision to return to touring with The The, after almost 20 years refusing to record, write, or perform, a disenchantment sparked by the sudden death of his brother Eugene in 1989. I went to the house in Shoreditch where Johnson has lived for over 30 years, and where The The had just finished band practice, to ask him all about the song he wrote that has comfortably haunted me since I first heard it.
The opening lyrics to the song are “Well you didn’t wake up this morning ’cause you didn’t go to bed, you were watching the whites of your eyes turn red”. It sounds like you’re addressing someone else, but that’s you, right?
Matt Johnson: That’s right, yeah. Well, I used to like playing around with the first person, second person, third person, but the very first line, “you didn’t wake up this morning”, it was just a pun on the old blues line “Well, I woke up this morning”. And of course, why would your eyes be red, because of being up all night, misbehaving. I was very young when I wrote it, 20 or 21.
What I love about the song is its strange relationship between euphoria and despondency. What were you going through in your life at the time?
Matt Johnson: I was probably quite happy, because I was in a new relationship with Fiona (Skinner, graphic designer who created the logo and font for Soul Mining), so I was in love. When you’re in a very new relationship, there’s a certain insecurity before the relationship has settled down, and these were the days before mobile phones, texting, emailing. I remember in my late teens when you’d meet a girl that you liked and you get their phone number. Then you’d leave it a couple of days before you phone them. So there’s all that adolescent, late adolescent, post-adolescent insecurity. I was generally happy in some ways. Although in my mid-teen years until my late teen years, I was a bit melancholic. There was a certain amount of happiness and excitement – I don’t know if I wrote that song before I signed to Epic.
So career-wise, things were quite good, and on a personal level things were quite good, but despite that I’ve always been quite a restless, anxious person. To quote another line from that Soul Mining album, "Something always going wrong when things are going right." There’s a little insecurity that things are actually really good at the moment, so what’s about to go wrong? Elements of self-sabotage were probably going through my mind at the time. But the rest of the lyrics – it was written by an old head on long shoulders I suppose. You know... “reading some old letters”.
I do sing this song on every tour that I’ve done, but particularly now. In recent years, I’ve lost so many family members and the original video for that song features a lot of my family. I didn’t like that video, but it is of interest to me now as a curiosity because it features most of my family that are dead now. In some ways that song is more relevant to me now than then, which is the sign of a good song.
The line “And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky, but the side of you they’ll never see” always stood out to me. How does that line – especially having lost family members – make you feel now?
Matt Johnson: I always thought that a life was very different from the outside looking in and the inside looking out, and it’s very difficult to make judgements on people’s lives. Some people seem to have incredibly well-balanced, happy lives and I’ve known a few people over the years who’ve committed suicide out of the blue. You’re horrified and deeply saddened, and have no idea what they were going through, because you would think they had everything going for them. You know, their health, their career, their personal life. It’s very difficult to make judgements on that, but at that time, I suppose I had gone from being on the dole to suddenly signing a big recording contract with a very glamorous record company and people assumed that all of my life problems were in the past, but that wasn’t the case. People’s lives are far more complex and multi-layered.
“I had gone from being on the dole to suddenly signing a big recording contract with a very glamorous record company” – Matt Johnson
Does it remind you of your family? Does it jolt you at all?
Matt Johnson: It’s comforting, that song. I’m just thinking about that verse: “And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky / But the side of you they’ll never see / Is when you’re left alone with your memories / That hold your life together, like glue”.
I’ve been in the unfortunate position of losing a very close family member to Alzheimer’s. I’ve lost a close friend. When your memories start to go, then who are you? What are we, but a sum of our memories? I happen to think there is a greater consciousness outside of the brain, but that’s a whole other story. That’s a whole other thing. It’s not a sad song for me to sing. I feel it quite comforting, and I’m happy that I can sing it with conviction. That’s how I feel about songs like “Heartland”, “Armageddon Days” and “Beat(en) Generation”. They’re very contemporary songs lyrically, so I can sing them without fear that I’m faking it. I think the band feel the same way. It must be terrible to have a bad catalogue of songs that you are really ashamed of, and you’ve got to go through the motions to earn a living, so I’m thankful for that. All the songs we play, I play with real conviction.
“What are we but the sum of our memories really?” – Matt Johnson
What inspired the line about planes flying across the sky, pulling back the curtain and letting the sun burn into your eyes?
Matt Johnson: I remember when I was a little boy I hated school and I would daydream, looking out of the window. If it was a clear blue sky there was this sense of faith in the future, and optimism. You see a plane going by and you think, “One day I’m going to be on that plane, going abroad.” Luckily, later in life I was – I did a lot of travelling and flying to wonderful places. That simple line resonates with a lot of people. We spend our lives looking at the sky.
Am I right in thinking that the re-recording was released at the time when you were splitting with Fiona, who was the first person to hear that song?
Matt Johnson: It was. She directed the video for that re-recording and she gathered some old footage of mine. It was like a little diary, and it features us together at Alcatraz, when we decided to split up in San Francisco. We split up in San Francisco, but we visited Alcatraz. Have you ever visited Alcatraz?
Matt Johnson: We’d just broken up. Then we got some Super 8 footage of us there together giving each other a hug.
It must have been a very amicable split.
Matt Johnson: It was very amicable at the start, and then it was difficult because then I got involved with someone else about three or four months after that. I think you have these amicable splits until either party gets involved with someone else, and I fell in love with somebody else which made it a bit difficult. It ended up being amicable.
The single artwork does a great job of conveying the sound of the song; there’s a chaotic, colourful sadness that comes through. How did that come about?
Matt Johnson: That was Andrew (Matt’s brother) actually. I’ve got the original artwork upstairs. He took photographs on Brushfield Street in Spitalfields. It’s now very gentrified, and you wouldn’t recognise it from the old photographs. Andrew went down there and took a load of photographs and then he did a process of photocopying and drawing and painting over the photocopies and created that collage that became the sleeve. Then he did drawings of my face screaming, and placed it over and over.
I distinctly remember when he started spending time down Brushfield Street. It was a very derelict area. There were winos everywhere, and it was really run down. We always had a fascination with the inner city, coming from this area, and it was very run down in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s very gentrified now, but the East End in those days it was very different. That was always a shared fascination with my brother and I – derelict inner cities. There’s that faded opulence and that gritty character, yet there is a sort of yearning for nostalgia for a time you didn’t quite know. Sort of like a ghost town, the remnants of a ghost city in this decayed contemporary landscape that we found fascinating. I think he captured that quite well in that drawing.
“That was always a shared fascination with my brother and I – derelict inner cities” – Matt Johnson
You mentioned the lyric about planes in the sky resonating with people. This song means a lot to me, and seems to mean a lot to other people. Have a lot of people told you that?
Matt Johnson: People have got married to the song, people have conceived children to the song, and have been buried to the song. It’s interesting because it wasn’t one of those songs that you’d consider a hit single, but over time it’s been used in films and adverts in America. It’s by far one of my most successful songs in terms of the money that it’s generated, and it’s been covered by a lot of people, like The Manics. All around the world, it seems to be a very popular song. I’m proud of it and I’m glad I still like singing it. It would be awful if it was a successful song and I hated singing it.
It seems to be a song that people absorbed into their emotional landscape which is what you hope to do as a writer. When I can tell that I’ve written a song that has emotional validity is when I get emotional writing it and I would often get tearful if I feel moved by it. If you can get moved by your own songs when writing them, how will anymore else be moved by them? So that’s always a good sign for me.
“I probably cried when I wrote it. A lot of good things were going on in my life, but I always had a melancholic streak” – Matt Johnson
Were you emotional when you wrote it?
Matt Johnson: Yeah, I probably cried when I wrote it. A lot of good things were going on in my life, but I always had a melancholic streak. I didn’t have depression, but I was quite sensitive to other people’s feelings and even if things are going well on a personal level you can’t shut your eyes to other people’s sadness and the fact that the world that we live in is in the state that it’s in. You can try to be completely cold-hearted and selfish, but I don’t think that many people are cold-hearted and selfish.
On a day-to-day level, you come across things that are upsetting and make you feel melancholic, and the state of the world today makes me feel melancholic, particularly if you have children. If it didn’t, I’d be like, “So humanity is on the brink of extinction. Hey.” When you’ve got a little kid, you want them to have a good life. On a personal level, I’ve had a very good life, but I don’t only care about my children, but the children of the planet. They deserve a good chance.
The The are touring in September:
04 – Glasgow, Barrowlands
05 – Glasgow, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
07 – Birmingham, Digbeth Arena
08 – Portmeirion, Festival No.6
09 – Bristol, St. Philip’s Gate Arena