Monday, 11 March 2013

Burning Blue Soul - History Repeats Itself

File:The The - Burning Blue Soul original cover.jpg
...then supposin' your legs just withered away
& you had to somehow slide around on your
backside - for the rest of your days.
"Imagine"... that you're happy now.
"It's easy if you try" - because we're all caught
up in a mortifying loop - LIFE
Song Without An Ending

A brief Twitter conversation led me recently to reminisce about Burning Blue Soul. Although attributed to The the, it was in fact the first album released on September 7th 1981 under Matt Johnson's own name on the then fledgling 4AD label.

Why mention it some 32 years later? Well... I know a little about the making of this album...'back in the day' Matt Johnson and I were close friends. I thought I would share a few increasingly fragmentary memories of the making of - what I believe is a - seminal album - not to everyone's taste, but then it wouldn't be seminal if it were to everyone's taste. This unique record has been over-shadowed by the later - more accessible work that reached an international audience.

Music is an experience and so, I usually flounder when asked to describe it and this is no exception. My inclination is always to say - listen to it - that's the reason it was made...and to this end, I have put a few pieces from Burning Blue Soul in this post! Despite my reservations, I know that the roots of Burning Blue Soul, its wonderful mélange of... English pastoral psychedelia and Krautrock invention (Krautedelia?) filtered through the hypochondria and religious and cultural allusions of someone whose 19th birthday passed in the summer 1981. Matt was a Magpie.

I'm wasting away with worry
& my heart just skipped a beat
But then again...
I felt much calmer
I opened up a can of 'Instant Karma'
a yoga posture for self awareness
& the devil rides out of
(Like a) Sun Rising Through My Garden
Nobody could doubt the invention and courage of Burning Blue Soul - of an 18/19 year old opening his psyche not indulgently to an established adoring audience, but to any other person experiencing life as ununderstandable.

The album is a trip from the meandering quasi-orchestral Can and Faust-like tribal rhythmic loops of 'Red Cinders in the Sand', to the chirping grasshopper percussion and sound of the Pungi (as played by snake charmers [*correction my Indian wife assures me it is Shennai - music played at Indian weddings - & may be for the groom leaving!]) in '(Like a) Sun Rising through my Garden', the layered forward and backward guitars of 'Icing up' and several visits from the ghost of John Lennon - especially on 'Bugle Boy' (and various lyrical nods to 'Imagine', 'Instant Karma' and "Ive got a million Beatles under my skin" on other songs), add the lyrical whimsy of Syd Barrett, and occasional vocal nods to Tim Buckley ....until the closing echoic oriental lament of 'Another Boy Drowning' ...."we all know we edging our way toward the end" - so odd for someone so young (unless you knew Matt)
..with the final words of Burning Blue Soul being:

Movin' on, opening new doors...Life just doesn't seem that simple anymore. 
In case I don't see you again...I hope you'll feel glad that you know me while I was here

Summer Nights 1981
Its worth thinking about what was happening in the summer of '81? We had entered the first of Margaret Thatcher's terms of office, unemployment had risen to nearly 3 million, the warm nights were lit up by the so-called 'Race riots' in Brixton, Toxteth, Chapeltown and Hansworth. I recall many smaller disturbances happening all around me in London at the time. Charles and Diana married, MTV launched, the Maze 'hunger strikes' came to their inevitable conclusion. The first recognized cases of AIDS appeared and Pope John Paul II was shot. Most of these events were chronicled in the snapshot of 1981 that is Burning Blue Soul.
Almost every lyric can be traced to specific autobiographical events - for example

I like you... I think that you're pretty good
But I think that you think, that I...
Well... that I'm a bit undercooked...

...100,000 people today were burned.
I felt a pang of concern,
- what are we waitin' for - a message of hope.
- from the... POPE!
I think he got shot... as well!
Song Without An Ending
The "I like you...I think you're pretty good" was I believe derived from a voice recording that Matt had made of his youngest brother Gerard (probably no more than 3 at the time). Gerard has grown from cute small boy to the writer and director of the acclaimed movie Tony. As always, being a magpie, Matt incorporated news events into his lyrical content - Pope John Paul II had indeed been shot while the album was being recorded

It was a paean to the past - albeit one that had become part of our past in the future - nothing is new, nothing is old. The influences are psychedelic, although psychedelia had long gone to be replaced by the creative darkness of the late 70s and early 80. - all added to a high degree of existential anxiety, hypochondria and the fearless experimentation of someone with nothing much to lose (no job, no major record contract) - it is a proverbial musical DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but carries within each song... the cure for a disorder
I have no future, for I've had no past
I'm just sittin' here
Pullin' arrows
Out of my heart
History repeats itself
Within the realms of my inexperience
Icing Up

Now I have had a past, memories do come to mind - Matt had not long passed his driving test and we spent long summer days in 1981 listening to early and final version of the songs on a cassette player in his car (I vaguely recall it wasn't even built into the dashboard, but a portable - so the quality was impeccable). We would drive around the sunny Essex countryside, in the days when seatbelts were unrequired, smoking cigarettes (almost always recorded in a later lyric for Waiting for the Upturn).

The album was recorded in fits and starts in different studios, with different producers and engineers over the best part of that year - and some of this explains the eclectic feel and broad sweep ...of the album and how it coalesces or not into a single coherent piece. As an aside 10 years later, I remember similar journeys in the early 90s listening to early drafts of songs from Dusk in Matt's car (e.g. without the vocals), travelling out to his parents lovely countryside home. I think the car was a place for Matt to reflect on and hone his songs.

Red Cinders in the Sand

The album opens with Red Cinders in the Sand - if this isn't an English version of Faust's Krautrock, then what is? The piece starts quietly with Matt whispering 'an hallucination' . It is a set of rhythms, the like of which would later become de rigeur for many tribal bands - all mostly through the use of tape loops (Matt worked at De Wolfe studios in Wardour Street - so was constantly putting tapes together), overlaid with sitars, 'broken' guitar sounds and what can only be described as the kinds of brass sounds you hear in epic Roman movies plus the simple sound of stuff crashing (for want of a better description)

Bugle Boy
The country is riddled with social ills & aches,
But my heart is calmed by her embrace,
I'm trying to tell something to the world,
- But my words are slurred & slow,
Have you ever been caught up in a dream,
where your legs were froze.
I was left alone, with my thoughts and my guitar.
But it felt hopeless,
Like the desire of the moth - for a star.
Sometimes... nothing seems unreal,
this strange little boy said
"Mister, play us your guitar" & I said -
"No... I can't"
& put my guitar in the car-
Listening to the music of heaven & earth,
Have you ever thought you were the
- Most important thing in the universe.
I didn't know whether to strengthen my
Weaknesses - or play to my strengths.
I was trapped in the triviality of- everydayness.
I said.
"There's magic in my head, girl.
but I only use it when I'm depressed"
I don't suppose she heard me.
She was too busy admiring her dress.
She said I was pretentious
I said - just young - & - well intentioned,
Who can save us now
- the world rots...
I did know the secret of the universe
... only I forgot!!

The album is often described as a refrain from bedsit land - only partly true as Matt still lived in his parents' pub in Loughton (The Crown). Aside form the car, the cellar of the Crown was a prominent site for listening to, playing music and just trying out stuff - bear in mind that the music which populates BBS is not the product of someone going into the studio with an album of songs in mind and simply recording them Rather it was the evolution of many months (or years of teenage gestation) - indeed, parts of songs frequently migrated from one track to another.

The Crown (Loughton, Essex) -
Below ground level, amongst the beer barrels, Burning Blue Soul was conceived and born

Its important to bear in mind that Matt was not a 'musician' in the traditional sense - he was reasonably comfortable on keyboards having had some lessons, but most of the time he stuck to the guitar an open-E tuning. He was not confident about the songs on BBS, and I recall conversations with him about various pieces - which all sounded great to me and over three decades know what....they still sound fresh and relevant to me - from the prescient musical styles through to the remarkable personal, social and political lyrical voice for someone so young.

Whispering sadness, like a mild form of madness,
or a line from a meaningful song,
Turn your eyes to the lord,
but the churches are empty,
they're is now no escape from your longing.
Things are gonna start getting good, hear them call,
You captured the unspoken feelings of my heart,
... which gave me a start.
I know I'm nowhere near perfection
...I'm pointing in the wrong direction

Where did the Burning Blue Soul cover idea come from? I might claim some influence: the name 'Burning Blue Soul' and the cover design came from me and was heavily and obviously influenced by The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. I also believe I suggested the half laminate cover to give a 60s feel and finally, the original cover photography for the sleeve and insert was done by my brother.

The internal sleeve notes indicate the various influences around at the time. A major one was Wire - present physically in the guise of Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis - and spiritually through the massive affection for their album 154 released at that time. Credits also appear for other close friends- Tom Johnston,renowned cartoonist for the Sun newspaper; Peter Ashworth, whose name you may not recognise, but almost certainly your record collection contains covers that he photographed (check out his link); Stevo (Steve Pearce) the creator of Some Bizzare records and manager of Soft Cell amongst others; Andrew Johnson, Matt's brother and responsible for the later distinctive artwork for The the as well as a painting of Matt on the reverse cover; and finally Pete Maben, who was a recording engineer who dealt with some of the sessions (and ran a little recording studio in Forest Gate East London)

Another Boy Drowning
There are no voices - as the time approaches,
I wanted to be like Bob Dylan
Until I discovered Moses
Saturday night & I was lying in my bed
The window was open & raindrops
Were bouncing off my head
When it HIT me like a Thunderbolt!!!
"I don't know nothing- & I'm scared
that I never will"

While writing this blog, I found this image on the web - it dates from 1980/81 and shows the youthful Matt Johnson on the left, peeking over someones shoulder; Charlie Blackburn holding the first the The single on 4AD (CB and MJ were in a band called the Marble Index prior to the The). Sadly I cant recollect the other two people.... but my good self is on far right wearing my distinctive pyjamas and leather jacket combo -
I have no recollection of where it was taken or what we were doing - I'm innocent!

Burning Blue Soul

"Red Cinders in the Sand"
"Song Without an Ending"
"Time (Again) for the Golden Sunset"
"Icing Up"
"(Like a) Sun Rising Through My Garden"
"Out of Control"
"Bugle Boy"
"The River Flows East in Spring"
"Another Boy Drowning"


  1. Great insight into the early history of The The/Matt Johnson. I remember well the wonderfully attired wasp maestro Keith Laws. The leather jacket - the pyjamas? I also recall The The at the time, in terms of GARB had a preference for MACS - not the PC type - but long rainwear coats - This and Army Surplus!
    BBS really is an excellent/challenging album, that rewards with each listen.

    1. Hi Steve - I agree it is excellent and challenging (still) - and I tend to disgaree with those who have viewed it as some kind of bedsitland introspection - it is actually very outward looking and a marker for that time - if it were not, it would not resonate (even now) with all of the political and social issues of those days

  2. Great review Mr. Laws...
    Nothing mentioned 'bout Controversial Subject though!

  3. Hi Ethan
    Well, there is an image of it on this post ;) Re that 4AD single - what were you asking about 'Controversial Subject'?

  4. Great artical. Thank you Mr. Laws.

  5. Thanks for your memories Keith. It's great to know there are other psychologist music obsessives out there :-)

    Best wishes

    Mark G

  6. Soul Mining was my mentor and guiding "black" light through the early eighties as I wandered around Europe as a young Aussie surfer. I kind of didn't know about BBS until much later. Now I'm listening to it again and am blown away with just how awesome it is!! I've even got my Indi loving 21 year old son losing his shit over it...nice. All hail Matty J.