It’s been 30 years since THE THE released its innovative ‘Infected’ video album – a truly ground-breaking landmark in the history of the pop promo. Here, THE THE’s Matt Johnson and legendary promos director Tim Pope recollect the story behind the Infected videos, and Matt offers his forthright advice to aspiring artists today.
Pop Promo Pioneer
30 years ago, Matt Johnson of THE THE stumbled on the concept of the ‘visual album’; 27 years before Beyonce apparently invented the format. To be fair, there were a couple of examples of video/visual albums before THE THE hit upon the idea, but the scale and ambition of THE THE’s film project for the Infected album was unmatched at the time and arguably hasn’t been since.
Back in 1986, Matt, together with his manager Stevo, the owner of Some Bizarre records, pitched the plan to create a video for each of the tracks on Infected to Sony, THE THE’s label at the time. The record had 62 musicians on it, and wasn’t something Matt felt comfortable playing live. So the idea for the video album was primarily devised as a means of avoiding having to tour Infected. Matt committed to touring the videos instead, attending screenings of the Infected film in indie cinemas across the world at the tail end of the year.
The resulting video album was an incredible piece of work; as unflinching in its approach as the record itself, and as striking and powerful an experience to watch as the album was to listen to. But, despite Infected going on to sell in excess of 1,000,000 copies and the Infected videos being screened twice in their entirety on Channel 4 and on MTV, the Infected videos have never been released on DVD, let alone Blu-Ray.
Sadly, the films have been left to gather dust for the last 30 years, before finally resurfacing last month when Infected was screened to sell out audiences for five nights at the ICA to mark the anniversary of its first release. The first three screenings were followed by a Q&A with Matt Johnson and guests including renowned pop promo director Tim Pope, who directed three of the Infected films.
Very Strong Ideas
The Works caught up with Matt Johnson and Tim Pope a few days before the ICA’s screenings to discuss how the Infected film came together.
“Tim came back with some very strong ideas about ‘Out of the Blue (Into the Fire)’, which I think is my favourite video of the whole film,” says Matt. “The way he described it was exactly as I imagined the video in my head.”
“All I ever do with my videos is go in there and re-describe the song,” says Tim modestly. “We decided to shoot ‘Out of the Blue’ in this real brothel in Spanish Harlem. I don’t think we realised we were shooting right near the biggest crack dealer in New York, so it was a pretty unfortunate area for us to be in.”
“I was standing there with my producer just as the sun was going down and I was sensing a vibe. I was thinking this place was really, really edgy,” he adds. “I’m standing there and this large rat, which had probably been poisoned, came out and ran around in front of my feet and then fell on its back, had an epileptic fit and looked at me and died. And that was just the start of the evening.”
“We were in this very dangerous place and the atmosphere was building up and up. The police, who were there to protect us, then said it’s getting too dangerous, we’re going to pull out of here. I just remember these burned out buildings and people watching us; all these eyes watching us. That added to the atmosphere, all the gangs moving in close to us, but it was one of the most edgy experiences I would say I ever had.”
Thinking on Their Feet
The videos for the title track and the final track on the album, ‘Mercy Beat’, were filmed in South America – in Iquitos in Peru and La Paz in Bolivia. Again, the shoot was very rough and ready. The ‘Mercy Beat’ film was directed by the late Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson (of Throbbing Gristle), who had to adapt plans on the fly after Matt and the film crew inadvertently got caught up in the middle of a volatile, highly charged political rally.
“There were probably 1,000 or so people there and ‘Sleazy’ was able to think on his feet and just kept filming while we got involved,” says Matt. The footage captured in the ‘Mercy Beat’ video shows Matt being pushed around aggressively by the group, having blood smeared on his face, while having to fend off a snake and getting bitten by a monkey. “That’s my second favourite video because it’s so authentic,” he says.
Massive and Ambitious Project
“He’d gone from being this sort of small indie thing to – bang! – this massive and ambitious project. I think it’s great and I think we should be really proud that we are talking 30 years later about the film,” enthuses Tim.
As regards the budgeting for the project, it’s hard to imagine a record label today giving the green light to a relatively unknown band spending such a significant amount of money. “In today’s prices Infected cost around £3-4m,” explains Matt. “Which, for an artist that wasn’t that well known, was an incredible amount of money.” Unfortunately, Matt reveals he’s still paying for it today, having yet to receive any royalties from Sony’s THE THE releases due to the huge costs he accrued while on the label, in particular on the Infected project.
Master of His Own Destiny
It’s perhaps unsurprising that, since THE THE’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, Matt has become staunchly independent. He puts out all his new releases himself and has formulated innovate ways to bring in revenue from his creative projects. This includes setting up his own label, Cineola, a book-publishing house called Fifty First State Press and curating his own online radio show called Radio Cineola. He also owns a recording studio called Studio Cineola.
Matt has put out a steady stream of THE THE releases on Cineola so far, which have all been atmospheric instrumental soundtracks to indie films. He’s also published a well-received book about the goings on in a pub his father ran in Stratford, which has since been made into a film. And, as part of his Radio Cineola project, he’s staged a number of live online broadcasts, discussing music and politics and including exclusive one-off live performances of new THE THE material.”
“Cineola certainly pays for itself,” says Matt. “It’s modest sales but I don’t lose money on it. Radio Cineola is marginal as well. It’s hard making money out of music. I was sensible years ago as I invested money and didn’t stick it all up my nose like many of my contemporaries. I certainly couldn’t have predicted how bad the music industry would become, but I had enough common sense to think ahead. I was never money-obsessed anyway. As long as I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do, that was the most important thing for me.”
The Digital Rip Off
“I feel very sorry for younger bands today,” says Matt. “The record labels didn’t take care of the industry. They didn’t anticipate correctly the digital revolution and then they gave everything away to Apple and are doing dodgy deals with Spotify or whatever. Of course, the artist is always the one that gets screwed over it seems.”
“I think the industry should have stood firm and all the labels, majors and independents should have played hardball with YouTube, Spotify and Apple. I think the music industry shot itself in the foot and young artists are now paying the price.”
“Spotify is a rip off,” he says bluntly. “You get these digital statements – they are really thick and you think, ‘Whoah’. And there’s about £500 at the end of it all. You’re earning next to nothing for every play. It’s a scam. Spotify have apparently got these massive posh offices, they all drive around in new BMWs or whatever, so somebody is getting money from somewhere; money that should be going to the artists and it’s not. So I feel very strongly about that.”
Wise Words for Artists Today
Matt’s advice for aspiring songwriters and artists is clear: Don’t sign your rights away: “If you sign a record contract get reversions of all your rights – publishing and recording – take smaller deals and smaller advances, keep your costs down, get better royalties and get reversions on everything, because you don’t know how the industry is going to change.”
“You need to own your rights; you need to be in control,” he adds. “I feel it’s developing into more of an a la carte situation so you would have a distributor, then you would choose your PR person, and your radio person, and the artist retains ultimate rights.”
“The exciting thing, if artists choose to exercise it, is there’s so much freedom with the technology that’s available and the connection you can instantly have with your audience around the world. I just think we need a fair system so the audience pays a reasonable amount they feel comfortable with and the artist gets paid a decent amount and they can live a decent life and afford their equipment and have a studio and tour.”
“Who knows where it’s going to go? It’s like the genie is out of the bottle now, isn’t it? It’s all very well for people to want everything for free but I don’t think people are thinking about the long-term health of the industry.”
New THE THE Releases
THE THE has a sizeable and very loyal following and Matt continually gets asked about when the next THE THE release with him singing will come out. “I’ve been busy for the last six or seven years but I’ve not been finishing any songs,” admits Matt. “I don’t know what the block is there and it might be fear of success. Do I want to go through all these world tours and being on TV? I’ve done all that stuff and don’t have the same burning desire I did when I was 20. Fame and celebrity is not everything it’s cracked up to be.”
“The trouble is, when you’ve had success in a certain field at a certain period of time you get trapped in amber and people continue to want you to be who you were,” he adds. “That’s what you’re up against; people’s nostalgia. They tie you into a certain period of their lives and nothing I can do can ever come up to, say, ‘Soul Mining’ (THE THE’s iconic 1983 debut). I’m not 20 anymore. I’m not the same person. That’s not to say I don’t want to do another album and possibly do some shows, but it’ll be different.”
In the meantime, there’s a growing list of THE THE related releases slated for the coming year, including a new documentary film about the band, called ‘The Inertia Variations’, which is scheduled for release next summer. It’s directed by Johanna Saint Michaels, who was one of the Q&A guests at the ICA.
Then there’s the first official biography of THE THE, which is being written by Neil Fraser (also a Q&A guest at the ICA) and should see the light of day by the end of 2017.
There will also be a new double album of THE THE material released next year on Cineola, which is made up of spoken word, poetry, music and political interviews.
And, finally, Matt revealed he’s planning on putting together the missing pieces to the famed ‘lost’ THE THE album ‘Pornography of Despair’ from an assortment of old reel-to-reel tapes currently stacked up in his studio. This was originally going to be the band’s debut album before Matt shelved it at the last minute. It has since become the holy grail of THE THE rarities.