- by Rob Taylor Release Date: Label:
1982. CBS have bankrolled completion of Soul Mining to the tune of £80,000. Matt Johnson travels to New York looking for inspiration in the physically scarred but culturally ascendant downtown area. Instead he’s drawn to the drug scene, greening out on the strongest weed he’d ever encountered. His creativity drained, a record company associate introduces him to ecstasy to offset the loss of motivation. This was before ecstasy had even become the choice drug of nightclub revellers. What followed was further self destruction, a trashed hotel room, and no completed rewrites (as promised) of the album that [aptly] was to be called The Pornography of Despair.
Watershed moments for Johnson. In the UK one A&R guy from a major had already rejected the single ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ (later to become ‘Uncertain Smile’) and Some Bizarre had picked it up and released it. The early iteration of the single was relatively unsophisticated, and what Johnson really wanted was to surround himself with quality session players to tease out the full potential of the roughly hewn tracks. The CBS deal was his chance.
Returning to the United Kingdom, he finished recording the album Soul Mining at studios owned by John Foxx. He surrounded himself with some interesting session players, including Jools Holland, who plays the astonishing boogie-woogie piano solo that serves as the outro of ‘Uncertain Smile’ , surely the most iconic of Johnson’s releases as The The. David Johansen from New York Dolls plays harmonica on ‘Perfect’, and Zeke Manyika from Orange Juice provides some great percussive thrust on drums.
Growing up in a pub owned by his folks, Johnson had a crude home taping set-up in the basement. Music, not school, was his great love. As a teenager in the late 1970s he secured an apprenticeship at De Wolfe recording studios. De Wolfe was next door to the Marquee Club. At the Marquee Club, Johnson saw concerts from the likes of Television, Patti Smith and Pete Ubu, and also an assortment of heavy rock and so-called new wave artists. Combined with the influence of his Uncle, who was a DJ/Music Producer with a penchant for the blues, you begin to understand what an eclectic grounding Matt Johnson had in music.
I’m glad to present Soul Mining as a ‘lost classic’ although to say it’s lost is strictly inaccurate. It has held its position in the pantheon of great but underrated albums for some time now. Soul Mining was awkwardly marketed at the time of its release, right down to the interesting but disparate painting of one of Fela Kuti’s wives on the original cover. Painted by Matt’s brother, Andrew. Bearing no relationship to an album characterised by a very personal self-doubt, ambivalence about relationships and sexuality, and existential fear. In retrospect, Matt Johnson has commented that a cover of his screaming face was more apposite. In 2002, Soul Mining was re-released with Matt Johnson’s somber face.
Soul Mining meant so much to me as a 16/17 year old. Apart from being a wonderful electronic pop album, Its perceptive and mostly unambiguous lyrics spoke very directly to me and my own insecurities. More than The Smiths because my most florid period emotionally coincided with its release. Although the impending darkness of the new wave was all about the sound, the viscera, the dance; the lyrics on Soul Mining was an outpouring, giving permission and giving voice to the expression of teenage insecurities.
Peeling the skin back from my eyes / I felt surprise / as the clock on the wall was the time / I usually retire / to a place I clear my head of you….. I’ve got you under my skin /where the rain can’t get in / even if the sweat pours out / just shout / I’ll try to swim and pull you out.
I’m not usually enamoured of lyrics, but I’ve never forgotten that one.
As a controversial footnote to a wonderful album, can I just say, that as brilliant as Jools Holland's piano solo is on 'Uncertain Smile', I've always preferred the alternate extended version with the original sax solo, which speaks more eloquently of the desolation in the song. The piano solo another misrepresentation in my view, like the original cover art it diverts attention away from the music's central pulse. It's great, it's just not soul mining.