See Without Being Seen – Matt Johnson
Thumbing through the pages of the music press had been a weekly ritual for 18yr old Steve Parry. Having arrived in South London in a mini-cooper hatchback car laden with guitars, amp and a few clothes Parry had taken up residence in a relative’s house in Croydon. Parry had moved to London looking for change and suitors to his often abstract concept of sound. Having bought the popular magazine Practical Electronics Parry would delight in taking things apart; such as old radios and clocks, fascinated by the mechanisms of everyday objects. Parry often built sound generators out of waste materials; having a love for metalwork and woodwork he assembled a guitar from scratch. The self-made guitar with its innate personality and failure regards tuning had a mishmash of pick-ups delivering distortion and noise way beyond what his parents deemed music. This was the guitar that wasn’t! Without having the reverence of a conventional musical instrument the device became something of a sound source whereby it would be played with pliers or by inserting metal bolts, paperclips and wires along the body and neck. Parry had learnt to play classical guitar from the age of 8, however playing music like Greensleeves by traditional means held little attraction to him. The construction of various sound devices, though often frustrating ultimately proved most gratifying.
1979 - Post-punk London appeared a landscape brim-full of opportunity. Inspired by a myriad of self-produced music and independent record labels everything and anything seemed possible. The political dirge and corresponding unemployment of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government created a situation whereby many a musician found liberation in the form of a government grant (The Dole) and the freedom to go off and do as they pleased. In this culture of DIY, events, gigs, happenings, artists, musicians and non-musicians, bands like Throbbing Gristle, This Heat, PragVEC and Robert Rental found an audience eager to share in their endeavour.
With a record collection that included John Cage, The Velvet Underground, Neu, Cluster and Tangerine Dream Parry set about looking for kindred spirits to form a band. Confronted with a pile of music publications laid out on the bedroom floor, he would note down the contact addresses of something of interest. This day a particular advert in the NME caught the eye asking for Bass/lead guitarist into The Velvet Underground/Syd Barrett.
The advert had been placed by a 16yr old Matt Johnson. The resultant telephone call to The Crown, Loughton, Essex, a pub run by his father Eddie, revealed a good-humoured confident sounding Johnson with the promise of a real musical revolution. In the weeks, months and years that followed Johnson and Parry would stay in touch. Johnson sent Parry a copy of his solo tape See Without Being Seen. The corresponding letter states “the project which I’m working on at the moment (which the cassette is/was part of) is See Without Being Seen – which deals with you or I (or anyone whose listening to the songs) as a spectator seeing abstract views of life be it of people or situations or how people react to various situations and pressures.”
Johnson apologises for the music being so primitive and pretty straight as far as experimental music goes. He goes on to say that he only has one keyboard at the moment (Crumer Electronic Piano) that he puts through various effects; this he proclaims to this being very limited.
There is a P.S at the conclusion to Johnsons letter:- ‘The enclosed tape was mastered on a ¼ “ track machine so it would be advisable when replaying to plug from your cassette deck to a large amp and turn up the bass, mid, treb and put a touch of reverb on.’
In all fairness the music on SWBS requires no apology at all – the music is experimental, complex and rich although obviously constrained by the technology available. The music although naïve at times (hell, it’s made by a 16 yr. old) is also brimming with ideas, Johnsons open tunings and effected guitar vying with his unhinged vocals amidst the throb and spit of an analogue drum machine. The songs underpinned by the wobble and creak of the Crumer Electronic Piano. SWBS is crazy portentous stuff where lyrically he sings about ‘dancing on graves’ and seemingly a warped love affair with wallpaper in the shape of ‘My Vymura’.
The music comes housed in a tape cassette with a sleeve presumably designed by Matt, replicated on a Xerox photocopying machine.
SWBS is wonderfully plucky, ambitious music hinting at what is to come from Johnson as a solo artist and as THE THE. Some ideas, lyrics (‘history repeats itself…’) later turn up on ‘Burning Blue Soul’.
Parry never auditioned to join Johnson’s band. That’s another story. Matt went on to create a brilliant experimental album in Burning Blue Soul, work with the Gadgets and record a couple or more avant-garde outings with Keith Laws as The The. In a letter to Parry dated 02/11/1981 Johnson posed the question not knowing what direction he wished to go in – commercial (as in accessible foot tapping, hum along – disposable or experimental (as in?)
Johnson, it appears has over the years often dismissed the early work of THE THE. It’s a shame because Controversial Subject/Black and White, Untitled and the later Cold Spell Ahead/Hot Ice 45rpm remain challenging, enchanting statements of experimental sound that reward the listener to this day.
The music on See Without Being Seen remains unreleased (other than the cassette created by Johnson). It seems the album had been distributed to very few people. To this day, the music appears not to have been leaked onto the internet. Therefore SWBS remains an enigma and fable in its own right - A much sought after artefact of his recorded work.
Postscript – Johnson during his career has crafted some brilliant political songs that have stood the test of time. Johnson remains an enigma of which sadly we hear not enough – his current efforts appear confined to creating film soundtracks and engaging in the occasional political rant: In 2012 Johnson self-published his father Eddie Johnsons memoir of living in Stratford, East London in the 1960’s – Tales from the Two Puddings.
All Compositions M. Johnson 1978/79
Spaceship in My Barn