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The The: Uncertain Smile

The The's 'Uncertain Smile' cover

Single, 1982
Recorded and mixed at Mediasound, New York
Recording engineer: Don Wershba
Mixing engineer: Harvey Goldberg
Flute and alto saxophone: Crispin Cioe
Produced by Mike Thorne

Photo and graphics: Peter Ashworth, Neville Brody
Artwork: Andrew Johnson

Two-CD set available from

There are some projects which turn out immaculately and whose recording and production feels effortless, as if the participants were just following a pre-ordained path down the mountain with the stone tablets. Free will seems suspended. Even better, some of these records gain popular recognition in similarly apparently painless routines. Uncertain Smilewas one such project, recorded quickly in New York in 1982 with Matt Johnson, aka The The. But remember, whenever the going seems easy, the flip side of such ease of construction can be the ease of destruction. It’s quite easy for it all to fall down, given bad judgment, bad luck or both. Especially when the dice are loaded.

Matt Johnson had released Burning Blue Soul in the UK the previous year, and this distinctive and quirky album had achieved a surprising following, modest independent sales and easily qualified for cult record status. Tracy Bennett of London Records, one of the most aggressively experimental and risky of the contemporary A&R community, heard it and signed Matt to a singles deal. Uncertain Smile existed in previous form and had clear possibilities as a single and as a dance 12”. As usual, Tracy wanted the record in a hurry, but fortunately I had a tight but workable window in my schedule.

After we had spoken on the phone, Matt came over to New York by himself to do the record at Mediasound. This was his first time in the city, and we tried to make this quite cautious and apparently vulnerable person as comfortable as possible in the big city which, before you adapt and enjoy its hospitality and rough sociability, can be very intimidating. The studio had a small but comfortable apartment a few blocks north of its location on West 57th Street where he was able to stay, following Soft Cell’s occupation during the recording of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret the previous year. With Soft Cell, he also had a manager in common.

Stevo and Tracy each had an aggressive confidence in the value of their own judgment, which I was happy to endorse since it almost always generated challenging projects for me to tackle. These were often way outside the norm, but thanks to their energy and persuasiveness would usually succeed commercially as well as artistically. However, Stevo’s erratic and confrontational behavior, while initially cloaked in charm and whimsy, could wear very thin for the other project participants, often seeming to turn destructive as well as self-serving. And it was always distracting. For this reason, the two members of Soft Cell had insisted that he never be in the control room while they were recording, allowing him in only for the occasional privileged playback. Tracy and Stevo concluded a handshake deal for the single, the paperwork to be sorted out on Matt’s return to the UK. Matt hurried over to start the sessions.

Matt Johnson - graphicIn many ways, the early eighties was when the extended club single format hit its peak. At that time, you could hear a track on the radio and then in more dance-environment-friendly form in the clubs. To hear new, progressive music you would go out dancing, refreshing body and brain simultaneously. There was not the stylistic and functional gulf between pop and dance that we see in 2002, where club music is often defiantly esoteric and fenced off even among the splintered sub-genres themselves.

Following Soft Cell’s lead with Tainted Love, I had always recorded any single in the full 12” version and extracted the 7” radio-friendly single, in contrast with the norm which was to record the 7” and later re-edit, perhaps add new material and then extend for the 12” by remixing using varying elements. My method took slightly longer and was certainly harder work, but the results could be exceptional.

The arrangement was on the cutting edge for the time, curious to say. The combination of very repetitive rhythm machines (then known as ‘drum boxes’) with traditional acoustic solo instruments was something Soft Cell and I had pioneered in 1981, as on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret which juxtaposed jazz-savvy clarinet and saxophone solos with the classic drum box of its time, the light-sounding-but compelling Roland 808. (The group 808 State even named themselves after it, although until I knew for sure I was hoping that they had adopted Hawaii’s area code through some distant surfer connection.)

Matt had defined most of the crisp melody lines on his original demo. The person to call for sax and flute, I was advised by man-about-musical-town, Jimmy Biondolillo, was Crispin Cioe of the Uptown Horns. At the time, this four-piece horn section was breaking through into session work from their street-smart start with many of the late seventies CBGB’s-scene groups. Later, starting with Bronski Beat’s Why?, I would have the pleasure of many sessions with these consummate rock+roll professionals. In 1982, Cris showed up solo with a couple of bags over his shoulder.

Later, he confided that he thought that both Matt and I were on acid. Not us, I assured him, but thanks for the compliment. (And certainly never me, at least on duty, since a big part of the producer’s job is to maintain a solid social and musical reference center when others on the session might be exploring the outer planets.) But the ‘wah-wah-wah’ sax riff which features in the verse was lifted (sort of) from Matt’s original and then scored by me for alto sax. It’s a three-part harmony, each layer of which was fed as it was recorded through a phaser to give it the interplanetary sound and feel you hear on the finished record. Heading to trippy territory. The sonic contrast between it and the arpeggiated guitar signature is still dramatic. The contrast between the solo flute and the sax solo is extreme, but works.

The making of Matt Johnson's (The The's) Uncertain SmileAnother key sound is the ‘xylimba’ a mallet percussion instrument with wooden keys over a single box resonator (the marimba also has wooden keys but an individually tuned resonator for each). I bought it for the sessions when Matt fell in love with its toy-like sound in the music store on 48th Street, and it repaid the investment big-time. As did the Synclavier, the first digital synthesizer, which even now continues to give me a sonic edge (for example, the singular sound of Tainted Love is in no small way thanks to the sounds I could create with it).

The Synclavier has always been a slow and sometimes frustrating machine to drive, but the sounds (like the strings on this recording) always excel and reward the programming effort. In the same spirit as buying the xylimba without hitting the recording budget (and any noise machine any time I thought that might flip a session to distinction and augment my large arsenal of sonic weapons), I never charged a dime for its use. I always thought the payback was a great record which would go farther than if I relied on conventionally available resources, and wanted no hesitation to use whatever tool I thought appropriate. If you’re aiming high, there’s no need to be venal and petty.

Originally, we hadn’t intended the 12” extended mix to extend to anything like the ten minutes at which it eventually settled. But the music just kept coming over the musician-friendly four-chord backing, with its hypnotic Roland 808 repetition (with some embellishments created on the fly, song programming as we know it now on computers not being an option beyond the hardware-default two-bar cycle) and the engagingly relentless electric bass riff (played live by Matt on my Fender Precision). This fundamental, encouraging and optimistic musical quality informed the whole sessions, and was probably the key to our effortless delivery of such a distinctive and smooth record.

At the wrap, Matt and I were quite giddy. For me, it had been an encounter with an unusual song and the satisfying delivery of what sounded even then like a classic 12”. For Matt, it had been a magic and charmed introduction to the intensity of New York and his experience of the stimulus the city can give you to propel yourself to new personal heights. We had delivered our best, and we had had the wind behind us.

Matt Johnson - graphicMatt and his record went back to London, arriving in manager Stevo’s office together. Stevo knew a hit when he heard it. Without hesitation, his handshake deal with Tracy Bennett was gone, and an auction followed in London with CBS (Epic) Records eventually winning the bidding. I didn’t talk much with Tracy at the time, both of us feeling that that was not quite the way to behave. Doubtless, Tracy didn’t want to raise his deal when the hit returned from New York. A deal is a deal, as they say in this city. Without reliance on verbal commitment, Wall Street could not function. And if you can’t trust a broad ‘yes’ in your ears, you’ll spend too much productive time just reading the small print. Next.

Whatever the dubious business twists, I was still the producer and so duly delivered the record to CBS. I still have a stash of the advance 12” pressings that Tracy had ordered up for the clubs. They sound really good, better than the final released version, especially those in the US. (Over here, the mastering was out of my control, and the disk sounds anything but club The casual mastering probably seriously hindered its progress in that environment.)

The song Uncertain Smile featured on Soul Mining, the subsequent The The album. A completely new recording was made back in London, which must have disappointed the punters who bought it after hearing the original single. Both at this remove and at the time, it sounds curiously confused and unfocused, as if trying for whatever reason to make a fresh statement of the song but unable to escape from the grip of the first single. I also wonder if it’s just a coincidence that the album producer’s royalty rate was lower than mine, possibly informing the managerial musical advice to the artist. Whatever, the original, long unavailable, is still a great track and is now newly re-released on a two-CD collection of The The’s extended tracks and remixes. It’s just a pity about the lingering bad business taste in the mouth, qualifying what might have been the memory of a perfect music-recording experience.

Such is showbiz, sometimes. Although not always.

– MT, October 31 2002

Web page photos derived from originals by Peter Ashworth 1983 and Angela D’Ception 1983

Two-CD set available from