30 Years Ago: The The Slams Imperialism on ‘Infected’
Although Matt Johnson began The The as a band, by the early ’80s the moniker had essentially become an alias for the British musician. Johnson worked with a range of studio collaborators and scored a couple of U.K. hits with “Uncertain Smile” and “This Is the Day.” When he started making 1986's Infected, Johnson decided to give the LP a theme.
“After [1983’s] Soul Mining, I was eager to move in another direction,” Johnson reflected to Uncut in 2014. “I’d always been aware politically, but Infected was my reaction to the growing stranglehold of Thatcherism.”
He wasn’t just despairing over the policies of his homeland, then led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Johnson was upset about what he perceived as United States imperialism run amok, both in Britain and around the world. On “Heartland” – which the songwriter called “the most important song” he had written at that time – Johnson mourned English towns decaying due to unemployment and blamed the U.S. government for encroachment. At the end of the sinister, R&B-inflected track, Johnson declares with his deep, cutting voice, “This is the 51st state of the U.S.A.”
Watch the Video for "Heartland"
Other songs dealt with American wars in the Middle East and the growing reach of corporations, but Johnson also turned inward on Infected, examining desperate infidelity, romantic inferiority and spiritual salvation. Johnson claimed he had experienced everything he was singing about, making this already dark album and even more ominous experience for those who parsed every lyric.
Having created the album with a variety of producers and musicians, including friend Neneh Cherry who dueted on the brassy “Slow Train to Dawn,” Johnson was against promoting Infected with a big tour. He felt that putting a band together that could perform these colossal, intricate and sometimes dissonant arrangements would be a challenge. At the suggestion of his manager, Johnson decided the make videos for each of the album’s songs, stitching all of them together to build a short film.
Infected: the Movie wasn’t a homespun exercise, but rather a somewhat expensive operation that found Johnson shooting footage on three different continents with a trio of directors. Tim Pope’s “Slow Train to Dawn” became a noirish, black and white clip with Johnson engineering a train approaching Neneh Cherry tied to the tracks. “Out of the Blue (Into the Fire)” had the musician the crew shooting in an actual brothel in Harlem, and “Twilight of a Champion” includes a scene in which Johnson puts a real loaded gun in his mouth.
Watch the Video for "Slow Train to Dawn"
The situation got even crazier in Bolivia and Peru, where Johnson and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson made videos for the title track and album-closer “The Mercy Beat.” Inspired by Werner Herzog and Fitzcarraldo, Johnson had himself filmed while restrained on top of a boat. Meanwhile, the singer began indulging in South American hallucinogens and narcotics.
“We got taken into the jungle by a former Peruvian army guide who was well-connected,” Johnson said. “There was a scene in ‘The Mercy Beat’ where we came across a crazy communist rally, and I’m handling snakes and monkeys. … I was out of it most of the time, hallucinating giant spiders on the hotel walls. The stuff was too strong.
“It was amazing we all got back alive. You can imagine the purity of the coke down there.”
Johnson also had another form of coke on the brain, while making the Infected videos. He discovered that Coca-Cola was omnipresent, no matter where he traveled and he worked the cola manufacturer’s products and logo into different scenes to suggest the ever-present American corporation.
“One of the most incongruous images I saw was the ubiquitous Coca-Cola hat,” Johnson said on MTV in 1986. “Wherever we went, inside prisons, hospitals or churches, people would be wearing these little red caps. In fact, wherever I’ve been in the world, Coke has been there first, making it the greatest colonialist power since the Romans.”
Watch the Video for "Infected"
With the video components finished, the Infected album was released by Some Bizarre and Epic Records in the U.K. and Europe on Nov. 17, 1986, with a U.S. release shortly thereafter. The collection of films was screened in both cinemas and on Channel 4 in Britain. Johnson toured the world with the movie in 1986 and ’87, also screening the different videos on an edition of MTV’s alt-rock haven “120 Minutes.” He hosted the episode, speaking out about his musical and political opinions while a disclaimer scrolled at the bottom of the image, letting viewers know that these were Johnson’s thoughts and not necessarily MTV’s.
The video promotion helped Johnson’s album of deeply personal and political criticisms become a success, especially in the U.K. where Infected went gold. The The had four British hits off the album, with “Heartland” particularly striking a chord with listeners and rising to No. 29. Johnson made inroads in America, charting with the album and laying the groundwork for modern rock radio to embrace The The’s 1989 follow-up, Mind Bomb.
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