Released : 1983
As a teenager, there weren’t many places where you felt you could escape in the early part of the 1980’s. One careers officer, on hearing one child’s ambition to become a journalist, told them that this would be too difficult to accomplish for someone from a provincial comprehensive, that they should look instead to a bank, or the civil service for a living.
Matt Johnson grew up in the one of the most notoriously gangster-friendly pubs in an East End of London which was also home to the Krays, with instruments from gigging bands left out downstairs for him to experiment with as a child. An unsurprising prodigy, Johnson was working in a recording studio at fifteen and released two singles before his eighteenth birthday. Inspired – obliquely – by John Lennon and Tim Buckley, his debut album Burning Blue Soul was recorded for £1,800 and presented a vastly bleak edifice assembled via dystopian tape loops and words ripped from a fragile psyche: “Monday Morning/I looked the mirror in the eyes/I think I’d kill myself/If I ever went blind”.
Built from an early template originally titled Cold Spell Ahead, Johnson – now performing as The The and boostered by the attritional championing of Soft Cell manager Stevo – decamped to New York to transform the idea into a single. With the intent of peaking the interests of rival label bosses, sessions in New York with producer Mike Thorne * yielded an almost completely new identity for it.
Thorne’s view on why the Soul Mining version of the song is so much more organic than it’s forebear differs to Johnson’s, who by this time had replaced him with Paul Hardiman. Whatever the truth, the cleaner sound and greater austerity now favoured took the singer’s feelings of unrequited love and gave them a previously hidden warmth. The impression was bolstered by a monster outro from the erstwhile Jools Holland, one which could subsequently be air pianoed by a generation of bedroom impressario.
Most of all, Uncertain Smile was a palace for dreams, a place where the four walls of dulling reality evaporated. Here thoughts could wander across cloud tops and visions born that were deemed beyond the realms of possibility for young minds being gently herded into abatoirs of the imagination. On it one person’s wall became someone else’s doorway.
* A fascinating insight into the original sessions is provided directly by Mike Thorne here