As The The’s classic album Infected turned 30, Banjo looks at how much, or how little, things have changed since its release.
Features on albums achieving a significant birthday can be rose-tinted reveries, where the record can once again be brought out into the light, have the dust of the passing years blown off its grooves and have its concerns and its themes reexamined through a more contemporary lens.
Think, for example, of the anniversaries of some of punk’s early charges; it is easy to look back at themes of teenage angst, being bored or feeling alienated in the same way we might look at an old photograph of ourselves; a snapshot of times passed, reconsidered in a world where our affairs and worries of old no longer touch us.
The The’s Infected, now 30 years old, suffers from no such problems. Its concerns and targets now seem startlingly prescient and are still as on point as they were on its release back in 1986.
The things that were weighing on the mind of Matt Johnson, who to all intents and purposes is The The, were Britain’s right wing government, the encroaching influence and military aggression of America, conflict in the middle East and the destructive greed of capitalism and bankers.
All of this means that Infected is a very now kind of record. This foresight obviously does not mean that Johnson has the gift of telling the future, but more that, in some areas, society doesn’t seem to have moved on very much in the last 30 years.
However, when Infected was released, it was definitely a different age. Thatcher was in Downing Street and Reagan was in the White House, with our much mentioned ‘special relationship’ exposed as meaning Britain agreeing with American foreign policy regardless of what that policy was or who it affected.
The banking crash and its subsequent chain of crises had not yet happened (although the more cynical observers may have been able to see a problematic pattern emerging) and the Islamic State was a terror yet to come. Infected caught not just the spirit of the age, but managed to draw a line from how things were to how things were going to be.
The album, despite all this, does not come across as overtly party political.
A lot of its concerns are expressed from the point of view of individual characters, such as the American fighter pilot who wonders “Should I cry like a baby or die like a man when all the planets little wars start joining hands?” or the observer who notices “The bankers getting sweaty beneath their white collars, as the pound in your pocket turn into a dollar”.
Some songs, such as Out of the Blue (Into the Fire) are involved with a much more personal politics. In the song, Johnson tells of an encounter with a prostitute and the unsettling thought processes involved in justifying his behavior.
He partially achieves this by saying that “the devil has borrowed my clothes just for tonight”, although he is still unable to align what a body wants with what a mind knows; “As I was talking, I couldn’t look her in the eyes/I just kept wondering how many men unleashed their frustration between her thighs”. The accompanying video shows the object of Johnson’s lust lull him to sleep only to steal his wallet.
For this writer, Infected has been one of those records that never fully slips into the background over the passing years. It is one that I have found myself coming back to again and again.
Its release was shortly after I first left home and moved into my first flat, and Infected became an unlikely soundtrack to my independence. It helped crystalize my political leanings and provided a generation with new language with which to discuss matters – Heartland was the first time I had heard Britain referred to as the “51st state of the USA”, but it was not to be the last.
Until its release, The The had been a pleasant enough band, known to myself mostly for the This is the Day and Uncertain Smile singles. Infected arrived fully formed and unexpected, nothing in The The’s back catalogue had prepared us for this.
Its sharp, clashing drums and almost manufactured sound made the record stand out in a time when Housemartins and REM were in the ascendency and the glossy pop of Janet Jackson and Anita Baker featured in the NME’s top albums.
Even in an era where lyrics were considered and important, where the likes of The Smiths and Billy Bragg were producing high water mark albums in terms of lyrical content, Infected stood out. Arriving when AIDS was frequently on the front pages, a title track with the lyrics “Infect me with your love” was both provocative and emotionally charged.
Over 60 musicians were brought into the studio to record Infected, which meant that The The effectively became Johnson and whoever was needed at any particular time to bring the noises in his head into reality. This also meant that touring the album was technically almost impossible.
Instead, Johnson and his manager, the infamous Stevo, who ran the Some Bizarre label, came up with an alternative means of promotion. They would record a video for each song and Johnson would take this on tour, taking the film to cinemas and TV across the world.
This of course makes Infected the first video album, despite whatever claims Beyonce may care to make about Lemonade.
Stevo somehow managed to persuade Sony to stump up £350,000 to pay for the videos, on top of the £150,000 they had already forked out for the recording of the album.
In 1986 this was a huge amount of money for a record company to spend on an artist who was not particularly well known. But the strategy worked and Infected became as well known for its incredible videos as its music.
Johnson and a team including director Tim Pope and several minders embarked on a road trip across Peru, Bolivia and New York. Stories of this process are now the stuff of legend, including filming in a working brothel, catching a voodoo ritual in New Orleans, and being involved in a stand off with a gang of crack dealers in Harlem.
Johnson method-acted his way into situations that can at best be described as perilous, to such an extent that even his minders thought better of it and left him to it.
Channel 4 had recently launched and broadcast the Infected video album in its entirety. Everyone I knew recorded it and we constantly watched our VHS copies on rented video players until they essentially wore out.
The film is still unavailable on DVD, although the canny amongst us may be able to track down a copy on laser disc that will play on some Blu Ray players.
Whether Infected will still be regarded as relevant as the years go by depends upon where we go next as a society.
It is easily apparent that recent events make a retreat from selfish, right wing politics, governments that focus on profit before people and the ever present threat of military aggression from many different sides seem unlikely. As Johnson himself sang on Heartland, “This is the land where nothing changes”.
Let’s hope that, for once, Infected‘s knack of predicting the future is wrong.