The The: Uncertain Smile – US – 12″ 
- Uncertain Smile [early extended version] 10:00
- Three Orange Kisses From Kazan 5:00
- Waitin’ For The Upturn 5:00
I had written briefly about this single ages ago, glossing over it on a disc of flat, raw vinyl transfers I made when it seemed to be the thing to do. “Uncertain Smile” came out as a 12″ single as produced by the great Mike Thorne, who usually never wasted our time. And in an expansive ten minute arrangement that was cut down by three minutes when Matt Johnson re-recorded the song in sessions produced by himself and Paul Hardiman for the “Soul Mining” album of the next year.
The intro to “Uncertain Smile” featured instrumentation rarely heard at the time, processed within an inch of its life. Vibraphone was right up front while doubled with delay and a heavy dose of watery reverb leaving the sound as evasive and rubbery as possible. Then Johnson’s guitar too over the melody and was soon joined by Crispin Cioe’s delicate and minimal flute stylings that I immediately loved back then and never stopped loving. The minor key arrangement on the flute just brought the images of a grey, rainy afternoon in 1967 whenever I hear such things.
The subtle synth arrangement added tonal coloration while there was plenty of space in the mix for the drum machine and guitars, along with Johnson’s vocal. Cioe also added insouciant sax here that proffered an easy, clean tone with no distortion. The weird vibes returned for another period with the sax solo until a hard edit at 5:27 brought a drop with on the the beat and sax continuing forward.
Then the beat and bass got two bars to themselves, before the vibes returned for a more ferocious workout the third time around. One aspect of this version that sadly didn’t carry over to the next recording of the song was the break where the bass line was played on the lower end of a piano con brio, for a dramatic effect. Leaving the last two minutes of the song for a coda where the main theme was restated, along with the return of the flute, sax, and vibes.
The Bo-Diddley beat that began “Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” for a measure could have gone anywhere. When it was joined by queasy melodica and kettle drums with curdled synth harmonics proffering an uneasy Moroccan nightmare of a sound then it immediately got our attention. The double picked guitar added Lebanese DNA into the mix. Then Johnson’s vocal really shook things up even further.
He was singing the disturbing lyrics doubling his vocals with his unaltered, voice on the left channel while the right channel sported a delayed rendition of the lyric, slightly pitch shifted upward to approximate an unsettling approximation of Peter Lorre between the two channels. Then Johnson shifted to a falsetto that really lurched the song into nightmare territory. There was a feverish sense of overplaying and an arrangement packed with almost too many ideas to create an overbearing sense of dread quite effectively. The uneasy listening sax and flute this time were the work of Steve Sherlock. The only thing I could compare this song to was early Residents on a track like “Constantinople.”
Sherlock also played on the final track, “Waitin’ For The Upturn,” and the mood shifted considerably to hit the mark that The the would be aiming for on their upcoming album, “Soul Mining.” Neither as psychedelic as the A-side had been, nor as nightmarish as “Kazan” was, “Waitin’ For the Upturn” managed to couch Johnson’s embittered pessimism in music that at least pointed the way to the industrial folk sound of “Soul Mining.” With the rhythm guitars offset against a hissing, thumping rhythm track, but with Sherlock adding jazzy flute and sax to the quixotic blend.
This was my entrée to the world of Matt Johnson and after a DJ I knew in college gave me this promo [he was not playing this at any weddings…] it alerted me to the tense world of Matt Johnson a.k.a. The The and I was buying all of his releases for the next five years or so. Losing the plot somewhere in the middle of the “Mind Bomb” campaign. But the “Soul Mining” and “Infected” albums were his towering imperial period, where I have basically all of it in the Record Cell to this day. It was years later when I finally latched on to his pre-CBS material, but the first two CBS era albums were what I return to the most.
Soul Mining, INfected, and Mind Bomb are a trifecta. Masterful. I do love this early version, but I prefer the re-recorded album version, with Jools’ amazing piano solo.
brynstar – I’m not sure if I would group “Mind Bomb” with the first two you cited. The bringing of Johnny Marr into the band actually turned The The into an actual band, and that album was the inflection point towards the next step in The The’s saga. Which is where is lost me, actually.
The 12 mix of Uncertain Smile is one of the great remixes of the 80s – and possibly ever. It’s opening is somehow chaotic and repetitive at the same time, like a spinning top going out of control. The melody is gentle and sweet, but there is that Matt Johnson tension that’s impossible to avoid. What Johnson created and Thorne ran with, was a remix that is more like a suite – a Post Punk Pop Suite.
I get lost in the song every time I hear it. It is the shortest 10 minutes of music I know…
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I agree,it really is one of THE great records of the 80s or any generation.
i adore Soul Mining and Burning Blue Soul but have never liked any other work by The The until a friend bought me the “See without being seen” CD with the very early basement tape stuff on it.
Gavin – I got the CD of “Burning Blue Soul” at one point over 20 years ago, but have not given it more than a single cursory play. As happens to many things. Sigh.
Am I the only one that prefers the album version with Jools Holland’s amazing piano work?
From an interview in Uncut july,2014:
Can you tell us how Jools Holland came to play his piano solo on “Uncertain Smile”?
“I think my A&R lady Annie Roseberry, might have suggested Jools. The Garden had this beautiful little Yamaha C3 Baby Grand, and the decision was, ‘We have this fantastic long outro for ‘Uncertain Smile’. We need to put this piano on something. Who do we know who can play it?’ Jools showed up, cool as a cucumber despite the sweltering heat, dressed in leathers, and he was absolutely charming. He was a lovely man, and very unassuming and friendly. He sat down and it was astonishing, I think he had one run-through, said ‘Let’s go for it’ and just laid the whole thing down. There was just one drop-in we did towards the end, and we were just amazed. He told me years later he gets asked about that more than anything he’s ever done, which probably gets on his nerves now, it’s astonishing.
For me, both versions are just wonderful. There’s just something about the original 12″ version that captures me. When listening to the album, the edit with addition of Jools makes perfect sense.
Echorich – The cocktail jazz improv of Jools was elegant, but I heard the strangeness of the Thorne version first and those “weird vibes” have a hold on me. I’m shocked that no one has mentioned the fine cover version by Pierce Turner. Matt Johnson still owns it, of course, but I did appreciate Turner’s effort.
If there was ever an artist SCREAMING for the Revo BSOG treatment, it is The The. He’s got *so many* non-album cuts that remain completely uncollected, anywhere. Tried to make a checklist for myself, and it’s depressing in its unattainable and monumental scope.
JT – “Tried to make a checklist for myself, and it’s depressing in its unattainable and monumental scope.” That says it all, really. Plus there’s the rub that I like a lot but certainly not all of The The!
Soul Mining is a favorite of mine. I hadn’t heard the original version of “Uncertain Smile, ” but now that I have, I think I prefer it over the album version. It’s not as smooth, though the piano solo is definitely great. Love them both!
As for “Three Orange Kisses”…absolutely bonkers! But very cool nonetheless.
zoo – This single was my point of entry to The The and I’ve always loved it. But you are right…”Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” was riveting in its fevered intensity. It’s long been a favorite of mine from Matt Johnson.