Why They Should Be Compulsory Listening
Just as Shakespeare Is Compulsory For Budding Eggheads
by Kieran Curran
"Have a nice cup of tea and we'll all stay calm,
And we'll come to no harm
In our nice warm underground shelters
There'll be helter skelter
There'll be babies dying, you'll hear their mothers crying
I've seen the devil smiling, I've seen the devil smiling
Try to find a sense of belonging
A sense of belonging..."
Television Personaities, "A Sense Of Belonging"
In the late 1970's, a young man named Dan Treacy, born and raised on the BBC, British New Wave cinema and a society gradually, achingly dropping the cultural values which characterised it for decades at least. Art becoming more modern, politics more blatantly corrupt, populism brings good (e.g. greater access to higher education) and bad (increased Corbusier inspired tower blocks, urban sprawl with a gardener's eye for building). There was also a mood of indifference and cynicism. He recorded a single which took the piss out of the very movement which was held up as the musical expression of this decline, nihilism captured via the Sex Pistols. Incidentally, their name - The Television Personalities - was one of the things which they knew a pop band had to be, and probably knew they never would be. The Pistols and The Beatles, on the other hand, had it down.
Fast forward (as one does) to the noughtie's. Television Personalities have launched a comeback. Mahar Shalal Hash Baz, supporting Treacy's lot tonight, have a faint hint of the TVPs (from here on in) about them. They mix melodic folky melodies with experimentation and sloppiness- lo fidelity with notions. In contrast, the TVPs are an odd group of journeymen on the reuinion circuit, scarred by personal woes and legal trouble, all carved into the core of the band's latest album My Dark Places, out on Domino. As this album is uncomfortable, so is the gig. There is something of the genius of his early material here, but he negates it by (even more than usual) sloppy playing. Treacy is nervous, anxious and the band can't really see him through- he just gives up and plays it for (his own) laughs. Almost-played becomes intentionally-botched; the divided crowd, some too uninterested to care, some stay and hope, others wander away to the bar for more booze to make the affair more bearable. There are some who wonder who the fuck this Treacy guy is, this be-hatted beligerant man, dressed up in Primark's latest.
Yet this guy is the founder of a certain kind of British music. Not-so-innocent innocent music like this had its American equivalent for a few years by this point- Jonathan Richman fermented the idea in Massachusetts in '71. The nucleus of the TVPs from the late 1970's days of collaborating with his co-conspirator and bedroom psychedelic guitar hero Ed Ball, Treacy still heads up the group who, in their current incarnation, are still gigging- recent engagements include supporting a Pete Doherty acoustic show. It's ironic considering the fact that from "Part Time Punks" on, the band have summed up a certain anti-scenester ethos.
Their influence is ongoing. Countless new bands name-check them without much evidence of any of the appeal that the TVPs have. Comic book writing bedroom folkie Jeffrey Lewis has a mean cover of "Part Time Punks" recorded. The "tweecore" of Los Campesinos! updates aspects of the TVPs and adds a modern gloss, but for me they just don't have the edge and the authenticity, the rawness of Tracey's voice and wit in contrast to the seeming smugness of their 2008 spawn.
Here's a sketch of some... "This Angry Silence" off their first album (...And Don't The Kids Just Love It from '81) is a cry from the ordinary life of Treacy. "Spend all my days, writing silly poetry, all for the girl I love, but she doesn't love me." Alienation of a different kind is evident on "14th Floor"- "I've lived here for seven years now, but I don't know anyone, I think the bloke next door is a Jamaican, but he could be an Irishman... life's no fun in a tower block." "Where's Bill Grundy Now?" is an elegy for the "dirty fucker" (the words of the peon poet Steve Jones) of Granada TV who's career as a pop broadcaster ended after he drunkenly bantered with the Sex Pistols. "Part Time Punks" takes the piss out the punk scenesters who elevated Sid Vicious to an icon for no reason other than posturing. "I think it's a shame, that they all look the same." "Arthur The Gardener" is an incredibly twee tune with incredibly small vocals which has an undercurrent of menace, paedophilia maybe? "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives" is dedicated to the reclusive pioneer of English psychedelia (when Pink Floyd were good), which envisages his life as something routinely banal as opposed to a mental health nightmare, was perhaps closer to the truth than some might have acknowledged.
There was always a naivety about Treacy's music that always veered into darkness, the weakness of his voice having another side. He goes against romance. There is much unabashed beautiful noise in the TVPs music. The scratchy guitar, the psychedelia- The Who combined with Syd Barrett. The confused mod that Nik Cohn wrote about. The character that Pete Townshend used as the protagonist of most of his best work made flesh is Treacy. Mod and psychedelia are combined- the latter's whimsy and open state of mind combined with the former's roughness, tension and tightness of structure. Neurotic, pissed off and inarticulate, it is a curious combination of two very distinct English sounds.
One of their greatest early songs is "Geoffrey Ingram"- its appeal is stupendous. It combines the best of the TVPs- lo fi but clean, genius pop melody in its simplicity and lyrics which wittily reference their own specific cultural history. The titular Geoffrey is a character from Shelagh Delaney's kitchen sink classic A Taste Of Honey, yet this Geoffrey is a totally redrawn character. As opposed to the camp, effeminate surrogate mother role that Delaney's Geoffrey is, Treacy's recreation is a carousing ladie's man who, with a geezer-like charm, can do no wrong. "All the kids admire him, Geoffrey is the face, Geoffrey is the kind of guy, who always gets away with that sort of thing..." There is sweetness in the tune which is so offensively, blatantly melodic (and the way that the lead guitar line gives you a preview of the vocal melody) that it's almost punk. The lyrics take the piss out of the poseur, the cool scenester, just as "Park Time Punks" ridiculed the dilletante. Yet there's another layer to it. In taking a fey character and transforming him into a star of his own backyard like Treacy does, he's acting out a fantasy. In A Taste Of Honey, Ingram is downtrodden, subject to abuse from most, a misfit. Now, he is some kind of whimsical King Mod.
And the way he sings "Geoff-a-rey..." His voice sounds as if it's put on, as if it's on the side of much more twee music which comes later on. It sums up the best of this maligned genre; the fact that realness and satire aren't mutually exclusive. There is a definite ingenuousness in Tracey's sound which is his alone- a beautiful rawness. They're ordinary boy vocals, extraordinarily normal- like Alison Statton's for Young Marble Giants, they should be boring or banal, but bizarrely, they extend into the fantastic.
Similarly, there is something more obviously fantastic about like-minded contemporaries like the Swell Maps. Jowe Head, their original bassist, became a long-standing Treacy collaborator. The surreal sense of humour and of the absurd, a feel for great song titles, following a very un-trendy vision... Affecianados of C86 and beyond are often TVPs fans, and this will probably turn off some- for better or worse, self satisfied types like The Soup Dragons were attempting to take a leaf out of their book. There is something very irritating about such-watered down pastiches of authentically good music- the same way that Fujiya and Miyagi present an oh-so-knowing rehash of Krautrock for the benefit of modern production junkies.
As an aside... Presaging the nostalgia of the quintessential indie band The Smiths, TVPs sleeves paid homage to the Avengers, the Velvet Underground (the White Light/White Heat era lovingly pastiched on the cover of the '84 album The Painted Word) and carved out a personal history of pop culture fandom, though never as focused as Morrissey's designs, it has to be said.
He has had his share of troubles- the tension between naivity and cynicism, wide eyed sentimentality and a depressive streak leading to drugs, alcohol, and jail. The usual stories. But the music is still vital. It is not merely a historic artifact but has meanings which linger on. "She Can Stop Traffic" is a gloriously simple song off their last album, the cathartic comeback of 2006's My Dark Places. It's even more straight up lyrically that their earlier stuff, as if in light of more personal difficulties and strife, only pop music can save Traecy. It's a beautiful song, and the high point of the LP. Forget about the shambles.
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