For some people — even those who didn’t live through it — one crucial cultural era or another of remains paramount, the fountainhead to which all subsequent existence must pay tribute. London singer/guitarist Daniel Treacy evidently considers the pop-art/mod ’60s all there is to life; via the Television Personalities — the eccentric, haphazard group that has lobbed his brilliant salvos of vulnerable, adenoidal, damaged genius into the pop world for three decades now — Treacy has fashioned himself the voice of a long-lost young generation. While he draws heavily on mid-’60s pop and psychedelia (to the point of covering songs by the Creation on They Could Have Been Bigger Than the Beatles and in concert), Treacy doesn’t seek to re-create a sound so much as honor a culture. A tender, detached, often wounded romantic with a mighty knowledge of his stylistic forebears, Treacy writes and sings with even more Britishness than Ray Davies. His artfully (but consciously) naïve and amateurishly played inventions are littered with cinematic and literary references (“Look Back in Anger,” “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A Good and Faithful Servant,” “Privilege”) and real-life icons (“I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives,” “David Hockney’s Diary,” “Lichtenstein Painting”).
Treacy formed the band with schoolmate Edward Ball (also the man of the Times, to which he became singly loyal in the early ’80s) and Joe Foster (later of Slaughter Joe) as a haphazard and amateurish band whose records offer no slick musicianship but loads of brilliantly adapted pop-art weirdness. They started out wide-eyed and Jonathan Richman-like but evolved into (and beyond) rambling, jagged space noise and various stripes of time-warped psychedelia.
Ball and Treacy began casually, recording singles together as the Television Personalities, O Level and Teenage Filmstars; Foster contributed to the vinyl mini-deluge as the Missing Scientists. Showing a healthy awareness for 1978’s here-and-now, they released Where’s Bill Grundy Now?, a 7-inch EP also known (and later reissued) as Part Time Punks, after another of its four songs.
As wonderful as they are slapdash, the TVPs’ early records are magical to those with the patience for them. The TVPs (at the time Treacy, Ball and drummer Mark Sheppard) made their longplaying debut with And Don’t the Kids Just Love It, an altogether charming and guileless version of Carnaby Street pop (the period cover pictures John Steed of The Avengers and Twiggy) given a modern neurotic outlook. From a Kinksish tale of boyish admiration (“Geoffrey Ingram”) to the lyrically acute “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives,” simply and softly played guitars, bass and drums support coy vocals sung in Treacy’s adenoidal accent. Haunting melodies and abundant wit make the record bizarre but wonderful, far more eccentric and original than the solemn neo-mod rehashers of the same era.
Ball and Treacy then formed the Whaam! label, later renamed Dreamworld after George Michael’s people took an interest. In between Times sessions (which generally included Treacy), the TVPs moved from succinct pop art and flower power to trippy psychedelia on Mummy Your Not Watching Me, a mixture of keyboards and low-budget studio effects. Although some of the songs follow the first album’s art-school template (“Painting by Numbers” and “Lichtenstein Painting”), others meander through mild mind expansion, in homage to Barrett and other acid-rockers. The standout in this vein is “David Hockney’s Diaries,” which also demonstrates the problems inherent in adorableness trying to be spacey. The shoebox production removes any grandiosity that may have been intended, and what’s left sounds mixed up and silly. If it weren’t for the redeeming pop tunes, Mummy would have been a real disappointment.
Released concurrently with the announcement of the band’s dissolution (actually, Ball and Treacy merely parted ways for a while; the TVPs continued apace), They Could Have Been Bigger Than the Beatles includes reprises of previously recorded songs as well as a pair of prime numbers — “Painter Man” and “Making Time” — by the ’60s ultra-mod Creation, which receive affectionate and respectful (if incompetent) treatment. The album offers sixteen tracks of should-have-been-good nostalgic art-rock, but sacrifices a lot of charm with an overly heavy guitar sound. Best cut: “The Boy in the Paisley Shirt.”
The Painted Word lists a four-man lineup and actually features a group photo (albeit a dark, fuzzy one) on the front cover. Musically, the TVPs have drifted off into spare, droning psychedelia and ultra-restrained rock that’s hauntingly beautiful, like the most delicate moments of the Velvet Underground. While less resonantly topical than before (save for “Back to Vietnam”), the all-original songs effectively convey a melancholic sense of futility, even when superficially addressing relatively jolly topics. Highlighted by “Stop and Smell the Roses” and the heartbreaking romantic yearning of “Someone to Share My Life With,” The Painted Word is surprisingly serious and altogether excellent.
Chocolat-Art (sarcastically subtitled “A Special Tribute to James Last”) was recorded live as a trio in Germany (1984), and features simple but effective performances of such TVP classics as “Silly Girl,” “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” (appending “I know where Paul Weller lives — ’cause he’s a hippie, too”) and the stupendous “Look Back in Anger.” The band’s is woefully out of tune for much of the record, but you know they mean well. The 1993 CD edition appends a jaw-dropping medley of 22 far-flung cover fragments.
For a superb primer to the TVPs’ pioneering days — including such pivotal new wave-era singles as “14th Floor,” “Part Time Punks” and “Wheres Bill Grundy Now?” and running into the mid-’80s — Yes Darling, but Is It Art? could hardly be bettered. The generously detailed and indispensable rarities compilation is the ideal accessory for fans of the band’s albums who are unprepared to hunt down a cornucopia of obscure 45s, EPs and sampler contributions. For further historical background, Paisley Shirts & Mini Skirts documents the group’s nominal live unveiling (May 1980, on a bill with This Heat and Essential Logic) with muffled sound, lengthy tuning misadventures, a catty dedication of “Part Time Punks” to the Monochrome Set and several songs otherwise lost to posterity.
Privilege was recorded as a trio with ex-Swell Maps bassist/singer Jowe Head and drummer Jeffrey Bloom (the same lineup as appears on Chocolat Art and Camping in France, a rough but charming live album recorded in 1985; don’t miss the Jesus and Mary Chain tribute). Sounding in spots very much like Pete Shelley (especially on “Sometimes I Think You Know Me Better Than I Know Myself”), Treacy is a bad-mood guy here (witness “All My Dreams Are Dead,” “This Time There’s No Happy Ending” and “Sad Mona Lisa”), but he does brighten long enough for the pop-art happening of “Salvador Dali’s Garden Party” (which lists all the posh celebrities in attendance). Privilege dresses Treacy’s characteristically direct songs with just the right amount of keyboards, and his voice is as boyishly engaging as ever.
Continuing onward and upward with the same rhythm section and guest players adding violin, sax and percussion to the bright arrangements, the nineteen-song Closer to God is miles better and certainly the most accessible and easily appealing TVPs LP. For all the magical music he’s churning out, however, Treacy himself doesn’t seem to be doing very well. The album presents a jumble of neuroses and threats of emotional collapse, barely buoyed by fits of hope and declarations of love (“Little Works of Art,” “Honey for the Bears,” “This Heart’s Not Made of Stone,” “Coming Home Soon”). Though wrapped in cute and cuddly pop swaddling, songs refer to scars, doubts, depression, needle marks, razorblades, wrists, the inability to cope and exotic pharmaceuticals. “My Very First Nervous Breakdown” isn’t quite as flip as he makes it out to be, and “Very Dark Today” is a frightening emotional weather report. But as Treacy is quick to point out, “It’s not a shame / It’s not a hard luck story…Don’t cry for me,” and the tunefulness elevates the record, if not the artist, from the trough — real or imagined — from which he’s singing. And while the dramatic title track (“the ballad of a Catholic boy”) recalls parochial school with bitterness, it ultimately concludes the album with a seemingly upbeat message: “Just when I thought I’d lost my way / I’m feeling closer now / Closer to God.”
The TVPs didn’t release more than some 45s over the next few years. How I Learned to Love the Bomb is a reissue of five single sides from 1986; The Prettiest Girl in the World gathers four rare tracks from 1987. Not Like Everybody Else contains four amusing covers of songs by the Kinks, Joe Meek and others. (“Whatever Gets You Through the Night”???) That Treacy is unaccompanied on Far Away & Lost in Joy, a quartet of boxy-sounding new songs, may help explain the reduction in output, but then so should the disheartened tone of material like “I Don’t Want to Live This Life,” “Do You Know What They’re Saying About Me Now?” and the sardonic title track. Continuing to use the TVP name for solo work, Treacy made Do You Think If You Were Beautiful You’d Be Happy?, another four-track EP, for the same label; though better recorded and the first to showcase his somber skills on piano, it’s equally downcast, leaving things off with the loud, minor-key hurt of “I Suppose You Think It’s Funny.”
Treacy plunges into far deeper personality waters on I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod, as if Closer to God had been a jolly diving board on which he’d been dancing with his eyes closed. He calls himself “a danger to myself” in “A Stranger to Myself,” and that’s not the worst of it. The title track of this nearly unaccompanied (save for producer Liam Watson’s drumming) album is delightful in its old-fashioned culture mongering, but otherwise the landscape is as bleak as a Siberian winter. Suffering through such anxieties as “I Can See My Whole World Crashing Down,” “Haunted,” the self-loathing of “Things Have Changed Since I Was a Girl,” the rugged childhood damage of “Everything She Touches Turns to Gold,” the desperately, creepily personal “Evan Doesn’t Ring Me Anymore” and the groveling, nearly suicidal apologies of “A Long Time Gone,” he holds music — here, a strange patchwork of hasty-sounding stylistic innovations (piano, vibes, organ, a soul feel on one song) and more familiar moves — up as a protective shield with gaping holes. For all of Treacy’s artistic assets — his singing, melodies and lyrical acumen remain as strong as ever — even devoted fans may find it impossible to genuinely enjoy listening to such harrowing and heartbreaking expressions of loneliness and misery. Suffering for art is one thing, but this is tragic.
After parting company with Treacy, stouthearted multi-instrumentalist and sonorous vocalist Jowe Head resumed the intermittent low-budget solo career he began when Swell Maps ended. Unhinged repeats the entire contents of Personal Organiser, a casual and wildly eclectic 1989 German release, adding four leftovers from those sessions (including the massed “Crab Chorus,” the speed-drumming goth-trombone noise of “Marzipan” and the Bonzo Dog Band-styled rendition of “Istanbul,” the oldie covered to snappier effect by They Might Be Giants) and seven equally unpredictable-sounding live tracks, the oddest of which is the Fall-styling “Tarbabies.” Four of the same songs make up Jowe Head’s Legendary EP.
For Treacy’s sake, it’s encouraging to hear him reunited with Jowe on Top Gear, a long, sloppy and poignant live album (the band’s fourth official concert LP; the same tour also produced the fifth, Made in Japan) cleanly recorded in Osaka in April 1994 (although the sleeve incorrectly indicates 1995). With drummer Lenny Helsing on loan from the Thanes, the TVPs very nearly outnumber the “crowd”: the smattering of polite applause suggests an audience of perhaps a half-dozen. Nonetheless, a composed and confident Treacy still wields his music like a flashlight, pouring his heart and his not-quite tuned guitar into the career retrospective with a lot more evident meaning than the audience could possibly appreciate. Each of the eighteen songs is a reminder of the thin line between his art and life. He barely gets through “All My Dreams Are Dead” and makes the tenderness of “If I Could Write Poetry” and “Little Works of Art” and the confessions of “This Heart’s Not Made of Stone” achingly real. The jollier songs (like “Magnificent Dreams,” “I Hope You Have a Nice Day” and “Picture of Dorian Gray”) buoy the mood; the emotional scorecard winds up about level. Not at all for neophytes, but a must for fans.