Here is the concept: I give myself two weeks to find out as much as I can about a band/writer/director. I immerse myself in their records/books/films. I pick the subject because I am curious about them, because someone recommended them or because someone said "wait, you’ve never heard of ____?" and I felt like an idiot. Then I review their work. You can decide for yourself whether or not my conclusions are valid for you.
In this edition I decided to learn all about Television Personalities (the band). I was familiar with the seminal Where’s Bill Grundy Now? EP, but have never explored further. Then at a show someone started asking me what I thought about their records. Well, I didn’t think about their records… and so here we are.
I’ll be dealing with the first four Television Personalities albums - since the later stuff had a very different lineup, and would be too much to write about for one feature. In the following paragraphs you will find a succinct biography of the band, reviews of their albums and my overall impression of the group. You will also find some recommendations for a place to start when delving into the TV Personalities discography.
Television Personalities formed in 1977, inspired by DIYband Desperate Bicycles, who pioneered the idea that everyone could record their own songs and take ownership of the product (their songs are available for download from their website. The Medium Was Tedium is required DIY listening). Of course, it only worked if your songs were actually good, or at least charming - and luckily the TV Personalities’ songs were both. The band centered around guitarist and singer Dan Treacy, with a rotating cast of assistants. For the first four records, our focus here, the primary participants were Mark Shepherd and Edward Bell. Although the band continue to this day, their golden era spanned from 1978 to the mid '80s. Treacy eventually descended into drug addiction and spent some time in prison, although he has resurfaced in the last few years and the band have begun releasing records again.
The Television Personalities set the bar high with their first two releases, 14th Floor and Where’s Bill Grundy Now?, introducing two primary themes: comedy and social critique. On 14th floor Treacy bemoans council living, where: "life’s no fun in a tower block, when you’re locked behind your door/ I think I must have had enough, of living on the 14th floor." The music is shambolic, but it doesn’t detract from the experience - it only adds to the earnest charm that Treacy exudes. His vocal style is to half-sing-half-speak the words, and on the earliest releases he does so with a thick London accent.
Where’s Bill Grundy Now? questions whatever happened to the TV host who famously provoked the Sex Pistols into swearing (and was subsequently fired). However, the song that the EP is remembered for, and the band’s signature tune, was 'Part Time Punks', a devastatingly dry slice of social observation. Treacy details the flawed thinking of many so-called punks, who claimed independence while dressing to a code and listening to whatever John Peel was playing at the time, "they walk around together, and try and look trendy, I think it’s a shame that they all look the same… here they come, the part time punks."
And Don’t The Kids Just Love It, their 1980 debut album, has the same endearing qualities as the first two singles, but with a darker tone and a greater variety of sonic style. Drawing inspiration from the literary works of the angry young men and the fay musicians favoured by John Peel in the late '60s, And Don’t The Kids Just Love It details awkward pain in 'This Angry Silence' and 'Silly Girl', while also celebrating the happier side of life on 'Jackanory Stories' and 'I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives'. Along with the broader musical palette, it appears that Treacy and friends have also learned to play their instruments, making the album more accessible for listeners less enamoured with the DIY aesthetic.
More of the same came on Mummy You’re Not Watching Me. The '60s influence has grown, moving later into the decade, sounding more like The Zombies, Sgt Pepper's and Smiley Smile than the nuggets-y sound of the first LP. Treacy penned another off-kilter classic with 'Painting By Numbers', but also found a way to express deeper sentiments on songs like 'If I Could Write Poetry', where he pines, "if I could write poetry I would write a thousand words, to tell the world that I love you." Treacy consistently finds away to say something profound in a simple way.
The move into psychedelica continues with They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles, a more sonically involved record than the first two. Fuzz and reverb are everywhere, at the expense of the shamble-pop moments that made their first two albums so distinctive. The production is murkier, and it is harder to pick out what you are hearing. This is both frustrating, as some great moments are lost in poor production, and beneficial, as repeat listening is rewarded by new discoveries. The outstanding track here is the opener 'Three Wishes', a dark number that sounds like an attack of paranoia on a rainy day.
The transition from instant gratification to impenetrable sound is completed on their fourth record The Painted Word. Hooks are harder to find, and Treacy uses the space to express his fears, concerns and flaws at length, both through his lyrics and musical palette. Of the core members, only Treacy remained, a shame as Shepherd and Bell defined the early sound with their sloppy but poppy rhythm section. Although the record continues along the path that I found favourable up to They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles, The Painted Word seems to suffer a disconnect – Treacy has travelled so far along the road he has lost the lighter moments and the insightful reflection that made the first three albums so infectious. As with many artists, it seems as though Treacy became dissatisfied with what he was best at – looking at pop through a cracked lens – and instead tried to become something he was not, in this case a singer-songwriter.
Despite this, I truly enjoyed this time spent with the music of Dan Treacy and the Television Personalities. While mimicking his favourite '60s musicians he created something inimitable, something instantly recognizable, and it is fascinating to hear their progression from proto-musicians to layered psych songcrafters. While The Painted Word is less unique, it is still a great effort, and some of the later works – particularly My Dark Places – are not without merit.
Aside from 'Part Time Punks', which you should go and listen to right now, I would recommend beginning with Mummy Your Not Watching. It has hits, but also a higher quality of musicianship and production.
In the next edition I will be reporting on The Butthole Surfers – I hope you join me there.