The title of the third album by U.K. post-punkers Television Personalities was an attempt by band leader Dan Treacy to make light of his band’s failing commercial prospects: They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles.
In the minds of such supporters as Creation Records majordomo Alan McGee or the members of MGMT (who recorded the tribute “Song For Dan Treacy” on their 2010 release Congratulations), that notion may ring true. But anyone who sets foot into the mercurial musical world of Treacy and his revolving door of co-conspirators can see that, for all the wonderful work they did, any thoughts of chart success are fleeting and fatuous.
Few artists that oozed out of the volcanic eruption of punk in England swam against the flow as much as Treacy and TVP did. Their first EP Where’s Bill Grundy Now? poked at the tastefully torn holes of this artistic movement, naming it after the television presenter who helped the Sex Pistols achieve overnight infamy and leading it off with “Part Time Punks,” which mocked bridge and tunnel sycophants (“They come down for the day…and try to look trendy/I think it’s a shame/they all look the same”). The music, itself, mocked the polished drive of Never Mind The Bollocks… through wobbly tempos and pitiable attempts at group vocals.
Ramshackle as it all sounded, there was still an undeniable energy and charm to it, primarily by way of Treacy’s unpretentious squeak of a voice. When he directed his lyrical output towards less snarky concerns, his work could be winsome and lovely. He filled his songs with references to books, films and art from the ‘60s that impacted him as a young person. And his view of the past, even when skewed by his fragile mental state was often romanticized and sweet.
There was, at least, a sense of hopefulness when the TVP moved into making albums. Their first full-length ...And Don’t the Kids Just Love It (released in 1981) conveys warm sentiments like the fantasy of “Sunday tea, sausage and beans” with Syd Barrett and the self-acceptance of “The Glittering Prizes” over fitful drum rumbles and scraggy guitars that just barely stay in tune. In these early days, Treacy could maintain what felt like a healthy balance by countering those moments of clarity with the blurrier “World of Pauline Lewis,” which takes us into the lonely, fantasy-driven existence of a teenage girl, or “La Grande Illusion” of a perpetually teary-eyed young woman prone to picking the wrong mate. The clouds of these songs are at least fought back against through the shabby yet sunny jangle pop that accompanies them.
With some financial wind in his sails through record sales and some touring through Europe, Treacy attacked the music world with gusto. He and his then-bandmate Edward Ball started the label Whaam! Records, through which they issued side projects and the works of other equally shambolic and sweet groups like Marine Girls and The Pastels. And, in 1982, they boldly released two new TVP albums: Mummy Your Not Watching Me and the aforementioned They Could Have Been…. Both feature more complex arrangements and a slightly cleaner sound, with the former finding Treacy daring to include some more effects on his guitar and to his vocals. Otherwise, the brilliant Mummy is in a similar vein to the band’s first LP: blushing love songs (“Lichtenstein Painting,” “Magnificent Dreams”) snuggled up against fantasy scenes (“David Hockney’s Diaries”) and despairing pop (the unsettling title track).
They Could Have Been…, their other release of ‘82 was still great, but felt a tad cobbled together with its two covers of The Creation and re-recorded versions of earlier material. Why it still remains important is how several of the new songs on it prepare you for the impact of their 1983 follow up The Painted Word. The closing songs are heartbreaking with Treacy explaining to his doctor that he’s been too depressed to paint or make music, begging for “little blue pills/like you gave me when I was ill” on “Anxiety Break” and lamenting the end of a relationship “with a bottle of wine/and a handful of pills” in “Mysterious Ways.”
Treacy is just as unblinking about his dark emotions throughout The Painted Word. On “Bright Sunny Smiles,” Treacy wishes his bandmates and friends (he name checks the members of Marine Girls) could get back to the carefree spirit of their youth as the music plods and pings along and he laments the fate of his romantic life. If he wasn’t clear enough about his poor mental state, he closes the album with a devastating ballad about a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. And there’s almost no reprieve from his words in the music. Outside of the chirpy spirit that takes over “A Sense Of Belonging,” the tone of the album is akin to Big Star’s Third: the emanations of a hollow soul and broken heart via fractured early drum machines, ironically swingin’ keyboard choices and a droning VU-inspired fog.
The forbidding mood of these four album is likely to blame for why they’ve been in and out of print so frequently in the years since they were originally issued. The current Fire Records versions (first unveiled on Record Store Day this year) are the third instance that the label has brought them back into circulation. These aren’t albums you can just throw on to fit any situation. You need to be in the right mindset for the clatter and gloom that marks so much of TVPs best material. But anyone who gives Treacy and his work their attention will be rewarded with some of the most thoughtful and honest music to come out of the post-punk movement.