Subculture Unsung: Dan Treacy

One of the great British songwriters

Tuesday 6th November 2018

Photograph by Mark Flunder

Those that know of him will tell you Dan Treacy is one of the great British songwriters. A revered, elusive and troubled genius who was the singer/songwriter and frontman for Television Personalities. Progenitors of post-punk and indie, Television Personalities influence cannot be understated, even if you are not directly aware of their music you would have no doubt come across a record that is in some way, shape or form beholden to Dan Treacy and TVPs.

Formed in 1977, TVPs were active during the rise and reign of punk in London. But Treacy viewed punk objectively, from a London tower block on Kings Road, through a kaleidoscope. Taking influence from punk's DIY ethic they self-released their debut single '14th Floor' and their debut EP 'Where’s Bill Grundy Now?' both of which were picked up by ultimate tastemaker John Peel.

The band at this point hadn’t settled on a name, they were currently going by Teen ’78, and had taken to handwriting actual TV personalities like Bruce Forsythe on the records sleeves as the personnel, which led Peel to introduce them as “London’s Television Personalities” on his BBC radio show. The name stuck.

The success of these early releases meant that record labels came knocking and they soon signed to Rough Trade. Then in 1981, they released their debut album 'And Don't The Kids Just Love It'.

“...I was instantly hooked and massively inspired by his beautifully obscure pop songs on ‘...And Don’t the Kids Just Love It”

More polished than their early self-released recordings 'And Don't The Kids Just Love It' was filled with Treacy's trademark British wit and whimsy, and a plethora of 1960s pop-cultural references. Even the cover art featured a Terry O'Neill photo of Twiggy and Patrick Macnee (who played John Steed in the cult TV show The Avengers).

'And Don't The Kids Just Love It' featured the single 'I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives' an affectionate ode to the former Pink Floyd frontman. Treacy has stated in previous interviews that Syd knows the song and likes it, but he preferred the B-side 'Arthur The Gardener'. A story you will often hear recounted is how in 1984 the TVPs were invited to support David Gilmour at the Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo) in London, and Dan read out Syd's actual Cambridge address on stage during the song. Needless to say, they weren't invited to support on any more dates on that tour, although Treacy maintains that Gilmour was polite about the whole situation.

Photograph by Mark Flunder

During the early ‘80s the TVPs released 3 more albums. ‘Mummy Your Not Watching Me’ and ‘They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles’ were both released in 1982 on Whaam! Records and ‘The Painted Word’ in 1984 (18 months later than planned) on Illuminated Records.

Whaam! Records was a label set up Dan Treacy and Ed Ball, and true to form it was named after the 1963 Roy Lichtenstein pop art painting. Although this didn’t stop them running into legal issues with George Michael leading the label to close in 1984 - Treacy then set up Dreamworld Records as a successor which ran between 1985-88.

“Daniel Treacy of the TV Personalities ...has written so many of my favourite songs.”
- Alan McGee

Alan McGee has always been vocal about how seeing Dan set up and run Whaam! Records, putting out his own music and music he liked is what inspired him to start Creation Records.

Tracks from Creation and Dreamworlds (among others) were licensed for the infamous C86 tape which is considered by many as a watershed moment for British Independent music, and TVPs influence is all over it. It is here where you start to see Dan Treacy's echo rippling out across the musical landscape.

Their legacy stretched across the Atlantic too, with bands like Pavement, The Lemonheads and Nirvana taking note. Kurt Cobain famously sought out Treacy to come and open for Nirvana when they played the Astoria, London in 1991.

Photograph by Mark Flunder

Treacy’s songwriting continued to evolve in the latter half of the '80s and into the '90s, progressing the TVPs style and sound which first began on ‘The Painted Word’. His unique snapshots of British life, love and popular culture took on a bleaker tone, becoming more personal and confessional in nature. Seemingly more fragile and introspective and audibly more austere and less quaint or twee.

By the time of recording 1995’s ‘I Was A Mod Before You Was A Mod’ the TVPs had essentially become a solo project due to the high turnover of band members and global tours over the previous decade.

Recordings from these sessions would also make up subsequent single releases and the 1998 album 'Don't Cry Baby... It's Only A Movie' as in the latter part of the ‘90s, Dan dropped off the radar for the better part of a decade. During this time there were many differing reports regarding his whereabouts, from self-imposed exile to mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, incarceration and ashamedly, even death. It all helped to fuel the mystery surrounding Dan and his ever-growing cult status.

Photograph by Mark Flunder

If you wanted to chart the evolution of the great British songwriter with Ray Davies and Syd Barrett at one end and Pete Doherty and Alex Turner at the other, Dan Treacy would be the missing link, not just sitting equidistant between the two in time but also stylistically.

In fact, Dan was bizarrely accused of being the secret ghostwriter behind the Arctic Monkeys' early outputs. While not wanting to lend credence to the accusations the angle is understandable. Turner’s writing style was (and is) certainly inspired by and reminiscent of Treacy’s. Both have a penchant for evoking beauty when musing on the mundane and every day. Both have a distinctly British style of social commentary with a leaning towards the sardonic, humorous and the occasional bout of self-deprecation. Not just in their lyrics but in their record titles as well.

Pete Doherty is another heavily inspired by Treacy’s style and even adopted a not too dissimilar Cockney-falsetto. Doherty via his musical output amassed his own partisan army and inspired a countless number of bands and artists.

Treacy’s health and personal issues had mirrored the now contemporary Doherty, albeit far less publicly, an irony not lost on Treacy when he penned a letter to a friend detailing why he wanted to start making music again.

Dan re-emerged in the mid-‘00s having written lots of new songs - despite having not owned any musical equipment for years. He’d been missing the music and wanted to do a new TVPs album and in 2006 'My Dark Places' was released through Domino Records.

Two more albums followed ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ in 2007 and ‘A Memory Is Better Than Nothing’ in 2010 before illness struck again in 2011 after Dan had to have emergency surgery to remove a clot from his brain. Updates were provided by his family, and his recovery exceeded initial expectations set by doctors.

2018 saw the release of ‘Beautiful Despair’ a lost album recorded in 1990. Some of the songs were re-worked and re-recorded and ended up on 1992’s ‘Closer To God’. One of the unheard songs, ‘If You Fly Too High’ name-drops Alan McGee and is based on their time spent with Evan Dando of The Lemonheads in Berlin in ’89 when the Berlin Wall was being torn down.

In 2016 it was reported that Dan Treacy was recovering in a nursing home, surrounded by family and friends, with ambitions to make music again.

The 100 Club will host a Dan Treacy Benefit on 8th November 2018. Featuring members of the Television Personalities with loads of special guests, including Evan Dando of The Lemonheads and a DJ set from Alan McGee. More information and tickets for the event can be found here.

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