review of The Television Personalities’ “…And Don’t the Kids Just Love It”

originally published at 10Listens.com as part of the “Classic & Unappreciated” albums series

SPIN: Who would you say were the ultimate punk band?

Joe Strummer: The Television Personalities.

SPIN: Really?

Joe Strummer: Well, they’re second place.  First place are The Ramones.  They’re the daddy punk rock group of all time.  The Television Personalities, they’re slightly obscure, but they brought a severe sense of intelligence to it, just at a time when punk needed the piss taken out of it.
– from SPIN’s “25 Years of Punk” Issue, May 2001

If you really wanted to, you could certainly classify The Television Personalities’ …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It as a punk rock record.  Most of its songs are short, catchy, energetic, ramshackle, and irreverent.  Yet TVPs frontman Dan Treacy probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a prototypical punk.  He seems like he wouldn’t last 3 minutes at a late-70s Sex Pistols show before there was nothing left of him but a tattered sweater and a red stain on the floor.  It’s not simply because he’s the kind of lad who’d sing about spending his days writing silly poems for a girl who doesn’t love him back.  The Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, for instance, sang about hopeless romanticism, but his voice had an edge that suggested he could still hold his own amid a horde of slam-dancing hooligans.  Dan Treacy, on the other hand, frequently sounds like a younger, wimpier version of the chap from Wallace & Gromit.  And his guitars sound not like methamphetamines and barbed wire, but like shattered dreams and reluctantly obedient schoolchildren.

But despite his feeble demeanor, his songs often were, as Joe Strummer said, intelligent and piss-taking.  While I can easily imagine Treacy trampled to a bloody pulp by a crowd of angry punks, I can also imagine he’d unleash some pretty sharp bon mots even as he was getting his teeth kicked in.  Probably some jibes about his assailants being phony part-time punks with trendy emotional complexes, followed by a lament so depressing it’s hilarious.  (”Just like life, there’s a good beginning/ but there is no middle/ so you might as well skip to the end.”)

Of course, neither Treacy’s on-record persona nor the other characters he sings about would spend much time at a punk rock club anyway.  …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It is populated almost exclusively by tragically lonely souls.  The boy who narrates “This Angry Silence” is “scared to go out at night, it’s not safe on the streets;” instead he stays home and listens to his fed-up dad shout at his gin-soaked mum.  The title character in “World Of Pauline Lewis” spends every night alone in her room, until her escapist fantasies are no longer enough to pull her out of the abyss.  A couple of other melancholy girls simply vanish without warning, like in Haruki Murakami novels.  Mrs. Brown’s husband just died, Mrs. Davies’ kids were taken into custody, Jenny’s baby-daddy skipped town.  A young man picks up his diary, then realizes he has nothing to say.

Yeah, pretty much all these stories are brutally sad.  Only 3 of the album’s tracks actually sound brutally sad, however (”A Family Affair,” “Diary Of A Young Man,” and the instrumental “The Crying Room”).  One of the neatest tricks this album plays is how it disguises so much of that grey British gloom beneath Ed Ball’s propulsive bass, Mark Sheppard’s invigorating drum fills, and Treacy’s jaunty melodies.  Maybe this is the “intelligence” Strummer referred to; obviously, the first wave of British punks boasted its fair share of furious intellects, but making fury sound like fun is not all that difficult.  Making despair sound like fun (without constantly resorting to irony) is a tad harder.  Note how AllMusic’s review describes “World Of Pauline Lewis” as one of the “peppier songs” that lighten the album’s mood- a description that either overlooks or simply ignores the fact that it’s a song about a girl who commits suicide.  Not that I’m casting aspersions- the first dozen or so times I listened to it, I was so caught up in the triumphant feel of its anthemic chorus that I too missed the line about how “Pauline died alone/ they found her slumped on her bed.”

Even the songs whose lyrics aren’t so sad seem to acquire a sort of contact bummer, a sorrow by association.  “Geoffrey Ingram” tells of a charmed guy who “always gets home as it starts to rain,” a guy who can talk his way onto the guest list of a sold-out Jam concert.  In the context of the rest of the album, though, this track isn’t simply a lighthearted ditty about a happy-go-lucky chum.  The more I hear …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It, the more “Geoffrey Ingram” sounds like the sigh of a sidekick who wishes he could get away with those sorts of things for once in his life.  Similarly, the underachieving office boy in “The Glittering Prizes” sings, “Pretty soon I’m gonna change…you won’t recognize me,” and at first it sounds like a self-motivational mantra that just might come true.  The driving bass and spirited drums seem to second the motion.  But with each spin, that refrain takes on more of a shrugging resignation.  As in, pretty soon you won’t recognize me…’cause I’ll either be a soulless sell-out in a 3- piece suit spending my weekends at lame engagement parties, or the world will have cracked me like an eggshell.

Perhaps the most painful part about listening to …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It is knowing that eventually, the world actually did crack the real Dan Treacy.  After their full-length debut album, The TVPs kept on making more records, merely to become one of those cult acts that earn far more money and prestige for the bands they influence than for themselves.  Treacy succumbed to drug abuse, which led to health problems and criminal activity, which led to a lengthy sentence aboard a prison ship.  Since his June 2004 release, he seems to have taped his broken shell back together and maintained his good-humored spirit.  He’s even released a few more TVPs records.  But it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s been some serious damage done.  These days when I go back and hear Treacy sing, “I know where Syd Barrett lives,” I get the sense that he wasn’t literally talking about the ex-Pink Floyd leader’s little hut in Cambridge.  He was more likely talking about the fragile man-child’s drug-tainted state of mind.

Yet in spite of all that baggage, I keep returning to …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It.  Not just because it’s such a splendid, fascinating, rollicking, poignant, strongly-realized record.  And not just because it’s a unique and very personal anomaly among its late 70s/early 80s punk rock brethren.  It’s also because while I want to think I relate more to the righteous rage of the Johnny Rottens and the Joe Strummers, deep down I think I know that I, and most of us for that matter, are never all that far removed from the World of Dan Treacy.  Most classic punk albums leave me feeling I wanna riot or I wanna be anarchy or I wanna be sedated. This one leaves me feeling There but for the grace of God…

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