The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


The Television Personalities
A Memory Is Better Than Nothing Ben Graham , June 17th, 2010 05:48

It's tempting to take this album's title as a confession that, these days, the TVPs are but a faded reminder of their former selves, trading on their audiences' fond recollections of their long-gone glory days. Certainly, conventional wisdom would have it that songwriter, frontman and sole original member Dan Treacy is now largely a spent force; an eccentric former genius, irrevocably damaged by drugs, bitterness, mental illness and years of near-destitution, stumbling drunkenly through an embarrassing parade of shambolic live appearances, shows and no-shows.

And yet, for every hideous trainwreck of a gig, there are still moments of spontaneous brilliance and a delicious sense of danger that- perhaps- is a deliberate result of the chaos and the tensions on stage. It's almost as though Treacy keeps things volatile and constantly close to falling apart on purpose, using drunkenness or unpredictable behaviour as a goad and a corrective to comfortable familiarity- the answer to the question, how do you maintain a punk band whose strengths lay in their very amateurishness, fragility and lack of technical ability, after over 30 years in the game? How do you avoid becoming too slick, going through the motions, inserting horrible flashy solos? How, after doing it for so long, do you stop yourself accidentally learning how to play?

Like Mark E Smith and Billy Childish - his closest peers - Treacy has constantly changed the line-up of his backing band, keeping things fresh and uncertain while following the same single-minded musical path. Like those other two keepers of the punk flame, his music remains defiantly at odds with popular notions of what 'punk' is meant to be, and like them he's developed a not-unwarranted reputation for being difficult to work with, cantankerous and unreliable, a mercurial talent who never compromised his vision for commercial success or critical accolades. Like them, Treacy has been accused of deliberately sabotaging his career. Yet the fact remains: A Memory Is Better Than Nothing is as good a record as any The Television Personalities have ever made- better, perhaps, for having the weight of bitter experience, suffering and disappointment behind it, a lifetime of struggle audible in every cracked and slurred note of Treacy's voice.

It's worth remembering too, that "onwards and upwards" has never been a particularly TVPs-friendly concept; that ever since their first single, back in punk's year zero of 1976, the band's aesthetic has always been about looking back, in anger, regret, but also with a sense of longing. The past is where the primal hurt is, the trauma to be relived, over and over- but it's also the land of missed opportunities, of potential never fulfilled, of innocence lost and hope squandered. Typically, Treacy has characterised this lost golden age in terms of the pop art ephemera of a 1960s childhood, a happiness he's cut off from by some random act of cruelty and brutality, yet from which he's unable to move on, doomed to be forever jumping up on tip-toe, trying to see over the wall, trying to get back to the garden.

So the title track, which opens this album, states that "a memory is better than nothing, a memory is better than something," and Treacy is once more alone in his bedroom, writing a letter to a girl he never really knew, but lost anyway, while the music hints at the band's 1981 classic, 'A Picture of Dorian Gray.' 'The Girl In The Hand Me Down Clothes' re-states Treacy's solidarity with life's outsiders and unfortunates, while at the same time embracing it all- as though, like Kerouac, he's found a ragged freedom in hitting rock bottom and giving up all hope. And on 'She's My Yoko' Treacy unsparingly details all his good and bad qualities in a spirit of simple acceptance- "that's me, that's just Daniel," like some backstreet Lennon, before pulling himself together for the scarf-waving chorus, "yes or no, she's my Yoko." It's a gorgeous yet undeniably self-regarding love song.

Elsewhere, the fey falsetto of 'Funny He Never Married' brings to mind a nursery-class Galaxie 500, the fuzz guitar of 'People Think That We're Strange' a Bontempi Mary Chain, and 'My New Tattoo' comes on like a dysfunctional Who, playing while all wearing mittens. Like Townshend, Treacy writes himself into the role of the confused kid on the street trying to fit in / stand out / be cool with his cold and his blocked-up nose, who wants a new tattoo because he doesn't want to look like you, but he still wants you to like it. The song collapses gloriously into feedback-spattered chaos, as grown men who've been playing all their lives manage to sound like 14 year olds picking up guitars for the first time. It takes a lot of skill to play so badly, so well.

Obviously damaged, Treacy is a man who, at roughly fifty years old, still constantly identifies himself as a child, in perpetual opposition to all of the adults who just don't understand. "Children are cruel, but it's the adults who scare me," he sings on the Syd Barrett-like 'Except for Jennifer,' while on the lullaby-like 'Come Back To Bed' he suggests, "there's not many of us left, so we should stick together- leave the adults and their like to worry about the weather."

"These days I just wish I was someone else instead," he admits on 'Walk Towards the Light,' while on 'All The Things You Are,' he states "if you can't be who you are, then that doesn't seem fair to me." Between these two seemingly contradictory statements lies the essence of why people continue to love the TV Personalities with an almost fanatical devotion. Treacy is the outsider's outsider, committed - again like Childish - to a raw honesty, constantly bearing witness to his own suffering, his own weakness and fallibility. It's Treacy's sacred duty to lay himself bare, warts and all; to never cover up or to put on the mask of the responsible, adult member of society who can get through the day, and above all to never fall into the lie of the macho male stereotype. Instead, he stays true to his own pain and confusion, because at least if you're still hurting, you can still feel something.

"People are strange when they're deranged- they come to us," Treacy recognises on 'Except for Jennifer,' and closing track, 'You Freed My Spirit' could almost be Treacy speaking on behalf of his imagined listener, articulating the feelings of a long-time TVPs fan alone in her bedroom, playing the CD for the first time, but never the last. Over a ramshackle Spiritualized drone of guitar and organ, it conjures the lonely bedroom commitment, the private passion, the sacred pact between the music fan and the recorded voice coming from their stereo.

Older and sadder, the Television Personalities remain as important and as vital as ever. Sing it loud- you don't need to stay in with your memories anymore. Dan Treacy has made a new album, and he's made it just for you.