The Songwriting of TV Smith by Jamie Palmer

When LTW’s Ged Babey wrote a half-arsed review of the latest TV Smith CD he was taken to task by one Jamie Palmer. Inviting him to exercise his ‘right to reply’ we should have realised that Jamie of course directed We Who Wait: The Adverts and TV Smith. Here is his personal, authoratative and absolutely splendid guide to the Songwriting of TV Smith ….

I discovered TV Smith’s music when I stumbled across The Adverts’ debut single One Chord Wonders on one of those CD compilations they give away with music magazines. This was during a period when I was listening to a lot of punk rock, and the band’s early singles and electrifying debut LP Crossing the Red Sea are virtually a paradigmatic example: short, hook-laden pop songs as a vehicle for angry, literate, socially-conscious songwriting, played with furious energy by young, self-taught musicians barely in command of their instruments.

The Songwriting of TV Smith by Jamie PalmerBut what’s fascinating about the first wave of British punk is the latitude for creativity that this rough template afforded. The best punk bands each had their own ideas, concerns and identifiable styles, which is what made the movement so rich and diverse in its early days. And what sets the Adverts’ songs apart for me is not just the quality of the songwriting, but the mind behind it. TV Smith’s unique and – dare I say it – poetic sensibility, as expressed through The Adverts’ music, was one with which I intuitively identified – an authorial voice that spoke to me in a language I immediately grasped and understood.

As a defiant statement of personal emancipation, Red Sea is less a collection of songs than a manifesto. But, unlike many of its contemporaries, it can’t really be described as a political record as such. Rather, it’s a darkly atmospheric work of the imagination; a kaleidoscopic mix of sinister dystopian landscapes and fantastical imagery set beneath a brooding atmosphere of malevolence and barely-contained violence. A tense, oppressive but strangely abstract portrait of Callaghan’s unravelling Britain, its frustration and anger are palpable. The record’s closing tirade and pièce de résistance, The Great British Mistake, encapsulates Smith’s idiom perfectly – an allegorical nightmare of colliding ideas, allusions and metaphors, all twisted, like the religious dogma in New Church, “into something evil, something wrong…”

But, despite the pervasive gloom and pessimism, listening to the album from front to back (particularly at high volume) is an intoxicating rush. For Smith is ever the optimist. No matter how bleak and desperate the status quo, hope lies in the narrator’s defiant reaffirmation of his independence and autonomy. The realisation that we must resist conformity or perish is the rallying cry made to those of us gathered before him on the figurative banks of the Red Sea, yearning for deliverance. And it is within this simple idea, circulating within the record’s youthful confusion, that I find its capacity to exhilarate and inspire.

The Songwriting of TV Smith by Jamie PalmerSince Crossing the Red Sea’s release in 1978, TV Smith has written and released a further 10 studio albums, 8 of them as a solo artist, and this central theme has remained fundamentally unaltered. However, as he has become more politically aware, Smith’s anger has grown more sharply focussed; his social and political targets more identifiable. The 1980s under Thatcher were a period of radicalisation for Smith, and the band he formed in the second half of that decade, TV Smith’s Cheap, marked a shift towards more overtly political songwriting.

It is undeniable that what appeals to many of TV Smith’s fans is a loose sense of community born of a shared political outlook. But, for me, Smith’s continuing appeal has very little to do with his politics (with which, in any case, I do not always agree). It remains in his abilities as a melodist and storyteller, and as a painter of vivid lyrical imagery – the use of language, music and performance to reflect our reality back at us in strange and unusual ways, and to transport us into the lives of others. His appeal lies, in other words, in those same elements of Red Sea that I’ve described and which continue to fascinate me. Even at his most apparently direct, Smith’s appreciation of life’s ironies and of humankind’s maddening inability to co-operate in its own best interests seem to preclude straightforward finger-pointing.

His 1981 song, Lies, for instance, which appears to be about animal testing, turns out in fact to be an indictment of self-deception in the pursuit of comfort, to which the narrator confesses he too is prey. This acknowledgement of our apparently limitless capacity for dissonance crops up repeatedly in his writing, but was most clearly revisited on his 2010 track, It’s Warming Up, a bitterly ironic celebration of climate change denial and the freedom from guilt it affords.

Even 3rd Term, one of Smith’s most explicitly political protest songs, released in the aftermath of Thatcher’s second successful re-election campaign, finds time to remark on the British electorate’s apparent masochism, an exasperated echo of the truism that democracies tend to get the leaders they deserve.

The Songwriting of TV Smith by Jamie PalmerBut it is rare that the ‘message’ is as straightforward as in examples like these. More often than not in Smith’s political songs, meaning will be addressed through metaphor and subtext, or subject to a subtle irony that only reveals itself over the course of repeated listens. On other songs, he’ll adopt the narrative approach of a raconteur, in which social comment (if there is any) is implicit – a backdrop to tales of loners and outcasts adrift in hostile environments, at war with the elements and with themselves, struggling towards a barely-glimpsed prospect of redemption.

Smith has never recorded an album as perfectly coherent as Red Sea. 1977-78 was one of those rare historical moments when money and creativity were suddenly flowing in the same direction. Budget; studio; producer; musical chemistry; songs; timing; artwork – all these things clicked fortuitously into place to produce a classic. Later records have suffered variously from band strife, restricted budgets, unsatisfactory production and horrible sleeve art. But in the end, none of this is of any real importance because the songs are always about something.

A sympathetic ear can always forgive dated production or a lousy mastering job so long as the songwriting is strong and the songs themselves are delivered with conviction. And Smith’s abilities as a songwriter have developed significantly since his days with The Adverts. The raw fury remains, but the songcraft has become far more sophisticated, the subject matter more diverse, and the dark wit first heard in Gary Gilmore’s Eyes features more prominently.

Smith’s music, in short, is far richer than his growing reputation as a political artist allows. His political views, in the broadest sense, can be found in the work of numerous other like-minded anti-establishment songwriters. But the imaginative sensibility through which they are filtered is unique. What follows is a shortlist of songs – one selected from each of TV Smith’s post-Adverts albums – that I believe reflect what makes him a singular voice.

As a friend remarked one evening while we were listening to The Adverts’ much-maligned second album, Cast of Thousands: “You know what I like most about TV Smith? His brain…”

Unwelcome Guest – TV Smith’s Explorers (1981). From the album Last Words of the Great Explorer

The album’s closing track is a 6 minute epic that tells of an unceasing quest to escape a sinister but unidentified companion. Who or what the narrator is running from is never revealed – it could the id; addiction; depression; writer’s block, or any number of other possibilities. His growing fear and desperation, however, are unmistakable.

The Beautiful Bomb – TV Smith (1983)From the album Channel 5.

An elegy for devastation, the sad tenderness of which recalls the appalling beauty of Dr. Strangelove’s elegant mushroom clouds. The song is loosely framed as a love letter to the weapon itself and narrated by an atomic scientist, intoxicated by the power his creation commands. It remains one of the strangest songs Smith has ever written – a mass-murder ballad, if you will.

New Discoverers – TV Smith (1984). Demo version released in 2010 on Sparkle in the Mud: Demos and Unreleased Songs.

Another story of mass-murder (you don’t see that sentence in articles about singer-songwriters much), this macabre gem tells of bands of vengeful, dying people who roam the cities and countryside in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and seal the wealthy survivors into their bomb shelters. Sweet, melodious verses seduce the intended victims, before giving way to the open menace of the chorus as their fate becomes evident. This track also contains some of Smith’s most perversely delicate (given the subject matter) phrasing. “While we slowly sicken…” he sighs, allowing the final word to fall from his lips like a rotten tooth. Some of the ‘lost’ demos from the ‘80s are hampered by their tiny budgets, but in this particular case there’s something eerily effective about the synthetic strings and drum machine. Still, it’s a great shame this song never got to see the inside of a recording studio.

The Lord’s Prayer – TV Smith’s Cheap (1990) From the album R.I.P. Everything Must Go.

This song was originally written in the early 80s for The Lords of the New Church, who then changed the lyrics, added an unnecessary middle eight, and generally made it a lot less good than it was before they decided to mess about with it. Smith restored it to its intended form and included it on the Cheap album. As a defiant proclamation of rabble-rousing secular resistance cloaked in religious language, it echoes The Adverts’ New Church. Only this is a call for political as well as spiritual emancipation.

Runaway Train Driver – TV Smith (1992) From the album March of the Giants.

A train driver loses his mind to urban frustration and drives a train loaded with radioactive cargo at breakneck speed in pursuit of self-annihilation. As he hurtles towards death, he briefly experiences the exhilaration of total freedom, before it evaporates in vindictive rage: “It’s too late to evacuate” he taunts those in his path, “it wouldn’t do any good, where could you go…?” Originally an acoustic track, Smith re-recorded an even nervier (not to mention significantly louder) version with Die Toten Hosen for the Useless compilation, and it remains a live favourite today.


The Day We Caught the Big Fish – TV Smith (1994). From the album Immortal Rich.

A tale told from beyond the grave by a fisherman whose vessel went down with all hands when it netted a toxic nuclear submarine. The story is narrated in dislocated fragments of memory, and uses some extraordinarily evocative language. One of Smith’s most beautiful and haunting songs.

This Year, Next Year (1999). From the album Generation Y.

A burst of frustration at the promise of a bright future endlessly deferred, this short, nervy track appears on an album otherwise dominated by some of Smith’s loveliest and most eloquent ballads. Smith’s anxiety is compounded by a painful awareness of life’s brevity, and the knowledge that mediocrity and inertia can trap us like an addiction until it’s too late. A propulsive, punchy arrangement, decorated with sparks of feedback and a strangely alluring keyboard melody floating across the background.

Sugar Crash – TV Smith (2003). From the album Not a Bad Day.

This thrilling and witty helter-skelter ride through the garish absurdities of modern life (later revisited on Clone Town) sees Smith casting a jaundiced eye over a sanitised and soporific version of reality and deciding he wants nothing to do with any of it: “They tried antiseptic and they tried bleach/Disinfected and applied a leech/Trepanned and cleaned my teeth/But there’s something they can never reach”. If you don’t know what trepanation is, do look it up.

Bring The Bull Down (2005). From the album Misinformation Overload.

The abuses of human power, and the struggle between the haves and have-nots, are depicted as a barbarous fight to the death disfigured by hopeless odds. The brutality of the bullfighting metaphor is reflected in a thunderous arrangement, over which the narrator rages at those protected by a privilege that’s extinguished their capacity for compassion.

My Trojan Horse – TV Smith (2008). From the album In The Arms of my Enemy.

This story of a battle-fatigued figure contemplating a final assault on a citadel mixes weary resignation with grim resolve. Originally written during the ‘80s wilderness years, I’ve always interpreted the lyric as a comment on Smith’s own music industry outsiderdom. There’s perhaps a hint in the line “Our banned meetings are held in secret now”. But unfortunately the pun on the second word doesn’t survive transcription.

Worn Once – TV Smith (2011). From the album Coming in to Land.

One of Smith’s more direct political statements, this paints post-Crash Britain as an economic bombsite. Among the ruins of a town, the narrator enjoins anyone who will listen not to repeat the mistakes that led to its ruin. Like an Old Testament prophet warning of the gathering wrath of God, his agitation steadily grows as he realises that people will not forsake instant gratification of their desires, despite the evidence of the cost. As he goes unheeded, his urgent pleas turn to angry accusation, and he ends on the following scornful observation: “These throw-away values/They will hold you then have you disposed of/Worn once.” I suspect he’ll return next time around to remind us that, well, he did tell us so…

Jamie Palmer is the director of the documentary We Who Wait: The Adverts and TV Smith which can be watched below.


All words by Jamie Palmer. This is Jamie’s first piece of writing for Louder Than War.

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