TV Smith Interview by Philip Thompson
TV Smith is perhaps best known for having been the lead singer and songwriter with the Adverts, a first-wave British punk band who in turn were most famous for hit single ‘Gary Gilmoreâs Eyes’. There was much more to the Adverts, however. They were a band that richly rewarded anyone scratching the surface of their sound to discover the dense layer of ideas underneath, particularly in respect of TVâs rich and evocative lyricism. Their music, despite (and to a certain extent because of) limitations of technical musicianship, was an intriguing mix which far outstripped the prevalent three-chord-crash of the time. Critically lauded ever since the bandâs demise, their output still beguiles today.
TV has had more than his fair share of bad luck during his career in the music industry (this is illustrated with unflinching frankness in ‘We Who Wait’, the documentary recently shown by the BBC as part of their Punk Britannia series of programmes, which we will go on to discuss), but he has emerged as a figure of inspiration. A survivor, he now mostly plies his trade as a solo act with an acoustic guitar, a phenomenal back-catalogue, and an energetic stage act which would put many half his age to shame.
I meet TV Smith at Preston railway station on a Friday teatime before that nightâs John Peel Day gig, where he will perform on the same bill as the Cravats and Punishment of Luxury. Chatting on the way to the gig I marvel at his gigging itinerary. The previous three days had seen him travel from his home in London to gig in Manchester, then down to Brighton, then back up North to tonightâs gig. To put this in perspective, this is not a man travelling on an air-conditioned coach, plied with booze and drugs, beer-bellied roadies lugging his gear. This man travels on the train carrying his guitar, an overnight bag and his bag of merchandising on his back. As entertaining as his adventures touring in this manner undoubtedly are (his three tour diaries are essential and often hilarious reading for any non-mainstream music fan- buy âem on his website), I suggest that itâs been quite a week of travelling. âIâd have a strong word with my booking agent,â he deadpans, slinging his bag over his shoulder, âBut I am my booking agentâ.
Settling over a swift half before his promised sound-check I note that his songs are often a form of reportage. Is it important that they convey a message of some kind? There is, of course, only one answer to this in TV Smithâs book. Listen to any of his work and youâll soon realize that lyrically, the songs predominantly deal with real life and how we live it.
âI wouldnât be doing it without a message, otherwise itâs just nonsense. You could almost say thatâs the difference between good music and bad music. Is it music without a message? Which is either nonsense or music for musicians, or is it music with a message? In which case, thatâs what I call punk rock.â
Yes, indeed. Punk rock. In common with a lot of stuff under the banner of punk it strikes me that much of TVâs stuff hits something of a dystopian note. I ask whether he sees himself as a pessimist. He doesnât exactly bristle at this but he points out that to presume heâs a pessimist is to miss the point.
âI just look at whatâs going on and I write about it. If the world was butterflies and flowers and everyone loved each other, I suppose my songs would be about that.â
The concept of a TV Smith flowers and butterflies song is an unusual one, but the point is clear.
âThe point is to write what you see. Try and make some sense of it. I am not a pessimistic person- I enjoy life! I also say whatâs important and positive [in my songs] and itâs all mixed in there.â
Conceding his point I mention another track called ‘Complaints Department’ from his last album ‘Coming In To Land’, which deals with peoplesâ impulse to complain about things rather than get off their backsides and address their problems directly, but which also treats the subject in a fairly humorous manner. He agrees with the example but points out that the denouement of the song has him admitting that there are days when even he just feels like sitting and complaining. Two things strike me at that: firstly, I canât imagine TV Smith sitting around moaning, and secondly, this is a great example of the fact that TVâs songwriting is still as multifaceted as it ever was. The songs reward repeated listening, just as those old Adverts songs did.
Whilst on the subject of punk, I ask TV if he thought punk set out to achieve any specific aims and how successful it might have been. He admits that he wasnât thinking about changing the world.
âI wanted to write. I wanted to express myself. I liked poetry and I wanted to say stuff. I found I could write tunes. I liked the idea of being in a band as well. What teenager doesnât? Until they find out what itâs actually like!â
Is he surprised by its longevity?
âNow, in retrospect, not really. As you grow older, you find out more about yourself, and I know that to me music is incredibly important still. And so, if someoneâs good, why shouldnât it stay around? People have always wanted good stuff in culture. Thatâs why music has been around as long as recorded history, never mind just punk. The good stuff stays around.â
Recently, and somewhat surprisingly, the BBC aired the aforementioned ‘We Who Wait’, a film about TV and the Adverts, as part of their Punk Britannia season. I wonder how much of a shock it was that they made what to all intents and purposes is ‘TV Smith- the Movie’. It transpires that the film, although first aired on the BBC, was actually made by a fan.
âA guy came up to a gig in London five or six years ago. He said, “I want to do a documentary about the Adverts.â TVâs reaction had been for said guy to go ahead with the warning: âYouâll never get it shown.â” Was he skeptical about it?
âI didnât think there was a hope in hell that a channel would show a documentary about a band like ours, or about me, but I said I was quite happy for him to have a go at it. I kind of trusted him. His motive was he thought weâd been overlooked.â
Was he happy with the finished film?
âReally happy with it. Because he told the story properly and he told it honestly. Thatâs all I wanted, really.â
The film is indeed honest. Painfully so, for anyone with an ounce of sympathy for its subject. It pulls no punches- appalling treatment at the hands of a fickle industry, incidents of bad timing, bad planning, questionable management, a passing mention of 10 years on the dole after finding fame with the Adverts. When I ask if he found parts of it difficult to watch, itâs clear that what mistakes were made (and to be fair, seemingly not many of them were the fault of the man himself) will not be repeated. Of the bad times he says, âThey are with me all the time.â
The film, and indeed the story so far, ends on a high note. TV Smith has a fanatical audience and they are rarely without a chance of seeing him perform live, such is his prodigious gigging schedule. The type of people he deals with these days are those of his own choosing. In direct contrast to dealing with the mainstream music industry, he says, âThe people are great everywhere you go. So my life as musician is going round places meeting fantastic people everywhere. Happy days!â
Whatever has happened to the music industry in recent years, TV seems to operate completely outside of it quite happily and very successfully. He does record and distribute studio albums in various formats though. Does this mean he at least has some skirmishes with the mainstream industry? Not on your life.
âI finance and make my own records. Then I get âem pressed. Then I take them on the road and I sell them at gigs. Itâs a cottage industry. At some points I do deals with small labels, with people that I like. Small labels, nice people. Honest. What usually happens, when it comes to pressing, we split the costs and they take some and I take some.â
The beauty of it all is that this approach has been discovered by necessity. He explains, âItâs the peak of DIY punk perfection, which we were talking about back then. And somehow I lost it along the way because we did have a record deal with the Adverts. And then we did get forced out of doing music by the industry. And weâre seeing the results of that attitude of the major music industry now, where no-one whoâs not just a massive commercial fake set-up is gonna get a deal. The good bands arenât getting deals with the majors.â
I mention the industryâs frenzied attempt to adjust by diversifying into other areas of entertainment in search of a profit. It hasnât escaped his attention.
âMTV isnât even a music channel now. It just shows that these things were just pure business-led entertainment concerns. If music was the thing thatâs making money, theyâll do music. If itâs games, theyâll do games. If itâs soap operas, theyâll do soap operas. They donât really care how they make their money. Thatâs the difference between these big concerns and the small area where people open a shop full of vinyl because they fuckinâ love music. Theyâre not suddenly going to stock it full of Playstation games when the wind changes.â
âSpeaking for myself, if I go into HMV or wherever- after ten minutes I start to feel physically sick. Because itâs just such a horrible atmosphere and a horrible place to be, like some sick fairground atmosphere. And if you walk into a vinyl store and thereâs a couple of enthusiasts with a shelf full of records, you think, âOh, itâs nice here.â Someone behind the counter will smile at you, maybe offer you a cup of coffee or something.â
He doesnât want me getting the wrong impression, though. âIt wasnât that I invented this brilliant way to avoid the music industry. It was basically that they shut me out and I had to find a way. And somehow all that punk DIY stuff that had been at the back of my brain from that period came forward when the moment was right. Not just making records but getting gigs.â
The internet is at the heart of this approach. âIt was really hard to make that DIY happen until the internet and email started. Because then you were able to build up your own DIY network.â He points out the futility of trying to adopt this approach, especially overseas, by telephone and post.
It strikes me that the true beauty, not to say irony, of this situation is that it is the internet, the very thing which has delivered such a blow to the mainstream music industry, which enables him to operate in the way he does.
âAbsolutely. And people always say (adopts harbinger-of-doom voice), âOoh, internet, everyone can download your stuff for free.â Well, yes, some people can and some people do. But then people still come and say, âI could have downloaded it, but I wanted to come and support you.â I think everything has a bad side to it, but I think the good sides far outweigh the bad. Iâm not at all unhappy that the people hit most by that phenomenon are the major labels. Bad luck, guys. You ran it wrong. You werenât to do with us; you were to do with you all along. And now youâre reaping the rewards for it.â
But to say that TV only ever plays as a solo act is to do him a disservice. At this yearâs Rebellion festival he played three separate sets, gave a reading from his latest tour diary, ‘Tales of the Emergency Sandwich’, and appeared as a guest for a spot with another band. Of the three sets, only one was completely solo. Another was with punk-guitar-virtuoso and all round good egg Leigh Heggarty (Ruts DC), and the third was with his surrogate-Adverts band, the Valentines. He explains his work with the Valentines thus:
“âBest of the Advertsâ is what it says on the tin and thatâs what we do. Because thatâs what people are always asking- âWhereâs the Adverts?â Actually I donât do it that much because the band is from Italy.â”
He explains that the set came about when the band organised a gig for him in Bologna. They were going to support him and asked if they could do a few Adverts songs with him at the end of the set. Unfortunately, the planned rehearsal the day before the gig never happened, but when he asked how many Adverts songs theyâd learnt they said, âAll of âem!â
He takes up the tale. âSo, basically I did my solo set and then we did all the Adverts stuff without a rehearsal. And I thought, âWow- if they can do that without a rehearsalâ¦â
Since then the Valentines have appeared with TV on a British tour as well as sporadic one-off gigs of which the Rebellion set was one. I wonder whether he finds it frustrating that he doesnât get to play some of his solo stuff with a full band. He concedes that although a full-band TV Smith show would be nice, itâs also financially risky. He is at great pains to point out that he feels no great compulsion to do that, though.
âThe fact is, I do absolutely love playing solo and the freedom. Itâs not like thereâs something pressing me saying, âYou gotta do this.â Iâm not missing anything from playing solo.â
Elaborating on the organic nature of the way he now works he goes on to explain how he never uses a set list. âIâm trying to develop the way the songs go. I donât wanna always have at the back of my mind, âOoh, Iâve got to keep these songs for the end!â”
I remember seeing him play a gig where he played ‘Gary Gilmoreâs Eyes’ second in the set a few years ago âto get it out of the wayâ as he said at the time. TV laughs and admits, âI usually save it for the end now, though!â
To that end I suggest that tonight might be a night he has to lean on a few of the Adverts numbers as he is only one act of five, so the audience may not be as partisan as his usual crowd.
âItâs not an issue for me [playing ‘Gary Gilmoreâs Eyes’]. I love doing it. I love the way it makes people happy. I like the song still.â
He points out that there are newer songs which become staples of the set, though. âPeople might be surprised. ‘Expensive Being Poor’, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’ – they get played as much as ‘Gary Gilmoreâs Eyes’.â
It reminds me of a conversation Iâve had with more than one Stranglers fan who would be quite happy if the band never played ‘Golden Brown’ live ever again.
âItâs the same with my truest fans whoâve followed everything along the way. They would rather have a gig where I played all the rarities and weird stuff- you try and strike a balance with whoâs in the room.â
Has he ever come offstage and thought âOh no! I forgot to play such-and-such a songâ?
âOh yeah, Iâve done that! But itâs not quite like that because I never play all the songs Iâve got in my head in one night. It is quite hard. Itâs much easier to do it with a set list, whereas [with the non-set list approach] you develop a kind of âwhat would work next after this song?â attitude. But you can reach a hole where you think, âHello! I canât remember a single one of my songs!â
Conversation turns to the future. What next for TV?
âCarrying on. Thatâs the first hurdle.â
Given the demanding schedule I wonder whether he gets tired. For a split second he almost looks it. âIâm tired all the time, reallyâ¦â he says. Then, immediately, the fire in his eyes re-ignites and the smile of someone who does what he loves spreads back across his face, ââ¦except when Iâm on stage!â
This and his obvious passion are borne out by the blistering set he delivers later that evening. Bouncing across the stage, knocking out song after song with his trademark machine-gun delivery, taking requests as well as leading the set where he feels it should go. Itâs kind of humbling watching TV Smith at work. Not just because of his sheer energy, but because of the way he conducts his business generally. It is organic, it is anything but corporate and as such it has real substance. His music is well-crafted, the lyrics thought-provoking and inspirational. All of this lends him an air of dignity perhaps lacking in other rock ânâ rollers of his generation still treading the boards. Sure, he makes a living- but, crucially, he also makes a point. And heâs out making that point night after night, far and wide. TV Smith is working at the coalface of the music industry and heâs mining an incredibly rich seam.
And so, TV will sling the bag back over his shoulder, pick up the guitar and head off to the next gig. Over the next calendar month his itinerary will take him across Germany to Austria, before another slew of gigs across the UK. Undoubtedly, at some point in the not too distant future, heâll be playing somewhere near you. Go and see him. It is indeed the âpeak of DIY punk perfectionâ and we need him and his positive attitude now more than ever- infinitely more so than any X-Factor contestant, over-hyped pop pap band or computer game sensation.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you TV Smith, punk rock survivor. Now thatâs entertainment.
Live pictures by Annette Thompson. Words by Philip Thompson. More words by Philip Thompson on Louder Than War can be found here.