For decades, the Angry Young Men shone a dingy light on British culture. Bottling working-class desperation, these playwrights and novelists originally addressed a 1950s society mired in social immobility and repressed angst. Their themes anchored the films of Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and later Mike Leigh, and found global appeal in the music of the Who. For all its rip-it-up-and-start-again bluster, punk expressed a similar disillusionment: The Sex Pistols and their ilk just gave the angry young man a spikier hairdo and held his jacket together with safety pins.
Dan Treacy, the leader and sole constant member of Television Personalities, wrote about the same frustrated youths as his parents’ generation. He littered his songs with references to film and theater, including archetypical mid-century plays like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. He prodded borders between life, songwriting, and the culture at large, cheekily quoting both Jonathan Richman and “We Will Rock You” on an album that delves into his harrowing battle with drugs. Yet back in his teen years, class-conscious British realism was his model and lyrical inspiration. Take Television Personalities’ 1978 debut single “14th Floor,” whose narrator is trapped in a council estate tower because the lift is broken. Catchy hooks and schoolboy wit are in abundant supply—so are poverty, dysfunctional homes, and psychic pain.
Born in 1960, Treacy grew up blue collar in the increasingly posh area of Chelsea, London. His father did roadwork and his mother ran a laundrette. Through her shop, and around the hip thoroughfare of King’s Road, young Treacy met Bob Marley, Malcolm McLaren, and Jimmy Page, interning as an adolescent at Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records—his mom, who washed the clothes of the community’s ascendant bohemians, got him the gig. Kitchen-sink drama, swingin’ London: In his early music, Treacy flits between the two, dosing social realism with psychedelic distortion, jangly guitar, and rudimentary vocal accompaniments. Television Personalities were hardly the only punk-adjacent group taking notes from the ’60s. But they were also suspicious of the punk revolution, and with their paisley shirts and twee waistcoats, they were the rare band to wear this opinion on their sleeves.
The group’s second single, written when Treacy was still a teen, follows his speaker as he wanders around his childhood neighborhood, feeling different from everyone around him:
Walking Down King’s Road
I see so many faces,
They come from many places
They come down for the day
They walk around together
And try and look trendy
I think it’s a shame
That they all look the same
After the chorus drops—“Here they come/The part-time punks”—Treacy derides clueless conformists who buy albums at Rough Trade Records “because they heard John Peel play it.” Treacy also sent a copy of a copy of his self-pressed EP to Peel, who spun “Part Time Punks” on his popular radio show. By 1980, Television Personalities signed to Rough Trade, the label that grew out of the influential store they had disparaged. A classic countercultural gambit worked: have the guts to hate the status quo, and it might just love you back.
During January 1981, Treacy, accompanied by bassist Ed Ball and drummer Mark Sheppard, released the first Television Personalities album …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It, a feat of three-piece economy, chockablock with relentless hooks and poignant lyrics. In just 37 minutes, the record paved the way from post-punk to indie rock, hauling passé sounds from the ’60s into uncharted, lo-fi terrain. Their sound, cleverness, fragility, and frankness snowballed through music, rolling into the work of Morrissey, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, Nirvana, and Pavement. Alan McGee claimed Television Personalities changed his life, leading him to start his groundbreaking label Creation Records. Other bands even began to dress like Television Personalities; a whole rock movement named itself after paisley patterns. Their first album isn’t as starry-eyed as its equally clairvoyant, stoned follow-up, 1982’s Mummy Your Not Watching Me, but the debut cheerfully prophesied a brighter path out of post-punk gloom, one attuned to feelings and human foibles. It’s Treacy’s narrative masterpiece, his most potent rock record, and the last time he cast his burgeoning personal struggles in the rosy light of youth.
…And Don’t The Kids Just Love It is shot through with the simultaneous joys of discovery and simplicity, unmistakable evidence of the kid genius behind it. Almost every track is a clinic in verse-chorus-verse tension. Treacy’s guitar lines can be brilliantly tentative; each bum note in the solo that ends “The Glittering Prizes” is like a nervous tic in an articulate monologue. Backing vocals hang idiosyncratically in front of the mix on “A Family Affair,” obscuring the rueful chorus behind heavy light. Treacy often came up with song names before writing the music and lyrics, favoring playful refrains that present as a strange jumble of reverence and mockery. Referential titles such as “Look Back in Anger” and “A Picture of Dorian Gray” feel like pretty words the grown-ups say, which the narrator wants to try out for himself. On the moving “Jackanory Stories,” Treacy pokes fun at the titular British children’s series while twisting some ordinary writing advice: “Just like life there’s a good beginning but there is no middle/So you may as well skip to the end.”
Beneath it all, desperation and rage are palpable. The Clash famously sang about using fury. Television Personalities, on the other hand, mostly just wanted to depict it. Opener “This Angry Silence” cycles through a hollering father, a drunk mother, a brother with an eating disorder, a sister who’s always at the pub (she happens to be a bartender), and finally our speaker, a “silly” poet who’s been snubbed by the girl he loves. On “A Family Affair,” Treacy surveys the horror of other peoples’ flats: “Mrs. Davies cries/The welfare have taken her children today/Jenny’s so upset/She just received the results of her test/It proved positive.” The walls subsequently crumble between songwriter and song. Turning his pen back on himself, Treacy’s lines seem anachronistically lifted from emo: “I telephoned God today/But all I got was the answering machine/Please help me.”
The LP shifts from the claustrophobia of unhappy families to the despair of living among equally miserable friends. Adulthood’s beginning is carved into the record’s grooves like graffiti on a bar top—Treacy completed …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It when he was 20, an age when home is untenable, but all the friends you might move in with are still shaky themselves. “World of Pauline Lewis” and the proto-Smiths “La Grande Illusion,” propelled by Ball’s popping bassline, are portraits of doomed, depressed young people, witnessed by a narrator whose guileless attempts at intimacy are futile. On the final track, “Look Back in Anger,” the turbulent family narrative from the disc’s beginning passes down to the next generation. Our hero looks back at a failed relationship with exasperation and regret: This cycle of disappointment, Treacy suggests, keeps rolling on in its quintessentially English way.
Throughout, the words seem to tumble out of his exultant, perhaps slightly embellished cockney accent. Punk, after all, liberated bands from needing to sing like Americans in order to hit it big. Treacy’s darker-hued opus, 1984’s The Painted Word, takes shots at Margaret Thatcher and her jingoistic Falklands War. But on his debut, Treacy’s bleak regard for the English domestic front is tempered by a kaleidoscopic nostalgia: He wants to unearth the country’s myths, embrace its pastoralism, and even curate the gems of its cultural history for a generation that was pretending to make a clean break with the recent past. “Geoffrey Ingram” might be the album’s most infectious pop tune, but it’s also a veritable sandwich cake of UK cultural references. The song is named for a character in A Taste of Honey, yet its central conceit of a flawless schoolboy “who always gets home as it starts to rain” echoes the Kinks’ 1967 classic “David Watts,” as filtered through the Jam, who covered it on their obstinately melodic, masterly 1978 collection All Mod Cons. Treacy drops postmodern breadcrumbs, leading listeners through the lineage of artists who inspired him.
A similar mischievousness motors the record’s quietest and most devastating composition, “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives.” A decade before the song came out, its subject, Pink Floyd’s narcotics-addled first singer, notoriously disappeared from public life. Treacy knows where to find him: Cambridge. He likely heard some rumors back on King’s Road, but the point is not the story’s eerie accuracy. The young artist means to transcribe modern legend, weaving threads of psychedelia, rural English fantasy, and the innocence of fandom. A child’s voice responds to the song’s teenaged speaker, who describes Barrett’s “little house,” his “little pet dog” and “a little pet mouse.” During their visits, he and the rock star “have Sunday tea, sausages and beans.” Treacy goes on: “He was very famous once upon a time/And no one knows even if he’s alive.” The child cries: “We do!”
Addiction and depression led Treacy to struggle in his career, but he also chose to be noncommercial. A persistent sense of irreverence got him kicked off of a high-profile 1984 tour with David Gilmour; he read Syd Barrett’s home address to the crowd. His music grew prickly, atmospheric and sorrowful, and he steadily replaced his skillfully rendered characters with brazen first-person dispatches from his emotional life. Instead of duking it out in the major-label trenches, he started a couple independent labels of his own, Whaam! and later Dreamworld, a DIY business decision that would prove nearly as important to the future of indie rock as Treacy’s own compositions. The music, though, continued to be fruitful—after The Painted Word, 1990’s pop-friendly Privilege and 1992’s double album Closer to God scattered the aesthetic seeds of his early work, letting them germinate in far-flung ground.
Treacy was submerged in his habits, too. Heroin became central to his existence, and later in the ’90s he disappeared like Syd Barett, provoking similar speculation that he might be dead. He went to prison for theft several times and lived on the streets or crashed with friends for long periods. In 2011, just when Television Personalities were ramping up again, he nearly died from a blood clot, and his health issues have mounted since. According to biographer Benjamin Berton, the 62-year-old singer currently stays in a care home, where he has limited mobility, impaired vision, and some memory loss.
Making sense of such tragedy is foolish—as the angry young men showed, narratives may depict, inspire, and politically activate, but they won’t reverse life’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Yet Treacy left several generations of admirers who discovered his work’s many gifts and repackaged them for times to come, piping up like kids whenever someone asks if they know anything about that storied London group Television Personalities: “We do!”
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