The Infinite Jukebox: Television Personalities’ ‘Smashing Time’

I’ve already forgotten what it was that triggered a very long forgotten memory, but the recollection burst into my head and sent me scurrying to Wikipedia and YouTube to hurtle back in time to the late Seventies, and the wonderful days of Punk and New Wave, and to a band who’d vanished out of my head that are now heralded as forerunners of the likes of Half Man, Half Biscuit, a comparison I’d never have thought of myself but which is clear once made. I speak of a guy called Dan Treacey who, with whatever mates he chose from time to time, formed the completely unsuccessful band, Television Personalities.
TV Personalities were oddities. They could only ever have existed because of Punk but they rejected all but one of its basic components. Not for them the aggression, the energy, the high speed, the snarl. The only thing Treacey and Co took into their music was the amateurish style, the anyone-can-do-it ethos, taken to a further degree than before, and they married it to a Jonathan Richman-like naivete of lyrics, but not quite so, because Treacey was always smarter, and more smartarse with his sometimes not very concealed cynicism.
This was seen immediately on their debut, self-produced release, the Where’s Bill Grundy Now? EP. It’s lead track was taken up by dear old John Peel and played to death, five nights a week, oh what days they were. I could just as easily be writing about that song, the icily spiky, stiletto-sharp ‘Part-time Punks’, with it’s near unmelodious guitar strum, busy and shuffling. Treacey’s lyrics stripped the meat from the bones of the wannabe punks who were too afraid, or maybe too middle-class to commit on more than a superficial level.
Television Personalities captured these people whole, and nowadays it’s also a history lesson about what was considered fundamental to 1977.
But what I struggled at first to recall was another song, another single a bit later, could have been 1978 or 1979 and I’m disinclined to check because I don’t want my hazy memories of it to be disrupted by too much reality. Only let the song anchor itself.
‘Smashing Time’ was another simple affair, lacking in detectable melody. It was a softer, gentler sound, still tinny and light, but the edge of ‘Part-time Punks’ was missing, there was a little guitar twiddling, and the song eased up a little on pace. There’s a warm atmosphere right from the start, and a certain bashfulness that links the song in my consciousness to the later Jonathan Richman in its childishness.
It’s the oddest, but in what the song doesn’t say, one of the most emotional of songs. Cousin Jill came down to London for a weekend break, Treacey sings, and I promised that I’d show her round the sights. That’s all, so unusual yet so natural. Cousin comes to town and the singer promises to show her round, and the song counts up the places they go, the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, the West End at Night. Feeling silly at being scared in the London Dungeon, and slightly embarrassed in Soho. A Wimpey Bar that wasn’t nice. Walking in Hyde Park eating ice cream. Jill thought the King’s Road was terrific and Carnaby Street was Fab.
It’s all about her, and giving her a good time, the best weekend that she had ever had. There isn’t a romantic note in the song, at least none that are held up for you to see, but me, I wondered. The song catches something it won’t disclose, but I hear it all the same. I see these two, youngsters, fourteen year olds at best. He’s giving up whatever he might have planned for his weekend to give her a good time. He doesn’t regard it as an imposition. Why not?
Because he likes cousin Jill, and whilst he would be embarrassed London bus red to have anyone suspect it, he shows it by trying to give her the greatest time. And Jill? Jill may not understand what he really thinks but she likes him and she likes being around him and the best weekend she had ever had is not just his attempt to give her all of London in one big arms-full gift but that it is he who is giving this to her.
It reminds me very much of the Lone Pine Club books and the early relationship between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling, where Malcolm Saville shows us the more than mere friendship that links them but which neither is in any way ready to acknowledge even to themselves.
Jill and our singer may grow up, like David and Peter, to have a future. Or they may not. Right now they’re content with a wavelength that they don’t realise no-one else shares. We both agreed we both had a smashing time. And she thought it was really good.
And so did I.

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