TV SMITH - INTERVIEW (1/2) : "the thing that turned everything upside down for me was seeing the Sex Pistols"


TV SMITH (Photo : Martin von Hadel)

We've already told you a lot about him, and he even topped our Top Monstres list with an extract from Handwriting, his latest album. He was kind enough to answer a few questions...

What's your relationship with France? Have you toured here often? Do you have any special memories of this country?

I spent a lot of time in France in the ’90s, soon after I started playing solo.The label I was with at the time in the UK had a connection with a guy in Paris called Thierry Kherhornou, who formed his own little label called Datcha and released one of my CDs “Immortal Rich” on it. We spent some weeks together touring around France playing little venues and making in-store appearances, as well as playing a few festivals and a few supports - “Noir Désir” for example. I got to know France and the music scene there pretty well around that time, but it all kind of fizzled out and I’ve had very few gig opportunities there since then. I’ve always thought that’s a shame, because France has such a strong singer/songwriter tradition and I think I would fit in well.

France is very proud to have organized the first Punk Festival (in Mont de Marsan in 1976), and the Damned and Dr Feelgood were there (as was Ian Curtis in the audience). What do you think of this French habit of presenting oneself as a precursor to everything? Is there a comparable spirit in England?

Is it a habit exclusive to France? I guess it was a bold move to promote a punk festival back in 1976. I wasn’t there so I don’t know much about it. I was at the 100 Club punk festival in London which was just a bit later I think, and that seemed pretty innovative at the time. All the punk rock bands exploding into life in 1976 and 77 certainly shows that the spirit of innovation was alive in England, but I don’t think it was a question of which country you lived in. Music generally had become boring and conventional and there was a feeling in the air that we needed something new.

Which were your influences at the very beginning and now ?

I was always a fan of songwriting - that magic combination of good words with good tunes. I was brought up listening to the Beatles and knew there was something special about their songs even though I was too young to know why. Now I realise it was the songwriting talent behind them that set them apart from the previous generation of rock’n’roll and pop bands that I was only vaguely aware of at the time. Later in my teenage years I still loved bands with great songs, but was mainly drawn to the ones who were just that bit unconventional like Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel and David Bowie. I liked the effort they put into their image, and the way the songs moved in unexpected directions. I’m still a big Bowie fan - the sheer amount of quality music he put out in his lifetime is quite astounding.

What was your first experience of punk music, and what do you remember about it?

I used to listen to Iggy & The Stooges a lot as a teenager, mainly because of the Bowie connection and I guess they really were punk although it wasn’t called that then. People just thought of them as some kind of twisted rock glam band. I’d listen to “Raw Power” every day. Then there was the New York Dolls - I loved their two albums too, but they weren’t quite punk either. I think the first thing that hit me that you could really call “punk” was the first Ramones record. I was blown away by the simplicity and unpretentiousness of it. All the things that had become tedious about music in the mid-70’s had been stripped out and you were left with this skeleton structure - you could see exactly how it worked, you didn’t feel distanced from it the way you did with all those so-called “brilliant musicians” in the prog-rock bands of the time. And above all, it was funny. I saw them play at the Roundhouse too, and they were great, but the thing that turned everything upside down for me was seeing the Sex Pistols play live at the 100 Club. Their performance was so unlike what had been considered the way a band should present themselves on stage up until then that it opened a door for myself and countless other people to have the courage to do it themselves.

How did you feel when you appeared on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test or Top Of The Pops? Was it a big moment for you or just a way of promoting yourself? Do you have memories of this ?

It felt like a big moment because I grew up watching Top Of The Pops every week, so it was quite something to be up there doing it myself. It was another thing being pushed around by the stage managers, laughed at by the presenters because of our amateurishness, and seeing in real life how fake and contrived the whole thing was. The music I was making was life and death to me - to the Top Of The Pops team it was just more “entertainment.” I preferred the Old Grey Whistle Test because we could play live, and the production team did seem to have a genuine love of music, and the presenter Annie Nightingale definitely understood punk and was on our side. But even then, we just kind of sneaked in under the radar because one of the old school rock bands who’d been booked couldn’t appear so we were invited on instead. Not great timing because our drummer Laurie Driver had just been hospitalized with hepatitis so we had to bring in a last minute replacement and hadn’t had time to rehearse.

Everyone needs a guide, an inspiration in life (parents, artists, friends etc...). What are yours, and what gives you the strength to keep going with TV Smith even in the hardest of times?

Well, feedback from the fans is massively important, otherwise I’d just be working in a vacuum. Luckily I play a lot of gigs and get a lot of positive feedback. But I suppose the main thing is that I get a feeling when a song is good, and that sense of bringing something new and worthwhile into the world is a very positive motivation to keep going.

Iggy Pop meditates, swims and does gymnastics, how do you keep fit?

I don’t have a particular regime but my lifestyle keeps my fit: regular hours of physical work on stage, regular walking when I’m home, a vegan diet. I’m always active.

One of the Adverts main features was having an attractive bass player, Gaye. Did you realise at the time this would bring so many comments in the rock magazines to the point of defocusing the attention towards the songs?

I didn’t initially think about it, but then suddenly saw what was happening and how it was likely to develop, specifically after Stiff Records put Gaye’s face on the cover of “One Chord Wonders” without consulting us, and even worse changed the title to “One Chord Wonder” implying that the record was by a solo artist. Then the sexist music press took hold of the idea of the female bass player and the die was cast. It really was a difficult situation, because it did push the band into the limelight, but as you say it took the focus away from the songs - which was the whole reason I’d formed the band.

Did you play other song covers or only originals?

As I said, the songs were the reason I wanted to be in a band. I wrote them all except for “Back From The Dead,” which I co-wrote with Richard Strange - who I’d got to know when he was in the mid 70’s pre-punk band Doctors Of Madness, who I liked a lot at the time.

Listening to your songs, I have always felt they were catchier than most of what we heard on the radio at the time. And I think this was due to the brilliant intros, from the minced delivered words of “Gary Gilmore’s eyes” to the terrific intro base line of “Television’s over”. Could you elaborate on that ?

The structure of the songs has always been important for me. Most people understand lyrics and melody, but one of the attractions of pop music for me has been the way you put it all together and create the tension, the build up, the release, all in a few minutes. I’ve always loved the format of the single because of that, and most of my albums are really a collection of singles.

TV Smith Bored Teenagers (Per-Ake Warn-40HR)