If you’re a fan of Dan Treacy, you’re probably used to him disappearing off the face of the Earth.
The lead singer of the British post-punk game-changers Television Personalities went rogue for a full six years in the late ‘90s, and rumours of his death have surfaced online more than once. Treacy is the very definition of a troubled genius, a mastermind subject to both strange insinuations –in the past some suggested he was the secret songwriter behind the Arctic Monkeys –and personal demons.
Yet when Treacy fell off the radar again in 2011, the man’s supporters were more concerned than usual. Vague details were released to the press about emergency surgery, and before long it was revealed Treacy had needed treatment to remove a brain clot. Admirers started to worry; rumours started to swirl. Finally, following months of silence, verified statements from his family revealed Treacy was alive, if still unwell. He was receiving treatment, reports said. He was on the mend.
Fans eagerly waited for more news, endlessly hoping for the return of one of the UK’s finest singer-songwriters, an obscure genius who spent a career taking the magic of ‘60s psych and infusing it with a particularly distinct brand of surrealism, in the process paving the way for everyone from MGMT to Beat Happening.
But no news came. Starved of information, the fan sites began to stop posting, eventually becoming defunct and dated. Domain names were bought out by spammy click-bait sites; hyperlinks stopped working. The absence transformed from being concerning to all-out depressing, and suddenly, the lines Treacy had written about his idol Syd Barrett some 40 years before became eerily portentous. “He was very famous once upon a time,”goes the chorus of ‘I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives’, one of Television Personalities’ first songs, carried by Treacy’s youthful, twangy falsetto. “But no-one knows even if he’s alive.”
Given Treacy’s status as an enigma, it seems fitting that his very first release under the Television Personalities name was based on a deliberate mistruth. The title of the band’s debut single, ‘14th Floor’ was an artistic conceit, says Treacy’s long-term collaborator Jowe Head.
“I first met Dan Treacy when I visited him at his mother’s flat on the Kings Road in Chelsea, 1978,” says Head. “He was a very polite, insular figure with rather modest dress … They lived on the seventh floor, not the 14th, as he suggested on his debut single. “14th floor” scanned better in verse of course! One could interpret that song as a satire on punk rock cliches of the time, I suppose.”
Certainly, Treacy gained a lot of joy from poking fun at the music world’s plum-faced elite, and Television Personalities’ first full-length album, …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It takes aim at countless forms of sincerity, all with its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. Lo-fi yet hook-happy, it is one of those rare records that sounds genuinely like nothing that came before it – a new start for an old, increasingly out-of-touch musical scene.
“The production on that first album is relatively primitive, but the songs are very memorable, and the arrangements are often clever and varied but never too cluttered or over-ornamented,” says Head. “Of course, that kind of sound became more and more fashionable: listen to all those early singles on the Creation label, and then The Smiths, The La’s, and so on. Alan McGee [founder of Creation] was quite honest about Dan’s influence on his label’s sound and image. So, paisley shirts became more trendy, and that hippy look became more marketable again.”
Nonetheless, despite the artistic impact of …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It, it was hardly an economic success. Low sales would dog Treacy’s career, as would the band’s ever-fluctuating lineup. Not many musicians have lasted long in the Personalities, and though that first album was record with Ed Ball and drummer Mark Sheppard, the group has always been Treacy’s baby.
“The TVPs functioned as a vehicle for Dan’s songs and his imagination,” says Head, who would hold the distinction of joining the band twice, the first time at a gig in 1978 during which Treacy experienced an odd turn. “Dan ran away through the crowd,” Head says. “Stories vary –he either got acute stage fright, or his drink was spiked! [But] my first proper gig with the band was five years later, when [bassist] Mark Flunder left the band after a traumatic Italian tour. I was asked to join … to replace him, for an upcoming tour of Europe.”
Even without drink spiking, Television Personalities gigs were shambolic, unique affairs. “We never had a setlist to follow at a concert,” says Head. “Dan would not announce the titles, so I would have to listen carefully to his intro on guitar, and identify the song so I could join in. Sometimes we would launch into an improvisation, working as a creative team, making up songs on the spot. We would sometimes make a piece out of a strange collage of fragments of disparate cover versions. It was like a continuous art project.”
Equally distinct was Treacy’s unwillingness to practise. “I remember us rehearsing once in late 1983,” says Head. “We did another one five years later, and that was about it. … Sometimes we would develop a song live, when we were actually playing in front of an audience. Dan was very off-hand about the whole music business, and scornful of conventions.”
Though that spontaneity is evident across all TVP records –particularly the jangly, unhinged Mummy Your Not Watching Me–as the ‘80s progressed, Treacy became increasingly hardened. The Thatcher years affected him, and though 1984’sThe Painted Word was as fresh and free as TVP’s early records, by that stage the light had been filtered out somewhat.
It’s an irony not lost on Head that the band’s darker turn happened to coincide with a broader musical movement in the opposite direction. Treacy has always been an outlier – he started out singing about paisley shirts when nobody else was, and stopped singing about them when everyone else began to.
“Audiences in the early 1980s were not accustomed to songs about psychedelic experiences, and to retro references to 1960s swinging London,” says Head. “That became more fashionable after a few more years, by which time Dan’s writing had moved on and was less concerned with looking back to the past.”
It was during this time that Treacy’s own demons began to amass. Though he was still releasing music throughout the ‘90s, the band was still ever-affected by members of the group coming and going. Head departed in 1994, and Treacy recruited Liam Watson in his place.
All the while, Treacy’s drug habit was taking its toll. Don’t Cry Baby… It’s Only A Movieis a strange, bloated document of a singularly destructive time in Treacy’s life. “Monsters hiding in my kitchen cupboard / Satan must have eaten Mother Hubbard,” Treacy sings on ‘My Very First Nervous Breakdown’, his voice warbly, the guitars behind him as insistent as a curse. Not long later, he was in jail.
Shoplifting was the crime that kept Treacy at Her Majesty’s pleasure for some six years – he’d had to resort to stealing in order to pay for an increasingly unmanageable drug habit. Though he began his stint behind bars in Brixton, eventually he was transferred to a prison boat, a vessel he called ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’.
Throughout it all, Treacy remained connected to the outside world. “There were computers,” he told an interviewer after his release. “I found fan websites … One of the nuns brought me a guitar. I was supposed to give it back at lock-up in the evenings but they let me keep it in the cell with me.”
When Treacy was finally released, he returned to the world an affected but unbowed man. “My first impressions [of Dan] were that he was funny,” says Victoria Yeulet, a TVP fan who connected with Treacy following his release, and would end up playing with the band for more than three years. “Obviously he’d just had a troubled few years so I knew that, but he was enthusiastic, and quite complex.”
“I first met [him] as I was working in a record shop in Soho,” she goes on. “He became a regular customer and I would chat with him a lot. I didn’t recognise him as being Dan Treacy –he looked quite different from when he was younger.”
Despite the fact he had spent so long out of the limelight, Yeulet says Treacy was eager to get back into making music. Ed Ball, the bassist who appeared on the very first Television Personalities record, rejoined the band. “It was a very simple thing – with just him, me and Ed Ball initially,” says Yeulet.
“[Ed and Dan] were obsessed with Joe Meek recordings, old soul records, freakbeat, [and] ‘60s mod stuff like me. [And they] were film freaks: always quoting lines together. Him and Ed had known each other since they were kids so I think it was a great point for Daniel then. He was just getting the chance to be creative with people he trusted. We became a little mod gang really. It was very friendship-based.”
It was a time of healing for Treacy. “We played what Daniel called the ‘comeback’ gig at Bush Hall … for a Chickfactor magazine weekend event,” says Yeulet. “It was really fun. Everyone really enjoyed it. People had travelled from other countries to see it. I was fully aware of how shambolic TVPs shows could be, so was prepared for the ad hoc nature of it, which was part of it all.
“Many of Daniel’s songs are extremely raw,” she adds. “[They] take in sensitivities and really dark realities too. People connect with the songwriting, but the sound is also really important, I think. I think the combination of darkness and then lightheartedness that he manages to encompass throughout the years and lineups is quite unique.”
Suddenly, Treacy was a cult hero again. Over the years his reputation had been bolstered by praise he received from a multiple of alt rock sources, chiefly among them Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana frontman had once called …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It one of the greatest records of all time, and lavished praise upon Treacy whenever he got the opportunity.
Cobain wasn’t the only one – Treacy was receiving tributes from a host of sources, finally cashing in on so much goodwill he had sent out through the world. Rafa Skam, the lead singerof the Spanish band The Yellow Melodies and a particularly diehard fan, released an entire tribute album dedicated to TVP.
Dan Treacy (photo courtesy Rafa Skam)
“Their whole discography is absolutely brilliant,” says Skam of the Personalities’ appeal. “They don’t have a bad song. They don’t have a perfect sound either, but I think that even that ‘unclean’ sound increases the beauty of their tunes. And also their lyrics and attitude are remarkable. They are all elements that make you fall in love with them.”
Not too long after the release of the tribute, Treacy travelled to Spain to play a show and Skam got the opportunity to meet his hero for the first time. “Before the gig, the guy from the label which distributes their music in Spain invited me to meet Dan at his hotel,” says Skam. “Dan was on the bed, drinking some beers, and listening to music … We showed him some remarkable Spanish music and he liked it. Then he went to the venue, took his guitar, and started to play. It was very special. After the gig, we spent the whole night talking about music. It was an unforgettable time.”
Treacy and Rafa Skam (photo courtesy Rafa Skam)
Suddenly, Treacy wasn’t a con anymore. Nor, somehow, was he even an ex-con. He was a musician,a genius finally getting his due, travelling the world while the tributes began to trickle in. And then, just as everything seemed to be going well for Treacy, things took a predictably unpredictable turn.He was rushed into emergency surgery for a brain clot on the brain, and then disappeared, gone from the world once again.
For a Television Personalities fan searching for clues about Treacy’s whereabouts following his 2011 surgery, his Wikipedia page provides no reassuring answers. Indeed, there is something distinctly haunting about the entry’s last line. “As of 2016, no further updates to Treacy’s condition have been made and Television Personalities has remained inactive,” it says. Reading that, one could be forgiven for worrying that Treacy might well have passed away – after all, the statement has the eerie ring of the obituary about it.
Photo courtesy Rafa Skam
But Dan Treacy has not passed away. Treacy is healing, still bouncing back from the brain surgery he had some five years ago, cared for by professionals and by his colleagues and compatriots. He lives now in a nursing home. Talking to those who know him well, it is obvious that he still has some way to go on his road to recovery, but, thankfully, it is also obvious he has a thousand hands to help him.
“I’ve always remained friends with Daniel,” says Victoria Yeulet. “I sent him a birthday card only last month actually. I really hope his recovery enables him to make more art.”
It’s a sentiment Rafa Skam echoes too. “I hope he gets well soon,” says Skam, “and starts writing new songs and playing live.”
Maybe the ‘I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives’ connection isn’t so apt after all. Barrett lived out his last years alone, seemingly uninterested in making music again. Treacy is surrounded by friends, still fuelled by the desire to make art.
“Although [Dan] is unwell, and being looked after in a nursing home, I try to visit him every month, if I can,” says Jowe Head. “He still has ambitions to make music and record songs again. I shall help him, if I can.”
Main image courtesy Rafa Skam