If you’re asking who England’s greatest songwriter is, then the field’s wide open; if you’re asking who the greatest English songwriter is – someone who captures the peculiarities and eccentricities of English suburbia and underachievement – then it’s a much narrower field. Ray Davies would probably win, but he’d be chased by, among others, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker, Robyn Hitchcock and Syd Barrett. There’d be a core of support, too, for Dan Treacy of the Television Personalities. But Barrett and Treacy have more in common than a musical marriage of whimsicality with poignancy, Ben Clancy explains why.
To Pink Floyd fans, The Television Personalities (TVPs) will be known for their 1981 single, ‘I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives’, and subsequent booking by David Gilmour to support him on his About Face tour. Dan Treacy used the London gig as an opportunity to read out Barrett’s home address, causing the TVPs to be booted off the tour. Fans of post-Barrett Pink Floyd, those who might prefer their music to be guided by the values of pomp and virtuosity, wouldn’t like anything by the TVPs. Fans of Barrett’s solo albums, which soundtrack both harrowing mental descent and childlike naivety, will notice a kinship with Treacy’s instinct for portraying loneliness and psychedelic silliness cheek-by-jowl. The Painted Word, recorded after Treacy suffered two nervous breakdowns, is one of the great lost albums. Fear and paranoia (‘You’ll Have to Scream Louder’) meet drug dependency (‘A Life of Her Own’) and the urge to return to childhood (‘Happy All the Time’). With its bleak outlook, shambolic tendencies and sad nostalgia, you could (un)happily file The Painted Word next to Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs. Much of the TVPs’ reputation rests on their frenzied mod-punk and unashamedly amateurish attitude to the recording studio. Alan McGee recently wrote in The Guardian that Treacy “provided the inspiration and motivation for me to start [Creation Records]… He captured British pop culture in a particularly unique and musical fashion, and where he went, I followed.” Certainly, 1980s indie music would have sounded very different without Treacy. The international indie underground would sound very different today, too. His bare honesty, direct DIY approach and emotional fragility have made him one of the biggest influences on that scene in the past decade, revered by the latest generation of hip guitar bands as at least a touchtone, and in many cases as a founding father. McGee’s wish for Treacy to be made “legendary in his own time” will most likely remain unfulfilled. Had Pink Floyd disbanded after Barrett’s departure then their legacy would be, like Barrett’s solo adventures, not much more than a captivating entry in rock’s back-pages. Pink Floyd’s later global success as a prog rock behemoth could only come from a band with a totally different outlook to Barrett’s idiosyncratic mindset.
It’s the serious, adult rock of the later Pink Floyd that’s offered rich commercial pickings for
contemporary groups such as Radiohead and even Coldplay; Treacy’s influence, pace Barrett, may be scored deeply on the hearts of thousands of bands outside of the mainstream, but you’d never hear their music in an elevator. Like Barrett, Treacy aggravated his mental health issues with drug use. The past 20 years have been creatively patchy for Treacy and included periods when he’s disappeared (including a stretch in prison). Some fans have courted the idea that Treacy deliberately took himself down the path of drug addiction and vanishing from public view specifically to draw comparisons with Barrett. Phil Wilson, a friend of Treacy’s and a contemporary on the ’80s indie scene as lead singer of The June Brides, told Art & Music: “There was always a bit of Syd about Dan. I thought at the time that Dan would not mind at all being his generation’s Syd Barrett. Maybe he didn’t have enough self-belief to think that he could be the next Ray Davies, but that being a cult figure would be pretty cool, instead.” Some similarities between Barrett and Treacy may be coincidental; certainly, many connections could be attributed to Barrett’s influence on Treacy. Ultimately, though, both are musical outsiders, mentally troubled artists with drug problems, largely indifferent to public opinion and prevailing tastes. Wilson suggests a link between these outsiders: “Maybe it’s the very English eccentricity that many adore in both Syd and Dan. Nobody wrote lines like Treacy’s ‘We went to a Wimpy Bar / But it wasn’t all that nice’, or, ‘And we both felt slightly embarrassed in Soho’. You look at them and they look banal, but in the context of the songs they are spot on, almost like the dialogue in an Alan Bennett play. It’s that attention to detail that lifted Dan above what others were doing at the time.” That time for Treacy, like Barrett, has passed.