Dan Treacy always was my idol
I still think of him
Whenever I’m feeling vaguely suicidal
Which is nearly all the time
So it’s ominous and weird
That he’s completely disappeared
—Mr T Experience “I Don’t Know Where Dan Treacy Lives” (2000)
My Dark Places is the first new record in 11 years from Dan Treacy and his musical vehicle, the Television Personalities, who will be referred to hereafter as the TVPs. For fans of a certain kind of music, there is unlikely to be a more significant release in 2006.
In 1996, crime-writer James Ellroy published a marvellous non-fiction book called My Dark Places in which he documented in painstaking detail the monster that loomed in his troubled mind: the death of his mother, raped and murdered in 1958 when the author was just 10 years old. The murder of Jean Ellroy was never solved, and in his book, her son discussed both his own attempt to solve the mystery, by hiring a retired homicide detective to investigate, and how he believed his mother’s murder defined and shaped his own life. James Ellroy lived as a drunk, an addict, a near-schizophrenic, a derelict and a burglar before he found success and a degree of redemption in literature and AA. However, he’s still not free of his driving obsession. At the end of My Dark Places, he wrote, “I know myself well enough to state that I will never stop looking. I will not let this end. I will not betray or abandon her again.”
At times, Dan Treacy’s My Dark Places is every bit as explicit as James Ellroy was. And, as an extra added bonus, it takes me back to many of my own darkest moments.
It was April 18th 1984 when I first met Dan. The TVPs were playing in the cellar of a West London pub called the Clarendon. Roughly 200 yards from Hammersmith’s Odeon and Palais, the Clarendon show was as close as Dan ever came to gracing the major rock venues until Kurt Cobain invited him to open for Nirvana in 1991. It was also my first ever professional music review.
I could’ve chosen to watch and write about R.E.M., the Cocteau Twins, or Elton John instead, but somehow I ended up on a road less traveled by. It was by no means as dramatic as the murder of a loved one, or the end of a marriage, but it was still a decision that’s defined a surprisingly large part of my life ever since. Yet it’s a little like that story about the hens, the pig, and breakfast. I was involved with music. Dan Treacy was committed. Although the Dan Treacy I knew was a man with many interests, his music was, quite clearly, his beautiful obsession; and the root of his own personal tragedies.
To cut a very long story down to a moderately short paragraph, here’s a few of the relevant headlines. The TVPs were actually named by BBC DJ John Peel who loved their first single. Their second release, the “Where’s Bill Grundy Now? EP was a substantial popular success, and laid the foundations for just about every indie pop band ever to strike a chord and sing something plaintive about girls. Dan Treacy has written some of the most marvellous songs you may never have heard—“A Sense of Belonging”, for example, or “Someone to Share My Life With”. He’s also given some of the most inspiring and most intimate live performances you may never have experienced—“King and Country”, from the compilation Communicate—Live at Thames Poly is all the proof I will ever need. His record labels have supported a number of ultimately unsuccessful yet influential bands. The Saturday nights he and his partner Emily Brown organised in a North London pub called The Enterprise gave a generation of disenfranchised popsters a spiritual home, and spawned a truly global scene. This is a man who has inspired a pop nation, and the people who have confessed as much include Alan McG(h)ee, St Etienne, the Jesus And Mary Chain, and Pavement.
Oh, and me. I quickly became a friend of both Dan and Emily. Yes, I knew where Dan Treacy lived. Indeed, I was a frequent visitor to 9 Poynders Court, Clapham, and I was even on first name terms with their cat, Hockney. My life became slowly but irrevocably entangled with those of a number of the bands I met through our friendship. My tape library became dominated by live recordings I made of the TVPs and the bands that Dan promoted. And eventually, inevitably, as I proved unable to achieve the things I desperately wanted to do with and for those bands, as the world I had built for myself began closing in around me, I hit a wall that Dan later described as “My Very First Nervous Breakdown”.
Ultimately, my attachment to my obsession turned out to be less strong than those of many better people. When I realised what was happening to me, I got my flock out of Dodge and headed for the hills. The Italian hills, actually. I took a full four years out from music of any kind. I got healthy, a sense of perspective, and I got a life that had nothing to do with my impossible pop dreams, so that eventually I was able to re-engage with music in a way that worked for me.
But Dan couldn’t stop dreaming his impossible dreams.
I wonder if he feels like a genius
Or if anybody ever really can
I guess we always knew Dan Treacy was
A deeply troubled man
And I’ve got everything he said
Still embedded in my head
—Mr T Experience “I Don’t Know Where Dan Treacy Lives
In the ‘90s, Dan Treacy descended into mental illness, addiction, shoplifting, homelessness and incarceration. For several years, he was missing, believed dead. This is the inescapable backstory to My Dark Places, a collection of songs that repeatedly address the issues that may have pushed him over the edge. Scorning the fine line tightrope between genius and insanity, My Dark Places merges the two defiantly, magnificently at times.
Curiously, the opener “Special Chair” does nothing to hint at what follows. Dan’s guitar strikes dark, fuzzy felt chords. A rhythm builds and repeats, and rises into an insistently repetitive drone layered with psychedelic keyboards and a single note from what sounds like a children’s piano. A story emerges that would be completely at home with vintage TVPs songs such as “A Family Affair” or “A Life Of Her Own”. “An unmarried mum in a council slum” whiles away the days until her one true love is released from prison, by sleeping with his best friend. Her parents despair, and domestic violence is inevitable.
“All the Young Children on Crack” is the most obvious example of My Dark Places’ tendency to rely on rhythm, rather than pop hooks. A strangely affecting, simplistic extended nursery rhyme, this song has, unbelievably, been released as a single. Sadly, I think I smell a record company determined to link Dan Treacy with Pete Doherty. Weirdly, I think someone could do a marvellous remix and make Dan enough money to buy a house.
“Sick Again” offers a melancholic Parisian keyboard and Dan’s fear of relapse and recidivism. It also explains that “I lost the plot. I didn’t know what I had”. If “Sick Again” hints at what lurks in Dan’s dark places, “My Ex Girlfriend Club” lets the felines completely out of the bin liner and no mistake. It’s all rhythm and disassociated noise, with Dan in the sort of full-on free flow mood that always suggested he was making it up as he went along. “Hi! Welcome to my ex-girlfriend club. Have you met Alison, Emily, Christine?” Well, yes, actually. “Help yourself to the salad bar ... You wonder why I act the fool? Because you treat me like one”. Self pity, self-loathing and bitterness trade blows with extracts from Althia & Donna’s “Up Town Top Ranking” and a little something-something from J-Lo, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks, I’m still Danny from the block”.
The liberal and frequently surreal re-use of other people’s work has always been a trademark of Dan Treacy’s art. And while I prefer him when he’s being angry on other people’s behalf, I can’t deny that “My Ex Girlfriend Club” is a staggering creation.
Fortunately, “The Sweetest Of Dreams” picks up the pop vibe a little, in as much as it offers a tune and a chorus, and introduces the contrapuntal vocals of Victoria Yeulet. The interplay between Dan and Yeulet is frequently conversational, and adds a new dimension to familiar sounds. “The Sweetest Of Dreams” could have slotted neatly into any TVPs set from the second half of the 80s, if it wasn’t for the confessional lyrics and Yeulet’s sweetly matter of fact voice.
From here on in, the remaining eleven songs on My Dark Places fall mostly into one of two categories, either resounding uptempo pop or gentle ballad-based introspection. And they almost all address just one issue: love, the pain of breaking up, and Dan’s gradual sense of apparent closure.
“Tell Me About Your Day” is particularly strong, heart-breaking. A throatily grown-up Dan deals with his inadequacies over a sombre piano accompaniment, describing attempts to engage his loved one in conversation just so he can be sure he’s still part of her life. “I want to give you the world,” he says, “but I know all you want is your space”. Amid repeated imagery of tattoos and scars, the message of My Dark Places becomes clear. Dan Treacy, pop genius, had everything, but somehow it all went wrong. It all seems so obvious as you listen to achingly confessional songs such as the closing trio, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, “No More I Hate You’s” and “There’s No Beautiful Way To Say Goodbye”; but to these ears there’s a critically important subtext to My Dark Places, a truth Dan Treacy has hidden in plain sight.
“Then A Big Boy Came And Knocked It All Down” is another slow song. Built upon something akin to Bach, it’s quick to quote an old TVPs song, “Paradise Is For The Blessed”. And although the context is never made clear, and it could be another song about broken hearts and coping, lines such as “What did they know that we didn’t know?” and “Taken for a fool as usual” suggest otherwise. Is Dan Treacy still talking about lost loves? Or is he thinking about record companies and publishers? Or about the people he tried to help? Or the people who took their inspiration from the TVPs, and managed to achieve the commercial success that has always eluded him?
The most interesting song on My Dark Places is, without doubt, “Velvet Underground”. Superficially, it’s a casual guitar-free retread of a Modern Lovers song. But for all the throwaway humour of Victoria Yeulet’s contribution (“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone but Lou Reed”), and despite the slapdash Chas’n'Dave arrangement, this song strikes at the heart of Dan Treacy’s past and future problems.
Despite the quality of his song-writing, despite the unique appeal of his live performances, Dan Treacy never managed to translate the TVPs’ potential into sales, his songs into records that did them justice. As a lover of the band, I can cherry pick studio recordings that come closest to capturing what made the TVPs so special, but it’s no coincidence that the best TVPs album up until My Dark Places has always been 1984’s live recording, Chocolat Art (A Tribute to James Last).
So when Dan Treacy asks, “How did the Velvet Underground get that sound? Andy Warhol got it. I thought we had it. I’ve got the words, but how did they get that sound?” I don’t think he’s being flippant or casual at all. I think he’s expressing the frustration at the heart of his personal problems. He knows full well he should’ve been bigger than the Beatles (I exaggerate, but the little indie girls will understand). He knows that his records should have sounded like a cross between the original Modern Lovers and the Smiths. And he knows he’s failed where the likes of the JAMC and Morrissey succeeded. He’s responded in the past with self-deprecating humour and a little light bitterness to the successes of others, but I guess the realization that, just like “an unmarried mum in a council slum”, he was caught in a dream from which there was no escape, eventually became just too much for him to bear.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? I think Dan Treacy did. Of course, my once and hopefully future friend genuinely wants someone to share his life with. But he also wants to be a fucking enormous pop star. And why not?
Seen through this half empty glass, darkly, Dan Treacy is not Pete Doherty. He’s Elliott Smith, or Ian Curtis, but honestly, genuinely better and more gifted than either. So when you listen to My Dark Places, take a moment to reflect on the pressures and troubles born by many of the people who struggle to give us the art we so casually consume, and consider that Dan Treacy’s work was once childlike in its innocence and seemingly, misleadingly, forever young with wonder.
// Notes from the Road
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