published: 24 /
Former Adverts frontman TV Smith speaks to Andrew Twambley about his new solo album 'Lockdown Blues', which was inspired by the pandemic and his own illness with COVID 19.
Anyone with even a remote interest in the 1976/77 punk explosion knows about TV Smith and his band, the Adverts. Most will recount the 1977 hit single 'Gary Gilmore's Eyes', but Tim (as I was allowed to call him) is a lot more than one single. Not only did he contribute massively to the first wave of punk, releasing a seminal punk album in 'Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts', but since then he has been a non-stop musical dynamo releasing numerous albums and touring incessantly. His unabated musical lifestyle came to an abrupt halt in March this year when he contracted COVID 19, but that gave him time to step back and write, record and produce his latest album, 'Lockdown Holiday'...and it gave Pennyblack the chance to grill him on the album, punk, COVID 19 and his love of Cockney Rebel.
PENNYBLACK: Good morning and thanks for taking the time out of your day to speak to us. Before we start, what do I call you, TV, Mr Smith, Timothy, Tim or Smithy ?
TV SMITH: Ha, Tim will do just fine.
PB: So, let’s have a look at 2020 so far. You made a blistering start with gigs in Germany, Gran Canaria, then on tour with Stiff Little Fingers but then you had a coffee at a motorway service station.
TS: It was really building up to be a fantastic tour. So, I queued up for a coffee with my girlfriend Sally, and the guy who was driving us, Alan, stayed outside for a cigarette, and a guy sneezed in front of us and the two of us got Coronavirus, and Alan who was outside having a fag didn’t catch it. That’s how we could pinpoint it at exactly the moment when we caught it.
PB: And how did you suffer as a result of the virus?
TS: Our main symptoms were extreme fever, pain and fatigue. We were both pretty much the same, and that later developed into long term fatigue.
PB: Do you still feel it now?
TS: Yeah. It comes and goes. It’s a very weird sort kind of illness in that every time you think you’re getting over it, then it comes back and sort of bites you on the bum again. I mean the good thing about it is that I’ve been able to keep active and work. Even when I came out of the first phase of it I went and recorded a load of videos at home to put out on the internet and keep going. You have to fight these things and not give in and lie down and say its all over.
Personally, having experienced it, it just sickens me to see people like Trump downplaying it. Someone with the best medical guys you can get on earth saying there is nothing to worry about. That makes my blood boil.
PB: That’s if it wasn’t a complete hoax in the first place.
TS: I have no idea.
PB: Sounds as if it was to me.
TS: If it is a rouse for him to get a re-elected I hope it backfires on him.
It is just the normal kind of bullying misinformation that he has been specialising in for the last four years and more. It absolutely sickens me to see it.
PB: Same here. COVID has been rotten for everybody, it has been a complete leveller across the whole of the world really, hasn’t it? Apart from doing your videos which I saw you put on your website, how have you been filling this time because you’re a guy whose always on the road and you’re always busy?
TS: Well, what happened was that suddenly with time on my hands I started writing. So, at first I wanted to write a song that was specifically about what had happened to me coming home from tour, and it was a much more of personal song about specific things than perhaps I’d normally write. So, I wrote that and I realised that there was an awful lot more to say about the whole situation. When I looked at what was going on, the way it has been handled and the way it was completely mismanaged… people were dying, people getting sick when they shouldn’t have, so I just carried on writing really and before I knew it I had eleven songs and a new album.
PB: And that’s 'Lockdown Holiday', isn’t it?
TS: That’s the new album 'Lockdown Holiday' which is coming out at the end of November.
PB: Luckily for me I’ve been able to listen to it throughout. It is a very strong political album which leaves us in no doubt about your political leanings. That was presumably a conscious decision once you had started?
TS: I just wrote about the way I felt about things. I don’t think I have ever had the opportunity to just write because I’m out on tour two thirds of the year. Being at home consists of a few days of unpacking the bag and then repacking it and going off again. This was the first really chance I have had to write since pre-the Adverts really! And, yeah, so I feel it was a chance to crystalise what I thought about what’s going on in the world, and, of course, that’s not just COVID…but the way those in power seek to handle things.
PB: Us and them.
TS: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, as you say, COVID’s a great leveller. but even then what’s going on and the way were dealing with it in the West has no comparison to the way it is hitting people in refugee camps, or in Third World countries and the way it’s going to sweep through Africa and India and all the poor nations of the world after the West has got its vaccine and is starting to be on the mend. It’s going to carry on wreaking devastation through poor countries, so it’s far from being a leveller. I actually think it will really expose the differences between the rich and the poor.
PB: 'Lockdown Holiday' sounded like it was 100% TV Smith. Was anyone else involved in recording it?
TS: Well, now that was the thing. I mean I wasn’t allowed to have anyone around to help me record it, so I started off with the premise that I was just going to do it myself and that’s what I did. I literally was locked in my home studio and I wrote and recorded everything.
PB: I love 'The Lucky Ones'. It’s a really catchy tune. “Nobody suspects it when you’re infected”….. I presume that’s the story of your personal COVID journey From going on tour, the petrol station and then onwards.
TS: Indeed, it’s my story as it develops later in the song. and it’s about the fact that if you ignore what’s going on in the world then you’re actually infected with the problems of the world.
PB: And ‘Send in the Clown’. It’s not exactly unclear which great big buffoon that you’re actually talking about, is it?
TS: I couldn’t possibly comment.
PB: Mentioning no names, does he live in Downing Street somewhere, blusters and never answers a question anyone asks him? Would I be in the right direction there?
TS: How do these people get away with it ?
PB: The whole cabinet are completely useless and none of them answer any questions.
TS: It’s a cabinet comprised of ‘yes’ men who agree with Boris about Brexit. They have got no skill or talent. All they do is agree with Boris Johnson, and the pathetic thing about it is that as soon as he shows an ounce of weakness they’ll stab him in the back, kick him out and someone else will take over. It’s absolutely ruthless.
PB: Exactly. Normally when we are working in normal cicumstances, I’m a photographer, specifically a rock music photographer. With no gigs I am back to journalism, and I am looking from a photography point of view at your album cover. It’s a fantastic image of you in black and white, but it looks like it has been taken about two hundred years ago. What is the actual story behind that photograph?
TS: That was taken on the last gig of the Stiff Little Fingers tour. It was at the Bristol Academy, and there was a photographer called Martin Thomson there who takes photos of the artists playing there, using an old pin hole camera. It was backstage. You have to really hold the position for a few seconds and you get all that warmth and graininess to the shot that you can’t get with digital cameras. Everyone’s a photographer these days with an iPhone but it takes something else, as you know, to be an actual photographer.
PB: Especially in the low light.
TS: Yes, indeed.
PB: When people are moving.
TS: What I liked about the shot was it was literally the last official photograph taken before I went down with COVID. It just sort of captures that foolish look of optimism in my face as I was about to launch on the biggest year of my entire career, with some massive gigs coming up in Germany, supporting Die Toten Hosen at stadiums full of thousands of people. You can see all that shining in my eyes…and the next day it literally completely fell apart. But you really have to take the best out of the situation and, for me, to have had the chance and time to let the wheels stop beneath me and to sit down and look at the world and to write and record. In many ways I find that has been better for me than just slogging it out on the road.
PB: Excellent. Being a Manchester lad I note that Manchester Academy next March 19th you’re booked in. Fingers and toes crossed that we’re still going ahead.
TS: Well, the tour was rescheduled for September 2020 and then re-rescheduled for next March, so we are obviously all really hoping that it will actually happen next March.
PB: Will you be performing the whole album on your next tour? Or as much as you can?
TS: I would very much like to perform the whole album, and I think every song stands up and I like it as a whole. I mean it is virtually a concept album the way one flows on to the next because that’s the way they were written. So I would really like to do it as a piece live, but returning to live is quite a long way off, so I wouldn’t make any predictions.
PB: Let’s keep our fingers crossed because some people have started pushing dates back to September now.
TS: Oh, I know. Until a vaccine does get rolled out there is really no guarantee when there are going to be gigs. I’ve got a couple of social distanced gigs coming up if there is no local lockdowns. I’ve done two already in Ipswich with everyone sitting in sixes at tables separated from each other and it was not bad, not a bad way to do it. At least it was a feeling of coming back to live shows. and I did do all the songs from the new album over those two gigs. It’s the best we can get, so we’ll take the best we can get. We can’t get everything we want.
PB: You weer brought up in rural Devon. Who were your music idols back then when you were a kid?
TS: I’d say Bowie, I suppose, if I had to pick one. I also loved anything sort of leftfield, such as the early Roxy music stuff. I loved all that kind of like weird glam interesting song writing, great visuals, odd stuff like Peter Hammill. And I loved Bob Dylan. I loved the Beatles.
PB: Did you always want to be a musician or did you want to be a train driver or something else when you were a kid?
TS: An astronaut [Laughs], not just a train driver, for God’s sake. Got to have some aspirations.
PB: So you wanted to be a musician from early on then, did you?
TS: I started writing poetry when I was quite young, and so I think words were always important to me. Then I picked up guitar and began fitting the words to some songs.I loved the idea of being a filmmmaker as well and I studied film for a bit. That’s another thing that I have had the first opportunity to do really. I’ve had time to learn, video editing and I made the first couple of videos for the songs for the album myself.
PB: I see you emanate from Oakhampton in deepest Devon. Not many punks can boast heritage of Deepest Devon. What was the punk scene like down there in those days? And how did you get out?
TS: Well, there wasn’t a punk scene, but I moved up to London in ’76. I did have a pre-punk glam band called Sleaze, which was pretty much laughed at by the locals. It became clear that there was no opportunity to do anything like my beloved Iggy Pop, down there. There was talk of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and that starting up in London. So, I moved there, but as you know yourself it doesn’t matter where you come from. Manchester was incredibly important in the punk scene and location is not the issue. It’s having the ideas and wanting to do it. It’s just that I couldn’t make things happen in the middle of Devon and I knew that, so I went to where I sensed the action was.
PB: If I recall correctly The Damned took you under their wings, didn’t they? What was that like?
TS: Well, Bryan James saw The Adverts at The Roxy. and mentioned it to Jake Riviera who was running Stiff Records, and Jake came down to see us at The Roxy and immediately said he wanted us to record a single which ended up being 'One Chord Wonders', and then we toured with The Damned on a big thirty date tour in the summer, so, yeah the Damned were certainly good supporters to us and that was another classic line up really...The Damned and The Adverts on tour together.
PB: When I was doing my research before I spoke to you, I was looking back in old diaries and I went back to May 28th 1977 when you appeared at Eric's in Liverpool when you were supporting The Damned. It is forty odd years ago and, although i was at that gig, I can’t remember much about it but what I do recall specifically, for some reason, is you sauntering on stage holding a bottle of pale ale and shouting “…1, 2, 3,4” and getting straight into 'One Chord Wonders'. What do you recall of those days?
TS: The main thing I recall about Eric's, for example, is that they did matinees which was good as the kids could get in. A lot of the clubs, you couldn’t get the young people in, so Eric's was brilliant in that respect. You did one in the afternoon and then you did another one in the evening. I mean I can actually remember, reasonably well, most of those gigs. It was such an exciting time, such a thrill to realise your boyhood dream of being out on the road with your band, having sold out clubs everywhere you went. People were really excited. The thrill of this new music that the audience felt was really for them. Everyone felt really excluded from music pre-1977 as it was not something you could feel a part of. You couldn’t mix with members of the band at the bar afterwards or anything like that.
PB: You could at Eric's. That was for definite.
TS: Yeah, absolutely, and a lot of places went with the punk bands so it really was a new and exciting period. Punk really changed the musical scene, and almost every band of our kind of genre were at the bar after the gig, and you could have a chat with them. That was just not the case pre-1977. Musicians were so aloof and otherworldly and you never got to meet them.
PB: I often mention Eric's up in my interviews with people from our era and one thing they always remember is the toilets and how stinky they were. Do you recall that?
TS: You aren’t alone (Laughs). There is a rule that the worse the toilet the better the gig!!
PB: When I mentions The Adverts to people in general, they say “Oh yeah, 'Gary Gilmore’s Eyes', but I always thought that ‘One Chord Wonders’ and ‘Bored Teenagers’ epitomised the entire movement at the time and were far more typical of The Adverts. Would you agree with that?
TS: Yeah definitely, I definitely agree with that. I mean ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ had the gimmick effect really, the novelty effect but to me ‘Bored Teenagers’ and ‘One Chord Wonders’ were really what it was all about, and I still play them now.
PB: 'Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts' was a seminal punk album highly rated and then your second album 'A Cast of Thousands' did not do as well, but these days it has been recognised as a great album. Do you think you made that crossover from 100% punk too early?
TS: It wasn’t too early, I mean things happen at the time they happen, but I think there was a lot of mistakes about 'A Cast of Thousands' and I would have mixed it a bit different with a bit more power if I’d had the chance – well, you don’t get the chance again so it’s pretty irrelevant. The worst thing that happened was that we had a very bad mixing job on the album, which was out of my hands, and that made it sound a bit wishy washy. It should have been a much more robust sound, but actually the arrangement and the production was disappointing. I didn’t want to make 'Crossing the Red Sea Part 2'. The whole idea was that we move on and do something completely different and surprise people.
PB: That’s what punk was all about, wasn’t it?
TS: That’s what it's supposed to be about. I suddenly found myself confronted with a very sort of reactionary attitude from people who didn’t want us to do anything different. As much as I loved the Ramones, they’ve got a lot to answer for in that suddenly everybody wanted every album to sound the same as the last one.
PB: Looking at your future gig list, it’s got Germany stamped all over it. What’s the big thing about das Vaterland?
TS: Well, what happened was that when Britain wasn’t interested in me, in the late 1980s and early 90s, I got invited to come over and do some solo gigs in Germany. and it just clicked that people we really interested in what I was without the weight of the The Adverts sort of dragging along with their chain behind me. They just wanted to know what I was doing as a singer/songwriter, and asked me about the lyrics, and invited me back to these little clubs. They were brilliant people. A lot of them had a very big DIY ethic. It reminded me of what the punk scene was heading towards in Britain before it kind of went wrong. So, we just really got on, and I just had a rapport and they had a rapport with me, so when I couldn’t get any gigs in Britain I kept on going back to Germany and we just built up a really good relationship. and then the bounce back happened and people started getting interested in Britain. so I started playing in Britain again and before I knew it I had got too many gigs to handle.
PB: Before I finish, can I ask a self-indulgent question? I noticed from your bio you’re a fan of Cockney Rebel. Do you agree with me that 'Sebastian' is one of the greatest unrecognised classics of the 20th Century?
TS: I do agree with you there [Laughs]. Absolutely, I think Cockney Rebel were legendary. Those first two albums for me are timeless classics. and I believe unfortunately Steve Harley has made some idiotic comments about not wearing masks recently which is very disappointing. It disappointed me about as much as Morrissey making stupid comments, but the albums live on. The music lives on [Laughs].
PB: Thank you.
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