These days, it sometimes feels as though you’d need to win the lottery to keep up with him, as the past three years have conspired to unleash no less than eight new albums, collections and archive finds upon a world which… well, we could say, if people had been paying attention at the time, they wouldn’t be needing to buy them all now. But we know that’s not true, because if they had been paying attention at the time, then they wouldn’t be able to resist the reissues.
Deep breath. Two collections of unreleased and, for the most part, utterly unheard demos recorded during a mid-1980s spell when Smith was without a record deal… Sparkle In The Mud and Lucky Us.
Bonus-stacked reissues of a pair of albums cut at either end of that same benighted decade, TV Smith’s Explorers’ Last Words and TV Smith’s Cheap’s Everything Must Go, plus a remastered edition of March of the Giants, his early 90s sophomore solo set.
A brand new studio album, Coming Into Land, and a vinyl-only pressing of his first ever LP, a self-titled limited edition recorded with his college band Sleaze in 1975.
And now, Acoustic Sessions Volume One, a twenty-four track CD that looks back as far as the Adverts and eventually serves as an unplugged primer for anyone looking for the man’s greatest hits. Which, you may be surprised to lean, accounts for a lot of people.
After a decade-plus fronting sundry bands of quite astonishing punch and power, Smith first ventured into solo waters in 1989, taking the stage at a small north London pub with an acoustic guitar and a handful of songs, just to see what it felt like. Cheap, a behemoth of electricity and gnarly snarled anger, were still a going concern at the time; were about to record their debut album. And Smith had never performed so alone in the past.
But the night was a success; more shows were booked – by the time the Cheap album was complete, an acoustic Smith performance was included as the bonus track on the “Third Term” 12-inch single. And when the band broke up shortly after, away he went, strumming round the clubs of England… which spread to the clubs of Europe… which spread to the United States, South America, Japan and Australia. Alone, or with one of the various pick-up bands he seems to have stored in very country on the planet, Smith has crossed more time zones than the Adverts crossed red seas. Accompanied, in case you missed them, by eight new studio albums, a pair of live discs, a BBC TV documentary and three volumes of must-read tour diaries.
To paraphrase one of the songs on Acoustic Sessions… not a bad couple of decades.
Feeling grumpy, it would be easy to glance at the track listing here and assume you’ve heard it all before. Elements of the Adverts’ back catalog have been regular visitors to his live repertoire since the mid-1990s, the Explorers and Cheap as well. In fact, he has already revisited his past once before, on 2001’s Useless, a “greatest hits” set rerecorded with German superstars Die Toten Hosen; while the entire Adverts debut album was the subject of 2007’s TV Smith & The Bored Teenagers Perform Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts Live At The 100 Club London.
Add the handful of oldies wrapped up within Live at the NVA Ludwigsfelde, Germany a couple of years later; add to that sundry oldies resurfacing on b-sides, EPs and compilation albums, and do we really need another “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”? “One Chord Wonders”? “No Time To Be 21”?
With apologies to your household budget… yes we do.
Smith’s strength as a songwriter has never been in doubt; one of the first pieces of positive press the Adverts ever received referred to him as the Poet Laureate of Punk, and it’s a tag he has never lost. But he is also an astonishing performer as well, one of the precious few who really can conjure compulsive viewing out of a skinny guy playing an acoustic guitar, and compulsive listening too. The voice has darkened and deepened since the earliest songs were written, but the intentions that lay behind even his earliest lyrics remain key to Smith’s internal make-up, and no matter how many different versions of each you have heard, the next will always sound fresh. Which is a talent that even he didn’t know he possessed until the oldest songs were themselves twenty-one. Or so.
Besides, if the Adverts, the Explorers and Cheap catalogs rank among his most golden oldies, still they devour little more than one-third of Acoustic Sessions’ total bodyweight, as Smith reaches across his entire solo career (well, almost… 1983’s toe-in-the-water Channel Five remains AWOL, both here and on the racks) for songs that don’t only stand in the same room as the oldies, but build on their foundations, too.
An acoustic troubadour playing with just as much fire as the most dramatic electric combo, Smith neither lost nor downplayed a single iota of the punkish rage with which he was initially heard – songs like “Only One Flavour” (opening the album with Brobdingnagian flair) “The Future Ued To Be Better,” “We Want The World,” “Not In My Name” (and that’s just for starters) pack a savagery that would astonish if you could catch your breath long enough to think. As it is, they bear you along on a tsunami of imagery, intention and impatience.
Occasionally he deviates into story-type songs – “The Day We Caught The Big Fish,” lamenting the fate of a fishing crew whose nets have been snagged by a submerging submarine, is scarcely your typical subject for a song, but Smith pulls it off. (Which is more than the trawler’s crew managed.) Of course he did – “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” the story of an eye transplant patient who awakes to find his new cornea were donated by the recently executed murderer, was hardly typical pop fare in 1977, and it made the UK Top 20.
From Henry Rollins to the Waterboys; from sundry punky rebirths to a host of fresh acoustic troubadours; from Suzy & Los Quattro to Punk Lurex, to Die Toten Hosen and beyond, TV Smith’s influence over the past thirty years worth of literate rock performers has never been in doubt. But neither has it been shouted about, not in the pages of the music press and not by Smith himself. Until now. Listen to Acoustic Sessions, listen through Acoustic Sessions, and a world of disparate extremes and ideals unfurls that you might never have pieced together before. But it’s here, and once you see it, you might never want to listen to anything else again.
“The future,” Smith sings, “used to be better.” Well, short of that long-awaited reissue of Channel Five, and another volume of lost songs and demos, it’s hard to see how it could be.