A little over thirty years ago, there was an album released that you might never have heard of. It didn’t get a US airing, and it barely saw the stores in the UK before its record company went belly-up. It got a few music press reviews, but none appeared that enthusiastic, and a pressing flaw rendered the first-and-only issue a minefield of distortion and hiss. Oh, and its maker wouldn’t get the chance to make another LP for the rest of the decade.
The record was called Channel 5, the artist TV Smith. Ex-of the Adverts, the original One Chord Wonders... and therein lay the problem. It was 1983 and Smith, like a lot of the musicians who emerged in the first wave of punk, was deep within a commercial slough from which only an heroic handful would escape. For every Paul Weller or John Lydon, whose glory would shine on at least a few years into the eighties (until the finger of fashion flipped the bird at them too - and it did), there was a dozen others for whom a hit or few in the late 1970s was to be followed by a wilderness that sent some back into the workforce, some into alternate art forms, and some into such dark seclusion that we’re still not sure what happened to them.
Smith was lucky. The eighties ended and so did his exile. A solo career launched with a tentative one-off in the summer of 1989 now keeps him on the road for almost six months every year, and he’s visited most of the planet in the process, whilst writing five books and releasing fourteen solo albums.
A quick check on that. March of the Giants (1992), The Immortal Rich (1994), Generation Y (1998), Useless (2001), Not A Bad Day (2003), Misinformation Overload (2006), Live at the 100 Club (2007), In The Arms of my Enemy (2008), Live at the NVA (2009), Sparkle In The Mud (2010), Coming Into Land (2011), Lucky Us (2012), Acoustic SessionsVolume 1 (2013) and, this week, I Delete (2014).
There’s been fifteen altogether, though, and Channel Five was the first. Nine years ahead of the second, it was a lifetime ahead of its time. Needless to say, very few people got to hear it
But those that did... with the probable exception of those aforementioned reviewers, the people that did hear it unreservedly loved it. They cherished it, they adored it. And, across the silent years that followed, they clung to it like it was the final lifebelt off the Titanic, as the rest of the eighties music scene either crashed into icebergs of its own insipid making, or sank beneath the tonnage of its own improbable bloat.
Today, Channel 5 remains unavailable (there’s a quasi-legal CD out there, but it sounds even worse than the original vinyl - which, it turns out, is what it was mastered from), and Smith himself has put the eighties far, far behind him.
So far, in fact, that he can look back at them with a degree of affection. Recent years saw the release of two CDs worth of unreleased demos, all dating from across his darkest decade, but Sparkle in the Mud and Lucky Us not only fill in the musical gaps on either side of Channel 5. They also serve up some insights into it, while ensuring, absurdly, that it’s easier now to hear the demo of “Beautiful Bomb” than it is to catch the released version... . And meaning, also, that if Smith wanted to look affectionately back at his first solo album, while recording what amounted to his fifteenth, then the songs were closer at hand in his mind than they’d ventured in a long while.
There are some very good reasons for a little reflection. I Delete (TVS/Boss Tuneage) is Smith’s first album to be recorded since the death, in July 2012, of his long-time musical partner, Tim Cross. Introduced to one another when keyboard player Cross was drafted in to add some flourishes to the second Adverts album in 1979, the two Tims - plus a third, guitarist Tim Renwick - were all but equal partners in the creation of Channel 5, and worked together more or less consistently ever after.
Channel 5, though, still feels like the album where absolutely everything gelled. Where, no matter how highly one regards Smith’s songsmithery, instrumentation and production alike rise up to consistently match his lyricism. When Smith sings of weaponized weather in “Burning Rain,” you can feel the keyboards sting your flesh. When he talks of the suit that takes over the body that wears it, the guitar engulfs your limbs like an outfit of its own.
Every album... every great album, at least... is the end product of countless different ingredients working together towards one all-pervasive end, musically, chemically, psychically, emotionally, whatever. It is rare, however that they succeed on such a tactile level... and rarer still that, no matter how many times you hear the album, the sensations remain as fresh and surprising as before. Which means that it doesn’t happen every time, simply because it wouldn’t be so magical when it did.
But lightning can strike twice, and with I Delete, it does.
Again, Smith records with the most economic line-up. A rhythm section of BB Quattro and Die Toten Hosen’s Vom Ritchie leaves him responsible for both the guitars and the keys, and the ensuing union is absolutely alchemical.
The opening “Replay” is more or less a standard latter-day TV rocker, a song that could have fit on any of his last few albums, and a more solid, welcome intro could scarcely be demanded.
It’s a rare moment of familiarity, though, because, from the playfully sinister “I Delete” on in, the atmospheres that Smith is constructing glance back almost yearningly, even as their intention and mood remain solidly forward looking.
Through the martial quickstep “First One To Sign Up”; the locomotive “Long Gone,” the deceptively dangerous “Cutbacks”... lyrically, Smith’s traditional themes of underdogs biting, or at least snarling, back remain potent, thoughtful, intense. But his lyrics are only ever half of the story, and this time, they may be a fraction less than that. Because I Delete is an album of energies and tempers, of unspoken truths and unventured realities. Of lurid economy, but grandiose artistry.
Fashioned from moments that stretch out like moods, the songs are constructed with almost brutal brevity. Just two even glance in the direction of four minutes, while the remainder are firmly in the thrall of the three minute pop song, in and out with cat burglar dexterity. And, unlike the protagonists of the gloriously bippity-boppity “London Hum,” no performance ever leaves something undone.
Nor overcooked. No flourish is superfluous, no lyric is left to linger, no stage is ever restated. Songs soar with astonishing singularity, each lyric offering new visions, fresh vistas. Again, “Replay” feels like familiar territory. The rest of I Delete, though, just feels.
Smith’s punkier leanings come out to play through the romping “Festival of Fools,” but they do so around a rhythm that reminds you just how skewed his vision of punk always was. The Adverts, we recall, were the band that essentially invented a whole new time signature, simply so Smith could cram a verseful of lyrics into every single line - and you still sang along at your own lungs’ peril. “Festival of Fools” is nothing like that. But it’s exactly like that as well.
“It Don’t Work” swerves the tempo into a shuffling dance mode that demands you turn the lights out before you hit the dance floor, and is fed through not only by a guitar solo that has startled insects written all over it, but also by a tribal shuffle through which the bass line plummets like a meatball off mizzen mast. Which is not a sonic effect you encounter every day, and besides, it’s swept up before impact by the guitars. So again, nothing like that, but a lot like it too.
There is the oddly Kinks-y “Home Town,” a song whose sense of soft nostalgia lasts right up until you realize what’s been done to the old place since the last time you dropped by. And the stentorian “A Step Back” kind-of closes the show, but only until the bonus tracks - taken from Smith’s final recordings with Tim Cross - clip in to extend the mood of one album, while offering a haunting vision of what could have been another.
That you first need to negotiate the gloriously extended guitar fade of “A Step Back,” incidentally, is another nod in the direction of Channel Five - and one that is only amplified by the spoken vocal samples that lead into the German-language “Der Stacheldrahtmann.” A song which then unfolds in a similar musical direction to Tom Robinson’s “Tango Und Der Wand,” and is just as faintly disturbing beneath its painted smile.
I Delete is notChannel Five Redux, or 1983 Revisited. There is not a single song here that sounds remotely like “On Your Video,” “Cracking Up” or “London Beach.” There are no songs about awful amputations, or necrophile romantics.
The similarities are more subtle than that, and they are more daring, too.
They exist in the knowledge that you don’t need to have heard a single TV Smith album in the past, to enjoy everything laid out in the present.
They thrive in the sense that anything goes, in the single-minded pursuit of Smith’s own brilliance, irrespective of the shadows that shift and the notes that echo.
Long time fans will revel in the knowing glance and secret smiles that pass between ears that recognize the signals. An intonation, a breath, a spirit. But though you may think you know the ghosts that haunt the melodies with memories of then, the old friends are going to remain total strangers till you’ve spent more time in their company.
It’s an album that you feel you ought to know backwards. And which you will spend all the time you need to making sure that you do.
You’re not going to see I Delete on the top of the Billboard chart, and it won’t be the banner ad next time you visit Amazon. But make a list of all the albums that do achieve those things, sit back and wait a couple of months, and then see which has stayed with you the longest. A bunch of stuff that you have already deleted? Or a TV Smith album called I Delete?
You probably know the answer already.
I Delete - order now from TVSmith.com