TV21- Unsung Post-Punk Legends

Today on Excavating the 80s we pay tribute to TV21, the massively understated Post-Punk/New Wave band who seemed destined for major success when in 1981 they were made the subject of a rave review in Melody Maker and months later became front cover stars of that very paper… only to announce their split the next week. TV21’s sound epitomized the very essence of Post-Punk with all its integrity and aggression, and with a debut album so strong as A Thin Red Line these guys deserved to be hailed as timeless legends of classic Post-Punk. Instead, their story just fizzled out, and they remain unsung and forgotten by music historians to this day. And a deeper look at their history reveals record company problems to be the root cause of TV21’s untimely demise. Yet their material has aged well and quakes with an in-yer-face aggression and intensity that many of today’s supposed ‘alternative’ acts would kill to master. They are a band that no fan of the Post-Punk movement and its imitators should miss out on. So Excavating the 80s is happily obliged to do its bit to ensure that TV21’s legacy and output will live on, and hopefully- as is the intention with all bands featured in this blog- be introduced to new listeners, among whom may be the Rock stars of the future.

TV21 was formed in 1979 by old schoolfriends Norman Rodger (vocals, guitar) and Ally Palmer (guitar), who had been in bands together throughout their teenage years spent in Prestwick, South Ayrshire. Norman met bassist Neil Baldwin at the college they attended near Liverpool, and Neil joined the band along with original drummer Colin MacLean. Good friends of Mike Scott, later to become known as frontman of The Waterboys, the band followed Mike’s then-current band Another Pretty Face to Edinburgh to take advantage of the burgeoning music scene there. In 1980 they brought out their first single, Playing With Fire/Shattered By It All on their own label, Powbeat. Produced by The Teardrop Explodes’ Troy Tate, the two songs of the double A-side contain the trademark staples of the TV21 sound- driving rhythms and an instantly catchy chorus melody delivered by the gruff, hollering tones of Norman Rodger. And it brought the band to the wider public- after Norman and Neil hitch-hiked down to London on a Friday, dropped a bag of records off at Radio 1 and hitched back to Edinburgh on the Saturday- Shattered By It All was played on BBC Radio 1 the following Monday morning. They followed it with another single release, Ambition b/w This Is Zero/Ticking Away (also produced by Tate) and amidst regular touring, recorded a session for John Peel’s BBC radio show in September 1980. This led to a one-off single deal with Demon Records towards the end of the year, who released the single On the Run, and after it shifted 4,000 copies, Demon offered the band a full deal. The band subsequently began working towards the recording of its first album.

Around January 1981, Colin MacLean left the band to be replaced by ex-Rezillos drummer Ali Patterson, and Ali’s tighter drumming style led to new song arrangements, which in turn led the band to recruit a fifth member, Dave Hampton, on horns. Hampton’s soaring trumpet sound added an extra layer to the band’s sound as well as what was at the time a more commercial edge, in-keeping with chart regulars The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. Things were looking good when TV21 were given numerous support slots for well-known bands. In the summer of that year, as the single Snakes and Ladders was set for release, the band was confident this song would be their commercial breakthrough. Indeed, it could have been- and should have been. Snakes and Ladders, to this date probably the band’s most well-known song, is, simply put, nothing short of an absolute classic. A real attention-demanding tune that instantly captivates the listener, Snakes and Ladders is quintessential Post-Punk at its mindblowing best. Carried along by an intrepid, marching drum rhythm and driving bassline, Norman Rodger’s impassioned, angry vocal delivers a melody simple enough to pass for a Punk playground chant, with an intensity that never falters throughout the song, accompanied by a ritualistic backing chant of the title and a spiky, insistent trumpet rhythm from Dave Hampton. And with its big-business scathing lyrics, Snakes and Ladders has the marks of a true protest song, a rabble-rouser that fearlessly delivers its rolling thunder to command the full attention of its listener. It had ‘hit’ written all over it. If it had been a hit, its irresistible catchiness would have guaranteed it non-stop radio play. Even had it been the band’s only hit, it would have earned TV21 their deserved place in the history books and would certainly still be well-known to this day. It would be one of those songs that everyone knows; the kind of song that could easily be adopted as a football chant.

The band members were so sure this song would be a hit that according to Ally Palmer, the week of its release they debated in a pub in Edinburgh about how they would perform the song on Top Of The Pops the following week, certain it would at least reach the Top 40. Alas, it was not to be. Snakes and Ladders made the top 100, but peaked outside the top 75 and passed unheard by the mainstream public. For in the months preceding the single’s release, the band’s relationship with Demon Records had proved unstable, as they had reached a major fallout with the label over musical direction. The new material the band was recording for the album was not commercial enough for the record label’s liking, and following endless arguments, Demon had delayed the release of Snakes and Ladders by 6 weeks. The band had intended to promote the single on a tour as support act to The Undertones, but due to the delay in its release they had toured with nothing to promote, and the record company failed to give the single sufficient enough promotion to ensure a chart placing. From here it was pretty much downhill for the band as tensions increased between themselves and the record company. Both band and label were dissatisfied with the final sound of the album, A Thin Red Line, upon its release in November that year. The songs were not ‘poppy’ enough for the label, while the band felt their trademark raw sound had been compromised too much in the studio. Hopes that the album would nevertheless prove a success were diminished when Demon Records clashed with the band over which album track to release as a single to promote it. The catchy, anthemic Ideal Way Of Life was the band’s choice, but the label opted instead for the more brooding, less instantaneous Something’s Wrong, and released the song in a remixed form which the band hated. The single was released too close to Christmas to gain sufficient promotion and failed to chart, and when the album- despite a rave review in Melody Maker– was either ignored or slated by the remainder of the music press and sank without trace, it seemed the band’s time had been cut cruelly short.

Although the band members still maintain today that they find the album a disappointment, most fans agree that it is still a superb album in its own right. While it could certainly have been better had the band had more freedom, A Thin Red Line is nevertheless a fantastic album; a powerful debut that more than holds its own alongside the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles and the Teardrops’ Kilimanjaro and should rightfully be hailed as a masterpiece of its time. True enough, the band’s sound was compromised in the studio, as it only takes a quick listen to the band’s live recordings to notice the vast superiority of the latter. The band had clashed slightly with producer Ian Broudie (now best known as the man behind The Lightning Seeds) over the sound; while TV21 was a band fully intent on retaining the raw, spontaneous energy of Punk, Broudie had wanted the album to fit in better with the more concentrated sound popular at the time, as many Post-Punk bands made the transition to the more polished sound of New Wave. But although the band’s sound is indeed digitised on the album, a lot of the raw aggression essential to the TV21 sound still shows through. There isn’t a single dull moment on the album, for the band’s inherent knack for instantly gripping melodies sustains through every track. There are many highlights, with the aggressive, horn-driven Ideal Way Of Life (which should indeed have been a single), the contemplative melancholy of Ticking Away (a re-recording of an early b-side), the emotive ballad It Feels Like It’s Starting To Rain and the brooding intensity of the Tory-scathing What’s Going On. As the only album release from their original tenure, A Thin Red Line is a more than impressive effort, filled with superb tracks infused with socio-political lyrics.

But following the album’s failure to make an impact at the time, TV21 found themselves at the mercy of their record company, who gave them one final chance. They agreed to extend the band’s contract by 3 months, during which the band would record a further single purely under Demon Records’ terms, and the contract would only be renewed if this single was to be a hit. By this point the band was pretty demotivated after all the setbacks and record company quarrels, and simply went along with Demon’s wishes during the subsequent recording sessions. The resulting single, All Join Hands, indicates just how different the record company’s expectations of TV21 were from the band’s natural style. Out of all their songs, All Join Hands is by far the least representative of TV21’s overall sound. Heavier on synthesizer use in an attempt to fit in with the synthpop that was big at the time, in terms of Melody and feel All Join Hands actually resembles Midge Ure-era Ultravox. It was hated by the band, slated by the press, and did not make the chart. Quite a few fans, myself included, still actually reckon it’s a pretty good song, as uncharacteristic of TV21 as it may be. And as a lyrical slant against the politics of Thatcher and Reagan it actually works pretty well. Nevertheless, it did the band no favours and Demon Records dropped them.

Now minus a contract and lacking in money, the band made one last attempt to raise their profile with a short tour supporting none other than The Rolling Stones on a series of Scottish dates. By this point they had a series of new songs for a potential second album (NB: three of these tracks- My Chance, Omei, and B.B.’s In Town- were played live on the band’s final Peel Session; I’ve been unable to track down these recordings so if anyone has them please message me! Thanks) but the new songs were stylistically uneven due to uncertainty within the band over what direction to take. Although TV21 stayed true to their trademark raw energy and played a series of triumphant sets to a positive response, the hoped-for A&R men did not approach them, and after one final gig at the Edinburgh Playhouse, the band decided to quit while they were ahead, and announced their split.

As such, although they certainly deserved success, clashes with the corporate giants of the music business had denied it to them, and TV21 faded into obscurity. But thankfully, TV21’s story does not end there. It has a happy footnote which has become more than just that; indeed it has become a whole new chapter in itself. For TV21 reformed in late 2005 for a one-off gig to mark the first anniversary of the death of John Peel, and this reunion was to prove a true second coming. The band chose to continue playing live and made a new name for themselves around their hometown of Edinburgh, still gigging regularly today. Now consisting of Norman, Ally, Neil and new drummer Simon McGlynn (Ali and Dave having moved away from Scotland), TV21 are going strong once again, this time without the burden of record company pressure.

And not only have TV21 now been around longer in their second coming than they were in their first, but they have even released a second album, Forever 22, which came out in 2009 and has been met with more than enthusiastic reviews from their fans and media. Forever 22 is a great album- 28 years after their debut it shows TV21 have lost none of their songwriting ability nor their energy, and without the burden of heavy-handed production the band’s true spontaneity totally shines through. Although the band has only played gigs around Scotland so far since their reformation, let’s hope they reach beyond their homeland to play a few gigs in the rest of the UK and maybe even abroad, for not only do they have more fans than you’d expect, but anyone unfamiliar with them could definitely do a lot worse than check out one of their shows. And they’d be a perfect influence for newer bands of today (Indeed my own band The Bacillus has been heavily influenced by them, shameless plug over!). And to anyone who’s been inspired by this article to track down their albums, I strongly recommend you go after some live bootlegs too, for it’s in the live environment that the band excelled- and still excel- at their best. Now 30 years on from A Thin Red Line, it’s time for the music world to wake up to TV21’s awesomeness.

TV21 Biography/Interview
TV21 Interview
Sounds Article from 1981
Is This Music?: TV21

  1. scott says:

    they brought out an Ep which i am desperate to get a hold of from the early 80’s, any suggestions? eg where to get or the songs thereon. My elder brother had it many moons ago.

  2. iainmaxx says:

    Thanks for this write-up. I bought their album in Gisborne, New Zealand when it came out in 1981. It was one of my favourite albums of that year. I worked at the local radio station and I’m sure I played songs off it on my show. I’ve just listened to it again after a gap of many years, and I still think it’s fantastic. I always wondered why they weren’t more popular, and now I know why!

  3. enfilade says:

    Did Norman go on to form Shame and release the amazing album Symi?

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