Not so Cheap. TV Smith and the best band you never saw

Possibly the hardest working man in Punk, TV Smith has been an integral part of the British music scene for over forty years. His assault on the charts began with The Advertsthe early punk innovators, who upended the charts with Gary Gilmores Eyes, before morphing into TV Smith’s Explorers with the sublimely wonderful Tomahawk Cruise, before, well, basically disappearing into a black hole for a number of years before re-emerging as a solo performer, being the subject of a BBC documentary, and gigging almost non-stop across Europe.

It was that black hole I wanted to know more about, when TV fronted Cheap, a band who rallied against the injustices of the dying years of Thatcherism and produced one of the best pieces of seven inch vinyl I have ever bought, the magnificent and beautifully crafted ‘Third Term’, a sadly ignored plea to the public not to let Thatcher and her cronies ruin Britain with another term in office.

In the pre-internet eighties, where news of your favourite bands was only available from the inky pages of the music weeklies, if you were out of fashion you might as well have been dead. Only the most dedicated of TV Smith fans knew about Cheap, a band entirely out of tune with that decade, with no synths and no ridiculous hair styles, but with a songbag full of some of the best punk tunes that have ever been written.

Cheap are more than deserving of a little historical revisionism  and I caught up with the irrepressible Mr Smith in Bristol recently to dig a little deeper into the band that Leigh Heggarty of the Ruts calls “the best band that you never saw”.

BTA: Before Cheap were formed you were in ‘TV Smith and the Explorers’.

TV Smith: “Well I went straight from The Adverts to the Explorers. The Adverts were irrevocably breaking apart and I was already planning the Explorers before the end of that band.

At the same time the Doctors of Madness were also breaking up so I wanted to grab their bass player (Colin Stoner) to bring across with Richard Cross, who had started playing keyboards with the Adverts, and then we went straight into the rehearsal room. It was a fairly organic transition really.

We got Tomahawk Cruise out and things were looking good. It got to number 35 in the chart for the first week. But it was on such a small label, an offshoot of Chiswick records called Big Beat, and they didn’t think it would sell at all. So when it got great reviews, and single of the week for two weeks running in Sounds, which I don’t think had ever happened before, it really started selling.

Then John Peel started playing it, and all looked really good, when I learnt  Chiswick hadn’t pressed up enough copies, and all the pressing plants were flat out. They had to race around contacting all the plants to press up more copies, and it took way too long, and the moment had passed. An example of  a typical piece of TV Smith luck!

That was the pinnacle of our success. We were hit with the fact that music was changing and no one was interested in a band like the Explorers. By the time we got the album out you had to be either street punk or Culture Club and the like to get any interest.”

BTA: What was the catalyst for forming Cheap?

TV Smith: “I really missed playing live. I had been dumped by the record industry. No deal, no manager, no publisher, I ended up at home, writing lots of songs and demoing them with Tim Cross, and occasionally sending them to labels and being told to “Fuck Off”.

What was missing was going out and playing to people. The plan was for a small-scale band to get out and around to gigs in a couple of cars and gear. We had no thoughts of being mega-successful but only of  getting out and playing pubs and small clubs. We would go anywhere, any gig that would have us and pay the petrol money.

I just wanted to play. It was nice recording again, and getting my songs down on tape, but what was the point if no one heard them? Even it was just twenty or thirty people at a gig we were playing live and I was getting that buzz.

We headed out anywhere, ending up in places like Barnsley, would do the gig, and then sleep on people’s floors. We were on the dole, thinking on our feet, phoning the dole office in London from Cardiff and saying we were terribly ill and could not come in that day.”

BTA: You managed to release one superb single ‘Third Term’ backed with ‘Buried by the Machine’ while together, but the album ‘Everything must go’ did not make it out until the band was no more.

TV Smith: “Third Term was the only thing we got out. It only sold a few hundred copies, which was depressing. We put on the cover ‘Do not pay more than 1 Pound’ but people were still selling it for 4 pounds, or whatever. We couldn’t beat the system, whatever we tried to do. They were terrible times, continually battling against the opposition as an independent musician.

We had no chance of trying to do our own thing as against what the music business wanted. Now it is a dream compared to then. You can make your own records independently, sell them at your merch stand and play your gigs independently. In the eighties there was NOTHING. Unless you were picked up by a label, there was no DIY scene, there was no guitar music, and there was nowhere to play. You were looking into a hole whatever you would do.

Making the album was a fantastic thing though, getting all the songs down, but even that was a struggle. There was a studio closing down, they had gone bankrupt, but they had one band who had paid and booked for the very last week and they went in the day time, while we went in at night for free. Captain Sensible and his manager Andy McQueen stumped up a bit of money to help finish the album, but unfortunately getting a few friends to help us out did not translate to actually getting it released then.

Only after the band broke up did we put it out as ‘Everything must go”. But like you I loved the songs, they outlived the band. The Lords of the New Church covered Lords Prayer, and the German punk band Die Toten Hosen picked up loads of the songs for the album we did together ‘Useless’.”

BTA: How did Die Toten Hosen find out about Cheap?

TV Smith: “They just love UK punk music. They did the punk cover compilation ‘Learning English Lesson One’ and were using Arthur from the Lurkers to get people from the original bands to collaborate and do there parts on the album.

He drove me up to the studio they were using in North London. I’d never even heard of Die Toten Hosen although they are this massive stadium number one  biggest selling punk rock band, and they were this really nice bunch of people who said we don’t really need to do this punk album, we are famous enough without it, but we really love punk music and this our way of saying thank you, and its our tribute, and our way of introducing the original punk rock bands to our German audience. And it really did, it helped out a lot of English punk bands to get a foot in over there.

It was a springboard, I did some gigs with them on tour, and then some solo gigs, and as opposed to Cheap I started off on this trajectory which kept rising and I keep getting larger and larger audiences, whereas with Cheap it seemed to just keep on falling.

Don’t get me wrong. With Cheap we had a fantastic time, we got on well, were great mates, and travelled around without any expectation of having any success. But after a couple of years, particularly after you have made a record, and then are not able to get it out, you say where do we go from here?

How do you write a new album when you are unable to get your first one out? So for me, I couldn’t write the second Cheap album, there was nothing to write, the only thing I could do is look for a different genre, which is why (the solo TV Smith album) ‘March of the Giants’ sounded the way it did. All I had left was to try a different direction, and then I began to feel myself inspired again, as I wasn’t constrained by writing for a band.

Once I started working on that album I got very excited, trying instruments I had never come across before, which brought it all to life again, getting out of rock and having songs as songs. All I had done was rock up to that point. And I can’t stop writing songs! I have a new albums worth now which I’m recording in-between gigs. I can’t stop creating them. Too many maybe! I can’t fit them all in.

BTA:  The need to play live again is what spurred you to form Cheap, but now, as a solo performer, you seem to be out to be breaking records with the number of gigs you do each year!

TV Smith: “I do something like 130 gigs a year, it keeps me fit, and there is no Punk Rock pension plan, so I’m never going to stop. When I was in Cheap in the end it just  wasn’t financially sustainable, but now, if you are prepared to work, use the internet, and sell merch, you can make it sustainable.

Merchandise is a big help financially, and for many it is the only way to get my stuff, it does not sell in record shops or even online. People come and see me after a gig and say I want some of that music at home, and you also make that connection with them. It’s bloody hard, sometimes I get off stage and I am dripping with sweat and all I want to do is collapse onto a seat, but I don’t; I talk to people, sell them records, have my photo taken, its all part of my job.

I know this all started small, having a few committed fans that wanted to talk to me, and support me, and I never forget that’s what has made this possible now. I respect the things that made this happen in the first place. I have had plenty of years when it has not been possible, not been sustainable, so I am not going to break the formula now that it is working.

Obviously a big factor that had made it sustainable for me is that I am solo performer. Inevitably a band like Cheap has four to five people, a driver, and then you need to find places to stay, it all costs much more, and sorry I am not going to sleep on a table in someone’s front room anymore!

I would never give up playing solo to be honest as I love it, I love the challenge of walking into a venue of 50 or 500 people and it is up to me to make it work. It still sends a thrill through me, and I think it always will.”

Prove TV wrong and get some of his wonderful music online, particularly the Cheap Anthology CD packed full of everything they wrote including a wonderful Peel session where the band play incendiary versions of Third Term and Buried by the Machine.

Buy it at the TV Smith online shop along with lots of other goodies, including his autobiographical travel diaries or at the normal online retailers such as Amazon.

Photos by Thierry Kerkhornou, Per-Ake Warn and Ian Dickson

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