Archive: Century 21 Boys – TV21 interview (June 2001)

It’s just over 40 years since TV21 released their debut single ‘Playing With Fire’ / ‘Shattered By It All’ on their own Powbeat label. Had I been slightly better organised I’d have marked this anniversary by publishing this piece on the release date in April but, hey, better late than never.

TV21 were the first band I “met” and interviewed on the internet.  I suppose it’s inevitable that it if you put stuff up on the Net someone’s going to read something about themselves and get back to you about it. But I was still surprised that my modest TV21 page was somehow found by guitarist Ally Palmer and in acknowledging the site he managed to get himself and singer/guitarist Norman Rodger roped into doing an e-mail interview.

The 21st century TV21 reunion, kickstarted by the first John Peel day, was still several years away so this interview was very much a retrospective on the band’s 3 and a half year lifespan at the start of the 1980s. So here it is in full, split over 2 installments.

I started off by asking Norman and Ally about their independent days when the band released 3 singles on 2 labels to some critical acclaim.

What do you remember about the time before and up to the release of the third single?

Norman: Too much. (I got this far into the answers and knew I was onto a good thing!) In a way that was the best period, we were still full of expectation and, more importantly, still in total control of what we were doing.  You can’t beat the thrill of hearing your record on the radio for the first time, or of doing a Peel session. There were highlights after that of course but really, once we’d signed to Deram, it was pretty much downhill all the way.

Ally: The memories are still clear despite it now being over twenty years ago! When Norman and I get together we often talk about that period. It was obviously important to us. It was something we had both wanted to do since schooldays and although we never really hit the heights we thought we might, the fact was we were in a band that released an LP and a bunch of singles.

The early singles were quite raw guitar driven songs but not long before the LP was recorded the band brought in a trumpet player to broaden the sound.

Was this simply the done thing to do in the early 80s or were TV21 ahead of the game?

Norman: Bit of both really.  I knew Dave from college where we briefly formed a band call The Cunts – oddly enough we didn’t get many gigs, so we split up. At that stage Dave wanted to a singer, I didn’t know he played trumpet until I heard this racket – him trying to play the riff from the Rolling Stones “Bitch,” – all the way through one of my final exams!

We bumped into each other on a bus in London a couple of years later, just after we’d recruited Ali Paterson, and I invited him up to Edinburgh to hang out for a few days.   He initially just banged a tom-tom and other percussion on stage and then, with all the other bands using trumpet we remembered that he could play too (allegedly) so we started introducing that into a few songs.  Dave’s trumpet playing was very touch and go, one night he’d be dreadful, the next spot-on.

There’s a great tape somewhere of him trying to record the trumpet part for (I think) Snakes and Ladders – he was getting worse and worse by the minute and we were all just falling about in the control telling him that he was doing fine and to keep playing.  Ideal Way of Life was another one, you just never knew if he’d get it right – the version that was broadcast on Radio 1 In Concert was just shocking and if you’ve ever seen the Whistle Test video you can see us all wishing him not to fuck up on national TV – he didn’t!

What were the live gigs like?

Norman: Hit and miss – some great, some awful.  The worst was in a college somewhere in darkest Yorkshire where all the guitars went out of a tune within the first few songs, we all broke strings, including Neil’s bass, and Colin’s kept bursting drum skins.  I think in the end there was just me singing along to Colin’s bass drum.  We sheepishly gave up after 6 songs, hid in the dressing room and got very drunk.  The good ones were at places like the Nite Club in Edinburgh just after the album came out, a couple of the Marquee residency in summer 1981, Hammersmith Palais supporting The Undertones and the second show at The Palace of Culture in Warsaw, the last gig on our tour of Poland.

Ally: We never quite got it right. There was a period just before we signed when we grew in confidence and started to really enjoy playing live, but not being a particularly good musician I found it generally frustrating.  The Marquee was a great experience as we appeared to be building a loyal following which meant we fed off that enthusiasm.

Looking back the band garnered a lot of favourable press but failed to crack it to a wider fan base. Were you big in Edinburgh? Or anywhere else? I remember seeing you in Glasgow at Night Moves after the LP came out but it wasn’t really that busy.

Norman: Night Moves – was that the one where I lost my voice? (Now that you mention it, Norman, it was! I’d forgotten) Horrible experience.   For no apparent reason we had a wee jam in the dressing room before the show singing old Stones songs and I knackered my throat in the process.  Apologies to all those who paid money to see us that night. As I remember from a review by the late Johnny Waller in Sounds, we became the “biggest band in Edinburgh, by default,” i.e. all the rest had split up!  Around November 1981 we were filling places like the Nite Club (about 500 people) and we could fill places like The Marquee in London but that was about as big as it got, in terms of our own pulling power.

The band’s one LP was ‘A Thin Red Line’ released in the second half of 1981. The rawer early sound changed somewhat as the band later admitted that it was influenced by the likes of the Bunnymen and the Teardop Explodes.

What do you remember about the recording of the LP?

Norman: Hard graft, horrible night shift sessions in London (the record company did it all on the cheap), the royal wedding (Chas & Di) – the guy who owned the studio near Inverness was a big royalist and decked the place out in red, white and blue bunting – he couldn’t figure out why we weren’t interested, watching loads of pirate videos, tons of beer and malt whisky.    There were some really good moments in Wales doing the last few overdubs and the mixing, which only Ali Paterson and I attended.

We were hanging out with The Teardrops, Pete Wylie from Wah (who sings uncredited on Something’s Wrong), The Undertones and, bizarrely, Motorhead – who were actually really nice guys.  It didn’t really fit the image to bump into Philthy Animal (the drummer) sitting on a tartan travelling rug having a picnic (by himself) on the banks of the River Wye!

Ally: The time in Inverness was fun. It was our first experience of an extended period living in a studio. We spent most of our time recording in our slippers. But the fact that we used three or four different studios didn’t help. I really enjoyed recording Snakes and Ladders, even though it was a little rushed. I can still remember finishing it off before we had to rush off to King’s Cross to catch the sleeper home.

In retrospect, what do you think of it?

Norman: Pretty poor really.  I quite like side 1 but I hate my vocals throughout (too monotone) and never liked the production on it, as it really dates it too much to that 1981 sound.  The band was at its best when played it straight really; I don’t think we ever topped the first John Peel session.

Ally: At least once a year, at the end of a late-night drink, I will put it on. Some of it I enjoy though purely for nostalgic reasons.  A lot of the LP is over produced. Ticking Away is a classic example. And although some of the sounds are interesting (guitars recorded in the toilet etc) too many of the songs lost their rawness. The one song I feel stands the test of time is the single version of On The Run, though it is still pretty raw.

OK, here’s the thing. If you liked the band you’ll have your own opinions of the record and you won’t be burdened by what you KNOW it sounded like in your head. But if you are just curious about the band and wonder what they sounded like, these guys will put you off!

So yeah, it does sound of its time, but then again there are very few LPs that don’t. But, to be honest, the songs don’t suffer from some of the early 80’s production that stifled bands like the Cure. There’s plenty of life in there and to be honest, I still like it a lot.

Part 2 of the interview next Friday.

‘A Thin Red Line’ was reissued 10 years ago as part of ‘Snakes & Ladders: Almost Complete 1980-82’. There are still copies out there if you need it!