February 1979. Britain was gripped by an unprecedented crisis. Bin men, gravediggers and lorry drivers were on strike, unemployment was soaring, inflation rampant and the weather bitter, while Margaret Thatcher was three months away from the start of her divisive reign.
It was against this grim backdrop that The Skids, a four-piece band from Scotland who rode the second wave of punk rock with outfits such as The Ruts and Siouxsie & the Banshees, released their second major-label single. The A-side was Into The Valley, which crept into the UK top 10, backed up by a track recorded live at London’s Marquee club the previous November.
TV Stars remains one of the great B-sides. Now is the winter of our discontent, as Shakespeare wrote in Richard III, made glorious summer by these sons of Dunfermline, which he would surely have been inclined to add if he’d heard this 1min 45sec of youthful, exuberant magic.
Contrary to the media image of punk, the song was not an exhortation to anarchy and class war or a paean to promiscuity or foul language. It was in the grand tradition that had been a long-running strand in pop music and which continues today: the list song.
Ray Davies had done it with typical eloquence on the title track of the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society album (name-checking Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, Dracula and myriad others in a hymn to nostalgia). Paul McCartney dabbled on Wings’ Let ’Em In, as did Ian Dury and the Blockheads with Reasons To Be Cheerful. Meanwhile, on We Didn’t Start the Fire, Billy Joel ran through 100 big events and names from 1947 to 1989. American excess? That’ll do nicely.
TV Stars was its antithesis, a litany of just 12 names (10 actually, two of them being repeated). This stripped-down ‘lyric’ was sung, or almost chanted, by Richard Jobson, the one-time gang member who went on to a career in ‘yoof’ TV and married and divorced Mariella Frostrup before becoming a respected film-maker.
Jobson co-wrote TV Stars with Stuart Adamson, whose spiky, buzz-saw guitar drives the live version along. Adamson would go on to greater success with Big Country but he took his own life in 2001 as his career faltered and his personal life unravelled.
There was no hint of any dark days ahead that night in Wardour Street, just four boys fae Fife having fun. The Skids had already performed the track on John Peel’s Radio 1 programme, where it sounded rather tame without the crowd urging them along and joining in.
The list of personalities, largely drawn from Coronation Street and Crossroads, was clearly a movable feast. On the Peel session, Hilda Ogden, Bette Lynch, Eddie Yeats and the DJ Alan Freeman received a shout-out, although none of them made it on to the 7” single.
That began with Jobson addressing a raucous crowd. ‘This is the political part,’ he declares, going on to mumble about ‘speaking politics to you today’. In fact it’s a celebration of celebrity culture, something that’s supposed to be an invention of the Madonna/Beckham era.
He launches the song by shouting ‘Eddie’s tammy, Stanley’s shammy' (as in chamois), seemingly a reference to Corrie’s lovable rogues Eddie Yeats and Stan Ogden and their woolly hat and window-cleaning cloth respectively.
Then come the quickfire verses, each name interspersed with an angular blast of Adamson’s guitar. ‘Ena Sharples! David Hunter! Meg Richardson! Stanley Ogden!' At the end of each mini-list comes what resembles a war cry. The fans join in as if they were on the Kop, roaring ‘Albert Tatlock! Albert Tatlock!’ in honour of the grouchy old Rovers Return regular.
The second verse begins with the mysterious (to me) ‘Jim Baines!’ followed by ‘John Peel!, Annie Walker!, Meg Richardson!, and in the third verse by ‘Kenny Dalglish!, Meg Mortimer!, Sandy Richardson!, Annie Walker!’ before a final double blast of ‘Albert Tatlock!’
The Skids were soon TV stars themselves, taking Into The Valley on to Top of the Pops. The song was about a boy soldier Jobson knew. He was thrust into Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ and killed. Its opening couplet, ‘Into the valley/ Betrothed and divine’, was far more typical of his writing than TV Stars, a kind of novelty number he was said to be ‘sick of’ even then. Public demand means they will have to play it on the forthcoming 40th anniversary tour; in their 2010 gigs the ‘stars’ reportedly included Simon Cowell and Paris Hilton.
But as the Ramones and Velvet Underground proved, music doesn’t have to have the poetry and wit of Dylan and Cohen, the lyrical majesty of Smokey Robinson, the storytelling genius of Springsteen or the melodic craft of McCartney to be effective and affecting. Sometimes it can be boisterous and basic yet still make the spirits soar. TV Stars, as well as being a terrific live track and gem of the list-song genre, is a colourful snapshot of that monochrome, bleak midwinter.
Phil Shaw first wrote about music in Time Out from 1978 to ’81 before concentrating on sports journalism with the Guardian and the Independent for 35 years. His collection of 7" singles stands at more than 2,000 and among his proudest possessions is a silver disc for penning the sleeve notes to the official 1998 World Cup album.