Source: Mojo (February 2001)
by Ira Robbins
TELEVISION ENDED PRETTY much as they'd begun, with a show at a small Manhattan club. It
was July 29, 1978, on a night Television myth incorrectly notes as having a full moon.|
Having arrived on the New York underground scene four years earlier, the group had shut itself down without telling anyone. "We'd broken up a couple of weeks earlier," recalls guitarist Richard Lloyd. "There was no mention made at the show, but I knew that was it. It was a relief at the time, quite a relief I remember leaving the Bottom Line, hitting the air and going, Whew, that's it. And no one knows."
It was a fitting farewell from a band that, during its brief passage through rock'n'roll's arc light, had largely kept to itself, putting maximum effort into the music while displaying minimal concern for anything outside it. "Those shows were really, really good," Lloyd says. "The band was really heartfelt. We knew it was the swansong, so there was something extraordinary being given in the musical exchange for the audience, but they didn't have the wistfulness of knowing it was the last."
The band began, as was its custom, with a cover of the 13th Floor Elevators' 'Fire Engine', with singer Tom Verlaine using made-up lyrics, having failed to understand anything past the first line of the original version. Facing a rowdy, enthusiastic audience seated at long cafeteria tables at right angles to the stage, the group followed with 'Glory', the unreleased 'Grip Of Love' and 'Foxhole'. Each song had room for a guitar solo or three – either one of Tom's quivering wires or Richard Lloyd's furious earthbound outbursts or, frequently, both together.
The band then rolled out its heavy cannon – a long, boiling 'Ain't That Nothin'', complete with teasing trace of 'Sister Ray', a tightly wound 'Friction', a delicately unveiled 'Prove It', and 'Marquee Moon', the title track of their monumental first album, a spiralling dialogue of guitars and symphonic structure that could tumble to the edge of collapse and then pull back to safety. Fred Smith pulsed out Television's two-note bass heartbeat, smoothly connecting the rocked-out unpredictability of the two front-men to the jazzed-out unpredictability of drummer Billy Ficca. After 15 minutes of brilliantly sustained drama and a roaring, droning coda, the song ended. Once the sonic smoke cleared, Television proffered more unrecorded gems – 'Kingdom Come' and a psychedelic falsetto twist on the Stones' 'Satisfaction', aimed somewhere between a garage band's sloppy respect for the past and sophisticated art rockers' farewell to it.
According to one eyewitness, "When they finished, there was absolute dead silence in the room. Everyone was stunned. Then, slowly, the applause and screaming started." The quartet, who had stunned concert audiences before with their rapturous intensity and unpredictable improvisations, didn't leave much to weigh down album shelves – only 1977's Marquee Moon and 1978's Adventure (not counting one authorised live album and 1992's self-titled reunion). Sixteen songs, 83 minutes of music. Although both made the UK Top 30, neither album appeared on a US sales chart. It's likely that Marquee Moon, which has no shortage of accolades – Sounds album of the year, Number 3 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics' poll, Rolling Stone's 100 Best Albums (1967-1987), Elvis Costello's 500 favourite albums in Vanity Fair, MOJO's 100 Greatest Albums – has never been in more than 100,000 American homes. Yet its creator set a standard for art, control and determination that has rarely been matched since. It's amazing what could emerge from a Bowery dive.
BORN TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE START OF THE '50s AND raised in the working-class suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, Tom Miller began his instrumental course with piano lessons and a pre- pubescent taste for Wagner, then chucked classical music for jazz as a result of exposure to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He started to perceive the possibilities of improvisation, so long as it was on saxophone. He hated the sound of jazz guitar, only warming to the instrument in high school after his Motown-loving twin brother John played him The Four Tops' 'Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)'. The Stones' '19th Nervous Breakdown' and The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' and 'All Day And All Of The Night' furthered his unsentimental education.
"Up until then, the guitar was a stupid instrument to me," recalled Miller, long after he had changed his name to Verlaine. "Those records made me think the guitar could be as good as jazz." The 16-year-old heard The Yardbirds, The Byrds and Mike Bloomfield's stinging leads on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, records that, a decade later, would help shape Television, whose shortlist of covers included the Stones' 'Satisfaction', Dylan's 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', as well as The Yardbirds-loving Count Fives' 'Psychotic Reaction' and the 13th Floor Elevators' 'Fire Engine'.
Miller's first attempt at playing rock'n'roll was a short-lived group with drummer Billy Ficca that both describe as stylistically unconventional for the time (1966) and place (Delaware). His first attempt at living rock'n'roll that year was a bit more conventional – he ran away from home with his best friend, Richard Meyers, a reprobate from Kentucky who had been shipped off to the boarding school Miller attended in Delaware. The two hatched a vague rebels-without-a-clue scheme to hitch down to Florida, but got only as far south as Alabama, where a rowdy roadside campfire attracted the authorities. To Richard's bitter disappointment, Tom not only returned meekly to school but he finished and even tried college. Meyers cooled his heels briefly in Norfolk, Virginia, where his mother lived, and then lit out for New York City, where he became a kitchen-table poet and publisher.
But higher education held Miller's interest only briefly; within a few months, he had dropped out of college in Pennsylvania and spent what he later described as nine months of taking drugs and growing up. (A few years later, Tom says, he was attached to hallucinogens. By Television, however, his known vices were coffee and cigarettes.) He finally followed Meyers to New York in the middle of '68, missing the Summer of Love by that one long year which had seen the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It was a tense, ugly time in the city as students took over Columbia University, but the 18-year-old long-hair was searching for music and poetry, not urban renewal. He got a job at the Strand, the vast used-book store that is, to this day, a haven for intellectuals on a budget. "Me and Tom hung out together all the time," recalled Richard Meyers. "We'd stay up all night writing poetry together on an old typewriter."
Meanwhile, Richard Lloyd was preparing to set off on his own adventure. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in New York's Greenwich Village, he played piano and drums before picking up guitar. He attended a prestigious high school, Stuyvesant, and then moved to New Jersey with his family. He lasted a year before taking off, around 1969, for Boston and Los Angeles, where glam-rock was teetering around on platform shoes. The 18-year-old "hung out at record company freebies and fell into glamorous Hollywood swimming pools", met rock stars and dressed flash. By the time he returned to New York a couple of years later, he was a bottle-blond punk.
IF MILLER WAS THE MUSICIAN AND dreamer of the pair, Meyers was the schemer, and it was his idea, after they saw the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center, to form a band. Tom showed Richard how to hold a bass and which notes to play. He located Billy Ficca drumming for a blues band in Boston, and told him he was needed in New York. They dubbed themselves the Neon Boys and tried to find a second guitarist. One of the hapless candidates was a local delinquent called Douglas Colvin. Verlaine later told the NME that the future Dee Dee Ramone didn't know one chord from another and asked, "How can people call me hard to work with?"
Chris Stein of the Stilettoes, the precursor to Blondie, allegedly tried out as well, but probably played better than they did. The trio didn't look much further and called it quits, but not before recording six songs on a basement 4-track in 1973. A few years later, an almost unrecognisable version of 'Love Comes In Spurts' and the jizzed-up Nuggets garage rocker, 'That's All I Know (Right Now)', were belatedly issued on a single. Both were Meyers' compositions; Tom's three songs from those sessions remain unreleased.
In the autumn of 1973, Miller played a solo electric show on audition night at Reno Sweeney. Meyers was acting as his manager. Terry Ork, who managed the movie-stills store Cinemabilia, where Miller and Meyers worked, introduced Tom to a young guitarist who was living in Ork's Chinatown loft. Lloyd: "As soon as Tom started playing, I knew something in his approach was correct. And I knew I could augment it." A week later, the two guitarists tried playing together in Tom's apartment. Their course was set. Meyers' aborted his management career, Ficca was again recalled and the quartet they had failed to make of the Neon Boys was finally assembled. Ork bought them gear and let them rehearse at his house. That made him their manager.
"It was like running away from home," says Lloyd with a trace of marvel 27 years later. "It was very exciting, like joining the circus. It was a very heady thing. Extremely freeing." Bowing to would-be rock star pretence, Meyers came up with the name Hell for himself and Television for the group, thankfully displacing the briefly entertained Goo Goo. Miller rechristened himself after the 19th century French Symbolist poet. Years later, he announced that he hadn't read Paul Verlaine at the point, but merely liked the sound of the name. So much for pivotal moments in history. "Actually, Miller isn't my real name either," he added. "My family went from Russia to Scotland and ended up in the US three generations down the line, and their name got shortened every time they went somewhere."
Impatient to share their creation with the world, Television found their first venue by going to see Suicide and The Fast play at the small Townhouse theatre on West 44th Street, just off Times Square. After taking those bands' advice, they rented the place on March 2, 1974 and, in a never- repeated fit of obviousness, performed in front of TV sets. Verlaine's postmortem was simple: "We've got to rehearse a lot more. This sounds horrible."
Three weeks later, returning from rehearsal, Verlaine and Lloyd stopped by the latest happening bar, jammed amid the flophouses on the Bowery. Hilly Kristal hoped CBGB would attract solvent customers to skid row by presenting live country music, bluegrass and blues. The pair swore their band would fit the bill, so Kristal shrugged and booked them for that coming Sunday, March 31, a night he figured on being closed anyway. The drinking age in New York was still 18, the Number I song on New York radio was Terry Jacks' 'Seasons In The Sun' and admission to CBGB was a buck. It sounded like some big set-up.
WITHIN SIX MONTHS, TELEVISION WERE a sensation. And so was CBGB. Lloyd remembers "a lot of [shows] with humungous tuning marathons and broken equipment and that sort of thing", but the press went mad. So did the glitterati – who loved the Dolls but were ready for something younger and newer. (Oddly, the arrivistes in Television were slightly older than the patriarchs of the city's inbred androgynous glam underground.) David Bowie, Paul Simon and Lou Reed all went to see for themselves. Gene Simmons of the not-yet-famous Kiss took one look at their proto-punk clothes and called them "messenger boys".
Patti Smith, who knew Hell from poetry circles and Verlaine from a laundromat (or so he claims), got on board early with a June review in the Soho Weekly News. This she then recycled into a sexually charged note to Verlaine – famously describing his "swan-like" neck as "the most beautiful in rock'n'roll" and his guitar playing as "a thousand bluebirds screaming" – that ran in Rock Scene magazine a few months later. By the time her article appeared, Smith and Television had done a lengthy joint residency at CBGB and Tom and Patti had become a power couple, collaborating on an instant book of poetry and her first single.
Asked about their relationship in 1995, Verlaine was non-committal. "We hung out for a couple of years, I guess. It's really hard to remember. I think almost every woman artist I've ever met has this ideal of being in a partnership-working situation with a man that men don't seem to share."
Smith wasn't the only person hot for Television. Debbie Harry of Blondie said Richard Hell had "so much sex appeal it could lead anyone, male or female, into groupiedom". Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's celebration of the NY punk scene, Please Kill Me, quotes at least three men who adored Richard Lloyd. Deerfrance, whose subsequent CV included working the door at CBGB, booking Max's, singing back-up on record for Verlaine and touring with John Cale, compares them to the Velvet Underground – "beautiful, sexy, hot, raw, mysterious. A girl's dream. People used to leave Television shows all wrung out, like a good night of sex with a stranger."
Deerfrance paid equal attention to their suitors. "When [Hell] and Tom met Patti, Richard sussed her out, that she was cunning and calculated. Tom was infected by her desire for poetry and art. He never realised that rock'n'roll is not the most serious of arts, and he's a very serious man."
It didn't take long for the record industry to come calling, excited but deeply uncertain of the commercial potential of what they were seeing. Buzz was honey, but not the same as money. How many 'bridge and tunnellers' could be counted on to join the dedicated hundreds who were already regularly moving between CBGB, Max's Kansas City, Coventry in Queens and the 82 Club, a lesbian bar in a basement on East 4th Street? The marketing machinery that would engineer effortless stardom in the '90s hadn't yet been built; there was no MTV to sell bands visually. The only important act to rise from the city's underground to a major label since the Velvet Underground was the Dolls, and they sizzled without selling.
Independent labels didn't yet exist (Patti Smith's 1974 single of 'Hey Joe'/'Piss Factory' on Mercury was arguably the area's first such rock release), so it would take corporate visionaries – at the very least people in a position of power whose passion outstripped their fear of failure – to place their bets. Television's initial suitor was Richard Williams of Island Records, who co-produced their first demos in New York with Brian Eno in early '75.
Whatever Island's corporate reaction was, Verlaine emerged from the experience convinced of two things: that he would have to supervise the band's recordings in the future, and that the band's bassist had to go. Hell says all he can remembers is "the horrible tension which goes with being in any situation where Tom has power. He wouldn't record any of my songs. It'd gotten to where I was basically a shadow; and I left the group shortly after."
Hell had seen the curtains of Verlaine's shyness part to reveal an iron will, a matching creative ego and a focused work ethic at odds with the flailing obsession of his live transformation. For him, Hell says, performing on-stage was "total catharsis, physically and mentally". No fooling – at one Max's show in Television's early days, in between manic leaps he rocked back and forth on his Cuban heels until he finally tipped over backwards. Meanwhile Lloyd, in a Please Kill Me T-shirt Hell had made but chickened out of wearing, kept breaking guitar strings but carried on regardless.
Hell: "I used to go really wild on-stage. [Tom] told me to stop moving. He said he didn't want people to be distracted when he was singing" A band that had begun as a high-wire act tugging at poles of rugged vulgarity (Hell's 'Love Comes In Spurts' and hick Rock'n'Roll) and cerebral elitism ('Venus', 'Marquee Moon') was listing dramatically to one side. Heroin and alcohol were further diminishing Hell's utility to the group, although testimony in Please Kill Me acknowledges that Lloyd and Ork were also using.
SHORTLY BEFORE HELL'S DEPARTURE, Television spent a circle-closing weekend in March 1975 opening for the Neon Boys' original inspiration – The New York Dolls – at a Manhattan cold spot called the Little Hippodrome. The gutter glamsters were days away from breaking up. They had fallen in with a provocative London fashionista with ambitions to be a music business Svengali. It was Malcolm McLaren's singular idea to swathe the Dolls in red patent leather and have them perform in front of a colour-co-ordinated red Chinese flag.
But on that fateful weekend, he found Television's style, which was mostly Hell's thoroughly self- conscious anti-style – ripped and written-on white shirts safety-pinned back together, haphazardly chopped hair, a general air of poverty crossed with disdain – more invigorating, and he asked to manage them. They declined. McLaren, with a new vision of how a '70s band should look, went home to try the swindle with some more willing kids in his clothes shop.
Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders' free agency coincided with Hell's, so they formed punk's first junkie supergroup, the Heartbreakers. Hell: "I felt completely betrayed, personally and professionally. Not only had Verlaine been my best friend, but I'd had as much to do with what made the group interesting and got it attention as he did. On the other hand, in retrospect, I can understand why he squeezed me out of the band. I myself realised I needed a group I was indisputably leader of. But Verlaine's behaviour went beyond tactlessness into the most awful blind self-centred condescension and warped meaness. I can separate that from what I respect about him, but it's hard."
The Heartbreakers hardly filled the bill of a group Hell could indisputably lead, something he quickly discovered and abandoned. Amazingly, Hell passed through two of the most important bands of the '70s as a commercially unrecorded spectre. The first long-player in what is still a very small oeuvre was Blank Generation, with the Voidoids, in 1977. Verlaine, incidentally "didn't think much of it".
Verlaine already had a replacement in mind – Blondie bassist Fred Smith (not to be confused with Fred 'Sonic' Smith, late husband of Patti). "We used to play on bills with Television," recalls Fred. "Tom liked the way I played bass and he asked me to jam once. It went fine. It was obvious at the time that Richard [Hell], as far as bass playing, was weak. I loved him in the band, but they wanted a better bass player."
Smith, however, felt an allegiance to Blondie. "I told Tom no the first time he asked." But things weren't going so well for Blondie, and when the offer to join Television was reiterated, Smith said yes. "Blondie was like a boat that was sinking and Television was my favourite band," he says. At the time, Smith thought Hell was intrinsic to Television, "but Tom said, 'He's going – you can be the bass player or someone else will'." After one final night at CBGB to break in Blondie's new drummer, Clem Burke, Smith gave his notice. Debbie Harry acknowledges in Please Kill Me that she was "pissed off. Boy, did he make a mistake."
"There were hard feelings," acknowledges Smith. "But my leaving was probably the best thing that happened to them." And to Television. Guitarist Binky Philips, whose band The Planets shared bills with Television, says Smith stabilised the band. By way of comparison, he offers, "When they got Fred, they got Bill Wyman in the band." Lloyd says Smith gave the band "a tonal centre it hadn't had before. Fred Smith became the stable element that allowed a lot of the interplay, to let the gears not look like a watch that had sprung, but to look like a very interesting group of gears moving."
But Lloyd also praises Hell's bass playing – "it reminds me of Paul McCartney's bass playing in a fluky, freaky way. But it's not a very stable thing, it's a careening and semi-out-of-control thing."
If the new alignment appeared to have a solid bottom supporting two highly inventive guitarists, Smith says Ficca's unique style kept things "experimental. We definitely were a rhythm section, but kind of like [the Experience] on Axis: Bold As Love, with Mitch Mitchell playing as much as Jimi Hendrix. It's all over the place, but it's great. Maybe Noel Redding felt the same way that I did – he had to stand there and ground things."
The new line-up got to work. "We plugged away every day," says Smith. They eventually graduated from Ork's loft to a Midtown space they shared with Patti Smith. It was there they recorded 'Little Johnny Jewel' on a 4-track Teac tape deck that belonged to Patti's drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty. For makeshift sonic isolation, each man played in a separate room. "We were all expert engineers," Fred quips. "We'd hear each other through the walls. Tom played guitar directly into the tape recorder, no amp, and overdubbed a little one-note piano thing." Terry put the record out on his own label, Ork Records, in August 1975. The group had just returned from its first out-of-town gig, driving to Cleveland in Billy's VW hatchback for two shows at the Piccadilly Inn with Peter Laughner's Rocket From The Tombs.
"I don't know how many copies [we pressed] – maybe 500 at first," says Smith. "Then we got a review in Penthouse, and suddenly we got orders from Canada, everywhere, and we were stuffing envelopes." The band became its own mailing operation, and the single eventually sold something like 20,000 copies. The song, which some have suggested is about Tom's twin brother, was for years a highlight of the band's set.
Lloyd, however, objected vehemently to the choice of singe. "My personal view then was that it was not the best chance for us, and Tom was adamant that it was. Seeing as we were at loggerheads, I pulled out." He quit the band. "About two months later, we ran into each other in a restaurant and we started talking," says Lloyd. He rejoined. "I couldn't influence Tom, even by quitting. He's a person with a will that's not amenable to anything from anybody. It's not as though I came to my senses. If I were back in the same place I would still agree with myself. But there was nothing to be done about it. It was still my band, too, and I wanted to be in it, so I basically swallowed the lunch on it. It was important to me to at least have followed the dictates of my inner conscience and shown gumption, and not allowed another person to dicate how I was to feel about anything."
THE BAND'S HOME-MADE HIT ATTRACTED MAJOR LABEL notice. Seymour Stein, who would sign the Ramones and Richard Hell to his Sire label, expressed interest. Lloyd met with him and recalls Stein saying, "I could make you into The Greatful Dead. You won't sell a lot of records, but you'll sell them consistently, and you'll sell them for 30 years." "It didn't sound very appetising," says Lloyd dryly.
The band also auditioned for Atlantic Records, which entailed a trip to the company's Broadway studios and a long wait for Keith Richards to finish mixing something. Finally, they got their chance to play for Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, who, Lloyd says, finally announced, "I can't sign this band. This is not earth music."
"I took that as a very high compliment, personally. But it does speak something about the possibilities that Television had for the kind of well-oiled ease into the mass marketplace – which is not much."
Patti Smith, whose fixation with poet Arthur Rimbaud lent a literary logic to her coupling with the name-taker of his mentor and lover, tried to get Television onto the label that had signed her, Arista, and even persuaded Allen Lanier of the Blue Oyster Cult, who was her other boyfriend (see 'We Three' on Smith's Easter for details), to produce their demo. But it was Karin Berg, the California- based head of publicity for Elektra/Asylum, past home of Love and The Doors, who finally brought Television in from the cold.
Danny Fields, the journalist and former Elektra staffer who signed The Stooges and MC5 and managed The Ramones, tipped her to Television. It took a while before Berg was able to see for herself. Ork finally had to arrange a private showcase at CBGB, and Berg was bowled over. She couldn't believe the band was unsigned, and convinced her boss, Joe Smith, to remedy that situation. "Joe and I went back and [saw them] at CBGB. Joe was really impressed and said, 'OK, let's do the deal."'
By the time they signed on the dotted line in July '76, both The Ramones and Patti Smith (with Tom's guitar work and co-writing credit on the crashing waves of 'Break It Up') had released debuts. But Television hadn't wasted their time. "We used to rehearse six or seven days a week," recalls Lloyd. "Those songs that ended up on Marquee Moon had been through the wringer umpteen times. They'd had changes galore done to them." Determined to produce themselves, Television still needed someone to guide them through the recording process. Verlaine called Andy Johns, an Englishman who had engineered records for Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. "Tom had been listening to Goat's Head Soup," Johns says in The Encyclopedia Of Record Producers. "I flew to New York. I had no clue what the music was like or if we'd get on. My first impression was that they couldn't play and couldn't sing and the music was very bizarre."
Lloyd says Johns spent his first night in A&R Studios setting up the drums without them. The next day, "Andy [played back] some stuff he had recorded. And, by God, out of the speakers, out of Billy Ficca's drums, came John Bonham's drum sound! Tom looked at me, and looked at Fred and Billy. Billy was like, 'It sounds pretty good to me,' and Tom's like, 'No, no, no, no, no. You've got to undo all of this.' Andy was scratching his head. 'I thought, didn't you hire me for this? Listen to it.' 'No.' Andy was like, 'I don't get it.' Tom was saying, 'We want dry small sounds, not this.' Andy didn't understand. Then he went, 'Oh, this must be like a Velvets thing, right? It's New York thing, right?'"
Exactly why Verlaine believed "small and dry" was the sound of Television has never been explained, but he prevailed. As Lloyd explains, "We were fairly convinced that the recording process for us should not involve someone making any sonic statements on our behalf having to do with any characterisation or the addition of any kind of flavour." So it was that Marquee Moon was recorded and mixed in three weeks, with a minimum of tinkering. Smith says, "I think most of the songs sounded pretty much like they sounded live – except in tune."
BY TODAY'S STANDARDS, MARQUEE MOON WAS A Dogme '95 field recording. Verlaine played a little piano. Lloyd double-tracked his solo, note for note, on 'Elevation', which used a harmonizer on the title so that it sounds like Verlaine is singing, "Television, don't go to my head." (Tom had played this game before, smearing "he just had to tell a vision" in 'Little Johnny Jewel' and claiming a coy psychedelic reference in 'Fire Engine'.) The 10-minute title track, an early acoustic ballad of Tom's, was completed in one take that Ficca thought was a rehearsal.
From the opening of 'See No Evil' – a sinuous guitar figure over a bass throb and matching drums – Marquee Moon cuts deep into alien territory, a wash of unfamiliar sounds played on familiar instruments. Superficially, Television were from the New Wave garage, their deadpan direct stares and casual clothes in the colour-Xeroxed Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo conveying the same blank-canvas stylelessness that would become a visual cliche of the '70s. But the record is strung tight, potently dramatic and unfailingly original as it turns and twists through fully developed statements.
Verlaine's singing, compared by Rolling Stone to "an intelligent chicken being strangled", is artless and offhand, yet it intuitively conveys things with the raw intensity of Bob Dylan. The album's spare production makes obvious just how much thought and invention had gone into its details. The sound of punk was strum and run, but Television inflicted greater emotional damage with the alternately chiming and cascading guitars and martial rhythms of 'Venus' (not to mention the perfectly resolved ending and sidelong autobiography of the lyrics), the subtly symphonic structure, including coda, of 'Marquee Moon', the daring down-and-up guitar arc that laces up the jut-chinned 'Prove It' and the terse drum intro that begins the solemnly cinematic finale, 'Torn Curtain'. Marquee Moon has an undertow that is no less compelling today than it was then.
Guitarwise, Verlaine and Lloyd could mix and mingle notes and chords, intertwine their playing and switch roles, as if four hands were controlled by one mind. (Television albums, like jazz records, credit each track's soloist.) Sidestepping power chords and traditional solos, Television's guitars took on the roles of horns and strings in songs of thoroughly modern architecture. Each man had a distinctive style – Verlaine was prone to spasmodic hyperstrummed one-string freak-outs of such ferocity that they could lose all shape and direction until all that was audible was his unconscious. Lloyd took a more controlled, structured approach, using improving technique and discipline to reach for a fine balance of lyricism and passion.
As The Edge of U2 told Rolling Stone: "The electric guitar had really become such an unoriginal- sounding instrument. Hearing [Marquee Moon] at the end of the '70s was just such a throw-down to me."
MARQUEE MOON APPEARED IN THE US IN FEBRUARY. Nick Kent's rave review made the cover of the NME even before its British release. In his comparisons to Love, The Byrds, the Velvets, Fairport Convention, Procol Harum, The Doors and "psychedelic-punk bands" – hardly a recipe for American mass appeal in 1977 – it was evident that Television were seen differently in Britain than at home. The album stayed stubbornly on store shelves in the US, despite a tour opening for Peter Gabriel. "The band wasn't badly received," Verlaine said the following year. "But being the opening act you're playing for somebody else's audience." Verlaine learned to like big stages. "I'd rather go out on a big stage than play a club where it's so cramped."
A single of 'Marquee Moon', its 10 minutes divided unequally across two sides, started a month-long British chart run, peaking at Number 30. That brought Television to Glasgow, early in a three-week European trek headlining over Blondie, who had gotten over Fred Smith's change of allegiance but were stockpiling new grudges. In Blondie's 1982 autobiography, Making Tracks, Debbie Harry complained: "We found our equipment pushed to the front of the [Glasgow Apollo] stage, where Television wanted me to confine my movements to a small space so that Tom Verlaine could stand strikingly and sombrely alone in a very large space when he came on." (Shades of Verlaine's restrictions on Hell.)
In 1977, Clem Burke told me that Blondie thought the Bowery exports would be co-headlining, and that each band attracted its own audience. "The kids [in England] consider us a dance band or a pop band," he said. "They consider Television a Grateful Dead type of thing." Verlaine enjoyed one aspect of touring overseas. "It's neat to be in a foreign country, to have record company people buy you dinners in Paris, to go to these great European restaurants and not pay for it." But the English music scene was another story "People were giving me records left and right. They all sounded the same to me. The sound was copped from The Ramones, and the lyrics, the attitude, were taken from Patti Smith. I know what her style was like at the time she first toured there. I think a lot of people were struck by her attitude, especially bands."
His disdain found a mirror in The Damned, who had gladly flown from New York to Los Angeles to open a show for Television in April 1977 only to discover their services were no longer required. They responded with 'Idiot Box', a vindictively vague attack, complete with sloppy musical parody, on Music For Pleasure. Verlaine's view of New Wave didn't improve, either. He told writer Toby Goldstein in 1981, "A lot of the stuff I've heard strikes me as real derivative of the seven bands that came out of CBGB in 1975. I heard Echo And The Bunnymen; there was a lot of Television stuff in there."
As 'Prove It' outdid 'Marquee Moon' on the UK singles chart, Television started to record another album. Only this time they didn't have a batch of well-honed songs to bang down in a month. The only unrecorded numbers they chose from their stage repertoire were 'Foxhole' and 'I Don't Care' (renamed 'Careful' because The Ramones had a song by that name on Rocket To Russia). Verlaine revived 'Grip Of Love' and 'Breakin' In My Heart' on his self-titled 1979 solo debut, but Television concert staples like 'Oh Mi Amore' and 'Adventure' exist only to tape traders. Making Adventure, Lloyd says, "was more arduous for me. Tom was using the studio as a place to find something. I loved working with Andy [Johns on Marquee Moon]. It was a real rock'n'roll experience. The second album was a lot more workmanlike and more sober – and I mean that in several senses. That, coupled with the fact of there being songs that hadn't been written going in, made it a very different experience."
Recording in New York, at Soundmixers and the Record Plant, stretched from September through December, with engineer John Jansen arriving after basic tracks were down to be Verlaine's co- producer. Mixing was not completed until February. Work was interrupted for a time when Lloyd developed endocarditis, a bacterial inflammation of the heart, and landed in Beth Israel Hospital. Ork arranged for a sick-bed photograph of him to explain the album's delay. The widening of the group's sonic ambitions – an Elektra hand-out notes that the album was recorded in four separate rooms, with a different drum kit rented for each cut – can only have complicated the process. But the group was stronger and tighter, and ready for a challenge.
"To me, the songs themselves don't sound that far away from the material on the last album," said Verlaine. "There aren't many overdubs – just a bit of this and that, lots of guitars, some keyboards. As far as the sound goes, generally we aim to get a different sound on each song." Elsewhere he explained that Jansen, unlike the Velvet-minded Johns, "understood a clean Fender guitar sound".
The album has a smoother, warmer tone than Marquee Moon, as if they had less to prove and more to say. A lot of fans and critics were disappointed, and it's true the playing and singing does lack the debut's tension, substituting catchier tunes suspended in a sophisticated, laconic cool. But the album is true to Television's virtues, and articulates them with clear, clean production. The succinct pop melodies of 'Glory' and 'I Don't Care' go handsomely with the measured, folkish lilt of 'Days', which could be a template of sorts for R.E.M.'s later reinterpretation of The Byrds. 'Carried Away' is a dainty minuet with piano and organ shading the guitars; 'The Fire' proceeds down a cautious noir alley until Verlaine uncorks a wavering, whimpering solo against the timorous wheedle of an ondioline. Only the Stonesy measure of 'Ain't That Nothin'', punctured by two fluid Lloyd solos, rivals the rock edge of 'Foxhole' – and neither song raises the mercury like 'Friction' or 'Prove It'.
'The Dream's Dream', a long, handsome number nicely tricked out with guitar harmonics, a submerged gong, string bass and a quivery Dylanesque vocal on the six lines of lyrics, fades its way to the end of the album pacifically a lovely sonic experiment that seems very far from the band's centre. But a show of the same era that was issued on cassette in 1982 as The Blow Up finds Television pulling 'Little Johnny Jewel' through 15 minutes of furious jamming and giving full- steam treatment to 'Foxhole', 'Ain't That Nothin'' and most of the first album.
Adventure was released in April '78, and sailed up the British charts, reaching Number 7 as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack took over the top spot. Little did The Bee Gees know that punk, busy safety-pinning itself in the wings, would soon wreak commercial vengeance on them, but Television didn't stick around long enough to dance on their grave. In America, Adventure did nothing, and by August it was the work of a band that no longer existed. The break-up, in July 1978, has been variously blamed on Tom's domineering personality, the loss of record company support following Berg's departure, disappointing sales, the lukewarm critical response to Adventure, fear of making a third album and God knows what else. Maybe it was all of the above. Or maybe there is no explanation. In October 1978, Lloyd told the NME: "I don't believe the breakup had anything to do with anything. If I had been asked, I'd have stayed, but I'm well happy to be out. I'm sure everybody believes that it was intense internal friction followed by a punch-out that broke the band. But that's just not true."
After the split, Verlaine and Lloyd each made solo albums for Elektra; Smith played on both. Lloyd wrote and pseudonymously played on a 1978 indie single by Chris Stamey and The dB's. Ficca joined The Waitresses (and a lot of other groups). Tom "decided to go to the movies for two years" while contractual problems were tended to, then returned – with Smith always on hand – to make a progression of increasingly atmospheric albums on their way towards the artful instrumental guitar of 1992's Warm And Cool, on which Ficca drummed.
Lloyd began a long professional relationship with Matthew Sweet; he also released two more solo records. Meanwhile, artists who acknowledged Television's influence – David Bowie, R.E.M., U2, Sonic Youth, The Feelies, Echo And The Bunnymen, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Church – and others who didn't (members of Television have cited The Cars and Bryan Ferry as bald imitators) carried their ideas forward, applying guitar-borne intelligence to the '80s.
And then, in 1992, Television unexpectedly existed again. A third album, the low-key but substantial Television, on which Verlaine split the difference between 1978 and 1992, with Lloyd, Smith and Ficca providing subtle ballast, was followed by the most extensive tour they'd ever done. Courageously, for a group that had spent far longer apart than together, they started at England's massive Glastonbury festival and the equally daunting Roskilde in Denmark. They played Japan for the first time and undertook a long itinerary in the States. "It was pretty easy to come back," says Lloyd. "It felt pretty good. It was like riding a bicycle." He calls the album "OK" but "liked the tour. It felt quite familiar. Jazz musicians do that all the time – they have a quartet and then they go and do other things and then they return and then that quartet exists. And then it doesn't."
And then it doesn't. The band's second finale came on March 14, 1993 at the Academy in Midtown Manhattan, a couple of blocks and 19 years from the Townhouse. It was no secret that they were calling it quits this time, but the band still had the magic. Older, more skilled and less excitable, they matched the memory and honoured their previous work by accepting what they were, and what they were not. They made their point, and retired with dignity intact. Television, who for many had long been a stick-figure legend and one album, returned to gather dust as a part of rock history.
EVEN IN THEIR ABSENCE, TELEVISION HOLDS A FORCE over the five principals. The connections that once provided their musical strength still hold sway; collectively they are a town with a dark secret. Asked to comment for this article, their responses ranged from silence, to sort-of willing, to deeply-unkeen-but-I'll-do-it-anyway. Lloyd's remark that "for listeners, a rock band is not just four people, it's this other thing" is no less true of the men who make the music. Lloyd teaches guitar, voice and music theory in New York and has a new album, The Cover Doesn't Matter, out at the end of January 2001. Fred is recording his own music on computers; Billy's always playing with someone.
More than a decade ago, Verlaine said, "Television is something I never talk about. It just doesn't interest me." And though he has occasionally gone back on that pledge, he has never been a voluble spokesman for his artistry. "I like thinking of myself as invisible. I find it a very advantageous way to live. Unfortunately it's not the way the music business works. If you don't create some kind of public image, it gets created for you." And so he became the dreamy poet with the big talent and the bigger ego, the difficult artiste for whom compromise is inconceivable, an elusive figure whose motives can not be known. He chose not to fight it. As he once sneered to Musician, "The press doesn't deserve anything but lies."
Verlaine has not released anything since 1992, although he has by no means been idle. He has recorded and toured with Patti Smith since her comeback and produced tracks for Jeff Buckley that were posthumously released on Sketches (For My Sweetheart The Drunk). He composed and performed music to accompany a film programme of avant-garde silents from the I 920s in several cities.
An old Fender Jazzmaster, one he had played on Marquee Moon, drew a top bid of 31 grand on eBay, but the sale wasn't completed and the instrument was disposed of privately for an undisclosed sum. It's a safe bet it will never make music like 'Prove It' again.
But maybe Television will.
At press time it had just been announced that the group – or an incarnation of it – will play at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival at Camber Sands this Easter. So far, Verlaine – contactable only through a trail of friends and music business contacts – has yet deigned to comment on the matter. The enigma that is Television may yet have another twist.