Please, Don’t Blow Up Your Television

The Vermont Review, 1982

by Brian L. Knight

There are some bands out there that have become lost in time. For all the bands that stunk, this is not a very big deal. But for a band that is responsible for influencing 1980s rock stalwarts such as U2, the Cure and REM and up and coming band such as Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub, the influential band’s obscurity becomes more of a concern. The band of note is New York City’s Television, who reigned the Big Apple’s Punk/New Wave scene during a brief period of the 1970s and then left as quickly as they appeared. Thanks to the recent release by ROIR Records, The Blow Up, veterans of the 1970s nightclubs get to relive their glory days and the younger generations get to witness music originality at its finest for the first time.

With influences ranging from John Coltrane to Bob Dylan to the Velvet Underground, Television masterfully and uniquely combined elements of jazz, blues, garage and punk. The band’s first lineup consisted of guitarist, vocalist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Richard Hell.. They were all Greenwich Village locals who had a New York attitude and desire to make original music. The two guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd specialized in extended jams that led the band away from the New York City punk scene yet it was far too harsh to be remotely considered jazz or blues. Television represented so many aspects of American music- the free-form jamming that encompasses everything from Sun Ra to the Grateful Dead; the bohemian poetry of Bob Dylan or Patti Smith; the New York City seediness of the Velvet Underground; the rhythmic jams of the Talking Heads and the youthful angst of the Sex Pistols.

ROIR Records is the brainchild of Neil Cooper who has been reissuing old classics long before it was a popular record industry activity. During the 1980s, Cooper, a former manager for Charles Mingus and nightclub owner, dug into the vaults to re-release some classic, yet relatively unknown recordings from New York City’s Punk, Ska and Reggae movements of the 1970s and 1980s. When Cooper first started the business, he only released albums on cassettes. In the age when the vinyl album was dominant, this was somewhat of an alternative business practice. Claiming that the individual bands did not want their material released on vinyl, Cooper held true to the all-cassette format. Now that the CD has taken the limelight, Cooper has changed his ways to accommodate modern demands. Television’s The Blow Up is the latest gem to arise from the vaults from Cooper’s enigmatic collection.

Along the Ramones, Richard Hell and Voidoids, The Patti Smith Group, and the Talking Heads, Television defined the scene of the Bowery’s famous nightclub, CBGB OMFUG (Country, Blue Grass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers). To the frequenters of the club, the location was affectionately known as CBGB’s. For those of you that have seen Spike Lee’s "Summer of Sam", you have an excellent visual of the scene that the nightclub attracted and catered to. Just as the Greenwich Village in the 1960s had its Village Vanguard, the village in the 1970s had its CBGB's. But gone were the beatniks and in were the punks and the glams. Besides heading the band that would call CBGB’s home, Television’s front man, Tom Verlaine, was also a key player in turning CBGBs into a haven for the new burgeoning musical style. CGDB owner Hilly Crystal had a vision for the club to be a country/bluegrass joint, an idea that was quickly cast aside by Verlaine’s own vision for Television and New York City music as a whole. The alternative appeal of CBGB’s was quickly joined by other nightclubs such as Max’s Kansas City and My Father’s Place and through these nightclubs, bands like Television, who played somewhere in the village on a weekly basis, were the spearheading acts of the New York City developing new wave music scene.

Although a quartet of equals, guitarist Verlaine took the spotlight during the group’s brief career. Although his music was often associated with punk, proto-punk or new wave, Verlaine’s guitar playing did not stray far from the world of jazz. Instead of using his guitar to create notes in logical parts of beats and rhythms, Verlaine used his guitar as a tool for creating texture. Just as Miles Davis did throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Television’s style of improvisation was not based around a single instrument’s soloing, but rather from a collective improvisation in which all the notes came together to create a unified sound. Verlaine did not rip solos on a guitar is the same manner of Jimi Hendrix. He felt that a song should not be focussed around the solo. In a 1981 interview with Guitar World magazine, Verlaine explained : "Hendrix wasn’t that particularly adept an orchestrator. Les Paul was a real wizard at it. Hendrix’s strength was his solos. I mean, almost all of the tunes on the second record (Axis Bold as Love) were not great tunes, you know. The first records a classic." Although many a Hendrix fan may contradict this point, it is easy to see the direction that Verlaine was coming from. As far a modern day similar guitarists, The Edge of U2 mirrors the style of Verlaine as the Irish axeman believes that the guitar is designed to create well structured song more than a wailing solo. While Verlaine followed the textured root of Miles Davis, Richard Lloyd was a perfect contrast as loved the explosive solos and music of Jimi Hendrix. When Lloyd was 16, he was introduced to Hendrix and according to 1986 Spin article, Hendrix actually hit Lloyd in the nose. When listening to Television, you can easily hear the two remarkably different playing styles coming together to make the unique Television sound.

In 1981 interview with Guitar World, Verlaine spoke of his earlier days, "I grew up taking piano lesson and liking Wagner when I was in second grade." Like so many musicians of yore, Verlaine had innocent musical beginnings and then occurred a change, "… and then when somebody turned me on to a Coltrane record around seventh grade, I took up saxophone." It was through this Coltrane/saxophone phase that Verlaine made his biggest impact on Television. Unlike the sounds that dominated Manhattan’s Lower east Side during the late 1970s, the aggressive punk/proto-punk, Television was far more improvisational. The band was known for long jams that gave them the moniker "the Grateful Dead of Punk." With the steady rhythm section of Ficca and Smith, who were no different then their jazz counterparts of Williams/Carter or Jones/Garrison, the dueling guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd created a dreamlike jam session. Lloyd created the searing solos while Verlaine provided the layered textures.

Verlaine may have loved the saxophone and jazz, but his initial passion of jazz did not carry over when he started playing the guitar. In the same 1981 Guitar World interview Verlaine spoke of his early instruments "I always hated jazz guitar. I loved jazz saxophone but I hated jazz guitar. If I would buy an organ trio record I would make sure I’d buy one that did not have a guitar player on it. The sound was awful! The sound was like ick! I never liked ‘mellow’ sounding guitar. Now I see it has uses but I’d never – even I were to do an instrumental record- tone it like that kind of sound."

Although jazz provided the basis for Television’s improvisational technique, the band also found its roots in good old rock and roll. Verlaine made his crossover once he heard the Rolling Stone’s "19th Nervous Breakdown" but he was also enamored by the Mike Bloomfield’s guitar work on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the works of the Byrds and the southern funk sounds of Ernie K. Doe and the Meters.

After putting a band together and practicing a few times, the first Television performance was on March 2, 1974. Richard Lloyd apparently came up with the name after being affixed to their television while thinking of names. They called themselves "Television" because, says Lloyd, "It's something that's in every home in America. It's so obtrusive it's unobtrusive." While speaking to Raygun magazine in 1994, Verlaine looked back on the naming process: "I don’t like that for a band anymore. I really liked it at the time because it seemed so blank and all encompassing at the same time. And there was cheesiness to it that I really liked, as well.

Television’ s first response from the media arrived from fellow musician Patty Smith who wrote about the band in a 1974 edition of Rock Scene. "Their lyrics are as suggestive as a horny boy at the drive in. Songs like "Hard On Love", "One On Top Of Another" and "Love Comes In Spurts". Sexual energy is suppressed on TV but is the main ingredient of Television. They got the certain style. The careless way of dressing like high school 1963. The way they pulse equal doses of poetry and pinball. Their strange way of walking. … They came together with nothing but a few second-hand guitars and the need to bleed. Dead end kids. But they got this pact called friendship. They fight for each other so you get this sexy feel of heterosexual alchemy when they play. They play real live. Dives, clubs, anywhere at all. They play undulating rhythm like ocean. They play pissed off, psychotic reaction. They play like they got knife fight in the alley after the set. They play like they make it with chicks. They play like they're in space but still can dig the immediate charge and contact of lighting a match."

Patti Smith has had a long history with Tom Verlaine and Television. Smith and Verlaine met in a New York City Laundromat when Smith admired Verlaine’s leather coat. After writing their first review the two published a book of poetry together, called "the Night." The publication is long out of print and now sought after piece of New York City musical history. Verlaine played on Smith’s solo debut album and she was by her side after she broke her back in a 1978 stage accident. Verlaine’s association with Patty Smith was revived when Verlaine played lead guitar for Smith’s 1996 tour. For both musicians, it was their first time back into the limelight since the late 1970s and 1980s. Although both were significant contributors to the development of new wave, their productivity during the MTV New Wave Years was minimal.

Despite the glowing Smith review, things were not going very well for the band until the New Rock Festival in 1975, which really opened the public eyes on Television. When asked by Raygun Magazine in 1994 if the band knew that the new Rock Festival was a defining moment for the band, Verlaine answered humorously and off handedly, " Nah, It just felt like you gotta lug the amp in the cab. The good thing about it was that we actually made money because people who’d read about it in the paper had actually paid to get in, so all of a sudden you have a couple of hundred bucks in your pocket after one show which was very surprising."

Following the 1975 New York Festival, bassist Richard Hell left Television to form The Heartbreakers with former New York Doll Johnny Thunders. Hell was replaced by ex-Blondie bassist Fred Smith and in February of 1977, Television released Marquee Moon, which took critics and fans by storm. Besides having the inside jacket photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, Marquee Moon stands out as it provided two searing guitars and a title track that was over ten minutes long. In the same year, punkers like the Clash and the Sex Pistols released their debut albums and Television ranks well with these two classic rocker’s albums. Following the release of Marquee Moon Television experienced unprecedented exposure as the band opened for Peter Gabriel during his American tour, played a sold –out tour in England and then toured with Blondie. These two band’s relationship predated this tour as Television’s bassist Fred Smith was in Blondie before replacing Richard Hell. Smith would ultimately rejoin Blondie after Television’s break up.

While writing for the Boston Phoenix, Frank Rose about the band in 1977 in an article titled An Elegant Enigma: Tom Verlaine guides Television to the top of the art-rock heap: "A different sort of band: This could be Television's epitaph. At a time when gloss and pleasant mediocrity are the recognized denominators of success, Television dares to be different. Not wild and raw, like Patti Smith, but precise and searing. Their lyrics are perfectly enunciated, but fragmented and dream-like. Their music is biting and acidic. Yet for all its frenetic qualities it is also elegant, formal and measured. The sting of double guitars is both graceful and awesome; the voice may sound fragile and wounded, but the stately pace renders the singer invulnerable. Verlaine turns on this record like a revolving mannequin, slowly, behind glass, as if in some curiously mechanized dream.

Following their tremendous album and touring success, Television went into the studio to record Adventure. During the same year, Television played the concert that would eventually become The Blow Up.

In the original press release for Adventure, Tom Verlaine described the following two tunes that are found on both Adventure and The Blow Up "(The tune) ‘Foxhole’ has been in our repertoire for the last two years, but it didn't get on the first record. It's a dirty, violent number. The guitar solos were done in one take." (The tune) ‘Ain't That Nothing’ was written on the piano, a week before we went into the studio. It was originally about somebody specific I used to know, but now it's not. It was 12 minutes long, but we faded it early at 5½." Both of these tunes find themselves on to the album, and surprisingly, "Ain’t That Nothing" does not get an opportunity to be stretched out as its earlier intention. The live recording is a little over six minutes and it remains relatively true to the studio version. It is with the two tunes, "Marquee Moon" and Little Johnny Jewel", which were first recorded on Marquee Moon , that Television really opens the jamming and provides The Blow Up with its real character. The two tunes span 14+ minutes and allow for Verlaine and Lloyd to improvise freely. The Blow Up was recorded in 1978 and in comparison to the band’s two studio albums, provides a much more accurate portrayal of the band at work. There are much rawer versions of the tunes from Adventure and Marquee Moon as well as covers of the Rolling Stones’ "Satisfaction", the 13th Floor Elevator’s "Fire Engine" and Dylan’s "Knockin’ on Heavens Door."

Unfortunately for music fans everywhere, the magic between Lloyd and Verlaine on Marquee Moon, Adventure and The Blow Up would soon disappear and within 18 months of their first releases, Television had gone of the air, leaving a short but very influential mark on the musical landscape. After the break up of Television, the members went their own ways, save for a brief reunion and successful album in 1990. Lloyd went off to do work as a session man, most notably his searing guitar that can be found throughout Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. Verlaine went off to do a serious of remarkable solo albums (in 1980, David Bowie paid tribute to Verlaine’s solo work with a version of "Kingdom Come" on his Scary Monsters and Super Creeps), but has never seemed to capture the creativity that he was capable of. Above all, Verlaine has lived a reclusive lifestyle since his Television days. In a 1987 interview with Spin Magazine, Verlaine commented "I Like thinking of myself as invisible. I find it a very advantageous way to live. Unfortunately, its not the way the music business works. If you don’t create some kind of public image, it gets created for you." Verlaine continued, "I just don’t like people coming up to me and saying something. It immediately makes you become insincere. There is no way that you can react to it sincerely. I really don’t have that much interest in stardom."

Since Verlaine yearned to live outside of the scrutiny of the media, he may be a happy man. Unfortunately, for many music fans; we could have gone through life not knowing about Tom Verlaine or Television . If it wasn’t for the release of The Blow Up by Neil Cooper and ROIR Records, the mastery of Television may have become a lost installment in musical history. We can now thank Mr. Cooper for this relatively recent and musically brilliant, yet quickly forgotten chapter of the great American musical saga.