Prime-time Television


OF all the rave reviews I have read over the years, the one that sticks in the mind most is Nick Kent’s hyperbolic two-page celebration of the debut Television LP, Marquee Moon, written for the New Musical Express in February, 1977. It left me and many others counting the hours until the album’s UK release the following month.

Here is a sample:

‘It is a record for everyone who boasts a taste for a new exciting music expertly executed, finely in tune, sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics, chord structures centred around a totally invigorating passionate application to the vision of centre-pin mastermind Tom Verlaine . . .

‘Forget all that “New York sound” stuff. For starters, this music is the total antithesis of the Ramones, say, and all those minimalist aggregates. To call it Punk Rock is rather like describing Dostoevsky as a short-story writer. This music itself is remarkably sophisticated, unworthy of even being paralleled to that of the original Velvet Underground whose combined instrumental finesse was practically a joke compared to what Verlaine and Co are cooking up here. Each song is tirelessly conceived and arranged for maximum impact – the point where decent parallels really need to be made with the best West Coast groups. Early Love spring to mind, The Byrds’ cataclysmic Eight Miles High period, a soupcon even of the Doors’ mondo predilections plus the very cream of a whole plethora of those psychedelic-punk bands that only Lenny Kaye knows about. Above all though the sound belongs most indubitably to Television, and the appearance of Marquee Moon at a time when rock is so hopelessly lost within the labyrinth of its own basic inconsequentiality that actual musical content has come to take a firm back-seat to “attitude” and all that word is supposed to signify is to these ears little short of revolutionary . . .

Marquee Moon is an album for everyone whatever their musical creeds and/or quirks. Don’t let any other critic put you off with jive turkey terms like “avant-garde” or “New York psycho-rock”. This music is passionate, full-blooded, dazzlingly well crafted, brilliantly conceived and totally accessible to anyone who (like myself) has been yearning for a band with the vision to break on through into new dimensions of sonic overdrive and the sheer ability to back it up. Listening to this album reminds me of the ecstatic passion I received when I first heard Eight Miles High and Happenings Ten Years Ago – before terms like progressive/art rock became synonymous with baulking pretensions and clumsy, crude syntheses of opposite forms.

‘In a year’s time, when all the current three-chord golden boys have fallen from grace right into the pit, Tom Verlaine and Television will be out there hanging fire, cruising meteorite-like with their fretboards pointed directly at the music of the spheres. Prove it? They’ve already done it right here with this their first album. All you’ve got to do is listen and levitate along with it.’

Phew! And that’s only part of it. You can read the whole review here.

So what was it about Television that got Mr Kent so aerated?

Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller on December 13, 1949, in New Jersey and moved at the age of six to Wilmington, Delaware. While at boarding school he befriended fellow pupil Richard Meyers and they discovered a shared love of poetry and music. Having left school they headed for New York, where Miller became Verlaine in a nod to the French poet and Meyers adopted the monicker Richard Hell. In 1972 the pair formed a band called the Neon Boys with Verlaine on guitar, Hell on bass and Billy Ficca on drums. They renamed themselves Television following the recruitment of a second guitarist, Richard Lloyd. Hell’s look, all spiky hair, ripped shirts and safety pins, would prove a fashion inspiration for many including the Sex Pistols via their manager Malcolm McLaren, but his erratic behaviour and musicianship led Verlaine to kick him out in 1975. He was replaced on bass by Fred Smith. Hell, with his next group The Voidoids, would go on to release the well-received punk album Blank Generation in 1977.

Television’s first record was a single, Little Johnny Jewel Parts 1 & 2,  which failed quite justifiably to set the world on fire.

The band then signed to Elektra Records and in September 1976 went into the studio to record the Marquee Moon album. Verlaine felt a big-name producer would cramp his style so Andy Johns, engineer on the Rolling Stones LP Goat’s Head Soup, was hired. Johns, who is credited as co-producer with Verlaine, recorded most of the songs without overdubs and resisted the temptation to add any frills.

Rather than go through the album track by track I refer you to the exhaustive descriptions in the Kent review. I must mention, however, the lovely Venus – ‘I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo’ and the amazing title track, ten minutes-plus of perfection.

I love the crispness of the bass, drums and guitars, and the space between them. Allegedly this was recorded in one take. The story goes that Johns wanted to try another version but Verlaine told him: ‘Forget it’. However, there is an alternative take among the bonus tracks on the album’s 2003 reissue. Further highlights of the original for me are Elevationand Prove It.

Thanks mainly to Nick Kent, Marquee Moon sold far better in the UK than the US, and the band toured here in 1977 to promote it. I saw them in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall and they were great. There was another new wave group from Noo Yawk on the bill that night, but more of them next week.

In 1978 Television recorded and released their follow-up album, Adventure, which came out on red vinyl in the UK. While inevitably not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, it has brilliant moments and some stupendous riffs, particularly on GloryDays and the magnificent Ain’t That Nothin.  By way of a counter-balance to the Nick Kent encomium, the NME mischievously gave the task of reviewing Adventure to its hip young gunslinger and resident Tom Verlaine hater Julie Burchill, then aged 18. You can read her venomous and entirely unbiased diatribe against this ‘arty abomination’, with its dig at Kent, here. Again there was a 2003 reissue with bonus tracks, along with a 1978 concert album, Live at the Old Waldorf, San Francisco, which is very good and would be even better if the twin guitars were miked up equally.

Sadly, Lloyd suffered increasing problems with drugs leading to tensions which drove the band apart. In 1979 Verlaine released a self-titled solo album, of which the standout tracks are Kingdom Come (another killer riff) and Breakin’ In My HeartKingdom Come received the accolade of a David Bowie cover version on the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

More solo efforts ensued from Verlaine and Lloyd before the band reformed in 1992 and released the album Television. This is a strange, half-hearted affair with the odd good moment such as Call Mr Lee and No Glamour for Willi.

It was to be their last studio release although there have been various reunion concerts over the years. I have several other Verlaine albums, all good without approaching the brilliance of the Seventies. The best is probably the 1996 anthology The Miller’s Tale, a double CD combining a 1982 live performance in London with an 18-track retrospective of his work solo and with Television.

I’ll end on a personal note. My lovely eldest child, Caroline, who created this website, grew up listening to my Television albums and it was a mutual love of the band which brought her together with Samuel, now her husband. All together now, say aaahhhh.

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