Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[KamerTunesBlog introduces B-Sides The Point, where I’ll occasionally write about smaller artist catalogs (usually in one post) or even compilations and box sets, instead of revisiting the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog. Think of these as the palate cleansers between the main courses.]
Television (the band, not the broadcast medium) was Tom Verlaine (guitar, keyboards, vocals and principal songwriter), Richard Lloyd (guitar and vocals), Fred Smith (bass and vocals) and Billy Ficca (drums). Although they’re often associated with the late-70s punk explosion because of their association with the CBGB’s scene, they were more of an art-rock band that pointed to the New Wave movement which was only a couple of years away. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how hardcore punks reacted to Television, especially because they were so adept at their instruments (especially in the twin lead guitar attack of Verlaine & Lloyd and Ficca’s singular drumming style). In re-listening to their three studio albums this week, I heard elements of earlier bands like The Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, and contemporaries like Talking Heads, Devo and Tubeway Army (especially in Verlaine’s nasal, Gary Numan-esque vocal delivery). Also, fans of early Violent Femmes would surely notice the debt that band owed to Television. One other band whose influence I hear in Television’s music is Be-Bop Deluxe, an art-rock/progressive pop band that was also the brainchild of a gifted guitarist/vocalist, Bill Nelson. If you’re already a fan of Television, I recommend checking them out, and let me know if you agree that there’s a lot of common ground between the two groups.
Their first album, Marquee Moon (1977), is one of those rare records that doesn’t include a weak track or even a single wasted note, and should be up there on the list of best debut albums. I should note that Verlaine’s vocals are an acquired taste, so not everyone would love this band, but once you embrace that voice there’s so much to love about this band. The tom tom-driven groove on “See No Evil” owes a debt to Moe Tucker (of The Velvet Underground). The song itself has a youthful energy, a sparse arrangement, and a memorable stop-start chorus. The tempo slows down for “Venus” (not the Shocking Blue/Bananarama song, nor the one Frankie Avalon crooned in the ‘50s), a love song about the strange feelings you get when you meet someone and fall in love (“…like some kind of new drug, my senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves…”). I love the little guitar figure that plays behind the vocals. “Friction” has a great melodic yet angular guitar hook over a loping rhythm, and some great soaring guitar work. If Lou Reed sang in a higher register, this would’ve fit in during his “Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal” era.
The epic, 10+ minutes of “Marquee Moon” really separates them from their punk rock contemporaries. I love the offbeat groove that opens the song, with a hint of reggae influence (although it’s a little more metronomic). It’s got a great climbing guitar pattern at the end of each verse. There’s an extended instrumental section that begins at around 4:30, and I especially enjoyed how Ficca’s drum pattern shifts throughout while keeping a steady rhythm. Things slow down for a minute before returning to the original groove, with the first verse repeated. This song takes the listener on quite a ride. “Elevation” reminds me of a slightly slowed-down version of “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by The Greg Kihn Band, which wouldn’t be released until 1981. It features a tasty Lloyd guitar solo, great syncopation during the chorus, and some nice hi-hat work by Ficca. “Guiding Light” is a pretty ballad with a lilting melody (especially at “All this night running loud”), and a sweet-sounding guitar solo that complements the melody of the song (a la Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet”).
I really love the stop-start rhythm, with stinging lead guitar, in the chorus of “Prove It” (“Prove it…Just The Facts…The Confidential”). Verlaine plays a Neil Young-esque guitar solo, and also sings some very abstract lyrics (“…the smell of water would resume…”; “…you lose your sense of human…”; “…the world is just a feeling you undertook…”). Who cares what it’s about when the music is so good? Album closer “Torn Curtain” begins with a Ficca drum roll on tuned tom toms (climbing & falling, like a tympani). It’s slow and moody, like one of Richard Thompson’s darker songs (with a solo to match that brilliant guitarist). The main hook appears in the chorus vocals on “Tears…Tears…Rolling back the years” (and later, “Years, flowing by like tears”). It’s a powerful end to a phenomenal album. [Note: The 2003 Rhino reissue includes both parts of their earlier single, “Little Johnny Jewel.” It has some cool, dissonant guitar playing, perhaps influenced by Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart, and I love the two 3-note descending guitar figures during the verses. It’s nice to have this addendum, but it isn’t essential to enjoying the original album].
For their follow-up release, Adventure (1978), they cleaned up the production (it’s less raw than the debut), which pointed more to that early-80s New Wave sound. However, the songs and performances are still solid, and even if it doesn’t consistently reach the heights of its predecessor, it’s not far off. REM’s Peter Buck must have picked up on the chiming guitar sound on album opener, “Glory,” when that band was getting off the ground a few years later. Although it’s not as immediate as anything from the first album, it’s still a very good midtempo song. “Days” has more chiming proto-REM guitars, and some nice harmony vocals on the “Days” chorus. This is one of the prettiest songs they’ve done, and I especially enjoyed the ascending guitar pattern throughout the choruses. “Foxhole” is the first song here that would have fit on the previous album, with its fuzzy, rock ‘n’ roll guitars and Neil Young-inspired guitar solo. Is this about war or relationships, with lyrics like “You show me the war, I don’t know what for. You show me the war, but the war’s such a bore”?
The repeated chorus vocals of “I don’t care” on “Careful” could’ve influenced one of my favorite songwriters, Marshall Crenshaw, whose own recording career would take off a few years later. There’s a nice melodic Verlaine guitar solo here, and this would’ve been my choice for a single release if I worked for their record company (Elektra) at the time. “Carried Away” is a slow-paced song that’s actually carried along by a nice organ melody, sounding like one of Bruce Springsteen’s sparser songs (especially with the piano plinking along with the organ during the extended instrumental outro). At first I thought the eerie-sounding instrument on “The Fire” was a theremin, but it’s actually Verlaine playing an ondes Martenot (look it up…it’s an interesting contraption). This is a slow, sparse track that often sounds like an old scary movie soundtrack. Verlaine also plays two guitar solos (in the Neil Young/Richard Thompson vein again), and the slow pace of the song made one of my co-workers note that it reminded him of Pink Floyd (I can hear that now).
Richard Lloyd plays two excellent guitar solos, the first one with a more stinging tone but both very melodic (think Elliot Easton of The Cars), on “Ain’t That Nothin’.” Some notable lyrics are “Travel fulfills you but the distance it kills you” and “I love disaster and I love what comes after.” There’s a long, moody intro before the vocals come in on “The Dream’s Dream,” which features some nice guitar interplay between Verlaine & Lloyd. There’s also a great escalating guitar solo during the extended instrumental break after the first set of lyrics. This album doesn’t have the stellar reputation of Marquee Moon, which is rightly hailed as their finest hour, but if this had been their debut they still would’ve been critical darlings, if not any more commercially successful. It shouldn’t be overlooked. Unfortunately, the band broke up later that year, and wouldn’t return to the recording studio for well over a decade. [Note: The 2003 Rhino reissue includes the non-album track that actually provided the album’s title, “Adventure.” They were right to leave it off the original album, because even though it’s a good song, it’s drastically different than anything else they had recorded. It’s an almost southern rock/blues shuffle that reminded me of The Marshall Tucker Band, a connection I never expected to make. It’s cool, but works best as a bonus track].
I suppose with “alternative” music being all the rage in the early 1990’s, Television picked a good time to regroup and release a new album, even though it met with the same commercial apathy as their original two albums. Still, Television (1992) is a worthy addition to their small catalog. I can sense a bit of influence by then-current bands like Nirvana on album opener, “1880 Or So.” I’m not sure what it’s about (the chorus would make you think it’s called “O Rose Of My Heart”), but it’s an excellent song with that quirky, unique Television sound. “Shane, She Wrote This” has a descending guitar line at the intro which is a great hook that’s repeated in the “She gives me all the love” sections. “In World” is more modern sounding and almost danceable. I wonder why they omitted the word “My” from the title, as Verlaine sings “In my world.”
“Call Mr. Lee” was actually the first Television song I ever latched onto. I didn’t own the first two albums as of 1992, and the first time I heard this album was in my friend’s car driving down south for a vacation. When this song came on, I knew this was a band I needed to explore further, and within a year I owned all three albums. It’s got a big ominous sound and a great guitar pattern. Both Verlaine & Lloyd shine here. “Rhyme” is one of the rare Television songs that didn’t do much for me. It’s very sparse with echo-y drums (especially those rimshots), but never really goes anywhere. That big booming drum sound continues on “No Glamour For Willi,” which is actually a very good love song and one of my favorites here. Verlaine’s got an oily guitar sound that was surely influenced by Jerry Garcia. “Beauty Trip” is a fast shuffle, like early Tom Waits meets mid-70s Boz Scaggs. It’s a relatively minor song, but it’s still got a catchy chorus (“…my heart goes Boom-boom, Boom-boom, Boom-boom, Boom-boom!”).
The instrumental sections on “The Rocket” have tribal drums and guitar squalls that remind me of King Crimson’s work in the ‘80s & ‘90s. The remainder of the song has very minimalist lyrics, mostly one word at a time, like The Cars’ Ric Ocasek or Gary Numan without the synthetic instruments. I really like this one. “This Tune” is a stomping midtempo rocker with typically excellent guitar work. The album closes with the moody & atmospheric “Mars.” There are lots of jagged guitars & manic vocals, as well as a fiery Verlaine guitar solo. I have no idea what this one’s about (“…that cop’s from Mars. Aaaaaahhhhh!!!!”), but I guess that doesn’t really matter. It’s a cool song, and that’s the important thing. Their third album may not be in the same league as the first two, but it was a solid return that was obviously good enough to make me explore their back catalog. As of now, though, this is their most recent studio album, and I hope one of these days they’ll surprise us with another comeback.
Before I began focusing on these albums last week, I was pretty familiar with the sound of the band, and several key songs, but I never fully immersed myself in the details of their songs (arrangements, solos, lyrics, etc). It’s a shame that they’ve never gotten the commercial recognition they deserved. At the very least, they should’ve had a couple of hits that made them more of a household name, which would have given them more opportunities to stick together and continue writing and recording. I’ve seen a couple of their names in the credits of various albums over the years, most notably Billy Ficca with The Waitresses and Richard Lloyd with Matthew Sweet, but I’ve never heard any of Tom Verlaine’s solo material. If anyone could recommend a good place to start (if any…perhaps nothing comes close to his work with Television), I would greatly appreciate it.
Thanks for reading my first single post on an artist. After spending 5-6 weeks with my last artist (Joni Mitchell), it was nice to take on a smaller catalog. I’ll be back soon with my next large catalog (stay tuned), and I also look forward to doing more of these B-Sides The Point posts in the future.