Perfect Sound Forever

Tom Verlaine


By Al Handa (May 1996)

Note: I've made various comparisons at times in this review, which to some may appear critical of such bands as the Sex Pistols and so on. The point of this piece is to highlight Television and speculate a bit on their place in music history. As such, it is an advocacy work, and not intended to be a balanced look at the Punk movement.

I have to admit, Television wasn't the band that got me into "Punk" rock. We all had our individual moments when that burning bush appeared. For me, it one night while pulling a night shift at a 7-11. At that time of night, I was allowed to play the store radio loud. "God Save The Queen" came over the air, and everything I'd read in the Rolling Stone and other mags about Punk suddenly came to life.

To many of us, the various bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash had an almost magical connotation. One band, Television, was considered controversial. On one hand, Johnny Rotten had once praised the group, saying that he like the power of the guitars. After seeing them live (or so he said), he said they were awful, particularly because of the long extended numbers.

Rotten's offhand dismissal probably influential in England, and amongst certain elements of the punk crowd, but probably had little effect in New York and the states, other than Dave Marsh's apparent puzzlement over Television's high reputation.

The Ramones were louder, the Pistols nastier, the Clash purer, Nick Lowe more clever, and Wire more violent, but Television was different. Television wasn't a band you could easily copy like the others. There was a complexity in their musical textures that went against the grain of punk at the time. You couldn't just pick up a guitar and play Marquee Moon like you could "12XU" by Wire. To me, they were the first "punk" band that made a truly new and original sound that was also on a high technical and aesthetic level. At a minimum, they were the most lyrical.

Now, don't get me wrong...I love the aforementioned bands. What I'm saying is that Television was DIFFERENT than anything I had heard before. The Pistols were really just super-fast Mott The Hoople (great band), Ramones a raunchy surf band, the Clash a raw pop-reggae band, Nick a great popster, and Wire...well, another bunch geniuses who took Punk higher, but later than Television.

Without bands like Television (and Wire, actually), the main new thing those bands created was energy, a fresh outlook, and rebellion. Their anti-intellectualism guarenteed that there'd be nothing to build on, even later on when many tried to become more than just punk bands.

Most artists are rarely inspired by "primitives" or "raw" art to create "new" music. Most may pick up a guitar to be like an Iggy, but that's more of an embracing of a lifestyle and pose. When artists like Alex Chilton, Television, or Captain Beefheart create new styles and approaches, that tends to inspire musicians as artists.

Edge, of U2, was once quoted as saying his early guitar practice was spent copying Tom Verlaine licks. U2 has managed to make a dent in the universe. Most of those who copied the Pistols now play music that's about as alive and relevant as Leslie Gore at a rock and roll revival. Television inspired artists, hard core punk created a subculture of nostalgics (unless one considers Husker Du hard core, then we have an exception).

In a sense, "Marquee Moon" was a record that almost never was. The original sessions produced by Eno were almost unlistenable, an amateurish mess. It was rerecorded but flawed in the sense that the mix by Andy Johns sometimes thinned out Verlaine's voice so much it sounded like a flat screech at times, without any depth.

However, the record, for all it's flaws, did successfully capture the complexity of the sound, and still retain punch in the drum and guitar sound. Back then, those of us who were fans of the band probably didn't notice such fine details in the sound and mix.

What we all noticed, was from the moment "See No Evil" came pounding out of the speakers, this wasn't no ordinary "punk" band. If it had come out as Johnny Rotten had described it, like "Grateful Dead" music, it would have been off our turntables in a second. Not that the Dead weren't good, but what needed to come out of the speakers either had to be loud and fast, or different enough to compel one to listen anyway.

It was probably somewhere in-between in a sense, but my first impression was that "See No Evil" was a great guitar song, with riffs and ideas that were different and freer than anything I'd heard.

What made it sound so "free" (in the jazz sense) was the interplay between static, yet powerful guitar by Richard Lloyd, and the fluid ideas by Verlaine. More than fluid...the ideas seemed to go places where a trained musician could see Tom taking the chance of not being able to come back, and ending up at a with a botched solo.

Instead, Verlaine seemed to resolve the ideas perfectly, yet never with the sheer ease of a Jerry Garcia. Many Verlaine solos, at first listen, made you feel that a real risk was being taken, and that if he didn't come up with a killer idea out of nowhere, the riffs would just peter out, or noodle about and never resolve.

It was more than raw talent, a sense of humor, or pure energy. Television had come up with a style that rocked, yet expressed a freedom found only in certain jazz styles. In a way, he was like a Parker (and I say that knowing what Parker was and is to many).

This sound would only have been superb noodling without a truly great band. The rhythm section of Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums was superb. They had a tight, syncopated sound, not unlike a good 50's rhythm and blues band. They rarely overplayed on a song (in the studio, at least).

The other guitarist, Richard Lloyd, was Verlaine's equal in technical skill. He didn't have Verlaine's improvisational sense, but that wasn't needed. Richard's work verged on atonal or abstract noise at times, yet was played in controlled bursts and patterns.

That tension in the guitar approaches is what made Television sound so different. Normally, the soloist is the one who explores atonality or whatever. Verlaine generally flew all over the place, but in a lyrical or linear sense. The element that made them "different" as a band was Lloyd's tonality and rhythm guitar sense, which often led to very hard edged riffs and chordings that were abstract in nature.

In other words, normally the soloist is the one who needs to be anchored. In Televison's case, Lloyd was the guitarist who affected the tonality of the music more often than not, and Verlaine and the rhythm section the ones who gave the ear it's anchor and familiar musical elements. Listen only to Lloyd, and you can hear some truly off the wall ideas being played.

In "See No Evil," Lloyd is soaring in the solos, but the guts of the arrangement is in the tough riffing underneath that is driving the song forward, with powerful rhythm section support. It's no wonder R.E.M. sometimes does this song as an encore, it's a classic guitar rock song.

"Venus" comes next, and is one of the most lyrical in the set. It opens with a great guitar riff, and as the ballad moves along, one can hear incredibly complex and interesting ideas on both guitars that make perfect sense together (yet sound disjointed when listened to individually).

The Venus referred to is of DeMilo fame, and does show us that detached, abstract view Verlaine often had, as opposed to a purely personal one. On the other hand, I wonder if it was really just so personal as to be idiosyncratic to one person only. In any case, an armless statue with a boob showing isn't your typical romantic image.

"Friction" opens with uptempo, yet static guitar chord opening by Lloyd that sounds like a Stone's riff played backwards. Verlaine kicks in with a decending chromatic riff, and the rhythm section chugs along with a beat that older fans might recognize as similiar to Wilson Picket's "Funky Broadway."

Next comes "Marquee Moon," a nine minute encapsulation of the group sound; a great Verlaine chord opening on rhythm guitar, looping riffs out of left field by Lloyd (doing double-stop trills), and a funky, rocking bass and drum part that lead into the song. It then builds and builds, and Verlaine begins to solo up into the upper neck of the guitar. More than a few times you wonder if even he knows where it's all going. It finally resolves into a Stones-like chord burst (actually not unlike a good Dead jam number), then settles into a lyrical, atmospheric section. Smith and Ficca then lead us back into a reprise of the main melody.

In my mind, it is perfect song in terms of capturing all that the band was. Believe me, it sounded REAL good blasting out of these huge PA speakers at the Mabuhay the night I heard it for the first time.

"Elevation" follows next, and was originally the first song on the second side of the album. On CD, it's impact is diminished following "Moon." It's the most "dramatic" of the songs, with a lot of stops and starts, and sections built on unison riffs. It remains listenable, but it's ymore interesting than compelling.

"Guiding Light," is the opposite. When I first heard the song, it seemed like mere pleasantry, a nice album filler. These days it sounds more and more like a great ballad, with a Dylanesque sense of timing and structure. Back then, I guess I just was too rushed and intense to appreciate this one. Now, it's a rediscovered pleasure.

"Prove It," follows, and at first listen sounds like a reggae-ish type new wave cut (common enough at the time). Time has revealed it to be actually quite different, and the opening guitar figure is actually more fifties than reggae. It chugs along like a good-bad Clash song, and the song has stood up well over the years.

The CD ends with "Torn Curtain," a dark, listless ballad in the "Tin Pan Alley" mold. It's too overdramatic at times, and although well played, it's no longer the strong ending cut it once seemed to be.

Back in the late 70's, very few Punks had any real idea of what the music would seem like a few years. Most simply wanted to put a 45 and become rock stars (oh, yes they did). A few approached the whole era as an opportunity to create new music, and only the most obtuse won't see that the bands who most influenced the next generation of rich and arrogant rock stars were bands like Television, Wire, and the Clash.

Why? Well, I can only give a personal example. Two major influences made me PLAY Punk music at the time; the Ramones and Sex Pistols. The idea was that you just do it. Don't spend years learning it, just do it.

I figured seeing the Sex Pistols at Winterland (which turned out to be their last gig) would be sort of a revelation. As I anxiously stood in line for that "sell-out" concert, the scalpers were selling tickets for only two dollars each, with price dropping to one by show time.

Inside Winterland, the audience was mainly tourists and curiousity seekers. Most spent the concert making wise cracks, and laughing at the freak show in what is now called a mosh pit. Two local bands, the Nuns and the Avengers did their usual show (which rarely changed even a single note), and then the Pistols came on and trashed the place.

They played without a bass player, as Sid was too drunk to play and was mixed down (on the bootleg, he can be heard and it totally wrecks the music), but the rest was as good as any Who concert. Rotten even stopped to pick up some money that was thrown on the stage, then did the encore laying on his stomach, singing Iggy's "No Fun," in the most mimimal performance I've ever heard. This continued backstage, where they all trashed the dressing rooms, and Bill Graham wouldn't book a punk act for some years.

The point? Well, what the Pistols started died exactly when Rotten said it would, after one record. Their message was anger, honesty (relative to the music business at the time), and anti-intellectualism that unfortunately included any concept of art. Those who buy that message still listen to hard core which is more rigid in it's values than any blues or jazz you'll ever hear. The Pistols never took them any further. In their last gig, they ensured punk would never get into a major Bay Area venue for some years.

Then take "Marquee Moon." Just hearing that album gave me, and quite a few others a totally different message; that the music of the era had changed, and although not so apparent at the time, restored a sense of discovery and freedom that had long disappeared.

I once read that Alex Chilton's "Big Star" record only sold a few copies, but each one of those who bought one went out and formed a band. I doubt Television was like that, they were too hard to imitate for one thing. The Bangles could cover "September Gurls," maybe, but never "Marquee Moon."

What they did do was show us that, perhaps for at least one moment, that there could be something new under the sun after all. And, I should add, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Also see our article on early Television

Check out the rest of Perfect Sound Forever