Though there was a reunion album in 1992 and there have been sporadic regroupings every few years since, the band known as Television originally enjoyed a very brief time in the spotlight during the “punk” boom of CBGB’s in the mid-to-late-’70s. Although critics loved them, they sold very few records.
But their legend has lived on, growing considerably in the 21 years since their last album. Their first album, Marquee Moon, that has been the reason: A landmark of “punk” rock, the eight-song album, first released in 1977, was ranked No. 128 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time. Books have been written about it.
So when it was announced that Television would be the first band to play the new concert space at British record store Rough Trade’s new New York outpost in Brooklyn, the show sold out almost instantly.
The venue only holds 250 people, so an instant sell-out of even two shows, in the band’s hometown, in its latest, hippest neighborhood – Williamsburg, just over the river from downtown Manhattan, and the Bowery, where Television and the other bands of the “punk” era first played – wasn’t exactly mind-blowing. One would expect nothing less.
The venue, laid-out along the lines of other Bowery Presents venues like the Music Hall of Williamsburg and the Bowery Ballroom, with wrap-around mezzanines and standing room, Rough Trade was smaller and more industrial. Its walls made, like much of Rough Trade, from old steel shipping containers, the place felt intimate, and the wooden floor and excellent sound system seemed to mitigate the sonic dangers posed by so much metal in the structure.
Hearing Television in the larger context of the 35 years since it’s debut – the first and last time I saw them, when they opened Peter Gabriel’s first solo tour in San Francisco in 1977 – it is clear that “punk” deserves those distancing quotes. While they seemed new and so very different from the dominant rock bands of the time – Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – they were also quite different from the barre-chorded guitars, rudimentary, pounding beats, and snarling, talk-sung vocals we now know as “punk.”
Television was different from everyone else, even the other CBGB’s bands. But the band was similar to some of the biggest bands of the time for one reason: Television was, and remains, a guitar band. Television is a guitar band that doesn’t bang away in a celebration of rudimentary rock, but instead revels in the beauty of two interlocking guitars, the notes and rhythms, precisely-played, that intertwine and build around each other in a dialog of melodic, dynamic surges of sound and emotion.
Television was the undisputed guitar band of lower Manhattan four decades ago, and this weekend in Williamsburg, they still seemed to have no peers.
With the three remaining members from the classic line-up, and 2007 addition Jimmy Rip replacing the departed Richard Lloyd, time had clearly passed. But as Rip counted in the first song, the stately “Venus de Milo,” it was clear that Television is a band that transcended it’s original cohort. They are, in fact, the last men standing.
Rip was part of the reason why. Although he replaced the ailing original “lead” guitarist Richard Lloyd, whose drug problems reportedly ended the band’s original run prematurely, after only two (great) albums, Rip has absorbed Lloyd’s original role in the band, and added his own raw, electric vitality (and greater skill) that has subtly changed the band’s dynamic, and clearly keeps Verlaine on his toes.
Why “lead” guitarist? Because the guitars of Lloyd and singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine rarely separated into “rhythm” and “lead” roles. Instead, they went back-and-forth in a dialog, one guitarist’s lead part shading into the other’s choppy rhythm, pushing-and-pulling against each other, sometimes in close harmony, sometimes in sharp contrast. Verlaine, the more cautious and less dextrous player, who also handles all the lead vocals, is the less dazzling of the two, but his leads, snaking through the rhythms, restating the melodies and goading his partner, are an indelible part of Television’s sound.
Rip, playing flashier and more impressive leads, added an almost rockabilly flair to the sound, and no wonder: In addition to having worked with Verlaine in his solo band, this is a guy who tore it up as a session player on Mick Jagger’s third solo album, Wandering Spirit, 1n 1993, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis’ Last Man Standing in 2006, plying a fretboard virtuosity that is much more rooted in traditional American roots music of the 1950s.
But songwriter/singer Verlaine is certainly the band’s more accomplished musical thinker, coming up with most of what made Television unique in its heyday, and what has kept it foremost in critics’ and other listeners’ hearts: The songs. Marquee Moon and its follow-up, Adventure, are beloved because the guitars served excellent songs, and Friday night, those songs, beginning with “Venus De Milo” and in the course of the band’s 90 minute set, most of Marquee Moon, drove that point home: The rollicking “See No Evil,” the stately “Torn Curtain,” the doo-wop rooted “Prove It,” the delicate “Guiding Light,” the rhythmically-riveting “Elevation” and the chugging, dynamic title song that closed the set.
One major way in which Television differed from the big rock groups of the time was Tom Verlaine’s vocals: Rather than the strong, muscular and soul-, blues- or folk-inspired singers dominant at that time, Verlaine’s voice quavered, wavered and warbled, a strangled cry that underlined his gaunt poet’s look, soulful but with little of the force of more robust singers. Verlaine, like his friend Patti Smith, had a new look, echoing Dylan’s and Jagger’s in their youths, but still clearly of downtown New York, closer to Lou Reed than anyone else, but without Reed’s toughness. Verlaine looked fragile, and his voice sounded the same.
Friday night, that fragility had grown with age, and Verlaine sounded and looked tentative at points. Likewise, his guitar playing was deliberate and cautious rather than wild and dextrous – but Rip, like Lloyd before him, handled that ably. But that’s what works in Television, now as then: When the two of them went off together, in the interplay that Verlaine and Lloyd originally developed, or in newer pieces that Verlaine and Rip have developed together, such as the extended, impressionistic “Persia” that was a centerpiece of the set, they shined.
The reason they could do any of that, of course, was the rhythm section that has powered and anchored the group since original bassist/leader Richard Hell left the band: Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums. Smith, looking for all the world like the late James Gandolfini, held the guitars in place with his typically steady, rooted pulse, while Ficca, his curly black hair now gray, kept the pace and added the subtle, almost jazzy accents and occasional rhythmic flourishes that have always been another way Television was different from its peers.
The audience at Rough Trade held the usual number of gray-hairs itself, people who may have caught the band at CBGB’s, but there were more fans of a much more recent vintage, all of them just as passionate about the band as the old-timers. When “Prove It” came around to its chorus, many in the crowd shouted out the title phrase, taking Verlaine back momentarily, and then inspiring him to let the audience carry it alone.
Clearly, neither Verlaine nor the rest of the band had to prove much to this crowd, nor to rock history, where their legacy is certain. But it was good to see that they could still do so, and with Rip on board to signal a new era, and with word of a new album buzzing around the Internet, these homecoming shows could prove to be more than celebrations of a storied past; they could be harbingers of things yet to come.