Television, Richard Lloyd, and Tom Verlaine
Reviewed on this page:
Marquee Moon - Adventure -
Field Of Fire - Flash Light -
Real Time - The Wonder -
Warm And Cool - Television -
The Cover Doesn't Matter
It's a shame that Television broke up early and is now little more than a cult band.
In some ways they sounded just like any other 1970s VU-influenced CBGB's bass-guitar-and-drums art rockers - like Blondie, Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, etc. And singer/songwriter/co-producer/guitarist Tom Verlaine didn't help matters with his screechy, gasping punk vocals.
Still, though, the band had two big things going for it: Verlaine's inventive songwriting, and the ferocious double lead guitar attack of Verlaine and the harder-edged, fleet-fingered Richard Lloyd.
Together, this made them the most artistically inspired American New Wavers of the late 70s.
Television began about 1974 as the Neon Boys.
The original members were Verlaine; his high school friend Richard Hell, who he taught to play bass; and drummer Billy Ficca.
Within months they recruited Lloyd, changed their name, and quickly became the center of the downtown underground music scene - they were the first band to play regularly at CBGB's (Patti Smith's group soon followed, with Smith and Verlaine carrying on a brief affair).
Hell and Verlaine couldn't get along, so by late 1975 Hell had been replaced by the more professional Fred Smith, who had been stolen from the first lineup of Blondie (he's not the same as MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, late husband of Patti Smith).
Despite its notoriety the group couldn't get a record out until 1977, well after CBGB's compatriots like Smith, Blondie, and the Ramones.
By then they were a well-honed act, and Marquee Moon could hardly be sharper.
Unfortunately, the group's follow-up disc was weak, and they split soon afterwards.
Both Lloyd and Verlaine embarked immediately upon solo careers. Verlaine's productivity was more consistent, and he continued to cut solo records all through the 80s, sticking with the band's original sound and usually collaborating with Fred Smith.
But he mellowed out a lot, particularly with his vocals; his half-spoken New Yawk baritone now sounds superficially like a watered-down Lou Reed imitation, even though he's much more of a crooner, and his lyrics are far less confessional and far more image-laden. As for Lloyd, he did some session work in the 80s and also released a few more solo records, which are pretty good despite Lloyd's weak vocals.
In the early 90s Television reunited for an extraordinary new album and a tour, but then broke up again.
Richard Hell's career makes an interesting footnote. He never recorded with Television, and immediately after his departure he formed the short-lived Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty's band), with fellow heroin addicts and ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, plus second guitarist Walter Lure.
They released one hard-to-find LP (L.A.M.F., 1977, with Hell mostly replaced by bassist Billy Rath), and a series of live albums were issued post-mortem.
Hell's new band the Voidoids (with guitarists Robert Quine and Ivan Julian) got out the more widely-known album Blank Generation the same year, and he had a followup in 1982.
Although Hell's musical ability was minimal, his influence on the early punk scene was considerable - New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren stole not just Hell's torn t-shirt heroin addict look, but Hell's "Blank Generation" (the basis for "Pretty Vacant") before returning to England in 1975 and recruiting the Sex Pistols.
The Wonder is a good, informative fan site (albeit with a bad home page), and Richard Lloyd's own web site is tasteful and informative - and it includes some extremely interesting guitar exercises that are of note given Lloyd's extraordinary soloing style. (JA)
Billy Ficca (drums), Richard Lloyd (guitar), Fred Smith (bass, backing vocals), Tom Verlaine (guitar, lead vocals).
Marquee Moon (1977)
This may well be the best early record of the New Wave movement. They slather every track with catchy hooks, jerky
rhythms, and off-kilter, eerie chord progressions - and enough
garage rock angst to blow Lou Reed off the map. The effect is
mesmerizing, especially on the nine-minute title track opus. Anyone
who thinks the late 70s were a waste of time should think again;
the withering guitar histrionics of alternative bands like Sonic Youth can be traced directly back to
The title track and "Prove It" were both moderate hit singles in Britain, the closest the band got to a major commercial breakthrough. (JA)
I've read that the band recorded this in a rush, before they could assemble much more first-rate song material. But it's not really Verlaine's fault: the problem is the production, with a low-energy pop sound that just isn't their thing (and might have been the idea of co-producer John Jansen).
Sometimes the results are good: "Days" (co-authored by Lloyd) is a pretty guitar ballad, and "Careful" is smiley-faced but catchy. Sometimes they're not: the dreary, piano-driven "Carried Away" sounds like one of John Lennon's Eastern-ized ballads; the band is limp, nostalgic, and overwrought on "The Fire," which drags on in theremin-drenched weepiness for six minutes; and the driving "Ain't That Nothin'" gets emasculated into just another sing-along rock song, complete with uncharacteristic power chords.
Still, they do rock hard in a couple of places (especially "Glory," in their classic, bouncy up-tempo style), they get creepy and experimental in others ("The Dream's Dream," lengthy and laced with harmonics), and it's really not that much of a departure from the last record.
The hard-edged, punkish "Foxhole" became a moderate hit in the UK. Shortly afterwards Television broke up (for the first time). (JA)
The Blow-Up (rec. 1978, rel. 1999)
Originally released on cassette and only much later as a double CD, this is a compilation of live performances recorded in 1978.
They do covers of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Satisfaction," in addition to a fifteen minute version of "Little Johnny Jewel." (JA)
Alchemy (Lloyd: 1979)
Lloyd's solo debut appeared on Elektra, Television's label.
Lloyd tells a bizarre story of having the record's producer slap synth parts onto the disc without his permission.
I know from his later live record that the title track and "Blue And Grey" are among several strong compositions.
Afterwards his career dimmed a bit, but he started showing up as a session player in the mid-80s and cut at least two more solo albums. (JA)
Tom Verlaine (Verlaine: 1979)
Dreamtime (Verlaine: 1981)
Verlaine's obscure second record has an agreeably familiar sound, but just isn't very substantial ("A Future In Noise").
He's not really interested in experimentation - the closest thing is the minimalist sock-hop vibe of "Mary Marie," which hints at some of his later work.
He knocks off a couple of typical Television-style rockers with interlocking guitars and so on ("There's A Reason"; "Mr. Blur"), which just highlights the absence of Lloyd's rapid-fire soloing ("Fragile").
He does get his act together on two tracks: "Always" has sharp hooks, a taught, funky beat, and an uplifting chorus, while "Down On The Farm" has a massive riff.
But the energy level often flags, with catchy choruses ("Penetration") or pretty guitar work ("Without A Word") wasted on sludgy tunes.
Verlaine's voice is as geeky and annoying as ever, and there's even a toss-off instrumental ("The Blue Robe").
A dreary and disappointing disc, despite its consistently interesting and economical guitar solos.
Two rhythm sections here: Fred Smith (bass) and Patti Smith Group member Jay Dee Daugherty (drums), vs. Donald Nossov (bass) and Rich Teeter (drums). Ritchie Flieger is the rhythm guitarist, and Bruce Brody adds some keyboards.
Co-produced by Verlaine and engineer Robert Clifford. (JA)
Words From The Front (Verlaine: 1982)
Cover (Verlaine: 1984)
Field Of Fire (Lloyd: 1986)
A minor label release recorded in Sweden and co-produced by Stefan Glaumann.
Most of the stronger tunes from his live disc Real Time turn up here, and they're good, with plenty of the angelic lead guitar work that marks Lloyd's career ("Lovin Man," with a fluid, speedy solo).
Even his most leaden hard rock tunes have solid hooks ("Watch Yourself"; the Vietnam war message tune "Soldier Blue"); his blistering eight-minute workout on the title track is nicely reminiscent of Television's heaviest work; and his centerpiece ballads "Pleading" and the semi-acoustic "Black To White" are first-rate.
But a couple tunes are pedestrian ("Backtrack"); Lloyd's lyrics are workmanlike, but not nearly as interesting as Verlaine's; the production is unimaginative; and Lloyd's hoarse, half-shouted vocals on the louder tunes really detract ("Losin Anna," with honky tonk slide guitar; the vaguely sock-hop flavored "Keep On Dancin").
Despite all of this, the four or five key tracks all compare well to Television's best work, and any rock guitar afficionado will want to study them.
Several different Swedes switch off on bass and drums; Keith Patchel is on rhythm guitar. (JA)
Flash Light (Verlaine: 1987)
Verlaine's only album on IRS records, and you can hear why: it sounds just like the rest of his stuff, but it's largely uninspired.
Only a few tracks really shine: "Cry Mercy Judge," with a pounding beat and some really dark guitar hooks; "Song," with cool harmonics and a cheerful, almost child-like descending hook; and the sparkling "Sundown," where the riffs and refrains all add up with geometric precision.
Elsewhere the tracks all sound the same, with a lot of ornate guitar work, strict 4/4 beats, rambling, confessional vocals, and melodies that go nowhere even when the riffs are catchy ("A Town Called Walker"; "Bomb," which wastes some awesomely fractured soloing).
There's a little stylistic variety - sentimental synth balladry on "The Scientist Writes A Letter" and a touch of country on "4 A.M" - but it's not enough to enliven the record.
Still, if you just have to have another dose of Verlaine this isn't such a bad buy.
Produced by Verlaine and Smith; the band also includes Jimmy Ripp (guitar) and Allen Schwartzberg (drums), who is replaced by Andy Newmark on "The Scientist." (JA)
Real Time (Lloyd: rec. 1987, rel. 1992)
This is a minor label live album recorded at two shows on consecutive days, and it's well worth picking up if you ever happen to see it. Half the tracks are repeated from Lloyd's then-newish album Field Of Fire, which must have been solid because there isn't one cavalier effort anywhere in this collection of 13 tracks.
His rote, riffy rock songwriting is doggedly effective ("Spider Talk"), and man can he play guitar.
It's not that there's anything too unusual about his technique; he goes in for abstract, rapid-fire twiddling flavored with harmonics, arpeggiation, and tasteful wah-wah, chorus, and distortion effects ("Alchemy").
And Lloyd's not much of a singer: he's got a bland, braying voice that's reduced to pure hollering on a couple tunes ("Soldier Blue"; the boring boogie woogie blues rocker "Losin Anna").
But he gets so much energy and so many ideas into every solo that even his sprawling, Television-like arrangement of "Field Of Fire" manages to keep your attention.
So the record is stuffed with earnest ballads ("Misty Eyes"; "The Only Feeling," a rewrite of Sweet Jane"; "Pleading") and good-natured rockers (the slightly funky "Fire Engine"; "Watch Yourself") that will really grow on you after a while.
There's also a really nice solo acoustic re-recording of "Black To White" at the end of the disc.
Co-produced by Lloyd and Steve Katz; the band is Ed Shockley (drums), John K. (bass), and David Leonard (rhythm guitar), and they're much more crafted than the rhythm players on Field Of Fire. (JA)
The Wonder (Verlaine: 1990)
I'd say. After all these years Verlaine is still more talked about than listened to. But he's clearly a songwriting savant, and this set of ten sinuous, tuneful, and instantly accessible rock songs really proves it - this time he always gets back to The Big Hook before you lose interest. His guitarwork is as inimitable as ever, sometimes jangly in a vaguely Roger McGuinn-ish way ("Stalingrad"), but always biting, melodic, and creative.
And the production is immaculate: punchy, economical arrangements; intelligent, unobtrusive synth lines; skeletal, rock-steady drumming; and unwavering bass lines courtesy of co-producer Fred Smith.
Downers? It's slightly monotonous, only a couple of the ballads really work ("Prayer"), and the better, livelier numbers use the same danceable, down-tempo electro-funk formula that the Talking Heads pioneered a decade earlier ("Kaleidescopin'"; "Ancient Egypt"; "Shimmer"; "5 Hours From Calais").
Good luck tracking this little record down - you won't regret it. (JA)
Warm And Cool (Verlaine: 1992)
Cool and more cool, Verlaine's only instrumental album and only Rykodisc release saunters along with calm, mature authority.
Verlaine deliberately limits the production to bass, drums, and typically double-tracked guitars, upping the stakes because now there's nothing to distract from his moody minimalism.
Track after track is vividly atmospheric, whether he's veering between surf music and the blues ("Sleepwalkin'"), gearing down with a watery, hypnotic riff ("Saucer Crash"), milking a massive harmonic chord for all it's worth ("Depot (1957)"), or bouncing along with a deceptively simple, reverb-slathered Tex-Mex melody ("Boulevard").
Two longish cuts devolve into avant garde improvisation ("Ore"; "Lore," like Hendrix at his most far out); Verlaine edges in places into torch-song jazz and doesn't have the pure chops for it ("Those Harbor Lights"); and occasionally he's so stark and sleepy the music simply dissolves ("The Deep Dark Clouds"; "Sor Juanna").
But Verlaine's sense of melody is so assured this time that even the raw, unaccompanied solo "Spiritual" echoes with profound emotion.
The band is Ficca, who makes crafty use of brushes on the slow numbers, and Patrick Derivaz (bass); Fred Smith and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty guest on the sweet, jazz-inflected, vaguely Joni Mitchell-like "Harley Quinn." (JA)
This might be the most remarkable reunion record ever made. Less remarkable when you consider Verlaine's string of critically acclaimed records and his unwavering adherence to Television's sound; but it's still obvious that his bandmates have inspired his songwriting here.
The performances are phenomenal, with Lloyd contributing some extraordinary leads (the atmospheric "Rhyme"), Verlaine rising to his challenge, and even Ficca's drumming sounding creative and utterly authentic.
There's one track after another that would have fit in perfectly on Marquee Moon: a bunch of ultra-cool, mid-tempo New Wave rockers ("1880 or so"; "No Glamour For Willi"; "This Tune"); the ecstatic, driving "Shane, she wrote this"; "In World," with a danceable funk groove; the swinging, almost tribal "Beauty Trip"; and especially the brilliant, angst-ridden "Call Mr. Lee."
It doesn't always work: the live-in-the-studio energy translates into spacey jamming on "The Rocket." But more often it pushes them into exciting, avant garde histrionics that are held down by ringing, trance-like guitar hooks ("Mars"). Anyone who likes anything that Verlaine does should track this down. (JA)
The Cover Doesn't Matter (Lloyd: 2001)
Lloyd's first solo album after the Television reunion and his fling with Matthew Sweet.
It's similar to his 80s solo work, but unfortunately that also means his vocals are as gasping and clumsy as ever, and he doesn't seem to have a lot of new ideas - track after track has the same muddy production, with four- or five-minute running times, thickly laid down harmony vocals, and excessive, if often masterful, interlocking guitar overdubs ("Ain't It Time"; "I Thought").
And although he gets at least a couple of solid riffs into every tune, some of them are surprisingly simplistic and relentlessly repetitive ("Raising The Serpent").
So the monotony can be deadening.
But with such methodical arrangements and so many blistering, jagged, occasionally brilliant, occasionally just plain spastic guitar solos, any one of the selections would have been a highlight on somebody else's album: taught, hard-edged rockers ("The Knockdown"; "Submarine"), upbeat singalongs ("Downline"; "Strangestrange"), and lyrical ballads ("Ain't It Time," a key track).
He also revives Television's off-kilter, metronomic beats and spiralling lead guitar licks on "Torn Shirt," and at the end he turns down the amps and delivers some real emotion on "Cortege," an homage to a departed friend.
Extraordinary musicianship here, but Lloyd should have thought twice before producing the record himself.
Released on the Innerstate label, and available over the net. (JA)
Call Mr. Lee...?