There were a plethora of musical acts that originated from the CBGBs club in New York in the mid-1970s; The Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Blondie all went on to achieve acclaim, while all occupying different niches in the punk and new wave spectrum. Television are probably the least well known of the above CBGBs acts, but they’ve received plenty of acclaim, especially for their 1977 debut Marquee Moon.
The pivotal part of Television’s sound is the guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd with their interlocking riffs and impressive solos. The two guitarists have contrasting styles; Verlaine more avant-garde and Lloyd more sweet and melodic. But despite their guitar virtuosity and Verlaine’s impressionistic lyrics, Television are part of the punk era, with its stripped down, DIY aesthetic; Verlaine’ strangled vocals are something of an acquired taste, while the rhythm section sound of drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith is dry and uncluttered.
The band only produced two studio albums in their initial tenure – 1978’s Adventure was effectively the weaker half of their live set, and was less well received. The same lineup reunited for 1992’s self-titled album, and have continued intermittently as a live act, although Lloyd hasn’t been involved recently.
Television Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Marquee Moon
Television’s remarkable debut showcases a young band with their style already fully developed. In interviews, the band have stated that the sound they wanted to record was different from the stadium rock sound on contemporary albums; the dry drum sound is more comparable to jazz, while there are echoes of New York forebears The Velvet Underground. Even the guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd are relatively unadorned, relying on their memorable riffs and melodies for effect.
It’s the riffs that are the most memorable – Verlaine and Lloyd create musical figures that snake around unpredictably, like the dissonant ‘Elevation’ riff and the spiralling ‘Venus’ riff. But the centerpiece is the title track, a ten minute epic packed with memorable guitar riffs and spiralling solos. The R&B flavoured ‘Guiding Light’ is a nice change of pace, and Lloyd’s melodic solo is my favourite from an album full of great guitar work. Marquee Moon does peter out over its last two songs, but it’s worth tracking down the bonus track ‘Little Johnny Jewel’.
Marquee Moon is a masterpiece, an album with an original sound, great songs, and which blurs the lines between the simplicity of punk and the intricacy of art rock.
The thought of following up the acclaimed Marquee Moon is daunting, and Adventure is a much more modest, relaxed, album. It has the same guitar interplay, but there aren’t the epics like the ten minute ‘Marquee Moon’ and the songs aren’t as memorable; reportedly it’s the remainder of their live set after its highlights were used for their debut.
It doesn’t measure up to Marquee Moon, and it doesn’t really attempt to, but there are still pleasures to be found on Adventure. ‘Foxhole’ is a relatively straightforward riff rocker, but it’s distinguished by its witty double-entendre lyrics. ‘Ain’t That Nothin” is the standout with its nagging riff and memorable chorus, while ‘The Fire’ has an unusual, high pitched ringing hook. Even when the material is less memorable, the guitar interplay of Verlaine and Lloyd is a pleasure in itself.
It’s not a masterpiece on the level of Marquee Moon, but if you’d like to hear a more modest Television album, Adventure has plenty to recommend it.
Fourteen years after Adventure, the same Television lineup reunited for a self-titled album. Verlaine’s voice has thickened and his deadpan vocals are part speaking and part singing, but otherwise the Television sound is preserved intact, with the same guitar interplay and low-key rhythm section.
Not surprisingly, for a CD bargain bin hunter, this was the first Television album I picked up, but I’ve never connected to it in the same way as I have with the band’s other records. It’s utterly respectable, impeccably upholding the legacy of Television, but it’s also low-key and difficult to pick up individual songs from. On songs like ‘Rhyme’, Verlaine’s vocal style is as close to speaking as it is to singing. Opener ‘1880 Or So’ does stick with its melodic riff and building momentum.
In my head I classify albums like Television as “medicinal”; I know they’re worthy but I rarely feel like listening to them voluntarily.
Ten Favourite Television Songs
Ain’t that Nothin’
1880 Or So
Little Johnny Jewel