Crawdaddy (1977)

By George Elliott

New York—Television. A curiously threatening name for a rock group, conjuring, as it does, the concept of an electronic device that dispenses immediate musical images with a cool, detached glare.

Considered one of the most quixotic and vascular of the second wave of offbeat bands emerging from a wildly eclectic lower Manhattan music scene, Televisions's inaugural album arrives—surprisingly—on the once folk-based Electra label.

Electra was appropriately cautious, signing the group to a one-year, one-record contract with options, but with veteran producer Andy Johns (Rolling Stones, Jack Bruce) at the helm, the stage was set for perhaps the first thoroughly sophisticated release from New York's underground rock scene.

Ashen, skeletal Tom Verlaine seems to agree. Sitting in a storage room in the offices of the Wartoke management firm (which also represents the Patti Smith Group) the lead guitarist/vocalist/writer for Television says he was pleased to sign with the label, having been a great admirer of Bruce Botnick's adventurous engineering work for Elektra in the late '60s when "experimental" groups like Love and the Doors were recorded with meticulous care.

"Andy [Johns] has a record of getting really decent overall rock sounds without messing with the arrangements," adds the reticent Verlaine. "I just wanted someone who knows the studio, the technical side. There's no horns, no strings, no synthesizers, no acoustic guitar on the album.

"It's basically an electric guitar record," he asserts, listing some proposed tracks for the LP as "Marquee Moon", "Torn Curtain", "Friction", "Soon" and "Elevation".

Exhausted from a grueling recording/mixing schedule, Verlaine needs sleep and a bath (there's no hot water in his apartment). Somehow he summons the energy to decry the principals in an earlier, unsuccessful studio foray. While Televistion percussionsist Billy Ficca sits in an adjoining room testing a Camco drum set purchased with advance money, Tom angrily recalls an Island Records-funded, Brian Eno-produced demo, charging that a British A&R man took and played the tape "for every fucking artist on Island." As a result, he believes Roxy Music borrowed at least a dozen ideas and lyric phrases from the material for its 1975 Siren LP.

"In one ear and out of his mouth," Verlaine muses, in reference to Roxy lead singer Bryan Ferry's alleged knavery.

Verlaine, 26, is characteristically closemouthed, however, on self-description, professing a great reluctance to detail his past or comment on what critics term his "Symbolist" writing.

What is known is that Television's present lineup, which also includes Fred Smith (formerly with the group Blondie) on bass, and Richard Lloyd on rhythm Stratocaster, grew out of a now-defunct band called the Neon Boys. The New Jersey-born and Delaware-raised Verlaine formed the Neon Boys with boarding school chum Richard Hell, an uneven bassist. Together they laid the groundwork for the caustic, aggressively surreal sound that reached fruition with Goo Goo—now known as Television. Richard Hell left soon afterward to form still another since-disbanded group called Heartbreakers with members of the old New York Dolls, and Smith took his place on bass.

While a solo performer in the Bowery-Soho area, fairhaired/spectral-eyed Tom Miller donned his artful alias as a tip of the hat to 19th-century French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Tom is a poet in his own (right), having co-authored, on July 4, 1974, a small book of verse with Patti Smith entitled The Night—now considered a collector's item.

"The French edition somehow got the English wrong!" he complains.

Whether Television's cryptic brand of art-rock will catch on commercially remains to be seen, but its colleagues are hopeful; Alan Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult produced the trial tape that helped land an aboveground label.

Behind the steely stares and the flashing images, what is Television trying to communicate? Possible clues can be found in the lyrics of "Little Johnnie Jewel (Parts 1 & 2)", a self-marketed single circulated last year on the local ORK label

Now little Johnnie Jewel
He's so cool
He had no decisions
Just tryin' to tell a vision...
"Johnnie Jewel is how people were maybe two hundred years ago," says Verlaine. "Back then, when people got up in the morning, they knew what they had to do to get through the day—there were 100% less decisions. Nowadays, we have to decide what we want to buy in grocery stores, what job to take, what work to do. But not Johnnie. For him, it's all right there—it's a freer state, and that's what my music is looking for.

"To understand Johnnie, you should think of William Blake. He was the same kinda guy."