Liquid Television

Source: Details (November 1992)

by David Cavanagh

After 14 years, Television, the premier new-wave guitar band, return to irregularly scheduled programming

Television can't agree on anything. Where they first met; how long they've known each other; how they lit up the late '70s with art, poetry and ten-minute guitar duels; how they split, disillusioned, in 1978; or how they got back together 14 years later.

They argue about the name of their old lawyer. About what year David Byrne first turned up at CBGB('s). They even argue about what songs they played at their re-formation gig, and that was only the other week.

"I have a very good memory," insists Richard Lloyd, one of the incendiary guitar pioneers.

"That's not my recollection at all," says Tom Verlaine, their other incendiary guitar pioneer.

Verlaine, Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca sit in a haze of cigarette smoke and Beck's, talking about their latest adventures. First, their appearance at the Glastonbury festival. (Verlaine: "I don't remember it.") And now a new album, called simply Television. It's been a long time coming, but it's superb. It's like the bones of Verlaine's '87 solo classic Flash Light crossed with the soul of Television's 1977 debut Marquee Moon plus some weird film noir swingin' stuff, and it's so crammed full of what Richard Lloyd calls "differentness" that it can only be the work of one band.

The reactivated Televion officially plugged in together for a three-hour jam one day in December 1990 (Verlaine, of course, thinks it was December 1991 but is soon outvoted).

"We just show up every 11 or so years and cause aurora borealis," says Lloyd, his face cracking. "Sorta like a comet."

"We'd always held on to the name," notes Smith.

"We've actually been very active in South America selling contraband," says Ficca.

"It's an experimental approach, as it always was," Verlaine notes. "It's like when we started, all falling together from different angles."

All of them subscribe to the "like riding a bike" theory, lobbing words like "vibration", "pulsation" and "Billy's high hat" into the ring as examples of perennial Television trademarks that made the gap of 14 years irrelevant.

LLOYD: Although a number of years had passed, for me it was like the next day. Or a week later. There was no discontinuity. It was just what it was, always.

SMITH: Like waking from a great sleep.

LLOYD: (laughing) Yeah! Rip VanTelevision!

Ficca looks identical to his '77 image, perhaps a little more tanned. Smith is now balding and portly, like an amiable tennis ball. Verlaine, who three separate encyclopedias state categorically to be 42, looks 23. Not a wrinkle on him. If they ever need a stand-in for "John Boy Walton: The High School Years", there's only one name to call.

Lloyd has been affected most by the interim years. Drug problems in the late '70s have taken their toll. He's also filled out now, his hair has receded, and he's matured to the point where he's virtually unrecognizable from the sensitive-looking youth on the old album covers. He's an intense, awkward character these days. Nothing he remembers about Television can be vouched for by anybody else, and it annoys him.

"When we split, we all went to a Chinese restaurant, got drunk and threw food around, and, y'know, basically said au revoir," he recalls.

Verlaine can't remember it. He can remember being sick of the music business, managers and deals, wondering how come this supposedly "seminal" and influential group never seemed to be getting anywhere and why such a widely accepted masterpiece as Marquee Moon couldn't be found in any shops. He can remember feeling depression and rejection. He can't remember any Chinese restaurant.

If Television's 1992 re-formation seems a little up-in-the-air, out-of-the-blue, open-ended, and lots of other things with hyphens in them, spare a thought for what it must have been like for them in 1974. It was the year of Kiss, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; a year when Pink Floyd did nothing and were still crap.

Verlaine (born Tom Miller) formed Television in New York with bassist Richard Hell (né Myers), Ficca and Lloyd. (Smith replaced Hell in '75 and is not the Fred Smith who played guitar in the MC5 and later married Patti Smith.)

Verlaine was a jazz fan who readily name-checked John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and took his nom de guerre from a French poet. Lloyd was a blues fan who to this day rolls his eyes when Coltrane is mentioned. Out of this record-collection attrition came some of the most feverish, mind-blowing guitar music ever. Those spats were genuine.

In the mid-'70s, Television's endless guitar duels became a regular fixture at CBGB('s), where the New York new-wave scene was born. "So me and this friend are walking down the Bowery," recalls Verlaine, "and we saw this club with this sign saying CBGB OMFUG."

"Wasn't he literally putting up the sign?" asks Smith.

VERLAINE: No, that's something else entirely.

LLOYD: That's my recollection. He was painting the m in OMFUG. But go on.

VERLAINE: We walked over and got hired to play a Saturday night.

LLOYD: That first gig we earned a dollar each.

They were managed at the time by a Marxist entrepreneur called Terry Ork, an old ally of Andy Warhol's, who'd rent little theatres and put on Television shows. The group would buy their own beer to sell at gigs; according to Lloyd, they invested in 40 cases of beer for one show that attracted only 15 people and were left to drink their own beer "for months". Verlaine doesn't remember that.

"CBGB('s) had a pool table in the middle," Lloyd gesticulates, "and a dog running around. They had a flophouse overhead, and I remember wine dripping down through the ceiling onto the microphone and sparking. And we'd be playing and the dog would come up and crap up against your leg. Very funny."

Into this hellhole strolled the Ramones, Patti Smith and Blondie. Students started coming from hundreds of miles away to check out the scene. One was David Byrne. Verlaine can remember a madly impressed David Bowie putting in an appearance toward the end of '74 and advising them to play a show "in a boxing ring, with lots of white light". Verlaine giggles.

Patti Smith may have had the attitude of the new-wave scene, the Ramones the ripped jeans, Talking Heads the commercially viable neuroses, and Debbie Harry the face. But Television had the guitars, and it's their music that has aged the least.

FICCA: Everything was really new and original. And I guess even though we were famous for taking long solos...

VERLAINE: (sniggering) ...and forgetting where we were...

LLOYD: ...we had a kind of a giddy explosiveness.

VERLAINE: There's a wonderful video where we're kicking each other and Richard Hell's falling on the floor...

LLOYD: (excitedly) ...and then he knocks over the mike stand and follows it to the floor and keeps singing into it, ha ha!

VERLAINE: There's a bit in that where he looks like I'm kicking him to death.

They also had this extraordinary idea of stacking up loads ot TV sets behind them as they played. Tchah. A ludicrous notion. You'd never catch anyone doing that these days.

Dare these guys talk of the future? Is Television built to last any more than it was in 1978?

"Probably not," shrugs Verlaine, giggling. "We never were. We're a band of the present. And peculiar as it sounds, I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I'd realize, Christ, this song is ten minutes long with two guitar solos.

"But this album is just as eccentric. When I heard all the songs together I thought, What the fuck is this? Which, incidentally, is the same feeling I had when I first heard Marquee Moon."

There are lots of nods all around. Hey, at last Television seem to agree on something. Almost.

"Can I just say," says Richard Lloyd intently, "that if you asked me, I'd say Television was a lousy fuckin' name for a rock group."