The Great Lost Band Finds Itself

Source: Musician Magazine, September, 1992

by Scott Isler

They came, they played, they broke up...

For too many people Television lasted about as long as it takes to read the above sentence. The band dissolved almost immediately upon the release of its second album. That was 14 years ago, and fans still haven't forgiven them.

Until now, that is. Like running a film backwards, the group has reunited - and recorded an album - with the seeming haste that characterized their dissolution. If a tree falling in the forest with no one can make a noise; if one hand can clap; then never has a reunion created such a loud buzz among such a small audience.

What the hell for?

"It's amazing," bassist Fred Smith says. "I go out with other people on tour and it never fails that someone tells me,'I heard you when I was 13 and you changed my life.'" Along with Patti Smith, Television usually gets credit for founding an alternative rock scene in mid-70s New York City - which begat "punk rock" which begat "new wave" which begat seven times seven hundred bands (none of them even famous) which begat whatever you're listening to right now on college radio. And they did it all without making any money.

Unlike their namesake, Television achieved the rarefied position of honor without profits. They paved the way for a scene in which they never appeared comfortable. Their fellow new wavers believed in a short/sharp/shock technique apotheosized by the Ramones. Television would get entwined in extensive dual-guitar interplay, ignoring showmanship for an entrancing combination of fluttering melody, hypnotic rhythm and singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine's oblique lyrics. Those who were caught up in the magic found them irreplaceable and compared them to the Grateful Dead. Those who weren't called them "an ill-natured hippie band" (a Creem vox populi) and compared them to the Grateful Dead.

Whatever their approach, one thing about Television is certain: they sure weren't selling records. But bandwatchers attributed their abrupt breakup to another cause. Onstage the sparks that flew between Verlaine and guitarist Richard Lloyd sometimes seemed more than musical. "It was easier working alone than with Richard," Verlaine said a year after the split. For his part, Lloyd added almost simultaneously, "I don't think we could work together again. I am not going to let anybody be in control of my life the way he wanted to be in control of my life."

At first Television's demise had a happily mitotic effect. Verlaine and Lloyd promptly issued solos albums in 1979. As the 80's bogged down into the 90's, though, the ex-member's career paths, while divergent, were plainly equally random. Verlaine, with a string of solo albums behind him, could always count on respectable critical notices, minimal sales and low visibility. The less prolific Lloyd lost time battling a drugs-and-alcohol problem; he emerged victorious with a stunning "comeback" album Field of Fire - if you could find it (later released in the U.S., it was originally on a tiny Swedish label). Since 1985 he has added only a live album to the "Richard Lloyd" bins, while playing with John Doe and Matthew Sweet. The Television rhythm team of Smith and Billy Ficca got by playing, separately, a variety of music with a variety of bands.

Surely the idea of reviving, if not - shall we say, for argument's sake - "exploiting" the Television name must have occurred to these guys at one time or another. And it did. Smith and Verlaine would "always toss around the idea" of a reunion, the former says. (Smith has also appeared on every Verlaine solo album, so there's clearly no artistic difference there.)

The idea also appealed to Lloyd. The guitarist now says his earlier, anti-Verlaine remarks were made "to shut up all the people who kept telling us to get back together. There have been many times when it appeared to my emotional side as an albatross around my neck. Here I am pursuing other things and I'm tagged with this, 'Television, Television.'"

By the late ‘80s, Lloyd had mellowed to the extent that his then-manager, Jim Fouratt, tried reassembling the Television set. Verlaine was signed to a British label, Fontana; his A & R person, Fouratt says, "always wanted to put Television back together again." According to Fouratt, Lloyd "asked that what happened last time not be repeated, which was that Tom took credit for everything in terms of publishing. And he asked that he be able to sing a couple of songs in performance, and do a song of his own with Tom or on the record. Tom absolutely refused." (Lloyd shared songwriting credits with Verlaine for one song on each of Television’s two earlier albums.)

In mid-1990 Verlaine was out of his Fontana contract - the culmination of what Verlaine calls "a nightmare with my beloved A & R man." Coincidentally or not, late last year the Television reunion got back on track. Neither Verlaine nor Lloyd were with the managers who had faced off during the earlier reunion talks. Now there was more than talk.

Billy Ficca received a phone call, he remembers, that "we’re gonna try to get together in a studio and see what it’s like, just jam. I was kinda surprised. After all these years! I was intrigued. It was good before."

"It was important to see if the energy was still there," Lloyd says. But after 20 minutes of playing in the rented space, "it was very evident. It wasn’t like anybody was coming out of mothballs, or was now working as a computer specialist."

"We just jammed away," Smith recalls, "we didn’t play any songs in particular. In the middle of it I realized it started sounding like we were onstage somewhere back in 1978: rotten monitors and everybody noodling. We said, ‘Hey, we can do this, no problem.’"

A Los Angeles-based lawyer, Fred Davis, solicited interest from record companies. The band went with Capitol, a label that’s has spectacular success reviving the career of Bonnie Raitt. Television entered New York’s Sorceror Sound studio earlier this year and emerged in June with its third album. The title of it is Television.

"All of us [in the band] hate profiles," Tom Verlaine says of the honorable profession of journalism. "I really hate it." He might have is reasons. Over the years Verlaine has been subjected to his share of ill-informed, quasi-literate reporters quoting him out of context (present company excluded).[That’s not what he says, Scott-Ed.] Professionally, he has gone through enough managers and record companies to suggest a problem with authority figures. Personally, his retiring manner and preference for privacy aren’t endearing attributes in the very public entertainment world to which he reluctantly belongs. Taken all together, Verlaine strikes some people as a consummate control freak.

"A few people said, ‘Don’t work with him, he’s difficult,’" notes his current managers, John Telfer. "But he’s an artist - and no more difficult than anybody who’s intelligent and doesn’t stand fools."

"I gotta tell ya," Verlaine (real name Rrose Selavy) laughs about Television’s reunion, "I find it so tedious to talk about. It’s like asking some guy who works in a Ford factory for 20 years how he’s come to build that engine. "To me it’s such a total lark. Maybe ‘lark’ is a little bit too light a word ‘cause it implies I’m mot serious. I’m serious in the context of a band - being serious about presentation, about doing the best you can at a given time. But in terms of it being an entity that has any longevity" - he laughs again - "that completely remains to be seen. It’s a totally ‘if’ thing based on a whole pile of factors."

One of those factors, to cynical minds (present company excluded), could be the aura surrounding Television’s name and status in pop-music history. Verlaine says he "seriously thought about" the reunited Television taking a new name. Capitol "wouldn’t buy into it, though. The company obviously wants to exploit the name. Even if we didn’t sell all that many records, it’s much better having somebody know something about you than being a name that no one ever heard of. Right now, for better or worse, there’s a whole pile of people who never saw this group who want to see it."

"The whole survival joke is a huge consideration."

Verlaine’s survival is a consideration to fans of his ethereal, affecting music. "it doesn’t cost me much to live. Except, of course, my clothes!" he jokes. Asking him to evaluate his career draws a laugh. "My non-career?" he corrects the interviewer. "My excuse for a career? Honestly, I never think about the word ‘career.’ I’ve had managers, the minute they say it to me, they look at me and just roll their eyes."

He may laugh about his career, but Verlaine is serious about this art. "He’s very well versed in theory and harmony, more so than most people," says Mario Salvati, who has engineered all of Verlaine’s albums since 1984.

"He called me up one day from England," Smith says, "and said he spent six months just practicing every day and kind of boldly stated that he really knew every millimeter of the instrument. I went over and started rehearsing with him for a tour , and he amazed me. He was always an interesting and really good guitar player , but you could tell he’s studied hard; he didn’t hit a wrong note ever. He has a lot of musical knowledge. He can write a bridge in three seconds flat. If it doesn’t work on the first try he’ll try the weirdest chord you can think of against the weirdest notes, and it usually works."

Despite a forbidding image, Verlaine has consistently championed one of music’s most consumer-friendly elements: melody. "It’s odd," he muses, "that in the 80’s melody, more than ever, should have gone out the window. Not to say that we’re writing great melodies; we’re probably part of the aspect of modern life that has to do with the absence of melody. In the ‘40s you had a melody that would float. On this record that’s definitely true of some of the guitar things I’m doing. I have no interest in going whacko-whammo with another guitar solo. It’s more, ‘develop something that stays with the heart of a song.’ "I don’t think I’ve written any melodies as good as most TV show themes in the ‘50s."

Television would be inconceivable without Verlaine, but there’s more than Verlaine to the group. "A huge part of what the group is and what it always did," says Verlaine, "is work things out. Sometimes it’s me arranging and sometimes it’s Richard cycling around for a while and coming up with a bit that he places here and there. A lot of it’s repetition, developing a mood - when to play, when not to play, whether to play a chord. It’s all rehearsal. I’ll generally have a structure, or in some cases a song with a lyric or verses. We’ll just start bashing it out. Usually the first thing we might try something different with is the beat. It’s really down to details, like should the hi-hat be eighth-notes or quarter-notes. Then maybe we’ll try harmony notes on bass, or Fred will throw in a bass run that the guitar will end up doubling somewhere along the line. In the meantime words or vocal melodies are floating over the top of this stuff," he laughs. "So you might have a song that’s really raunchy end up turning more sweet."

"Tom writes the songs," Lloyd says, "and then the band contributes parts which Tom ‘edits,’ remaining a kind of musical director. There have been times when we’ll play something and Tom says, "I can hang a song on that." We’re very synergistic."

Verlaine edits himself as well, sometimes ruthlessly. The song "1880" was inspired by sentimental poems printed in Gilded-Age newspapers. "I’m fond of some of that stuff ‘cause it’s so innocent. The lyric basis of that song is my guitar part. That song went through all sorts of changes before it ended up being what it is, these two guitars weaving around. It’s not even really rock ‘n’ roll except it’s got this eight-note bass and this beat almost like a Rolling Stones song.

"A lot of songs get thrown out because I don’t have patience. The vocals are sung last in the studio but often I’ll sing while we’re doing a song just so everybody knows where they are. I have had to write lyrics over because when the track was done it was so different than what the original auditory imagination of the song was, that the lyric wasn’t gonna work. " ‘Call Mr. Lee’ was an example of that. It was a real manic song about three months ago. By the time it was done, ‘This doesn’t really work.’ Instead of ‘Let’s do it again,’ this desperate situation of some spy locked up in a foreign country, this cinematic kind of ‘60s spy film was more like a European spy film - kind of weird but not real exciting, like people sitting around in hotel rooms, a girl with a raincoat.

"I had a meeting with about eight people from Capitol and they all wanted lyric sheets right away, ‘cause either they can’t make them out or can’t make any sense of them!" Verlaine laughs. "There are definitely little stories and plots behind these. But by the time they get edited down, the basic gist of the plot disappears. What you end up with is a character talking about a situation they’re in that doesn’t really get spoken of in the song. I guess that’s what makes ‘em different."

Lyric sheets aside, Capitol has been a model of corporate enlightenment. "The record company was very cool," Salvati says. "They totally left us alone. The A & R guy called up once and asked if he could come down. He sorta was embarrassed because nobody wanted to bother us. He came down and said, ‘Just gotta do my job.’ He hung around for a bit and then split. At one point the president of the record company came down and told everybody he liked what he heard."

As the ultimate show of faith in the band, Capitol let Television produce themselves; Verlaine and Smith share "executive producer" credits. Verlaine, used to producing himself, wouldn’t have it any other way. "I’ve met just about every big producer in the world and had dinner with them," he says, "and never once came away impressed. A lot of them are incredible shits. You wouldn’t believe it. Real shits. You don’t even wanna be in the same room with ‘em. They just sit there and scream at you, especially the English ones. Like, ‘Fuck you! How’d you ever get a fucking record deal?’ They think they’re psyching you up to play a guitar solo and you just wanna go kill ‘em. It’s an idiotic way of dealing with people."

So Television - like all of Verlaine’s preceding albums - will be as uncompromised as they wanna be. But where does Verlaine end and Television begin? Having worked with Verlaine both solo and in Television, Mario Salvati can spot the differences. "There are certain things that Television is that Tom Verlaine isn’t - specifically, Richard’s playing and Richard’s parts within the songs. Richard’s a real rock ‘n’ roll guitar player."

"One thing that happened when we got together at the end of ’90 and jammed," Smith says, "more than Tom or Richard’s guitar being there, was Billy’s hi-hat. The way he plays his hi-hat is unlike anything else. One day they’ll discover the Television sound is Bill’s hi-hat playing. The rest is superfluous." Unprompted, Salvati seconds Smith’s notion: "Some of the stuff Billy does with his hi-hat is just incredible."

Inevitably, though, the spotlight will be on Lloyd and Verlaine, together again after all these years. "I know everybody’s waiting to find out what happened between the two of them," Salvati smiles. "There were no fights at all. There were some discussions - nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve been involved when bands have had fistfights in the studio; I shut the console off and I go home. This was nowhere near anything like that."

"I did play a number of songs for Tom that I had written," Lloyd says, "and asked him, are any of these Television songs? Fully expecting him to say no. It just made no sense to push that. It’s counterproductive." Ficca maintains intra-band relationships are better than they were in the ‘70s. "We’re more mature. About time, for crissake." "I don’t see a problem with doing another record if Capitol wants it," Smith says. Telfer similarly states the reunion "is not intended to be a one-off. You don’t suddenly reactivate a legend without giving it your full shot. But who knows what can happen."

Verlaine - typically>' - looks through the glass darkly, and finds it half-empty. "It really won’t surprise me if this isn’t happening nine months from now," he laughs. "I frankly think this record will be the same thing in this year that (Television’s debut) Marquee Moon was in that year: a group of people will like it. It won’t be the people who liked the old ones; it’ll be a new group of people: ‘What the fuck is this?’

"Nobody knows about the band’s dynamic. A few girlfriends go around and say, ‘Oh, this guy’s fighting with this.’ Everybody fights all the time. I’ve never seen two people who didn’t fight at least twice a week no matter what they’re doing. Either they fight with their bosses or they quit their jobs or they simmer and stew. Fighting’s just a part of being alive." Television. See them while you can.

TELEVISION SET LIST For the new Television album TOM VERLAINE relied mostly on his trusty Fender Jazzmaster and Stratocaster, the latter often used for chording. Also appearing were a Vox "with a vibrato arm that wouldn’t stay in tune," a hollowbody Gibson and hollowbody 12-string Harmony - "they’re much better than people give them credit for." For effects, Verlaine employed "a lot of little whacky ‘60s boxes… generally not featured on the main part of a song, but a little bit that comes and goes." Among them were an Electro-Harmonix delay, a Fender Dimension 4, a Musitron and a tube Echoplex "that was in a fire and the plastic melted off. So sometimes it distorts and sometimes it doesn’t." His amplifier was a Valv-O-Tronics, a new tube amp made by Television techie Robert Derbie. Tube fan Verlaine also used old Ampeg, Danelectro and Sears Silvertone amps.

RICHARD LLOYD has held onto his 1961 Strat as his main instrument. The other guitars he played on Television were reissues of a ’62 Strat and Tele, and a "rare Gretsch double-cutaway cat’s-eye thing." Formerly a D’Addario string-bender, Lloyd now swears by Dean Markley Super Long Plays, .10-.46. "They keep their tone, they stay in tune and they don’t break. Television used to pop strings left and right." Besides borrowing Verlaine’s Echoplex for a preamp, Lloyd hooked up an MXR green box and a custom "Brownie" preamp. For amps, Lloyd trundled in "all these wonderful old Fenders - a 1950 Deluxe, ’55 Tremolux - and a ’59 Ampeg Jet, a ’63 Vibroberb. Some of the most expensive ones, you turn around and go, ‘Hey, that sounds like a Pignose!’"

"I bought all these basses," FRED SMITH says, "and wound up using the same bass that was on Marquee Moon, this little student-model Ampeg." Not exclusively, though; he plugged in a Ginell on two songs, and a Fender precision on a third. Strings are D’Addario round-wounds. He adds chorus occasionally; "live I’ll end up using a compressor and noise gate, maybe a flanger - nothing heavy." His studio amp was an Ampeg V-15. Picks are Fender heavies.

Drummer BILLY FICCA has a Pearl black lacquer MLX maple-shell set. Until his old Pearl Jupiter brass snare gets repaired he’s using a Pearl metal floating snare. The toms are 12", 13" and 16"; the bass drum is 22".His Zildjian cymbals include an 18" K custom ride, paper-thin 17", a medium-thin 19" and a big 20". The famous hi-hats are 15" live, smaller for recording. Sticks are Zildjian 3As: "I don’t like nylon tips because they fly off!"