Band: Television Rocks Around Two Guitars

New York Times, June 1978

by John Rockwell



Television, which appeared for two shows Sunday Night at the Bottom Line, was one of the first of the New York new wave rock bands, long with Patti Smith, the Ramones and Talking Heads. But although Television's debut album "Marquee Moon," made many critics’ 10-best lists last year, and the new album, "Adventure" has been received nearly as well, the band's career has hardly blossomed as well as the others have.

Record sales haven't been very impressive, the band has toured erratically and intermittently, and it doesn't have the sort of management that would seem needed for mass American success.

All of which wouldn't be very important - mass American success isn't the highest human achievement, necessarily - except that Television is a wonderful group, and it's too bad more people haven't been able to experience the pleasure of encountering it.

The band consists of four men, divided into two complementary halves.  The rhythm section of Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums is solid and serviceable, setting up a sometimes brutal and plodding, but always firm underpinning for the two guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.  But ultimately it is the work of Mr. Verlaine and Mr. Lloyd that defines Television's sound.

This is a two-guitar band, but unlike most such groups the two don't normally engage in furious improvisatory face-offs.  There are improvisations in Television's repertory, but mostly the music is exactly arranged,  building in terraced layers to massive climaxes, and such spontaneity as does occur takes place within set rules, or involves the manner and intensity in which pre-set notes are executed. Generally one guitarist plays a subsidiary role within  given song and the other solos, although the nature of the "rhythm guitar" figurations is often so unusual as to define the sound of a song.  The overall effect is like Neil Young and Crazy  Horse, or some rock reincarnation of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.

Of the two, Mr. Verlaine is the more pointed and mystically rapturous player, and Mr. Lloyd the more explosively exciting.  Mr. Lloyd is  for the most part nearly catatonic on stage, a frozen  zombie who erupts during his solos in concentrated contortions, is left hand flying up and down along the neck of  his instrument for dramatic octave and double-octave jumps.

Mr. Verlaine places single notes more delicately and exactly, yet in his grander solos - above all the towering edifice he and the band construct during the song "Marquee Moon"- he ultimately surpasses Mr. Lloyd for excitement.

There's more to Television's appeal than guitar-playing, although that's the center of it.  Mr. Verlaine and Mr. Lloyd are both striking-looking men - Mr. Lloyd rapt and tightly controlled in a sort of perpetual angelic pout; Mr. Verlaine impossibly skinny and maniacally accentuated, leaning awkwardly into the microphone with his eyes rolling crazily upward as he sings. And his singing voice, while probably a barrier to the group's mass success, has a strangulated aptness of color and rhythmic exactness of phrasing that can be very exciting.

Mr. Verlaine's  lyrics generally don't come across with any clarity in concert, and that was the case on Sunday. On record, with a lyric sheet, they're clear, and have put off some people with their artiness. This writer finds them a true reflection of Mr. Verlaine's character and interesting in themselves, but there can be no question that the band's rewards are primarily musical.

In concert, Television has always responded to the inspiration of the moment, in that the precise arrangements can be executed with a greater or lesser degree of fervor. At Sunday's early show the first three songs - "The Dream's Dream", "Venus" and "Friction" - went by with a wonderful Úlan, followed by a slight slackening of tension until the final, overwhelming statement of "Marquee Moon" and the encores of "See No Evil" and the Rolling Stones’ "Satisfaction."