The Return Of Television
Seven fragile bell tones of wistfully plucked electric guitar resonate
across a field of silence. While the gemlike notes cycle with childlike
sincerity, a spare, medium-tempo two-beat begins, suddenly punctuated by a
gritty, eloquent sixteenth-note guitar gash and a willowy bass line. Television
is back on the air.
The song is "1880, or so", the opening cut on Television's new,
eponymous third album, their first recording since they dissolved in the wake of
two now-classic LPs: 1977's Marquee Moon and 1978's Adventure
[Elektra]. Television first formed in 1973, and their terse but brilliant
recording career earned them legendary status as seminal figures in that era's
New York new wave movement. But that legend now looks like a red herring to
these notoriously private musicians.
Tom Verlaine, Television's singer, songwriter and co-guitarist, has
continued fishing from a steady stream of visionary lyrical and musical ideas.
Solo albums like Flash Light [IRS] and Words From the Front
[Warner Bros.] are deep, challenging releases whose poetic sense is rivaled only
by the juiciness of the guitar tones and the spidery elegance of Verlaine's
playing. His most recent solo LP, the instrumental Warm and Cool
[Rykodisc], is a haunting yet calm masterpiece of emotional subtlety. Though
not as prolific as Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd has garnered critical
acclaim for earthy, blues-rock-inflected solo records like 1985's Field of
Fire [Moving Target] and 1987's Real Time [Celluloid]. His
visceral, neck-gouging lead work with Matthew Sweet and former X
singer/songwriter John Doe has helped reintroduce the fine art of feel to a
generation of guitarists weaned on daredevil diatonics.
So why all the fuss about the late '70s? Manhattan's notorious club CBGB's
was the central incubator for bands like Television, the Ramones, the Patti
Smith Group, Blondie, and the Talking Headsa beachhead assault on rock's
status quo that vastly influenced British punk and subsequent "alternative"
subgenres. And though Television's improvisational bent and poetic streak set
them off from most of their contemporaries, this is the milieu they came up in,
the musical/cultural spawning ground they seemed destined to spend eternity
answering for. A dubious charge, particularly considering that the band
profited from that environment strictly in artistic exchange and pop-culture
currencycertainly not in greenbacks.
Maybe it's not surprising then that the band balks at discussing what Lloyd
refers to as a "talked to death" issue. Along with bassist Fred Smith
and drummer Billy Ficca, Verlaine and Lloyd have far better reasons to be
admired. For their balance of subtly shaped tones, their intertwining of rich
melodies, their dynamics, and their jagged rhythmic interplay, they are as
crucial to modern guitar as any band of the past 20 years.
TOM VERLAINE: WEEDING OUT THE TOMATOES
You and Richard are very different players, but your sounds coalesce so
A lot of it has to do with rehearsing and plowing through things, pulling
this and that out and discussing stuff. It's usually not instant. Sometimes
it's just a lucky thing where people are playing things that mesh. But more
commonly it's threshing it, you know? Fred will watch my hands rather than have
a chord chart, and with Richard I'll say, "These seem to be the chords at
the moment, but maybe we'll change them." All these alterations keep
happening until it somehow falls into something that seems to be some sort of
Did your style partially evolve from playing off Richard?
No, I definitely wouldn't say I play off him. I play off the vocals.
That's where all the guitar bits from this stuff happen.
Then what does playing with Television bring to your material that's not
on a Tom Verlaine solo record?
I don't know. [Laughs.] It will probably look weird in print, but
I don't know. Maybe it's more jammy or something. Some of the things on this
new record took the approach of playing and then erasing the mistakes, having
Richard come up with another part and putting it on later. Others are pretty
much arranged note-for-note in rehearsal, outside of some solos and some doodads
around the vocal. Each song has a different approach, and the variety of tunes
is pretty broad.
Do you enjoy writing songs with a band as opposed to writing solo?
I like it when something happens. That's my favorite thing in a band: a
song like "Rhyme" or "Rocket", something that just happens
out of the combination of members, like having a rehearsal where something is
beyond what any one member would do. I'm fairly lucky in being able to take
tapes of that stuff and pull moments out of it that structure into something
unique, something that features the best of what each guy contributes. The good
thing is that everybody's got solo clauses in the contract where they can go do
anything with whoever wants them. It's a really good safety valve.
You seem very attentive to tone.
Yeah, I can't sing with a shit guitar sound. It really gets on my nerves.
When I started to do solo work and held auditions, it was total agony, because
guys would come in and it would be like, where's their ear? I mean, sometimes I
don't mind a big bunch of noise, either. It really depends on the song, or the
mood at the time.
Do you spend a lot of time getting your tone together?
Yeah. I just find everything kind of temperamental and problematic because
all the equipment is so old. One day the amp sounds great, and for some reason
the next day it just totally sucks. I really take every day as a new day. But
it's mildly frustrating sometimes. There's a lot to be said for having one amp
and just playing every song through it like you do live, but I like a changing
sound quality on record.
Do you ever pick with your fingers?
More and more in the last three years. Most of the instrumental record is
fingers. Even live now if I don't like the first bar of what I'm playing, I
just throw the pick on the floor and play the rest of the song with my fingers.
Your playing has always avoided traditional blues-based rock gestures.
You can invent melody over pretty adventurous chord changes.
I know all that technical stuff from when I was a kid. I had piano and
saxophone for years, so it's sort of ingrained. But I couldn't sit and read
music. It would take me half an hour to read five bars. But there's something
in there that knows. You might throw an E flat over an E minor chord because
you want that sound once in awhile. But it's not real conscious. I know what
the options are, but it's all instinct. It's also what the flavor of the tune
wants. I don't really think of myself as a guitar player.
How do your guitar parts play with the lyrics of a song? If you say, "It
echoed over the mountains", are you going to play something echoey?
Definitely notprobably the opposite, just to add another thing to the
tune. I'm never interested in playing lead guitar. I really can't remember
solos very well and I don't really care; sometimes I'll start a solo the same
way just to get by for a few minutes while I'm thinking or feeling my way into
In your playing I hear shades of everything from ska, reggae, and
African music to Link Wray and Pentangle. What music was in your head when you
began writing and playing?
I hated guitar music for years. I played piano because when I was a kid,
I'd be really transported by symphonies. My mother would get these supermarket
records of overtures or something, and that was music for me. The only thing I
liked on radio were flying saucer songs and stuff. In the early '60s I hated
pop. I took up sax in about '63, and an older friend of mine had some Coltrane
and Ornette Coleman records, and that's the music I liked. I had a brother who
bought Motown, and I thought it was totally twee. The first rock record I liked
was Yardbirds stuff, because it was really wild. I never listened to guitar
musicI thought it was a really twee instrument. But when I wanted to
write songs, I decided that was the thing to play. For me, even a solo is an
accompaniment of some kind, or it just takes the place of a voice. It's not
wrapped up in the same elements or obsessions or desiresmaybe that's not
fair to saythat most guitar players have. For better or for worse.
Are you the guy who'll write two lines and crumple the paper up, or do
you let it flow and leave it as is?
I'd say it's editing. You try not to judge anythingyou slop it all
out, and sometimes you have something there and sometimes you don't. 95% of
everything gets thrown out, but not in rage or frustration. It's like you've
got a mixed salad and you only want the tomatoes. [Laughs.] it's more
like that! The song is the tomatoes and everything else is the salad.
What do you do if the tomatoes already have dressing on them?
That's actually a real problem. [Laughs.] In that case you've just
got to send it back or throw it out. Usually you can weed those tomatoes out of
TIGHTROPE WALKING WITH RICHARD LLOYD
Television is well known for improvising in concert. Who takes the lead
in initiating it?
Having played as much as we have together live, and always having been a
band that follows its intuition and what the music is trying to tell us, we have
a certain telepathy. It's a matter of synergywhat the music is doing
defines where we're going to go. It you haven't seen us live, you only know a
third of what it's about. The music's very specific to guitar parts that
interlock for verses and chorusesthat's pretty well defined. We
have arrangements; it's not like we go flying by the seat of our pants.
But we've always been very informal in that sense live. A lot of what we're
about is in rehearsal rooms, just picking up the instruments and following
wherever it takes us.
How do you structure solos?
I usually have a beginning and an end. Then I tightrope-walk my way to
whatever connecting lines I need to get to. I usually improvise a number of
ideas, and as I do, it takes form. By the time it's on the record, I can
usually play it note-for-note. In multi-track recording, I usually ask for two
or three tracks. Then I'll do three solos; either two the same and one
completely different, or all three different or three vaguely the same. Then
we'll look at them, throw the crappiest one away, and I'll try to get a better
one. We'll do this balancing act until we've got one that for the most part is
Then we'll look at the other solo tracks and see if there's anything you can
comp into the weaker sections. Let's say the solo is good for five bars; it has
a very strong melodic beginning and then it kind of dipsit doesn't know
where it's going. I'll ask the engineer to let me "tightrope-walk it",
which is to say I'll play along. By then I'll have learned the notes to the
point at which I need a transition. Then the engineer will punch in record, and
I may get another half a bar or I may get four bars. Then we'll move it up
until I get to either the end or to the place where it's already good.
Once you get the pieces together, do you leave it at that, or do you
learn the whole thing and replay it?
Both. Let's say we've actually taken two tracks and comped them into a
third. Well, then we've got two free tracks. So I'll play the comped track
fresh, because now I know it from beginning to end, and that's usually the track
that ends up being the best. Then I use the other track to try to come up with
something out of left field, completely different, and sometimes you're off and
running someplace else.
You and Tom play inside, around and between each other, whereas with
Matthew Sweet you take a more traditional lead rôle.
When I play with Matthew he wants a solo, but he also wants leads during the
verses, during the chorus...[Laughs.] I've said to myself, "I get
more lead time than there is stage time with Matthew," because that's what
he wants. It's a lot of fun; it's very exciting. But with Tom, it's like we
become one guitar. I can tell the difference between our parts and our styles
when we're playing leads, but even when I listen to stuff that Tom and I do,
sometimes I have to pull myself out of it to determine who's where, who's what.
I don't think there's another band that has that with two guitars, where one
doesn't strum and one doesn't play lead all the time, and they don't switch or
play leads at the same time in thirdswe're not the Allman Brothers, and
we're not Status Quo, we're not heavy metal, and we're not a strum band. The
parts are very well defined in their interconnectedness. They really make one
piece, and I don't know exactly how that happens.
Is the air within your interplay a matter of really listening to each
I'm not sure if "listening" is the right word. Once you get two
parts going that are like gears, you want the gears to mesh. While Tom is
playing a lead, I am listening very closely to see what augmentation I can do
both melodically and rhythmically. When I say melodically, I don't mean playing
melody behind his solos, because I usually try to stick to chords. But how do
you arpeggiate them so that they follow his emotional build? Or provide the
punctuation that can follow his emotive content? When I'm playing a lead, I'm
not able to fully pay attention to what the other guys are doing, but I do know
that they can follow me dynamically. That's something we have that is very
strong, and that I don't see other bands do. Especially in rhythm sections; you
get guys soloing, and the rhythm section is just kind of treading water
underneath, so it's up to the soloist to have peaks and valleys and melodic
direction and emotional direction. But in Television, we're all very conscious
of the dynamics of what makes a peak, whether it's a lead or a song. On records
you get a snapshot of that, but live it can change a great deal.
Do you have to change your playing to perform with Television?
It doesn't change as much as you might think. I'm the kind of player who
wants to pay attention to what the needs of the music are. With Matthew or John
Doe or myself, the needs are different. One thing I appreciate with Television
is that my playing does get shaped. A lot of times, if we're writing a song,
the part that I'll come up with first will undergo change, and at the end of the
day I have a part that's very Television. And I couldn't define that, because
it's not simply Tom either. Television is something elseit's very much
what happens when the four of us are thrown together.
Though you avoid blues licks, a lot of your tones have that
just-breaking-up blues sound. I guess there's a blues element to Television
We're like blues from another planetlike rock music for aliens.
Maybe you should contact some aliens.
Oh, we do. Regularly. Or they contact us, you know.
CABLE ACCESS: TELEVISION'S GEAR
Richard Lloyd still plays the same '61 Stratocaster with jumbo frets that he
played on Marquee Moon and Adventure, although he takes a '62
reissue Strat and Tele on the road. On the new album's "Rhyme", he
played a rare black f-hole Gretsch. Lloyd tends a stable of vintage Fender
amps, including a '50 Deluxe, a '52 Pro, a '55 Tremolux, and a '56 Princeton.
He also uses a '59 Ampeg Jet, a Vibraverb reissue, and a '65 Supro. Live, he
relies on Vox AC30s: "You can change the current wherever you are without
a transformer, so they're good the world over, and they have a nice high-end
bite." Save for a few dinosaur pedals, Lloyd avoids effects, citing the
dangers of "processors that make your guitar sound like Velveeta."
And though he's a diehard fan of amp distortion, he admits, "I'm always
fighting to get a combination that won't really distort the tonality of the
guitar, but will just give you the edge you're looking for."
Tom Verlaine cracks up when I pop the gear question: "I'm gonna make
up really great lies for you," he howls. "Fuzztones and Marshalls!"
Actually, Tom is a longtime Fender Jazzmaster player: "They're really
problematic tuning-wise, but they were the cheapest guitars in the '70s, so I'm
used to them." Stray cats include a Stratocaster, a Harmony 12-string, a
Vox with built-in fuzz, vibrator and tuner, a "Kay thing", an Al
Caiola Epiphone, and a Monkees Gretsch.
In concert, Verlaine plays through either Fender Super Reverbs (also used on
Marquee Moon) or Vox AC30s, but for Television he went with a
Valvotronics tube amp made by the group's amp technician Robert Darby, although
Super Reverbs, an Ampeg Jet, and a Silvertone amp all made their way into the
mix. For effects, he brought his usual "trunkload of total garbage stuff",
which includes Echoplexes used as preamps, "just to goose it up."
Verlaine's full-bodied tone starts with the strings: What began as a way to
keep his Jazzmaster in tune has become a wide proposition.015s or .014s on
the top to .054s down low.