Television's New Season
by Andrew Schwartz
Don't adjust your sets. Television, New York's seminal guitar band, is back after a 13-year hiatus.A press release for Television's new self-titled album states: "Contrary to popular belief, Television never broke up. The band took a self-described sabbatical while Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith, and Billy Ficca worked on various projects." If you can believe in a rock band's taking a 13-year sabbatical, perhaps I could interest you in a 50 percent share in the Statue of Liberty. But another release credits the band with "shaping the 'alternative' sound that became the buzzword of the '80s," and that is true, although not quite the way you might be led to think.
Fact is, most of today's "alternative" bands - the Northwesteren grungemeisters, the rap-funk-rock-hybrids, the all-grrrl groups - bear no more musical relationship to Television in 1992 than the Ramones, Clash, and Dead Boys did in 1977. Now, as then, Television plays rock'n'roll, not as high-speed eight-notes or monolithic bar chords, but as a series of improvisations by a deft, powerful Smith-Ficca rhythm section and two virtuoso guitarists, Verlaine and Lloyd. As a lyricist, Verlaine draws less from Chuck Berry than from '50s films and 19th-century poets shuch as Arthur Rimbaud. If there was anger and defiance in the music, it was more in the spirit of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" than of teenage rebellion.
But if daring, independence, and integrity are the organizing principles of any alternative, then many of our postmodern favorites can trace their spiritual linage to the day when Television found a run-down Bowery bar called CBGB and asked for a gig, any gig. That's where it all began, in 1974, when rock was already a big business whose audience consisted largely of the passive stoners found at Bachman-Turner Overdrive shows at Midwestern sports arenas, and when releasing one's own independent single (as Television did in 1975 with "Little Johnny Jewel") could still be perceived as a daring act of pop-cultural subversion.
These days, Verlaine calls the band's pioneering mid-'70s strategy simply a "necessity-as-the-mother-of-invention kind of vibe." Llyod adds: "We were renting spaces to put on our shows because, in New York there was no place for an unsinged band to play. If we'd had an offer to play a hockey rink, we probably would've."
No informed commentary on Television can go without mention of Richard Hell. An old buddy of Verlaine's, he was the group's original bassist and a vital presence in its early days. When Verlaine takes an unsolicited crack at "a junkie bass player we had who went around for years lying abut how he was the creative spirit of the band," the old tug-of-war rope between the two snaps back to life, some 17 years after Hell's departure from the band. Hell, for his part, publicly derided Verlaine's motives at first when Television resumed activities. Now he has "no comment" on the matter.
Whatever the band might have become with Hell, without him, Television created its one uncontestable masterpiece, 1977's Marquee Moon. The albums ingeniously orchestrated guitar parts and stark fables of spiritual transcendence amid urban decay left marks still evident in the music of U2, Sonic Youth, and Ride, to name a few. The 1978 follow-up, Adventure, paled by comparision, but onstage Television was still the stuff of legend. Its best gigs set a standard of musical excitment and of controlled dynamics rarely equaled in rock, before or since. Those live performances are the principal reason that a band with only two official albumsneither which sold even 150,000 copiesbecame the focus of at least 16 bootleg releases since.
As for the band's new album...well, Senator, I knew Marquee Moon, and Television is no Marquee Moon. Like too many of its comtemporary competitors, this record is short on memorable melodies; the rhythm section seems constrained, and Richard Lloyd (despite strong solos on "1880 or So" and "In World") is not much more in evidence than he is on Matthew Sweet's latest. Only the album's rich array of guitar tones keeps me coming back. Slithering and shimmering from the group's vintage Fender instruments and battered tube amps, the band is a striking contrast to what Lloyd calls the "processsed-cheese' sound of most '90s guitar bands.
But it's unlikely that these sonic pleasures, even combined with the group's first ever video (for "Calling Mr. Lee") will be enough to boost the band's commercial status. Only a major tour can convert large numbers of the uninitiated to Television's program. "Well, we'll do a couple of gigs," allows Veraline. If and when the band does play, I'll be there - and not just for the memories.