Friday, January 05, 2007
I wouldn't really classify Television as a punk band. They are, however, supremely important and essential to the birth of NYC's punk scene as we know it. Urban legend has it that Tom Verlaine convinced Hilly Kristal to let the band practice at his Bowery bar, CBGB, and play live shows there too. The rest is history, and now CBGB is closed.
Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, neither of whom is originally from New York, seemed to define a certain cultural shift for me, together with Patti Smith. They all brought to rock n roll their love of poetry and their mix of poetry and rock n roll kept an arty/beatnik edge alive in the punk world of downtown NYC. For those who don't know, Verlaine and Hell played together in the earliest version of Television, with Hell departing to front the Voidoids.
What differentiates Television from other bands that blossomed in the mid-70s downtown New York music scene was that they were consumate musicians. Both Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were guitar virtuosos and their trademark blend of harmonics, lead and rhythm switchblade guitars and the trading off of solos influenced so many bands that followed in their wake. Los Angeles "Paisley Underground" bands such as the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade are but two bands that took that sound, dirtied it up and molded their own thing that holds up today as well as Television does.
Television made their Los Angeles debut in April of 1977, during a period where all the New York and London bands we wanted to see were coming through town. The Damned were supposed to be the support band for Television but they got knocked off the tour (and were stranded in Los Angeles and helped out by the REAL "Band Aids" of Los Angeles in the 70s, the all girl punk/glam band, Backstage Pass, who found them gigs and lodging. Of course, if you didn't see the movie Almost Famous, I guess you have no idea what I mean by "band aids.").
Many people still ask me why I didn't see or photograph the Damned in the LA debut (I'd already seen them in London). I absolutely HAD TO see Television. Maybe it was because I'd read so much New York Rocker or had been blown away by Patti Smith a year earlier... or maybe because the Verlaine of the 19th Century (Paul, the French imagist poet, who was the mentor and lover of Arthur Rimbaud) was a favorite poet of mine and I had to give props to any contemporary musician paying such homage. That, and they'd put out a fantastic single "Little Johnny Jewel" that was different than anything I'd ever heard. Their debut album featured not the three-minute power chord songs like The Ramones, Television's NYC/CBGB mates, but rather lengthy guitar explorations that supported Verlaine's poetic lyrics.
That debut album, Marquee Moon was produced by Andy Johns, brother of the more famous, classic rock (as in the Who, Rolling Stones, et al) producer, Glynn Johns. It was also released on Elektra, a major label. Yet with all the trappings of being a major band, Television's beginnings gave them a sine qua non punk/DIY pedigree.
Some of my favorite poetry from the 1970s is not from the poets, but from the lyricists of punk rock, such as Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Dee Dee Ramone and Tom Verlaine. Every lyric on Marquee Moon could stand on its own without the music. The music could also stand on its own as an instrumental. The guitar solos on the 10-minute long title track "Marquee Moon" were a blistering head trip with a structure that was indeed a journey. No guitar player is really worth his salt in my mind unless he could pull off both the riff and the rhythm of "Friction." I've been teased for liking Television; I've been teased for thinking their poetry is stellar. You be the judge - is anything in rock n roll more clever than "I fell into the arms of the Venus de Milo?" I think not. Its rich and layered and visual and visceral all at once.
Television may not be your run of the mill punk rockers, but punk rock would not have had a home if not for Television.