One of the seminal bands who cut their teeth at New York’s CBGB’s in the mid-‘70s (in fact they were the first band to play there), Television was the most musically adept band from that scene, led by the skillful guitar tandem of Richard Lloyd and group leader Tom Verlaine. Although Verlaine’s nasal, adenoidal quaver of a voice certainly takes some getting used to (much like David Byrne’s), the spiraling, intertwining guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd produces pure magic. Although this debut album never sold in huge quantities, it became a major cult favorite that's much beloved by critics and fellow musicians, many of whom (R.E.M., Pavement, The Strokes, Interpol, etc.) were influenced by the band, though like The Velvet Underground nobody's ever really sounded quite like them. Though the band boasted a potent and precise rhythm section (drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith), it's the twisting guitar grooves and intense interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd that carries this punk era classic (which is not a punk album despite the band's ties to CBGB's). The album gets off to a rousing start with the terrific "See No Evil," which really grooves courtesy of Smith and Ficca, plus Lloyd's solo is (according to buddy Chris Willie Williams) "scalding" and I just love the empowering lyrics ("what I want, I want now!") which never fail to pump me up. The slower paced, melodic "Venus," with its artsy references to the Venus de Milo, showed that these guys were far removed from the typical punk bands from their era, while the tense "Friction" provides just that. The 10+ minute title track is simply one of the greatest extended guitar epics of all time and is clearly the album’s centerpiece song. Although both guitarists shine, the intense beauty of Verlaine's soaring guitar squalls in particular recall the fancy flights of jazz greats like John Coltrane more so than any other rock artist, sounding (to quote ex-girlfriend Patti Smith) “like a thousand bluebirds screaming.” Needless to say the band would be hard pressed to ever top that, but I'm also extremely fond of the dark, dramatic, and catchy "Elevation," which has more memorable riffs and great solos, though let it be known that most people seem to think of this as one of the weaker tracks whereas it's my third favorite after the title track and "See No Evil." Anyway, "Guiding Light" is another keeper, this one being a pretty, melodic, and soulful ballad, while an odd metered groove and a jittery intensity mark "Prove It" before the dirge-like "Torn Curtain" provides an emotional, dramatic (many would argue melodramatic) conclusion. Anyway, again Verlaine's vocals are a bit of an acquired taste, as perhaps are his obtuse yet poetic lyrics, but the payoff is definitely worth the effort of trying to get into this album. Besides, Marquee Moon is about its terrific guitar playing above all else, and though as the principle singer-songwriter-guitarist Verlaine gets most of the plaudits, he never found a foil as perfect as Richard Lloyd again, and Marquee Moon wraps their inspired guitar duels around the most memorable melodies their careers. Note: The band's original bass player, Richard Hell, also released a punk era classic (Blank Generation) with his backing band the Voidoids in 1977. Hell also inspired the Sex Pistols "look," at least according to Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
Adventure (Elektra '78, '03) Rating: A-
Although I agree with the consensus that Marquee Moon is Television’s definitive statement, I’m not quite sure why Adventure has become so neglected over the years, as this sophomore outing is another really good album that proved that the band could’ve attained Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame status had they simply stuck together (and given that the Sex Pistols made it on the basis of one album maybe they should make it anyway). Though this warmer, mellower, and more straightforward pop rock album lacks some of the nervous energy, tension, and excitement of its brilliant big brother (few albums overshadow all other albums made by a band more so than Marquee Moon), the relatively catchy and concise first five songs here (previously side one on vinyl) prove that Television had a radio friendly side (not that any of these songs ever made it that far), helped along by an increased use of keyboards and harmony vocals. “Glory” and “Careful” are sing along catchy power pop songs, while beautifully melodic ballads come in the form of “Days” and “Carried Away.” “Foxhole” is more rocking and is another strong entry aside from its rather generic chorus (it's all about the guitar playing, natch), while the band stretches out a bit more on side two, which features outstanding guitar tracks such as “The Fire,” on which Verlaine lends one of his most luminously intense guitar solos on record (a rare instance of the return of “a thousand bluebirds screaming”), and “Ain’t That Nothin’,” the album’s other hard rocking track which also has a sing along chorus in addition to some exceptional guitar playing. The subtly appealing “The Dream’s Dream” (which also has some magically melodic guitar) closes things out with another mellower effort that qualifies as another epic success, and though some of the appealing strangeness of Marquee Moon is absent and again Verlaine’s singing remains an acquired taste, this band’s enormous talent (both as songwriters and as musicians) was such that this supposedly "disappointing" album contained consistently beautiful, catchy, and creative music anyway. Originally CBGB’s leading lights and nearly everyone’s pick from that scene to garner major success, the band broke up after this album amid little fanfare while several of their lesser peers became worldwide stars (deservedly so, it should be added). Who said that life was fair? Note: The song "Adventure," one of four bonus tracks on the CD reissue (and easily the most notable one, as the others are merely alternate song versions), is another very good guitar track that probably should've been included on the original album.
The Blow Up (ROIR '82) Rating: A-
This live album was recorded from audience tapes in 1978 but not released until 1982, long after the band had broken up. Despite the often-poor sound quality I'd definitely recommend this album to fans of the band's studio albums because the playing is terrific (adventurous and more expansive even if the singing is predictably even weaker than on the studio albums) and the set list outstanding (six songs from Marquee Moon, three from Adventure, an incendiary version of the prior stand-alone single "Little Johnny Jewel," and three cover songs). Forsaking ballads in favor of energetically rocking out (this is easily more raw and "punk" than any of their studio albums), the rhythm section again proves how first-rate and underrated they were, though of course it's the tandem of Verlaine and Lloyd who shine brightest, especially on the epic guitar extravaganzas "Little Johnny Jewel" (the original studio version is available on the Marquee Moon reissue, I probably should've mentioned) and "Marquee Moon," both of which approach 15 incendiary minutes in length. Most of the other songs are enjoyably hard-hitting as well, even if I typically prefer the studio versions, while the standout cover song is "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," which makes me think of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" more than Bob Dylan (the other covers are the opening Thirteenth Floor Elevators track "Fire Engine" - retitled "The Blow Up" - and the closing number, an energetic run through the Stones' "Satisfaction," which may have been a bit unimaginative a choice but the crowd sure sounds like they enjoyed it). Again, the sound quality on this live release is really iffy at times, but if you can overlook that there's ample evidence of the band's greatness throughout. Also recommended: Live at the Old Waldorf, another belated release (2003) of a 1978 concert; this one has much better sound quality but less songs and slightly weaker performances overall.
Television (Capitol '92) Rating: B+
The band's first album in fourteen years, released not coincidentally during the height of grunge and the rise of alternative rock, this improbable reunion came off just fine, even if it lacks some of the special qualities that made their prior work stand out. Like Bob Mould, Tom Verlaine has had a series of acclaimed solo albums under his belt (which few people actually bought), but also like Mould his very best work has always come with his band (in Mould’s case that would be “bands”). The long hiatus since Adventure has resulted in several subtle changes, as Verlaine’s voice has deepened over time and he often opts to mumble or talk sing. This understated, atmospheric album as a whole is also mellower (not that it doesn’t rock at times), which I suppose befits their elder status, and there are few extended guitar solos, as the band instead opts for slinky grooves that sound-wise often owe more to Dire Straits than to The Velvet Underground. This album is decidedly less "alternative" than Marquee Moon, in other words, and though it's consistently solid (I really like Dire Straits, after all) it also lacks obvious standouts. There are some fine songs, "1880 or So," "In World," "No Glamour For Willi," and "This Time," for example, but the album relies more on the band’s subtle, telepathically intricate musical interplay than on great songs. Despite a certain lack of excitement, I still readily enjoy the majority this album, which slowly gathers a head of steam and does plenty to reinforce my impression of Verlaine and Lloyd as a classic guitar tandem. Sure, it’s much less memorable than the band’s legendary early albums, but this was still a welcome reunion that did little to diminish the band’s lofty reputation.
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