They came, rewrote the book on guitar rock and then split up, leaving only a pair of seminal new wave records behind as proof they had ever existed at all. The brainchild of Tom Verlaine (Miller) and Richard Hell (whose crucial role in the band was actually over before its recording career got under way), Television was a revolutionary force on New York’s Bowery circuit in the mid-’70s, an unprecedented amalgam of the Velvet Underground’s primal scream, Bob Dylan’s esoteric detachment, Roky Erickson’s brain-spasm pop and John Coltrane’s high-wire improvisation. Influenced by, and in turn influential on, Suicide, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and David Bowie (and countless others), Television threw punk’s disdain for guitar jamming back in the face of those who didn’t realize that the form could still be mined for nail-biting excitement and high rock’n’roll art.
Live, they were the ultimate garage band with pretensions, but on record they achieved a polish that added genuine strength. Evolving from the Neon Boys, Television initially consisted of Verlaine (guitar/vocals), Richard Lloyd (guitar), Billy Ficca (drums) and Hell (bass). Hell left to form the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, and ex-Blondie bassist Fred Smith (not the MC5 one) took over his slot. Thus constituted (and less inclined toward collapse), Television recorded “Little Johnny Jewel,” a privately pressed single which many regard as a turning point for the whole New York underground rock scene.
Elektra signed Television and released Marquee Moon, which was produced by Andy Johns, in 1977. A tendency to “jam” onstage caused detractors (and, paradoxically, British fans) to view them as the Grateful Dead of punk, but it was the distinctive two-guitar interplay (along with Verlaine’s nails-on-a-chalkboard vocals) that set them apart. The staccato singing in “Prove It” and “Friction” is impressive, and the long, extraordinarily dramatic workout on the title track showed a willingness to break away from the solidifying traditions of more self-conscious contemporaries.
Adventure is, contrary to its title, smoother and more controlled than its predecessor, but does not want for good material. “Glory,” “Foxhole” and the beautiful “Days” show the band to have a firm grip on songwriting. Television lasted about another year before splintering. A posthumous tape-only compilation of live performances shows the band’s rawer side and includes such concert cover staples as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Satisfaction” and the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Fire Engine” (here listed as “The Blow Up” and credited to Verlaine, though the song is mentioned by its true name and source in the liner notes).
Marquee Moon and Adventure only tell part of the story; neither captures the band’s white-hot intensity or the cavalier instrumental technique (initially incompetence) that vindicated its early pretensions. When Television was still just an underground phenomenon in New York, the band’s stock in trade was unselfconscious desperation: amid the breaking strings, fluctuating rhythms and songs perennially on the brink of implosion, Verlaine would scrunch his face up, flail wildly at his Fender and spasmodically blurt out his poetic obsessions as if they were talismans against unseen evil. And work made them free: Television had its act fully together by the time they got in the studio. Unlike many other young artists wrenching fraught music from the ether in dark clubs around the same time, Television had secured full control of its art.
Television turned itself off before the turn of the decade; an illuminating live-in-’78 compilation, The Blow-Up, was released posthumously. Verlaine and Lloyd moved on to solo careers; the rhythm section scattered into various bands, remaining active but well out of the limelight. In 1992, with scarcely a word of warning or explanation, Television — a band that many presumed was far too principled and cool to look back in pleasure, yet managed to do so in the most progressive manner possible (a lesson likely noted by Lou Reed, who got his own back-together movement going the following year) — reunited for one impressive album and a stupendous tour before returning to neutral corners.
If that came as a complete surprise to the rest of the world, the four musicians hadn’t been all that estranged. Smith, who had contributed in some way to all of Verlaine’s solo albums, was a full collaborator on the encouragingly strong Flash Light and the offbeat The Wonder; Ficca is the drummer on Warm and Cool, Verlaine’s enigmatic collection of brief, atmospheric guitar instrumentals that play like sketches for a work in progress. (Making a cute literary play on Tom’s real name, The Miller’s Tale — released in the UK, where he and the group had always been better received than at home — is a two-disc retrospective. The first half reviews his career with solo and Television tracks; the second documents a 1982 London live set.) Lloyd, often portrayed as Verlaine’s rival, was the furthest out of the orbit: not having made a record of his own in five years, he was then recording and touring with Matthew Sweet.
A fascinating advance on the band’s creative values after a fourteen-year hiatus, Television betrays no particular time frame: it is neither nostalgic nor pointedly modern. More rocking than Verlaine’s ’80s efforts, distinctly in keeping with the sound of the original band but not an echo of it, Television takes good advantage of the musicians’ superior instrumental skills and sensitivity to underplay the attack and strike an unsettling mood of handsome surrealism. Verlaine sets the impenetrable agenda — he is credited with “songs”; the band is assigned responsibility for “music” — but Television brings his ideas to collaborative fruition with the organic intricacy of empaths. Although deceptively simple and dynamically lacking at the outset — “1880 or so,” “Shane, she wrote this” and “In World” are admirable without leaving much of a mark — the album suddenly kicks into gear. Introduced by an itchy little riff, the noir detective tale of “Call Mr. Lee” opens a trapdoor into a mystery world — an alternate-universe experience familiar to witnesses of TV’s first go-’round. “No Glamour for Willi” lashes a sweet, Eno-like chorus to wiggly-guitar verses and comes up a poppy charmer; “Beauty Trip,” moving briskly along a Lloyd slide figure, rolls card-playing and romance together in a distinctly Dylanesque manner. The record quietly gains momentum from there: on “The Rocket,” Verlaine begins spreading his wings with intense, skittering solos; by the finale, the David Lynch-like “Mars,” he’s really into the zone, screeching and yelping lyrics for emphasis and bouncing bedspring noises out of his guitar just like in the old days. It may not have been for long, but Television was definitely back.