A Guest Posting by Hybrid Soc Prof
Your ‘No School Baseball or Music in Michigan’ Correspondent
What do you write about Television that hasn’t been said? In short, the pantheon of twin lead guitar bands includes the band near its apogee.
As I’ve said before, I was a fan of over-the-top mid-70s arena art-rock when the proper reaction to that music – the various forms of punk, disco, reggae, etc. that got you off your ass to dance – happened. So, I came to punk – of we’re categorizing the band based on when they played ’76-78, and where, NYC and CBGBs – after the fact.
I’m pretty sure, then, that it wasn’t until 1985 when Robert Palmer, then reviewing music for the New York Times, introduced me to the band with the claim that a number of groups from the American Southwest seemed to be desperately in search of Television’s twin lead magic… True West, in particular, comes to mind (their version of True Lucifer Sam is pretty great.)
The first time I heard Marquee Moon (1977), I was transfixed. The second time, I was transfixed. The third time… to this day, the record just stops me in my tracks. When I first got Adventure (1978), I was disappointed, not because it’s not damn good, but because it lands such a great distance from Marquee Moon. The difference, I think, is that Adventure is much more Tom Verlaine’s record and much less a set of band compositions. The extent to which Richard Lloyd is less rarely out front and the much greater simplicity of the bass and drum lines is my evidence. Television (1992) is, again, more a Verlaine than band record, though it comes together wonderfully in places. Palmer was a fan, me less so.
I start with a live track, The Dream’s Dream, the last song on Adventure but the opener of the Live at the Waldorf collection. Right off the bat, all four members are playing discrete, intertwined, only rarely overlapping, lines, making and filling space like Arsenal playing at its peak. The music rises and falls, moves and shifts, builds and recedes, adds and subtracts… give it a shot with a good pair of headphones.
Foxhole, which really should have been a power pop hit, simplifies things. Drums, bass, guitars and vocals line up for the chorus but are largely there to bracket the 30 second solo from ~2:20 to 2:50. That solo changes the pace and pulse of the tune and makes it worthy of inclusion.
Marquee Moon starts with one, then two, guitars, a simple heartbeat of a bassline before adding ineluctable drums on a gentle stroll… it’s just heaven. And the song is like that for four and a half minutes. The break comes and the song restarts for Verlaine’s extended solo drawn along faster and faster along that initial path by the rhythm section, and then a different course, and then still another, followed by a waterfall release (where the hell did that piano come from?!) two and half minutes later. Then we’re back at the musical beginning so the lyrical end can arrive. I remember the first time like it was yesterday.
What do you do with an ICA after that? Stop, make it an CD-S? Back to the beginning, maybe? To Little Johnny Jewel, pt I and II? Yup. Recorded before the Marquee Moon sessions, you can hear the future in it. What stands out is Billy Ficca’s drumming. He sets such an amazing, diverse and shifting foundation for the fractured-to-the-point-of-incompleteness “song”… It’s minimalist as heck, but it’s not, and it’s the only time in the history of the band – that I can think of – where there’s acoustic strumming. Sometimes I think it’s unfinished, needed to be longer, or edited or… it’s hard to be of one mind.
Glory is my favorite song on Adventure. Lloyd’s guitar dominates, even without the solo (which gets buried in the mix, anyway), hovering within and just below the rhythmic lyrics. There are a lot of ways in which Adventure is very much a second record, the one written within a year after the release of the first – when the first took many years to write, hone and perfect. It’s not that it’s not really good, it’s just not as good.
In that vein, the one song from the eponymous 1992 album I’ve included, Call Mr. Lee, has a great sound and is a good listen but is more an excuse for Verlaine’s lyrics and guitar than a band song…. I like a guitar god as much as the next person but, when a band has scored 97-to-100 on many songs across two records, achieving 88’s 15 years later is kind of a bummer.
Compare the second guitar, bass and drums on Call Mr. Lee to their interplay on Friction, from Marquee Moon, it’s like night and day. The guitars are really great on this but follow the bass on this one… sometimes with the drums, sometimes the second guitar, sometimes to vocals, sometimes in its own space. Then go back and focus on drums, it’s a similar, shifted weave. Listening to Glory is fun, and Call Mr. Lee is evocative, but Friction rewards focus and attention.
A lot of songs have been in this spot as the ICA came together but, after putting it in, taking it out, and looking for another location I finally came back to Knocking on Heaven’s Door – a regular encore in their live shows in the 70s – as a second live performance. They make it their own without transforming it and, subtle, the two guitars work really nicely together.
I love Elevation, Lloyd’s guitar work really stands out. The more I worked with the songs for this, the more distinct Marquee Moon and Adventure became and while my favorite guitar build and break on Marquee Moon is in Torn Curtain (not included, sadly) where a solo builds from 5:20 to 6:25 with me expecting it to break any second for the last half minute before dropping of the cliff to a pair deep growling notes that simply bring me joy, the way Lloyd and Verlaine, intimately aided by Fred Smith and Ficca, play off one another and support Verlaine’s always a little strange voice is a world of fun.
I’ve met people who think, despite the differences between the records, that Television’s ultimate guitar song is where I’m ending this ICA, The Fire, from Adventure. I like that I don’t agree but can understand the argument. It’s the constrained beauty of the solo hinted at around 1:50 that turns the song – almost a lullaby to that point – into something greater for about a minute and a half after 3:40. There’s no big finish to the song, or the ICA, but I don’t think it’s really a band about big finishes.
The Dream’s Dream, from Live at the Waldorf, June 29, 1978 (2003)
Foxhole, from Adventure (1978)
Marquee Moon, from Marque Moon (1977)
Little Johnny Jewel, pt I and II, an Ork Records Single (1975)
Glory, from Adventure (1978)
Call Mr. Lee, from Television (1991)
Friction, from Marquee Moon (1977)
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, from The Blow Up, March 20, 1978 (1982)
Elevation, from Marquee Moon (1977)
The Fire, from Adventure (1978)
(NB : Links can be found in the body of the main text)