Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Souvenir From a Dream: The Twentieth Anniversary of Television's Final LP

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Marquee Moon, the legendary debut album from Television. While it is the anniversary of Television's astonishing first platter that will be celebrated throughout the year, 2012 also marks another anniversary for the band, namely that it has been 20 years since the release of their final LP, the sublime Television. Too long considered a footnote for one of Rock's greatest groups, Television has aged incredibly well and it stands as one of the nineties great recordings, even though it has slipped into undeserved obscurity.

Music critics, and their small but devoted legion of fans, were shocked in late 1978 when Television suddenly split after just releasing two albums together. Although it was just over a year old at the time, Marquee Moon had already been solidified in the thoughts of many who had heard it as one of the defining records of the era. If the follow-up Adventure had been viewed by many as something of a letdown it had more to do with unfair expectations than anything else, as it was a spellbinding collection in its own right. Few expected such a sudden departure from such a vital band, but that's exactly what happened, and by 1979 both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd would have solo albums in the shops and, it appeared, the phenomenon known as Television was truly over.

The legend of Television was spoken of consistently throughout the eighties in rock magazines, books on the punk-era and in the accolades of young bands ranging from Sonic Youth, to R.E.M., to Fugazi, to The Pixies, to Galaxie 500. Sadly all of the influence Television had did little to help the sales of the extraordinary solo albums from both Verlaine and Lloyd, all of which seemed to sell less than the release before. For those who have treasured them for the past few decades, it is hard to believe that recordings as fine as Verlaine's Words from the Front and Flashlight and Lloyd's Alchemy and Field of Fire failed to find any sort of audience, but the commercial curse that had always plagued Television had indeed followed its two figureheads and not even constant plugs from the likes of Lee Renaldo or Dean Wareham could help.

As the nineties began, and even more groups began singing Television's praises, good luck wasn't exactly following Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd around. Verlaine had found himself without a label after his excellent album The Wonder had failed to shift any units and Lloyd had all but given up on his solo career and was spending most of his time adding some unforgettable guitar work to albums from the likes of John Doe and Matthew Sweet.

As grunge exploded, a series of key events led to the unexpected reformation of Television. Verlaine suddenly found himself in the spotlight again when he was signed to Ryko (although his Warm and Cool LP would prove to be one of his least interesting efforts) and Lloyd reminded everyone again of his brilliance with his searing lead guitar work (split with the equally influential Robert Quine) on Matthew Sweet's intoxicating 1991 album Girlfriend. ROIR's 1982 cassette-only release, The Blow Up, of Television's searing 1978 live set also finally hit CD around this time. It was seemingly a perfect moment for Television to plug back in but when the announcement came in early 1992 almost everyone was shocked.

Of course Tom Verlaine wasn't putting up with any talks of a 'comeback' as word was leaked that he was in a studio for the first time in nearly fifteen years with Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca in 1992. He would release a press-release in advance of the self-titled LP that said, "Contrary to popular belief, Television never broke up", and that the band had only been on a, "self-described sabbatical." Verlaine, and especially Lloyd, also wasn't interested in coming back as some sort of aging novelty act looking to take back some glory from the slew of devotees that had followed in their footsteps. Lloyd mentioned that the album would be totally opposite to what he considered the, "processed cheese sound", that many of the nineties guitar bands had taken. Lloyd would turn out to be real weapon of Television's third LP, as critic John Piccarella would write back in '92:

"What makes Television Television is of course Richard Lloyd, whose second guitar picks up where Verlaine never left him, jacked to the ceiling intense and bound by the composer's spare intricacies."

After a decade of intense experimentalism and shadowy intensity the Tom Verlaine that emerged from his own legend in 1992 seemed positively sedate and surprisingly tranquil. Lyrically, his writing for Television would find him mostly at his most relaxed and warm. Early on the album we hear Verlaine sing, "I don't belong to misery", and in hindsight Television stands in stark contrast to the nihilism that was coursing through the bloodline of many of the grunge bands that were finally bringing 'Punk' to the mainstream.

And what of that word 'Punk'? By the early nineties the genre of Punk had been sadly cornered into the simple buzzsaw guitar sound of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and their countless number of imitators. Few in the early nineties would hear Marquee Moon or Adventure with fresh ears and think of them as 'Punk' albums but, in a lot of ways, Television had always been the ultimate Punk band...that is, if one considers fierce individuality and an uncompromising spirit as the defining qualities of Punk.

On the eve of Televsion's return, Lloyd, Ficca and Smith gave a lengthy interview to Creem magazine from the studios of their new company, Capitol. Verlaine, not surprisingly, already seemed burned out from talking about the album before it was even released but Creem found the other three members in good, if slightly, bemused spirits. Smith humorously said, "For six years people were asking us why we broke up, then they asked when we'd get back together. For the next six they'll ask why did we reform?" Ficca mentioned that they were, "older and wiser" only to have a defiant Lloyd chime in with, "Nah, younger and more naive." Lloyd would also correctly point out that, "We're so unique that categorizations elude us."

After a decade of numerous headaches involving various indie and major record companies, both Verlaine and Lloyd seemed happy with Capitol in 1992. Verlaine exclaimed, "Capitol seems really great to me, they seem like the last record company that leaves you alone." And indeed Television were mostly left alone while recording and self-producing their third (and so far final LP) and when it was released amidst much press twenty years ago there was one thing everyone who heard it agreed on, it was indeed the work of Television (in other words it sounded like the work of no other band on the planet).

From its opening, the exquisite "1880 or So", to it's utterly strange closing track, "Mars", Television still sounds completely out of this world and to say it has little in common with any other recording from twenty years ago is putting it mildly. Verlaine's lyrics, both puzzling and romantic, are mystifying fragments that seem to both defy and invite meaning while the guitar interplay between him and Lloyd remains the most exciting in rock history. While there aren't any epic songs on Television like the first LPs title track or Adventure's "The Dream's Dream" the wonderfully unmistakable tension between Verlaine and Lloyd's playing is still firmly in place, with Lloyd sounding like he's busting down the front door with little regard to anyone or anything in his way, while Verlaine is sneaking in the back just way out of view. Their styles are totally different but they are both breaking in to plant a bomb that will absolutely detonate.

While most reviews of it at the time were only mildly positive to lukewarm, the third Television album contains a number of tracks that are are as brilliant as anything found on Marquee Moon or Adventure. Chief among these gems are the aforementioned "1880 or So, "Shane, She Wrote This", "In My World", "Rhyme", No Glamour for Willi" and the searing kick-off single "Call Mr. Lee". If the album does meander a bit towards the end with songs like "Beauty Trip" and "Rocket" there is still more genius found on this album than most great records you can name. Television remains one of the most resonate and captivating releases from a rather pivotal period in rock history and, of course, no one bought it.

Richard Lloyd was especially busting to tour as soon as Television was released and that's exactly what the band did as the LP failed to catch fire with the public. It must have felt like total deju vu to the them. The tour was successful and the already great songs on Television were really fleshed out on the road, as a number of startling bootlegs attest to (check out their astounding gig at Philadelphia's Living Arts if you can track it down). Lucky fans and critics who were able to catch Television on tour were once again blown away by their unwavering genius. Verlaine would say at the time that it was like, "they were falling together from different angles" and the Television of 1992 proved the same thing that the Television of 1977 had, that Rock music could be an art-form as intelligent as it was fun...

Television continued to tour on and off throughout the nineties and 2000's before finally replacing Richard Lloyd with Jimmy Rip (a gifted player) in 2007 (a move by Verlaine that in a lot of our eyes really ended the band). Television without Richard Lloyd might still be a great group but they will never have another moment like the breathtaking ending of "Call Mr. Lee" where we hear Lloyd coming out of nowhere to deliver one of the most monumental guitar solos ever put on vinyl. It's the sort of electric spiritually-altering moment that is very rarely heard in popular music anymore. Many critics pointed out back in 1992 that Television was no Marquee Moon, and that may very well be true, but when Lloyd launches into that solo during "Call Mr. Lee" and Verlaine steps back, as though he was in just as much awe as the listeners, Television is its own very special masterpiece by a group of artists still willing to 'prove it' long after most of their peers had layed down their weapons in the midst of battle.

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