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There’s so much music in the world, and so much of it is good, or at least worth listening to, and yet it’s mostly a crapshoot which bands and artists we end up discovering and falling in love with. For the indie bands or cult bands or the bands that had a couple of hits before you were born and then fell off the radar, it’s almost completely arbitrary whether you end up a fan or never hear them at all.
Maybe your boyfriend put them on a mixtape. Maybe you heard a song just once on the college radio station and became so obsessed you got up the nerve to ask the record-store clerk about it. Or maybe you had just graduated from college and didn’t have a job, so you couldn’t spend money shopping, but sometimes you’d stop in the neighborhood thrift store just to so see if they had any decent looking cardigans or vintage dresses, and one time there was a stack of new-wave LPs, stuff you mostly dismissed at the time, but there was this one album with these four skinny guys staring right out at you, and you knew you’d vaguely heard of the band but couldn’t remember if it was a band you were supposed to like or supposed to make fun of, but for one dollar you said, what the hell, and bought it. And it changed the way you listen to music forever.
That moment when I discovered Television’s Marquee Moon sticks with me like few others. When I got home that day and put the record on, I was blown away. How had anyone ever gotten rid of this? And what if I hadn’t bought it? What if I had missed out hearing this the rest of my life?
Television came out of that New York CBGB scene in the 1970s, but they never fit into a category easily. Tom Verlaine (who changed his last name from Miller to echo the French poet Paul) started the Neon Boys with his friend Richard Hell and drummer Billy Ficca in 1972. If you listen to their recoding of “Love Comes in Spurts”—better known as a poppy punk anthem on Blank Generation, Hell’s 1977 album with the Voidoids—you can hear the beginnings of what would become Verlaine’s signature guitar sound. He jangles, then jams. He’s too interested in the sound to be punk.
Within a year or so, the group picked up a second guitarist in Richard Lloyd and reformed as Television. Within another year, Hell was out. He went on to create punk classics like “Blank Generation.” Meanwhile, Verlaine and Lloyd created a masterpiece.
When critics say a song that’s 10 minutes and 40 seconds long is perfect, they’re normally full of shit. Rock songs shouldn’t last that long. But the title track on Marquee Moon? That 10 minutes and 40 seconds that ends side one and makes you immediately want to repeat it, listening to “See No Evil” and “Venus” and “Friction” again in build-up for what’s to come? Nothing is as mind-blowing, as perfect, as that Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd dual guitar riff on “Marquee Moon.” You hear Verlaine sing, “I was listening/Listening to the rain/I was hearing/Hearing something else,” and it’s as if he’s singing about his own song, his own music. Once you hear “Marquee Moon,” you’ll always be hearing something else in music from then on.
Lester Bangs once compared that whole New York scene to a punk-rock/free-jazz fusion, although he was dismissive of Television’s role in it. “[F]or my money Verlaine’s guitar playing always sounded more like John Cipollina of the old San Francisco acid-hippie band Quicksilver Messenger Service than anybody else,” he wrote. But Verlaine was an intellectual, not a hippie. (Would Patti Smith have dated a hippie?) He and Lloyd knew how to jam, but “Marquee Moon” is more Velvet Underground than Grateful Dead.
It’s also more Zeppelin than Sex Pistols, and that’s why, even though they were of and around that CBGB scene, Television stands apart. They were punkish, but not punk like the Ramones, artsy but not art-school like the Talking Heads. There were a lot of great albums released in 1977, but not a one has the melancholy lyricism of Marquee Moon.
Television made a solid second record, broke up, reformed in the ’90s, made a forgettable third record, and broke up again. They started doing occasional reunion shows a decade later, but Lloyd left the band for good in 2007.
The current Television lineup doesn’t feature Lloyd—he’s been replaced by Jimmy Rip—but bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca are still playing with Verlaine. They’ve only played a handful of shows in the past few years, mostly abroad. We tried to get an interview, but, as the band’s booking agent informed us, “Tom does not have a publicist nor does he do interviews.” It’s probably just as well—I’d be sick of talking about songs I wrote almost 40 years ago, too.
There’s this song by the Go-Betweens that has the lines, “When she sang about a boy/Kurt Cobain/I thought, what a shame it wasn’t about/Tom Verlaine.” It’s just rhyme, but it’s a true one, too. If you’ve been listening to Nirvana all these years and never heard Television, you need to change that. This Saturday might be a good time to start.
Television performs at the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday, March 29, at 10 p.m.