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Over the Wall – #2

April 14, 2009

Recognise these chaps? This week we’ll be talking about why they were so important.

Also, don’t forget to take a look at the first edition of this column if you missed it two weeks ago.

Edition #2 – 1977 or So: Television.

For this edition, a band which exemplifies the approach to and the challenge of the post-punk period was needed, a group that will provide a good starting point for the further surveying to come. Television, in all of their lasting mystique, do so quite well. Brief, and often misunderstood, Television are a group whose influence is not always overt, but pervasive nonetheless.

One of the New York rock bands that comprised the mid/late-seventies CBGB scene, Television stand in the same space as The Ramones, The Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, et al., as originators of what came to be known as punk, and are credited as being the first band of the lot to actually perform at CBGB. They were performing as far back as 1973, powered at the outset by the partnership of Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, and bolstered by the drumming of Billy Ficca and the guitar work of Richard Lloyd. Hell left early on and carried the original punk rocker element he brought to the band into a brief stint in The Heartbreakers and then into an influential solo career (with his band The Voidoids). He was replaced in Television by Fred Smith, who had played for a time in Blondie. Opposite Hell’s definitive punk stance, and opposite the mainstream rock and roll bloat of the time, Television developed a sophisticated, intricate sound based around guitar interplay, a sharp rhythm section, and a poetic lyrical aesthetic.

All this, of course, is before the term punk was really applied to the New York set. By 1975, Punk magazine had the word in circulation, and the publication’s connection to the scene was leading to a correlation, but the distinctions were not yet hard and fast. And although The Ramones and Richard Hell are the ones who, for the most part, remain closest associated with the identity of punk, Television and the other early CBGB groups gave the New York scene its diverse base.

By the time their debut record came out in 1977, though, Television were largely left out of the early punk paradigm. Marquee Moon was, in some ways, just about the furthest thing from punk in 1977: it was an accomplished record by a band that had been playing together for a few years, and who had no qualms about the fact that they were all competent, innovative musicians who weren’t interested in the trappings of punk. Although it may not be as evident now as it would have been in the seventies, Television sounded very different from other rock bands of their day. They were using the same components, as such, but the result they came up with was quite different. Their sound was thinner and more minimal, sounding quite skeletal in comparison to other guitar rock of the time. They were, in effect, a band between audiences. Their approach was rooted in the New York underground, and they were acknowledged pioneers of the punk rock scene, but their music was complex enough, and their attitude aloof enough, to turn many punk-minded listeners off. At the same time, however, what they were doing didn’t have much of a place outside the underground. If we trace the progress of the New York groups by 1977, we can see Blondie and Talking Heads being taken up into the pop stream and starting to find mainstream success, while The Ramones and Richard Hell were established in the punk stream as originators, while others such as Wayne County and Suicide remained underground figures. But where did Television end up? Very much in a class of their own. Marquee Moon ran between streams, and appealed to listeners all across the board. It met with acclaim both from audiences and critics, but, by its very design, wasn’t rock enough or punk enough to fully endear them to one crowd or another.

One could mention that what we’ve been talking about here is all situated before the chosen start date of this column (1978), but it’s with good reason we’re starting here. Marquee Moon‘s arrival in 1977 is important, as its mix of punk energy and musicality offered a large deal of influence for bands who didn’t necessarily fit into the look or sound, but who liked what punk was about. This record can be seen as the first expression of an approach that many groups followed in the post-punk era, with its thin, tight sound. By the time the post-punk happening was coming into its own, however, Television was gone.

The thing about records like Marquee Moon is, that everything else a group does afterwards will be held to the standard of that one release. This is especially difficult for a group if their first release is something so monumental. In that way, Television were doomed from the start, and the 1978 follow-up, Adventure, didn’t get a fair chance. Even though it wasn’t a bad record in any way, it wasn’t Marquee Moon. Those are words that have unfortunately followed Television all along. The group disbanded later in 1978 and started new projects, with Verlaine beginning a long solo career.

And so, Marquee Moon became rock legend, Adventure was eventually given its due, but never moved from under the shadow of its predecessor, and Television’s punk artistry became extremely influential as time passed. And then in 1992, seemingly out of nowhere, they reformed for a year, played out and around a bit, and recorded the self-titled album that nobody talks much about. Said record remains difficult to find, and all but a few traces of its being have since disappeared from the media. It’s interesting to think back on this record though, as it came out pretty much at the height of grunge, and like Marquee Moon fifteen years before, resembles few of the sounds that were being made around it. The record is more similar to Tom Verlaine’s solo works than Television of ’77-78, really, and it sounds crisp and a little processed in comparison to the earlier stuff, but they were still a tight band, and fourteen years apart didn’t change that. And then, just as quickly as they had reappeared, back they went.

Since 2001, the band has reunited to play shows infrequently around Europe and America, enjoying a revered status that few of their peers ever managed. Television remains not only an excellent band but an important, seminal one (not to mention a source of lasting confusion for rock archiving). All this time later, they’re still in a category of their own.

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