Whenever someone screams “Nnnnnnoooo” in your Twitter feed you know that something bad happened. And that something just got to be a death of a celebrity (or at the least someone near and dear to the indie heart).
Well, the Tweeter in this case was guitarist Ryley Walker and everyone in the thread kept mentioning Tom. My heart sank, because I was convinced we just lost the hoarse voice of a generation. But no – it wasn’t that Tom. We lost Tom Verlaine of Television, someone that definitely occupies a certain place in my sound mind, though a different one than Waits does. Let me explain.
I got into Television few years ago and I don’t remember exactly which song it was that kicked off my fascination with them. I like the melancholic title track off of Marquee Moon, but that’s the one that gets the most plays and its always more interesting to go beyond that. How about Friction or See No Evil or Venus De Milo off of the same record? All brilliant, complex songs that define and capture a certain art/post-punk tension of 70s NYC in a way that none of their CBGC peers did. For better or worse you can also thank Television for overuse of the word “angular” in music reviews. They were Angular, with a capital A.
That same brilliance, unfortunately, is what seemed to have kept Television from wider fame/mainstream acceptance. Its hard to box them in any way or compare them to anyone in particular. Plenty of bands I hear that seem to capture that certain NYC art-rock vibe – from Strokes circa Is This It to Gull Boy, project of Carl Thien (formerly of dearly beloved Boston’s noise-rock weirdos Turkish Delight), but no peers I could point to immediately within their own scene. They weren’t speed freaks like Ramones or nervous sounding art school weirdos like Talking Heads and that probably made them few favors commercially/career-wise.
Television, in other words, is a brilliant band that, while being recognize as influential, never stuck in mass mind the same way that Ramones, Blondie or Talking Heads did. They don’t have that one defining song that everyone in the whole world knows (aka hit) – no top 10s or top 40s, although, again, there’s that title track from Marquee Moon. You have to listen to them and their catalog song by song and album by album to get a good picture of their sound and where they were coming from creatively. Its understandable if relatively few people are up for a task of that magnitude, especially in streaming era where album format is no longer relevant.
There’s another band I keep thinking of in relation to Television. They were called Go-Betweens and in spite of two bands being produced by two utterly different scenes thousands of miles apart from each other, there’s something that ties both of them in my mind. That “something” just might be an approach to fame (or lack of thereof), as mentioned in a recent Sydney Morning Herald piece on Robert Forster, the Go-Betweens guitarist:
The Go-Betweens stayed bereft of mainstream success. They were too sloppy to be pop stars, and too feminine to be testosterone-fuelled rock stars. Too Australian overseas, too cosmopolitan for the local market.
“Is this the most underrated group in rock history?” asked French culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1996. The wantaway Queenslanders had cultivated that most Queensland trait of all: underdog status.
Quick scan of Google also produces a Guardian piece in which Forster mentions that one of his favorite songs just happens to be…Venus by Television. To wit
How could the perfect song be anything else?
I was 19 years old, living in suburban Brisbane, writing my first half-decent songs, when Television released their debut album, Marquee Moon. I had been following the band for two years through the music press, buying their first single, Little Johnny Jewel. Expectations were high, but nothing prepared me for the splendour and clout of the group’s debut album, released in February 1977.
It combined every great flourish of cool 60s rock – extraordinary guitar work with out-of-this-world lyrics, adding the crunch of late-70s rock production and a quality to the songwriting that many mythic 60s bands just didn’t reach. Pacing my bedroom in excitement, sitting down at intervals to absorb the music’s overwhelming beauty, I knew I could never write songs as textured and intricate as the band’s singer-songwriter Tom Verlaine, who also happened to be a virtuoso guitarist. But I was inspired. I’d try harder with my songwriting. One song in particular offered me a way forward.
But I digress. Lets get back to our main point. Hits. Yes, hits. We’re constantly told that a band without hits cannot possibly be any good. We’re measuring music and art in terms of cultural relevance based off of commercial fortunes (or streams/plays) and I see that approach as being utterly bankrupt. Television’s whole catalog, indeed, proves that idea wrong. Go and listen to it. Now.
And death – if you hear me, could you, please, keep your hands away from Tom Waits for now? Thank you
Thanks for mentioning Gull Boy – yes, Television has traditionally been my go-to when someone asks that dreaded question: ‘What’s your favorite band?’ – they had a cool look, a great sound, and no one used pedals.