Television were among the many cool sounds coming from New York, heard via the John Peel radio show, that inspired the punk scene along with Blondie’s glossy pop, Richard Hell’s bluntness, Talking Heads’ amazing discourses over deep, deep bass, The Ramones’ Spector-guitar-pop and Patti Smith’s visionary poetry.
Television had it all. Ice cold singing, every word carefully enunciated, guitars slipping in and out of the drums and bass, sometimes fluid, sometimes jagged. Television had a sound which took rock back to basics, yet carefully orchestrated within those basics. Guitars often panned, not many overdubs, relying on great guitar riffs and tunes and amazing lyrics. Quite a contrast to the huge productions more common then from US guitar pop bands – the massive Beatles-ish harmonies plugged into stadium rock guitars heard on FM radio.
Their first album, Marquee Moon had a dark image of the band on the cover, almost Rembrandt-like. But the music was years ahead. It took the rock and pop of the NY scene and made it timeless, literate, yet somehow, dancy and groovy. As a guitarist, I homed in on Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s playing. I’d record the songs onto my cassette player from John Peel radio show and play them over and over, working out each note. Lloyd was the fancy guitarist who could play the rock riffs and fluid solos. Verlaine’s style was unique – he was the one playing each note as if his life depended on it. You could hear it, the way he bent a string to get some vibrato or controlled the volume gently to get a warmer attack.
I had a 12″ copy of their greatest work, Little Johnny Jewel, which was originally released on that strangest of concepts, the 7″ single with half of the record on one side and the rest on the other (I had Marquee Moon split over both sides of a single too). The simplest bass riff ever, just running down the open strings, the drums skitting between syncopated rhythms and four-to-the-floor rock. The guitar is amazing, it doesn’t sound amplified at all, as if it is just plugged straight into the 4-track Teac they recorded it on. Verlaine at his best, picking out rhythms not far removed from a Scottish reel in the most familiar section. And some of my favourite lyrics:
And he’d wake up dreaming,
He’d run down to the airport
The rush, the roar
And he’d crouch down behind a fence
With a chest full of lights
And then he’d lose his senses
When The Jasmine Minks started playing Alan McGee’s Living Room, I was trying to play like Verlaine, picking out little guitar runs, going away from the key for a while hanging on to notes, letting the others carry the tune. Alan thought I should do some solo guitar stuff, he even took me to Cherry Red Records offices with the idea of seeing if they’d do an album with me. But I began to spend more time writing songs and the guitar playing became second to that. I was looking more widely around me and trying to become a more all-round musician.
I did see Television, finally, a couple of years ago in Glasgow, performing their amazing first album, Marquee Moon. I loved it. They seemed like a jazz band in a strange way, totally boring to watch but the tunes and rhythms spellbinding with their crescendos and understated vocals. I could choose anything from their first album as each song is excellent. I have a few favourites from the second album too, including a soft spot for The Dream’s Dream (another song I learned note for note, an amazing rapidly key-changing tune). But I go back to that first single for my song choice…