Friday, May 27, 2011

Rock Bio #5: Television

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

When Television took the stage at CBGB on March 31, 1974, it was a new club in Manhattan's Bowery district and they were a new band. But over the next six months, both gained a sizable following in New York music circles. Television's Sunday-night residency at CBGB lit a fire under the nascent genre of punk rock, which became the club's calling card in spite of its initials standing for "Country, Bluegrass, and Blues."

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, née Tom Miller and Richard Meyers, met in boarding school in Delaware in the mid-'60s. Verlaine wanted to be a musician, Hell a poet, and by 1967 they were both living in New York City. Verlaine's passion for John Coltrane and the saxophone eventually gave way to the Velvet Underground and electric guitar; Hell couldn't play any instruments, but Verlaine taught him some basics on the bass, and together they formed the Neon Boys with drummer Billy Ficca in 1972. The group wanted to add a rhythm guitarist but couldn't find anyone to their liking (Dee Dee Ramone and Chris Stein, soon to join Blondie, auditioned), and after recording six songs they called it quits.

Finally, in the fall of '73, Verlaine met Richard Lloyd and discovered a guitarist he could spar with onstage. Rebranded as Television (Hell's idea), Lloyd and the ex-Neons began to carve out a name for themselves on the New York club scene, attracting the attention of established stars like David Bowie and Lou Reed. But Hell's lack of experience on the bass was becoming a hindrance to the rest of the band, and in March of '75 he left Television, merging with ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan soon after to form the Heartbreakers. He then left that band the following year to create Richard Hell & the Voidoids, whose song "Blank Generation" became one of the defining anthems of '70s punk.

Once Hell was replaced with Fred Smith, who defected from Blondie, the new lineup of Television recorded a single, "Little Johnny Jewel." Elektra Records liked what they heard—the inspiration for Television's sound was equal parts garage rock and free-form jazz—and in 1977 released Marquee Moon, considered by many to be one of the greatest debuts in rock history. By the time the band entered the studio to record it, they knew the album's eight cuts, including classics like "Friction" and "See No Evil," backward and forward. Rumor has it they recorded the ten-minute title track, which features exquisite intertwining guitar work from Verlaine and Lloyd, in one take.

Marquee Moon sold more copies in the UK than in the States, but Television quickly followed it up with Adventure (1978). Though it lacked the high-wire tension of its predecessor, the sophomore effort still produced memorable pop-rock tracks like "Foxhole" and "Glory." But after the album's supporting tour, Television disbanded. Verlaine and Lloyd pursued solo careers in the '80s, and Smith re-upped with Blondie.

In 1992 Television reunited for a third, self-titled album and their most extensive tour to date, but aside from additional concert and festival appearances in 2001 and 2007, the band hasn't recorded again. Nevertheless, the influence of Marquee Moon and Adventure's dynamic musicianship on artists like Lloyd Cole, Matthew Sweet, Echo & the Bunnymen, and even U2 and R.E.M. over the past 30 years has proven immeasurable.

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