Another Spin: Television – “Television”

After the release of their second album, Adventure, 70’s art-punks Television split up for good in 1978. Between the differing visions for what their music could be, and Richard Lloyd’s own drug use, one of the seminal bands of the original CBGB scene (or, hell, according to Will Hermes’ book, the band to start the CBGB scene) suddenly went away. Lead singer, guitarist, and principle songwriter Tom Verlaine remained productive through the 80’s, but to as little prevail as his material with Television. After 1991, the ‘year punk broke,’ after Nirvana’sNevermind, Television, perhaps inexplicably, reunited. On one hand, it could be to bask in the the afterglow of the bands doing precisely as they did, and as well as they did, suddenly finding sales and success where Television originally could not. On the other hand, it could have been the band’s attempt to cash  in on the generosity of the bands of the time so willing to name-drop their influences as points of reference to understanding their music.  Either way, 1992 saw the release of Television’s third album, their self-titled effort, fourteen years after their unfortunate disbanding.

Since 2001, Television has toured on-and-off, and rather than sticking to the classics from Marquee Moon and Adventure, they’ve incorporated many of the tracks from Television, perhaps to many of their fans’ chagrin. But what lay beneath questionable intentions behind why the album exists in the first place lies something that is, at once, a cash-in, and a simplified essence of the band’s own influences. And in releasing Television, the band, whether they realized it or not, fit in perfectly with the era, despite being elder statesmen to the punk scene of the the 90’s.

After the jump, an explanation of what, exactly, a Marquee Moon is.

Television, circa 1991.

Where most people seem to make the connection between grunge/alternative in Television’s Marquee Moon influencing Sonic Youth, which gave way to Nirvana, Pavement, etc., I see a direct correlation between Pavement (and perhaps Pavement alone, as the lone band to understand Television’s atmospheric quality, though a case could be made for Generic, among others), as well as in less popular, though equally as geeky, bands like the Feelies. And where anyone can see where Pavement gets their jam-punk qualities from “Marquee Moon” and “Friction,” Televisions’ Television plays like a sort of tribute to their influences as well as an attempt to fit in with the new kids in the class, who happened to get an instant pass to the cool kid’s table, despite having to prove themselves.

For years, Tom Verlaine felt the need to combat the accusation of influence-by-way-of the Grateful Dead with denial and feeble attempts to connect his guitar playing to the simple-but-intense trickery of surf bands like the Ventures. This sense of style comes out in spades on Television, specifically, on tracks like “In World,” and the opening, “1880 Or So,” both full of jangling ringing guitars and insistent rhythms that, unlike Television’s 70’s material, is more interested in playing like a straight pop song than a dreamy exploration. And much of the album plays this way, which is perhaps where so many critics lost their interest in Television, without considering that Television is but a dilution of the essence.

It only takes the guitar solo in the new wave-bound “Shane, She Wrote This” to get that sense. Or that the shortness of the songs illustrate a band desperate to cash-in on their influential good-will. The fact that a video was made for “Call Mr. Lee,” a forgettable and ultimately unimpressive track, is indicative of Television’s own lack of certainty on where to focus the energy to make up on this goodwill. Sure, it boasts some great soloing, but nothing as indulgent and impressive as their 70’s material. And Television is the sort of band where ‘indulgent’ is a fine complement, because faster-paced tunes that try to condense everything that the band is about turns into these awkward new wave tunes that are uninteresting as their worst, passionless at their best (“No Glamour for Willie” stands out as a particularly rotten track).

Some critics credit Television as being less approachable when considered besides the band’s masterpiece, Marquee Moon. This feels like an unfair criticism, when Marquee Moon is responsible for the great majority of indie music that’s come out over the past decade. Listen closely enough, and Pavement’s own Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is little more than the B-side of Marquee Moon re-imagined and digested for the 90’s. But what it says for Television’s own output here, is little. This is album that works free of how influential it really is, and for the most part, creates a lot of interesting moments. “1880 or So” is the most Television-sounding track, full of the interweaving guitar play that made Television famous to begin with. But in terms of maintaining that dreamy quality that most fans associate with the best moments of Television, these moments are kept to a relative minimum. In particular, “Rhyme” covers that bracket, being a slow, trippy tune, full of twinkling guitar and a drum beat-with-echo that makes up for the inadvertent comedy in Verlaine’s lyrics, like “Now I’m ready / now I’m ready for the duty. / Love is calling upon us to perform,” where ‘duty’ is a word over-emphasized to it’s maximum embarrassing effect. Meanwhile, a track as sonically interesting as “The Rocket” still succumbs to the embarrassing quality of being a composition performed by people who know that listeners who are curious because other bands name-drop their original albums will hope to expect to hear something they can be immediately familiar with; in this case, it’s Sonic Youth’s more obnoxious moments that take a hold of the reins.

Still, the final track, “Mars,” plays like an attempt to reach a happy medium between keeping the attention of their original fans, and what the younger fans of the era would be expecting. Consider it the only time, live or on record, that Tom Verlaine screamed as one should expect a CBGB punk should. Between the atmospheric guitars that fill the space while Billy Ficca and Fred Smith play adequate rhythmic back-up that is, ultimately inconsequential to the track, Tom Verlaine screams about a cop from Mars as if channeling the punk spirit of not his 70’s self, but that of Television’s first bassist, Richard Hell. And though Richard Hell and the Voidoids would probably have faired better from an album capitalizing on their influential status of grunge at the time, Television does a fine attempt to show that side of their past — not of the band themselves, but of that scene.

Ultimately, Television is a disappointment when you consider the talent behind the name. And though the songs turn out to be quite brilliant when played live (and just as good as any of their other songs played live), on record, they do not live up to the jazz-like fearlessness that sets Marquee Moon or Adventure from their peers. Where the original set of songs Television produced in the late 1970’s mixed folk-psych sensibilities with the urgency of the punk scene emerging around them, Television plays neither like a tribute to themselves, nor as an a sample of what Television would have been expected to sound like if they kept on through the 1980’s and continued to release material until even now. Instead, Television’s self-titled album serves two functions. The first is to provide the world with Tom Verlaine material, where his masterful guitar playing is matched with that of Richard Lloyd in a fresh context, free of 1970’s NYC urgency to create because there is no option, but instead, to create because the voracious postmodern audiences of the 1990’s demanded it so. The other is to point children in the right direction toward discovering the work of Television in general, even though the album, upon first listen sounds more like the wake of Television’s legacy more than it does actual Television.

If any new particular tidbit is interesting, in light of Television’s more recent developments, it’s this clip of Fred Smith claiming a new record to be in the works. Of course, in typical Tom Verlaine fashion, it’s an announcement that’s not made in North America, but in the obscuro MTV Brazil network in 2011. And not by Tom Verlaine, but by the bassist. We could only hope that if the album is in the works, it is as adventurous the early 70’s material, but maybe as accessible asTelevision.

Also, I will say this, after watching all of those clips from MTV Brazil: MTV is exactly as it was in the early 1990’s in EVERYWHERE else but America, much like how Time Magazine won’t report serious stories that matter to the world, as to appeal to American sensibilities.

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