INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker JUNE 18, 1977 - by Allan Jones
Television arrive with a classic album, Marquee Moon, which makes New York the backdrop to a romantic/spiritual quest. "Every performance should attempt to go beyond yourself," says leader Tom Verlaine. "To enter a new field of experience."
Television, whose recent tour of Britain established them as one of the most unique and exciting American bands of the '70s, made their public debut in March 1974, at the Townhouse Theatre - a small viewing theatre in New York that had been engaged for the event by the group's manager and patron, Terry Ork (to whom, incidentally, Marquee Moon is dedicated).
Richard Lloyd recalls the occasion: "It was hilarious. We rented the theatre and went around asking people we knew to come down to see the band and give us some quotes that we could put in the papers. The place seated maybe eighty-eight people and I guess it was full. I don't know how we managed it.
"I couldn't describe the music. It was just crazy. We were so wacky in those days. We used to fall over a lot on stage... and, like, we didn't have anything. Literally."
Television's lineup at this time was Lloyd (electric guitar), Billy Ficca (drums), Tom Verlaine (electric guitar) and Richard Hell (bass).
Ficca, Verlaine (née Miller) and Hell (née Myers) had attended high school together in Delaware. Verlaine and Hell were, from all accounts, particularly close (though their relationship was to end bitterly and precipitate an extended feud). They shared an interest in literature, art and modern poetry and music, and craved an escape from the stifling parochialism of their environment (in fact, legend has it that they made one abortive run for freedom which ended with their arrest).
Verlaine remains elusive about his musical activities in Delaware, admitting only that he and Ficca played together with various individuals in a series of short-lived, apparently experimental bands.
Verlaine, having decided that New York would be the most conducive environment in which to work and live, finally arrived in that city in August 1968. For three years he merely enjoyed the experience and atmosphere of living in the city, working in the Strand bookstore and hanging out in fashionable artistic circles.
In the early '70s he began composing songs, and by the time he embarked upon a tentative solo career on the New York folk circuit he had already composed several of the songs that have since been recognised as classics in Television's repertoire, including the beautiful, hallucinatory "Venus".
Verlaine vividly remembers his first public performance in New York: "I'd been thinking about it for some time. I had these songs and I had a guitar. I just thought, 'Fuck it, I'll do it.' One Sunday afternoon, I went down to this club and played for fifteen minutes. I just wanted to find out what it was really like, and something happened to me and it occurred to me that this was the direction I should follow."
Verlaine decided that his songs could be best expressed in a group context, and with Richard Hell and Billy Ficca he formed The Neon Boys. As Billy Ficca explains elsewhere, the group's existence was prematurely terminated through lack of work and financial support.
Nevertheless, Verlaine and Hell began collecting the material that would form the basic repertoire of the original Television: the material, in fact, that was premiered that night at the Townhouse Theatre and would be heard over the next two years, by fluctuating audiences at CBGB, Max's Kansas City and any other New York haunt where the group could secure a gig.
Among these songs were Verlaine's Venus, of course, Friction, an early arrangement of Marquee Moon (which, in its original version ran to some twenty verses) and the as-yet-unrecorded Double Exposure and Hard On Love (mentioned by Richard Williams in his column last January). Hell contributed a brace of his apparently off-the-wall ditties, including his disappointing single Blank Generation (a classic, apparently, in its original form), Love Comes In Spurts and Fuck Rock'n'Roll.
It was this version of Television that was produced by Eno for a tape for Island Records. That company's head of A&R at the time was Richard Williams, who'd been impressed by the group in New York and was interested enough in their future to recommend them to Brian Eno. The sessions, however, were aborted after protracted disagreements between Verlaine and Eno.
"I think Eno was too individual," Verlaine explains. "We heard different things in the music. Maybe what he got on tape was a realistic sound for the band at the time, but his ideas were incompatible with mine. He'd get something down and I'd listen to it and I'd say, 'What's THAT? It shouldn't sound like THAT. Do THIS to it.' And he'd tell me that he'd change it. And he'd go off, but he just wouldn't change it. He's a real clever guy."
If Verlaine was dissatisfied with the recorded sound of Television - even though he suggests it was an accurate reflection of the group as it stood - he might possibly have recognised some of the musical limitations of the group; particularly the shortcomings of Richard Hell's bass playing.
Lloyd recalls that Hell responded reluctantly to Verlaine's suggestion that he play bass in Television (it was Hell, incidentally, who gave the group its name), and he accepted the offer only after displays of great enthusiasm and encouragement. Whatever, it was decided that he was relatively inadequate and he was replaced in 1975 by former Blondie bassist Fred Smith.
Hell went off to join ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan in the original Heartbreakers (now resident, with a different frontline, in London). He now leads his own band The Voidoids.
Television, with Verlaine firmly in command after Hell's departure, continued to play around New York, picking up critical accolades for the music. Their perseverance was rewarded in 1976 with the offer of a contract to Elektra/Asylum, which Verlaine, who had displayed a rare caution previously, accepted.
Andy Johns, whose previous credits include engineering stints with the like of the Stones and Zeppelin, co-produced the group's debut album, Marquee Moon, with Tom Verlaine.
"I wanted someone who has no preconceptions about our music, who could be relied upon to get a good sound," says Verlaine. "I wouldn't even send Andy Johns any tapes of the band. He'd never heard us until we went into the studio. I didn't want him to know anything about us. That way, I figured we could avoid arguments. Since he didn't know what exactly we were supposed to sound like, he really responded to what I wanted."
Tom Verlaine, the enigmatic leader of Television, has been variously described as a potential rock'n'roll genius and the most original and exciting new writer and guitarist to have emerged in American music in this decade. Alternatively, there are those who subscribe to the rather less complimentary opinion that Verlaine is an arrogant and conceited individual, a pretentious and facile talent and a paranoid egomaniac who's callous and vicious toward those with whom he comes into contact. He's also said to have a megalomaniac streak that would reduce Hitler to the status of a shambling introvert.
"If you believe in yourself, people usually attack you," he says, defending himself against these charges, most of which have been made by his former associate Richard Hell.
"Those are the things Richard said about me when he quit the band," he adds wearily, obviously tired of the feud. "It's spiteful. If it wasn't for me, Richard Hell would never have had his name in the papers. He wasn't about to go start a rock'n'roll group. He just had a friend who played guitar. He couldn't possibly have played in any other band. We let him play with us and we hoped that he'd improve musically as we developed. Eventually we decided that we needed someone better.
"I'm sure that there are other people who share that image of me. The kind of people that hang around CBGB. People that I've never said a word to. And because I don't go over and talk to them, they start to think that you're being aloof and distant. But I'm not the kind of person who enjoys that kind of socialising."
It is, in fact, not difficult to imagine Verlaine's manner antagonising those who might test his tolerance. There is about him, for all his polite calm, an impatient air; talking about his adolescence in Delaware, for instance, he expresses an intolerance of the provincial atmosphere in which he grew up. He missed in that environment the excitement and artistic activities that he imagined would abound in, say, New York. Indeed, such was his impatience and desire to become part of a more exciting world that he decided that he would high-tail it out of Delaware and into New York at the earliest opportunity.
Richard Hell had been living a year in the city when Verlaine, then seventeen years old, moved into his apartment. "It was an exciting time. It was a great experience, meeting people who had a certain atmosphere about them that you just didn't find in Delaware."
He had, at the time, vague plans for forming a band, although he had no specific ideas about the style of music he would pursue. "That was the first idea I had," he continues, "but when I got to New York, the place just excited me so much that I didn't think seriously about doing anything. I was just taking in everything; I didn't start writing for a couple of years after I got there."
Although, as he admits, he was infatuated with New York, he was discriminating enough to recognise the superficiality of much that surrounded him. "There were lots of different cliques," he remembers. "People seem to form schools there very fast. Like all the poets would get together in various groups, and develop similar styles and share the same ideas and the same girlfriends. I don't know if incest is the right word, but it got to the point where everyone was just patting each other on the back and congratulating each other all the time."
He has still a romantic vision, he confesses: it remains for him a city of intrigue, mystery and a strange beauty. Indeed, much of the music on Marquee Moon betrays this infatuation with the city: there's a romantic evocation of the nocturnal underworld filtered through a romantic vision that's at once confused by the potential violence of the environment and yet curiously seduced by the darkness.
In some ways, it seems to me, Verlaine and Television are direct heirs of The Velvet Underground. However, where Lou Reed portrayed New York with a graphic, documentary clarity, Verlaine deals more exclusively with atmosphere, evoking startling images of metropolitan anguish, loneliness and despair allied to a characteristic romantic yearning for spiritual perfection in the face of this darkness.
"That's very much the case," says Verlaine. "Living in New York you somehow become very night-orientated. Especially in the summers, when it gets so hot and the streets get so dirty... I've always thought of New York as an inspiration. It isn't for many people, but it is for me. Obviously, it was for Lou Reed, too.
"I think we capture different aspects of the city, but there is some sort of connection between Television and The Velvet Underground. It goes beyond any musical connection, although I think we share the same sort of energy. New York is a really concentrated microcosm of emotions, you know, and atmosphere. The songs do deal mostly with atmosphere, yes; I think that's what art is all about...
"Like, on stage, you don't have ideas so much as feelings; a sense of what's happening around you.
I think that's an important part of the performance, responding to the atmosphere... and every performance should be some attempt to go beyond yourself, or get in touch with something beyond yourself. To enter a totally new field of experience.
"To me, that's what life is all about, too. An opportunity to enjoy new experiences. And it's all tied together... music, writing, living... It's all about experience, learning, growing.
"I know that as we become more successful we're going to be restricted, but success is something so abstract that I can't really think about it in specific terms. We'll just have to figure out a way of circumventing the restrictions... It's sort of a problem already."
"There was nothing before Television," asserts the modest, quietly humorous Richard Lloyd, who forms, with Tom Verlaine, one of the most exciting electric guitar partnerships ever to hit this planet. "I always had this feeling that there was only going to be one group that I'd get into and the vibe would be right. Television was the only group. Is the only group."
Lloyd would ask us to believe that his musical career began, at the age of two, with the tentative exploration of the sound of a twenty-four-key plastic piano, the property of his parents: "Then, one day, one of the keys broke. So I demolished it. My parents wouldn't replace it."
His interest in music, thereafter, waned considerably. He makes it emphatically clear that he was not particularly enamoured of the white American pop music of the early '60s that daily infiltrated his life, bouncing over the airwaves in his native Pittsburgh, and, later, New Jersey, where his parents moved when he was seventeen.
"I thought it was all incredibly dull. The radio was full of slush. It was, at least, something to listen to, but I hated most of it."
The American release of the early Beatles and Stones albums excited him rather more, he recalls (his first inclination was toward drums, and he remembers bashing away in a basement to Meet The Beatles and the Stones' 12 x 5), but it was the first albums by Hendrix, The Floyd and The Dead that inspired him to learn guitar.
"Those records took me for a loop," he says, as if recalling some momentous event. "It was through those records that I first discovered real electric music."
Simultaneously, he was drawn to blues guitarist like Elmore James, Buddy Guy, JB Hutton and Johnny Shines (an associate of Robert Johnson): "When you pick up an instrument, you've got to start someplace," he explains, "and blues licks are some of the easiest places to start from. But I didn't really concentrate on developing the influence of those people."
Inevitably, he attempted to start a series of bands; every attempt, however, was an abortive failure, he claims. "I was just playing my guitar and waiting for the right group. I'd put together a few bands who'd play maybe one gig and disappear. But I had no plans for any of them, because I knew that they weren't going anywhere."
He drifted to Boston, jamming infrequently with various local bands - he does not care to mention their names - before returning for a short time to New York City. "One day I went out for a sandwich, came back to where I was living and found that my guitar had been stolen. The only clothes I had were in the guitar case, so I had nothing. I figured that, for once in my life, I was unencumbered by any possessions. So I went to California. Just split for a year. I didn't have a guitar for six months, until I raised enough money to buy one in San Francisco."
There he began to practise on his guitar - "all day and all night for months" - perfecting an individual style. He had no specific strategy for discovering compatible musicians and forming a band at this time. As he says, he was carefully biding his time, waiting for the right circumstances in which to commit himself to a band possessed of the vision and originality for which he was searching.
In 1974, Richard was back in New York, living in Chinatown with Terry Ork (later to become patron and manager of Television), who one night persuaded him to trundle down to a club called Reno Sweeney's to see a guitarist called Tom Verlaine, who was then performing as a solo artist following the relative disintegration of The Neon Boys.
Verlaine, Lloyd remembers, played three songs, including early versions of Venus and Double Exposure (the latter has yet to appear on record, though a demo tape, recorded with Brian Eno, exists).
Lloyd was enthralled by Verlaine, and after a brief conversation it was clear to both that they shared similar ideas and concepts: "I just thought that there was something about what Tom was doing that was right. It struck a responsive chord. We got together and played, and started to work on ideas for Television.
"At that time we didn't have a specific idea of what we'd sound like. It was a madhouse; we'd play and writhe on the floor with our guitars, stand on our heads and laugh hysterically."
Lloyd recalls Television rehearsing for at least six hours a day, five days a week, during this period: "We all realised that we had to improve. If you realise that you are not technically proficient on an instrument, that shouldn't stop you from playing. But you have to be aware of the limitations of not being proficient.
"You have to need to play to spend, like, four or five years learning about your instrument. You have to work at it constantly. You have to be dedicated. Like, there must be a million guitarists and a million bands, and if you're going to be heard as an individual you've got to work and be prepared to spend all that time learning. I mean, it's not the kind of thing you can venture into casually."
The extraordinary empathy that exists between Verlaine and himself, Lloyd asserts, can be attributed to this period of intensive rehearsal, though he emphasises that on stage especially, their musical relationship is by now an intuitive affair.
There are, he says, some songs during which he will take the principal solos as a matter of expediency; then there are others where Verlaine and he will simply realise that one or the other has the momentum to carry through an unscheduled solo, in which case the other guitarist twill ease back to a secondary role.
"If we hadn't spent that time together," he says, "we wouldn't know what we were playing. Of course it was an important time. There's never been any ego problems; we both have enough to play to keep us both happy as guitarists."
Fred Smith, who contributes the sinuous basslines that underpin the guitar adventures of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, admits that it was the British bands of the mid-'60s that first inspired him to play rock'n'roll.
Like Lloyd, he confesses to finding little about which to enthuse in American music immediately prior to the transatlantic ascendancy of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and The Zombies - who he remembers with particular affection - whose individual styles were a profound influence on the American bands formed in the slipstream of their success.
He recalls, with amusement, his early high-school bands like The Poor Boys and The Auroras, whose respective repertoires consisted of versions, invariably inept, of current chart hits (usually British records, he remembers), and later, psychedelic extravaganzas "and anything we could figure out how to play. We just used to copy everybody. If we could play it, we played it no matter what it was."
He played guitar then - "rhythm guitar. I never played lead. I couldn't play fast enough" - and only turned to bass six years ago after failing an audition for a gig as a guitarist.
"I hadn't been in a group for a while; I'd sort of given up. I couldn't get the guitarist's gig; the group just wanted a bass player. I felt like playing again, so I got a left-handed Japanese bass and turned it upside down and I liked it. It was like learning a whole new instrument.
"It was with a group called Captain Video. I played with them for a while; it was around 1971. Leon Russell was big and we had an organ player, so we did a lot of his numbers. It was nothing special, but I didn't care. We could've played anything and it wouldn't have bothered me because I was just learning how to play. At the time I didn't even think about what I wanted to hear from the bass.
"When I first started playing I wondered if I should sound like the guy from The Byrds or McCartney. I just played what sounded natural and comfortable. If it sounded right I played it. I didn't sit around and study the styles of any other bass players. I didn't want to have their styles crammed into me.
"I'm not the kind of person who puts on a record and listens to the bass player. I listen to the group. I'm more interested in songs than instrumentalists. The bass as an instrument, I find, has its limitations. The bass players I like are subtle and play things that fit the song.
"I don't like to hear bass players that really stick out. Like, someone like Bill Wyman you don't notice at first, but if you suddenly catch what he's playing it'll send a chill up your spine because it's so right."
Before joining Television in 1975 (when he replaced Richard Hell), Smith played with Blondie's Deborah Harry, first in a band called The Stilettoes, then in the original Blondie. The Stilettoes featured three girl singers and Fred found that fun. It was at the time that the New York Dolls, those tragic figures of the New York scene, were being recognised internationally, and NYC was alive with glitter and outrage combos hoping to emulate the Dolls' success.
"It was all glitter bands," Smith recalls, "That's what was happening. It was a lot of fun. It was exciting. There were all these groups forming on the Lower East side. There was CBGB and Club 82 opening. There was something happening. It was more fun that music. The Stilettoes, like most of the other groups, were probably more into presentation than music, but the girls wrote a few good songs. I enjoyed it."
The original Blondie lineup he describes as a sketch of the group that toured here with Television. "It was rougher," he says. "We worked a lot and just hoped that something would develop. It did eventually, but I'd left by that time.
"We were a little erratic, you know. We had this drummer who kept passing out, he'd just collapse. A weak guy. Kept passing out all the time.
"We used to open for Television at a lot of gigs, and I liked them a lot and I knew all their songs, and then Tom asked me to join them because Richard was on his way out. I knew that I had to go on and do something new, and joining Television was something new, a challenge. I had to join, you know."
Television's escalation to prominence and popularity in America and Europe is viewed casually by Smith; having struggled for so long in New York, he is not easily infatuated by the group's present success, and the personal glory that will inevitably attend that success he is less than enamoured of. "I'm just enjoying playing," he says simply. "I'm enjoying touring. The whole thing. I like it. It hasn't been as hard as I had been told it would be. It isn't easy, but hotel rooms are better than my own apartment, you know."
He is modest about his own contributions to Television's unique sound: "Jesus," he says when the question is posed. "I think, more than anything, I contribute to the time of the band. I keep time for the whole band to enable Richard and Tom to go off on solos whenever and wherever they want to go. I keep the bottom together. Yeah, like an anchor. It's important.
"When I heard the record for the first time, I could hear how much the band had 'developed'."
Billy Ficca, a drummer whose individual style is marked by a rare exuberance and, occasionally, by a ferocious intensity, is, off stage, surprisingly nervous, unassuming and more than a little shy. An initial encounter, at least, suggests as much. Nevertheless, he responds politely, with charm and humour, to questions about his personal and musical history.
A friend of Tom Verlaine since 1965 (they attended the same high school in Delaware), Ficca has been playing drums from the age of twelve. Although he played in the inevitable series of high-school rock'n'roll bands, his principal interest was jazz. Pop music he found weak and anaemic. He listened intently to his father's collection of Gene Krupa records. His brother played trumpet and was an admirer of Maynard Ferguson, whose drummer, Rufus Jones, he remembers as an adolescent influence.
"Jazz wasn't a meek music," he asserts. "It was very strong. I got tired of a lot of rock'n'roll. I could never find anything to listen to on the radio, except for one Baltimore station that played a lot of old jazz - Django Reinhardt, King Oliver, some Leadbelly.
"The first bands I played in did mostly Stones numbers - R&B, that kind of thing. Then there was the freak-out period," he laughs. "Everybody took LSD and got stoned and played twenty-seven-minute songs in double time. Music was so free then. Everything was swept away and we started from scratch again. Everybody got pretty weird. People mellowed out in the end, though."
It was during this period that he first played with Verlaine. They had been introduced by a mutual friend and discovered that they shared the same musical tastes and infatuations: "We got together," he recalls, "and played some crazy stuff with different people. It was pretty far out. Not at all commercial.
"We couldn't get any work, you know. There weren't too many people in Delaware interested in that kind of crazy music. We just rehearsed, worked out some material and played for ourselves really. Then that disintegrated and I did a couple of gigs with a kind of blues group with horns, you know.
"Played with a couple of bands like that. Soul bands, really. I enjoyed it. We played mostly around Delaware... then Tom invited me to New York. He and Richard Hell were trying to form a band. Yeah, The Neon Boys. Just the three of us. It never really evolved into anything.
"We spent all our time rehearsing. There were no real gigs. Nothing was happening, and a friend of mine from Delaware invited me to join this group. They were a kind of pop/soul/blues/funk group. It seemed that it might be fun, so I went off for maybe a year. I played my final gig with them in Cape Cod. It was at the end of the summer and we decided to take a vacation. We just never got back together again."
By this time Verlaine and Hell had enlisted the talent of Richard Lloyd, and on his return to New York, Ficca completed the original Television lineup: "Tom already had a lot of ideas for the band. I think I'd have to say that what we're doing now is similar to what we were trying to do then. The ideas have evolved and been refined. And, of course, we're all more proficient, individually, than we were then. We understand each other and we're closer now. We can anticipate the direction someone might suddenly follow and we can go after him.
"But the energy is still the same. We never want to lose that energy. We all think it's essential to keep that, because it's something the audience can respond to. Like when you first hear us it might sound, you know... a little different, a little strange. I mean, I listen to a lot of crazy music, so it all sounds natural to me, but I think it might sound a little weird to someone hearing us for the first time. It's not obvious music. It's not straight-ahead rock'n'roll boogie or whatever. At the same time it's still very physical music. It can shift you. It doesn't just aim for the head.
"The music has everything, I hope: humour, anger, love, beauty and tears. It should combine every emotion. And we, as musicians, should be able to express those emotions. I said that I didn't want us to lose any of the energy of the original band, but I think technique is very important. I mean, I can hear sounds and textures in my head, and it requires technique and skill to get them out."
Singles: Little Johnny Jewel; Marquee Moon
Albums: Marquee Moon
Tom Verlaine: two Dn Armstrong guitars, both same model but one with a perspex body. Uses 100-watt Marshall super-lead, linked up with 100-watt 4 x 12 cabinet
Richard Lloyd: Travis Dean and Fender Stratocaster, Messa Boogie amp, linked up with 100-watt 4 x 12 cabinet
Fred Smith: Fender bass with acoustic amp, 301 bottom and 307 top
Billy Ficca: Camco drums