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Rock/Pop

Television show

Guitar hero Richard Lloyd on two albums that quietly reinvented rock ‘n’ roll.

Photo Courtesy Rhino
Black-and-white TV (from l): Fred Smith, Tom Verlaine. Billy Ficca and Richard Lloyd.
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Published 10/22/2003

"‘Jam punks’?!? Uh-oh…"

Is the guttural noise coming over the phone line a mock groan or the sound of genuine exasperation? I honestly can’t tell, although after I read Richard Lloyd several more lines from Rolling Stone’s just-published review of Rhino’s Television reissues ("Television were the New York punk explosion’s answer to the Grateful Dead"), I hear a long pause, then a chuckle.

"Oh, I don’t care one way or another," says the guitarist, diplomatically. "It’s sort of like ‘no press is bad press,’ right? And that’s the same thing Seymour Stein of Sire Records said to me personally when he tried to sign the band. He said, ‘Television can become like the Grateful Dead. You won’t sell a lot of records but you’ll gain a rabid following who will follow you around the world to see you play and your career will be enormously long-standing.’ And damn it, he was right!"

Well, yeah, in a sense, Stein was right. TV, cited by everyone from R.E.M., U2 and Sonic Youth to the Dream Syndicate, Pavement and Yo La Tengo as a key influence, is secure in its legacy, whether measured by its original 1973-78, two-album (Marquee Moon, Adventure) tenure or across two subsequent reunions, in 1992 and 2001. And like the Dead, TV — Lloyd, guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca, bassist Fred Smith, never much bothered with the rock ’n’ roll rulebook.

###

Television: along with the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones and Blondie, one of the first-generation CBGBs bands, and also the last among them to issue an album. Yet even as early as ’74 the quartet (which at the time featured future Heartbreaker/Voidoid Richard Hell on bass) had sufficient street buzz to bring the labels sniffing at the door.

Lloyd recalls an Island Records-funded, Brian Eno-produced demo session that left the band aghast at both the procedure and the results: "It was dreadful! Eno was very warm and very easy, but he hadn’t gotten his feet yet as a producer, in addition to the fact that the recording was completely in a dead room — wrong studio, wrong engineer. And so the record company calls us up and says, ‘We’re dying to release this!’ And we said, ‘What, are you kidding? The stuff stinks! We don’t give you permission to release this as a record!’"

Unwilling to sacrifice art for efficiency, TV continued to keep the industry at bay for another few years. After replacing Hell with the less volatile and far more musically adept Smith on bass the group recorded and released, through NYC indie Ork Records, the 1975 "Little Johnny Jewel" 45. It’s nowadays considered one of the definitive artifacts of the punk era, although Lloyd is quick to debunk the entire notion of "punk."

"We weren’t a punk band!" protests Lloyd. "You know, hardly anybody was a punk band! That was a label that got stuck on us by a kind of, uh, bad luck! Basically it was John Holstrom, and Legs McNeil, and the magazine Punk, and they sort of championed this scene. Then the label started getting bandied around and we are like, ‘Oh, no! What are we gonna do!’ I mean, Television wasn’t the only one; all the bands hated this term except for one or two of them. The term ‘New Wave’ then was sort of our alternative to ‘punk,’ our own defense handle. And there’s nothing you can do about it now. Years later, ‘punk’ is the term that refers to more than just a genre; it refers to an era of rock ’n’ roll. It’s also more of an attitudinal thing.

"For instance, if Television is called ‘punk’ under the umbrella of punk, and Television is, as I said, not ‘punk music,’ then ‘punk music’ means what Television is. Do you see what I mean? In other words, the definition gets more and more inclusive. Almost meaningless. ‘Punk,’ like anything else as a name, can be a plastic thing."

Punk or not, the "LJJ" single notched critical raves in everything from rock zines (Creem, Trouser Press) to skin mags (Penthouse), its notoriety ensuring that TV would eventually land a deal that would provide the group, in Lloyd’s words, "the resources to make a good-sounding record."

The man doth understate. Marquee Moon, recorded with British producer Andy Johns and released by Elektra in February 1977 had critics waxing elegiac. As New Musical Express scribe Nick Kent gushed, "They are one band in a million; the songs are some of the greatest ever."

Alan Licht, liner notesman for Elektra/Rhino’s newly reissued TV discs, points out how, heard alongside the louder/faster punk outfits of the era as well as many of the mainstream and prog groups preceding punk, Television offered a stylistic and attitudinal revelation. Writes Licht, "If most punk bands proved you didn’t have to be a proficient musician to make great rock ’n’ roll, Television showed you could strip away rock’s excesses without sounding primitive or old-fashioned."

Indeed. Moon was an economy-minded rock muso’s delight, a combined assault of edgy, riff-fueled aggression ("See No Evil," "Friction") and dramatic, modal-tinged jamming (the title track). It featured death-defying Verlaine-Lloyd fretboard duels that eschewed standard-issue Anglo ejaculatory guitar solos in favor of esoteric yelps, glurps and improbable harmonic detours. Played out atop the Ficca/Smith rhythm section (itself an unlikely blend of discoish precision and jazz-cat extrapolation), the overall effect was akin to cueing up, simultaneously, a stack of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Velvet Underground and John Coltrane albums.

Yet Television had no truck with genuflecting before their idols, real or imagined. If a passage in a TV song bore resemblance to another group’s work — Moon’s "See No Evil," for example, has a distinctive Velvets-like choogle, while the clarion-chord opening of Adventure’s "Foxhole" is a canny inversion of the old "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" riff — it was, according to Lloyd, utterly coincidental.

"You know," he says, "there are a lot of assumptions that people make about what you must have been listening to, what your influences must have been, and it could be all, all wrong. People said, ‘Man, you’re right up the historical alley of the Velvets’ or something. And I’d say, ‘The who?’ Or, ‘You guys sound like blah-blah-blah.’ And I’d go, ‘What?’ When we did ‘Fire Engine’ [a staple of the band’s live set] I had never heard 13th Floor Elevators. When I finally heard it I was like, ‘This has a fucking jug in it! Jesus Christ! A jug band!’ I used to have several of the Quicksilver records. Long, long time ago. And then I forgot all about them. Then we were playing in Television, years afterward, I’m talking in the ’90s, it dawned on me: ‘Hey, you know who we really sounded like? Wow, we really sounded like this early San Francisco band Quicksilver!’ In the sort of, uh, silvery shimmer, the reverb-y shimmer; more than anything else it’s a tonality thing. And that was as much a surprise to me as anything else because we never wore any influences on our sleeves.

"But no, absolutely, unequivocally, with a capital letter, ‘Never.’ Never, ever, not once did anyone in Television have another musician’s name or product or style or anything pass through their lips. Television, in its creative impulses, was entirely self-generated and self-contained."

As philosophically and professionally insular as it was artistically — Lloyd suggests that the band’s form of internal camaraderie was based on a tacit, shared assumption that the collective muse was more important than individual egos ("none of the members ever missed a rehearsal or was late to a performance") — TV was able to maintain its momentum through a second album and across several United States and UK tours.

England, where Moon had done respectably and Adventure, released by Elektra in April ’78, had entered the UK charts at No. 7, was particularly receptive to TV. In the States, by contrast, neither album dented the charts or got a whiff of airplay. Adventure, by virtue of having a glossier (more keyboards and harmony vocals) sheen than its predecessor, had a clear commercial appeal, a fact that dismayed some critics but which should have put TV on the same track as a number of its old CBGBs peers; by ’78 Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith had all made inroads. So why the failure on Television’s part to crack the American market? On that point, Lloyd is unequivocal.

"Elektra, for all their good intentions, were business-oriented only. I mean, we went to Elektra and we said things like this: ‘Hey, we’re going on tour. As part of our tour support, could you fund our making some T-shirts that we might be able to sell at the shows and that would be publicity as well as some income for the band?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, no. T-shirts don’t sell records!’ Then they would say to us, ‘We’re having trouble getting you onto radio. You’re not very radio-friendly.’ We’re like, ‘Well, why don’t you send out 500 copies to college radio because college radio has open formats and the kids can play what they like.’ They go, ‘Oh, no. College radio does not sell records.’ So this is what we were up against! I mean, we were smart enough to see that there were sort of alternative pathways that one could go by and maybe develop something. But the time, everything was sort of, like, we were ahead of ourselves."

So much so that the group, increasingly weary of hassling with its label and the resulting frustration additionally breeding internal tension, decided to call it a day in July ’78. (This came on the heels of, ironically enough, a wildly successful West Coast tour.) "No fistfights in the dressing rooms," Lloyd hastens to add. "It wasn’t the end of the world."

###

After the breakup both Verlaine and Lloyd launched solo careers. Lloyd, despite weathering a bout with drug addiction, also worked with Matthew Sweet, Lloyd Cole and others, while Smith became an in-demand session player and Ficca joined the Waitresses. But after a chance meeting between Verlaine’s and Lloyd’s managers, and a subsequent sit-down among all four players, TV reemerged fully intact in ’92 with the album Television, issued by Capitol. A well-received tour was mounted, but at its conclusion, with déjà vu-like record company politics creeping into the equation, TV opted to go back into hiatus mode.

And then came back out of it again in 2001. That’s when the prospect of doing large festival dates enticed TV back onto the boards; the band is still extant, in fact, performing roughly 10-15 shows annually. Lloyd declines to predict whether a Television (Round Three) studio album is in the offing, saying with a laugh, "We’re lazy! We don’t really care! It’s sort of a flag that rock musicians wave: I Don’t Care. But we really don’t, as evidenced by our output, care in that way. We’re not chasing the brass ring."

Both Lloyd and Verlaine were more than willing to pitch in, however, when, earlier this year, Rhino began work on its remastered editions of Marquee Moon and Adventure. Lloyd observes that he’d always thought the original CD edition of Marquee Moon sounded like "crap" due to digital mastering still being in its infancy in the ’80s. He also remembers being close to tears back in 1977 when he first took his Moon test-pressing home.

"You know, you’re in the studio working your ass off and your heart is poured into it, and you hear your mix coming through the speakers. Then you go to the mastering where you realize, in fact, that the way they make a vinyl record is by reverse scratching a piece of plastic, this archaic technology — I could do a better job with a knife and a piece of rubber! They tell you things like, ‘You can’t put all the bass that’s on the tape onto the record or the needle will pop out and you’ll have a record that skips. Your record can’t be longer than 18 minutes per side.’ All these things! And then you put [the test pressing] on your turntable, and you just go, ‘It sounds so — little! No one will ever hear what I heard! No one will ever hear what the band’s intentions were. They’ll only hear this sort of reduced version.’ But now [with the Rhino reissues] it’s possible we’re hearing something much, much closer to the band’s intent. To me, that’s worth all the tea in China."

Both LPs have been bolstered by bonus cuts, although most of them are merely alternate versions of album material, due primarily, Lloyd indicates, to the band not having huge recording budgets at the time. "We were economical; we didn’t do a lot of extra songs. And our contract said that anything we did in the studio belonged to the record company in perpetuity, blah-blah-blah. So there was really no justification to do extra songs that were going to end up being owned by somebody else!" But there are some welcome additions, from Moon’s first-time-on-CD "Little Johnny Jewel" and an "Untitled Instrumental" (aka "A Mi Amore," which features Lloyd busting a guitar string midsong), to an actual song titled "Adventure" and a hidden, unlisted instrumental run-through of "Ain’t That Nothin’," both appearing on Adventure. (Worth noting: At one stage a TV box set had been discussed. In addition to the Eno-produced — and heavily bootlegged — Island demos mentioned above, there are tapes of extensive Adventure sessions done in ’77 at Bearsville Studios prior to the band relocating to NYC’s Record Plant for the actual album recording; the latter were recently bootlegged by the Punk Vault label as I Need A New Adventure. But according to Rhino, plans for the box set ultimately were shelved.)

Then there’s the altogether previously unreleased Live At The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, 6/29/78. Issued concurrently with the reissues on Rhino’s Internet-only imprint Handmade (www.rhinohandmade.com, it captures TV in full flight on the aforementioned, legendary, West Coast tour. Live was originally recorded and broadcast by KSAN-FM in San Francisco. (The band did two shows that night, one at 8 p.m. and the other at 11; this apparently is the second show, and you can hear KSAN DJ Dusty Street talking at the beginning and just before the encore, a blistering version of the Stones’ "Satisfaction".) And while the show has been the subject over the years of a number of bootleg LPs and CDs, Rhino unearthed a first-generation radio station master tape in Elektra’s vaults, making this the first time anyone has heard TV this close to the bone.

"Since it was going to be a radio recording, we went and made sure the mix was something solid and it wasn’t just done off the cuff," says Lloyd. "All those performances on that last West Coast tour were pretty good! That’s the one tour where we were using these huge Ampeg amplifiers that Keith Richards had somehow talked me and Tom into using. They were really designed for stadium outdoor gigs, you know? And were in these 500-1,000 seat clubs! You could see dishes falling off shelves, glasses skittering across tables — we were loud."

The legacy question, perhaps, is the one most appropriate to close with. Does Lloyd ever reflect the fact that for a lot of us who grew up listening to Television, his band is every bit as important as, say, the Grateful Dead was to an earlier generation?

"Well, that’s nice to hear. My only comment. I mean, obviously, if you get into this sort of ‘rock ’n’ roll game’, well, what is it that you want? And to be included in a sort of parade of rock influences has gotta be part of it. That we are in that, that we are mentioned at all, means that it came true.

"But I think our goals have nothing to do with the crowd or a public thing. It’s at the end of the day, have you satisfied your inner dictates? You want people to applaud you, et cetera, because that will keep you going. But if you wouldn’t do it without that, then you shouldn’t be doing it."

What should you be into it for, then? Where’s the wish fulfillment? At that Lloyd turns contemplative.

"Well, if musicians knew that their behavior and their goals impacted on their comrades’ aims and goals — that each member has to sacrifice to the realization that they are involved in the concrete success or failure of another person’s fondest and innermost wish and dream — things would be a lot better. The whole thing, though, is that everybody is seeking a selfish goal, and that’s a bunch of crap. Rock ’n’ roll’s not like that. Rock ’n’ roll, to me, is like a flying saucer that comes down and picks up specimens and puts them together: ‘You will rock.’ Like, you can’t decide who you’re gonna be with. It’s the aliens who have picked you. And you get bands that are the greatest thing on earth while onstage, but offstage, they go their separate ways, take separate cars to and from the gig, and never talk. Not us, not Television. But you get the idea. And it doesn’t matter. But if what you do diminished the opportunity for your fellow to have this rock ’n’ roll wish, that innermost dream, come true, then you are personally a piece of shit! [laughs]

"If somebody were to ask me, ‘How do I become a successful musician?’ I would have to tell them you have to learn to live quite happily at a level of poverty that would put most people on the street, and for a long time. I talk to kids who want to be successful, and it’s OK to want to get signed. It’s okay to have the widest audience for your music, et cetera. But they’re all trying to get a showcase where someone will see them, like a chick who wants to be discovered in the movies. I tell them that record companies aren’t interested in any of that. They aren’t interested in discovering anybody. They’re interested in you being a success already; all they want to do is co-opt your inevitable success! If they come and they see that they’ve got to develop you, they’re going to walk away. The best thing a young band can do is find a place to play where nobody can kick you out, where you don’t have to fight for your gig, and develop your audience by playing the music that you want to play as if you were in your underwear! Then the record companies will come and you’ll suddenly find that everybody will want to steal the money that you haven’t made yet.

"There’s your quote: ‘You know you’re a success when multiple groups of people want to arrange to steal the money that you haven’t made yet!’

Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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