Monday, 28 October 2013

Interviewed: Television

Tom Verlaine, frontman of 70s New York punk heroes Television speaks to Olivia Swash in a rare interview speaking about Marquee Moon, the CBGB days and their long-awaited new album

In the mid seventies, the UK's punk scene was brimming with leather-clad three-chord punk bands: boys with PVA'd mohicans grasping the opportunity to vent their teen angst. What resulted was the unrefined, stripped-back sound of Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex and The Clash. Meanwhile, across the pond in New York City, the DIY ethic was trickling into the underground clubs and Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the Patti Smith Group were establishing a punk scene circulating around the then-little-known CBGB club in Lower Manhattan.

A fresh-faced Tom Verlaine, having changed his name to echo his love of French symbolist poetry, along with teen friend and bassist Richard Hell, drummer Billy Ficca and guitarist/co-songwriter Richard Lloyd, was giving rise to an altogether more grown-up breed of punk. Despite the perceived golden age of the New York punk scene, with various homage-paying souvenir shop spin-offs, photographic exhibitions and emotive documentaries about all things CBGB, Tom doesn't recall it with the same rose-tinted nostalgia. "To be honest there's not a lot of memories about that spot," he says of the club. "I don't run into any of the people that played there, but I do still see Patti Smith now and then." Verlaine and Smith dated in the seventies, and have collaborated on many singles, albums and performances since. "A few weeks ago I did a mostly poetry show with her. No drums, just guitar and her daughter on keyboards. Very fun!"


Television used their vast musical proficiency to create one of the most universally critically acclaimed New Wave records of all time. Since its release in 1977, Marquee Moon has seemed to teeter in the shadow of the "mainstream" punk albums, if that isn't too much of an oxymoron. Television linger in an ever-so-slightly subterranean pocket of bands that don't make it onto anarchistic TV montages and market stall T-shirt stands alongside their safety-pinned peers. Dee Dee Ramone famously failed in an audition for Television, and whilst the punk scene was oozing with fast-paced and simplistic rock, Television were set apart with their accomplished interweaving guitars. The lingering and convoluted yet incredibly catchy ditties of 'See No Evil', 'Venus' and 'Marquee Moon' set against Verlaine's distinctive warble almost seem to occupy countless 'Best Album of All Time' lists, including my own. "It seems to get rediscovered by a new generation every ten years or so," Tom tells me. "That's kinda cool."

The band's sporadic worldwide comebacks are perhaps one of the factors that keep new audiences educated: this year's tour is one of a few for Television since their split in 1978. Most notably the band reunited in 1992, sticking to a pact they made upon their initial disbandment to do just that. With it came their self-titled third album, the first since Adventure in 1978. This time around is set to be perhaps the most exciting resurgence yet, with the band performing Marquee Moon in full at the last ever ATP weekender. The Sage in Gateshead is one of just three other of their UK tour dates, where Verlaine and co. are set to perform a career-spanning set along with new guitarist Jimmy Rip. "He's the same fellow who did all my solo tours since 1981, so it was real easy to get Television shows going," says Tom. "We'd done quite a few [Television songs] on the solo tours." Television may not have been a constant presence in the industry, but the members of the band have, in between the resurgences, devoted their careers to music. "I also did a duet tour with Jimmy of Japan in 2011. Small seated venues - very non-'rock' you might say," Tom says modestly. "I could actually hear my voice on stage! Shocking!" Having played Japan with the full band already this year, he tells me that it's one of his favourite places to play. "No one videos the shows on their phones. They just like listening so it is a very good audience to play to, to improvise to."

Perhaps we can expect to hear a rare preview of their anticipated new album, which has been suspended in an enigmatic state of "in the pipeline" for years, almost on the scale of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy. So what's the latest? "We've got about 12 tracks recorded for the new release. I'm not sure when they will be finished..." Tom tells me uncertainly. Although it seems their upcoming album and previously released material is just the tip of their surprisingly prolific iceberg. "Over the years a great many songs got rehearsed and maybe played twice, but never recorded," he says. "Once in a while we pull one out and play it live - that's fun." He assures me, unnecessarily, that "they sound better now!"

Although Verlaine's memories of the New York New Wave don't evoke the emotive, closely-knit heyday that punk fans, documentary makers and music journalists idealise, this perhaps reflects the music of Television. They weren't preoccupied with looking the part or stirring up mainstream culture with anti-establishment stunts, instead they had plenty of substance: accessible yet encompassing the DIY values of punk. Even if it was onlyMarquee Moon that filtered through to the (almost) mainstream, that's one almighty stamp on one of the biggest genres of the 20th century.

1 comment:

  1. Loved Marquee Moon at the time & Television deserved much greater acclaim then they ever received
    Good 2 see unfinished recognition hopefully now likely 2b achieved

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