TOM VERLAINE’S TELEVISION TO MAKE AUSTRALIAN DEBUT
HE dated Patti Smith, was one of the last people to work with Jeff Buckley and is responsible for writing and recording one of the most critically acclaimed albums in American rock history. Those are just a few snippets from the life and career of Tom Verlaine, whose New York band Television released that landmark album, Marquee Moon, 36 years ago.
One could add that the 63-year-old musician is a gifted and unorthodox guitar player, that he has a fondness for French poetry and that he gave up listening to pop music a long time ago. Most important of all to Australian fans of Television and of Verlaine’s considerable solo output spanning 27 years, is that he’s about to make his Australian debut.
Forty years since forming Television, which emerged as one of the leading bands of the punk rock era of the late 1970s, Verlaine is bringing the band to Australia for the first time in October. The short tour includes a spot at the Release the Bats Festival in Melbourne, at which Television will perform Marquee Moon in its entirety and in order for the first time.
‘‘ We’ve played some of Marquee Moon before but we’ve never played the whole album like that,’’ Verlaine says, ‘‘ so we’ll have to learn some of the songs.’’
The tour, which also includes (not exclusively Marquee Moon) shows in Sydney, Fremantle and Hobart, provides a rare opportunity to see one of the bands that was pivotal to the new wave music scene blossoming in New York and elsewhere in the 70s. New York was a hotbed of radical music activity. Young bands not content to follow the established paths of west coast country rock or bland, overproduced pop were looking for another angle. Among them were Talking Heads, the Ramones and Blondie. Others, such as Smith and Richard Hell, both integral to the Verlaine story, were also forging new ground.
Sitting left-field in this Big Apple shakedown was Television, whose songs weren’t particularly fast or singalong. Some of them lasted 10 minutes. The band liked to jam. Television had energy and musical chemistry, but the resulting melange of noise, particularly from the two-pronged guitar attack of Richard Lloyd and singer Verlaine, was like nothing that had come before.
Not that Verlaine felt they were part of any so-called punk movement. ‘‘ We felt outside of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t think any of those bands were punk and everybody knows they’re not punk so it’s kind of a dead issue. Nobody calls those bands punk, outside of maybe the Ramones.’’
Television was well received by the critics, particularly in Europe, but failed to garner commercial success and broke up after the release of its second album, Adventure, in 1978. A self-titled reunion album followed in 1992 and the band has reunited occasionally to tour since then.
For this year’s trip, Verlaine will be joined by drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith, both of whom were in the band that recorded
Marquee Moon, and long-time Verlaine collaborator, guitarist Jimmy Rip, who has replaced Lloyd. It’s a line-up that has played together occasionally during the latter part of the group’s 21st-century renaissance, following Lloyd’s departure from the band in 2007.
The complex chemistry of Verlaine and Lloyd and the disparate musical backgrounds of all four members — Verlaine had a grounding in jazz and had played saxophone as a teenager — made Television stand out from the three-chord wonders that were such a ubiquitous part of the 70s punk scene.
‘‘ That didn’t occur to me at the time,’’ Verlaine says, ‘‘ but in retrospect it is kind of true. Most bands were playing a riff over and over or strumming a couple of chords. The way our songs are arranged isn’t so common, I guess.’’ Marquee Moon’s songs See No Evil, Friction and Venus are angular pop constructions, while the much longer title track and Torn Curtain allow Verlaine and Lloyd to trade solos and interweave dissonant guitar passages. It was a winning chemistry at the time, as it is now, conceived in the clubs of New York, such as CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, before Television or any of the other aspirant New York new wave talents had recording deals.
By the time the band signed to Elektra Records in 1976, Verlaine knew what he wanted Marquee Moon to sound like. The band worked constantly to get the complex arrangements just right.
‘‘ The main idea,’’ Verlaine says, ‘‘ was to just record our live show and erase or fix up the mistakes, which is basically what we did. We rehearsed a lot, maybe four or five days a week for quite a while. A couple of the songs were written on piano. I’d take the left hand on the piano and write one part and then the right hand on the piano to write another part; then Lloyd and I would play that and change it to make it sound better. That’s probably a strange way to write for a guitar band.’’ BORN in New Jersey and reared in Delaware, Verlaine didn’t get much of a grounding in rock ’ n’ roll, or guitar, during his formative years. ‘‘ I never set out to be a lead guitarist,’’ he says. ‘‘ I played saxophone in the 60s and listened to mostly jazz then. I started messing around with songs, but I didn’t really like sitting at the piano singing, so I got a cheap guitar and realised it was very easy to play and a cool thing to write songs on.’’
Verlaine moved to New York City as a teenager in 1968 with a school friend, Hell (Richard Meyers). Both shared a passion for music and poetry and formed their first band, the Neon Boys with Ficca on drums and Hell on bass. It was a short-lived outfit that eventually became Television after Lloyd’s recruitment. Hell, considered by his friend not to be up to the task, was replaced by bassist Smith in 1975. Hell went on to record under his own name and with his band the Voidoids, creating one of the classic songs of the punk era, Blank Generation.
During those early years in New York, unsure about his future, Verlaine immersed himself in the city’s literary culture as much as its musical one, thanks to taking a job in the Strand book store, which remains a landmark institution in New York’s East Village. It was a learning experience.
‘‘ I grew up in Delaware and there weren’t