The legendary NYC band Television (left to right: Billy Ficca, Fred Smith, Tom Verlaine, Jimmy Rip) brings music both classic and coalescing to the stage of the Stone Pony on Tuesday, December 30.
(Originally published in the Asbury Park Press on December 26, 2014)
To be clear about it, the group known as Television maintains no band-sanctioned social media presence. There’s no official website, no online store, no publicity team on retainer; not even any real connection to the jam-band community that could conceivably welcome the guitar-centric masters of live music into the fold.
And as you might have deduced, Television — in the words of their booking agent — “does not do interviews.”
While all of the above might suggest a needlessly prickly, contrarian, even Luddite attitude toward the fast-morphing millennial music scene — think Jonathan Richman without the warmth — it merely represents a remarkably consistent approach to the art and commerce of the rock-band template from Tom Verlaine, the “Guiding Light” whose intricately breathtaking lead guitar, poetically complex compositions and quirky, acquired-taste vocals have long spoken for an entity that, despite the name, has never aspired to mass-media status.
When Television makes a first-ever appearance at Asbury Park’s Stone Pony on Tuesday, December 30, it will mark another milestone in what for this particular band has been a “big” couple of years — keynoted by their dramatized representation in the 2013 feature film “CBGB,” and preceded in short order by gigs at NYC’s Irving Plaza (December 28) and Philly’s Theatre of Living Arts (December 29). There’s even an album, the first in over 20 years, rumored to be in the pipeline — although veteran Television watchers have learned to assume a Zen attitude as regards such talk.
It’s been 40 years now since Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist-vocalist-punk pioneer Richard Hell changed the name of their non-gigging combo from The Neon Boys to Television — adding co-lead guitarist Richard Lloyd, and reportedly becoming the first band to play CBGB owner Hilly Kristal’s dingy outpost of culture on the Bowery. Too cerebral for safety-pin punk; too “street” for prog, the quartet nonetheless spearheaded a scene that would draw the contributions of onetime Verlaine girlfriend Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and other rebels in that wild-west interlude before the Sex Pistols served to lock in the mainstream notion of how “punk” looked and sounded.
The more style-conscious Hell quickly moved on to The Heartbreakers and his own guitar-showcase band The Voidoids — while ow-profile bass man Fred Smith jumped from the nascent Blondie to complete the classic TV lineup; sticking around to record and gig with Verlaine off and on ever since. While the group laid down some barely-heard demos and the one-off single “Little Johnny Jewel,” the real proof was in their live performances, where their “shoegazer” persona collided with a fiery presentation in which Verlaine and Lloyd (a young discovery with teen-idol looks, a now-legendary drug problem, and a dexterity that traced back to lessons with Jimi Hendrix) intertwined, colluded and even sparred with each other in ways that drove songs like “Venus,” “Friction” and “See No Evil” into a niche all their own.
By the time the major record labels came calling, Television was positioned to hit one out of the park — and that they did in the 1977 debut “Marquee Moon,” a richly nuanced set of finely honed, furiously played blitzes, ballads and dirges (highlighted by the epic title cut) that regularly makes the Top 100 LP lists of many critics. Increased friction between the two guitarists — coupled with difficult touring itineraries and dwindling attention from their label — caused the band to split after just one more year and one more album, 1978’s generally underrated “Adventure.” Verlaine and a rejuvenated Lloyd would prosecute solo careers (while Ficca would co-found The Waitresses of “Christmas Wrapping” fame) — and while 1992’s stand-alone reunion “Television” found the band working a somewhat less bombastic corner of their sound, the accompanying tour at least served to force an erratic series of occasional reunion shows.
Frustrated by Verlaine’s seeming nonchalance toward releasing new material and capitalizing on the goodwill of the band’s fanbase, Lloyd threw in the TV towel in 2007— to be replaced by Jimmy Rip, a sought-after session guitarist and producer (Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Jerry Lee Lewis) who had worked closely with Verlaine on several past solo and side projects. While the seven-year “new” lineup has yet to issue any recorded evidence, a series of bootlegs and fan videos show vintage material (“Glory,” “Elevation,” “Call Mr. Lee”) and more recent works in progress (some dating back a decade or more) to be in good hands.