Television, one of the most unique bands to come out of New York City's punk/new wave explosion, is on the road again, and Richard Lloyd, one of the band's founding members, is on the phone answering questions. "I like to talk," he says in the aggressively friendly tone of a born-and-bred New Yorker. "I'm the guy who can suffer fools easiest, and I have a good memory and can talk about the present or past. The rest of the guys don't like answering questions."
Not to belabor the obvious, but a good starting place for any interview is the ironic fact that, though everyone agrees that Television was one of the best new-wave outfits, the band broke up due to lack of public interest. "If everyone that cites us as a 'seminal' influence would send me a dollar, I'd be a wealthy man," says Lloyd. "But Television, as a band, never had a grand plan for a career, or any desperate need for success."
Like Talking Heads and the Ramones, Television pioneered a new rock attitude, hitting the stage in their street clothes to keep the focus on the music, even though their antifashion statement soon became its own style. "We had no idea how we wanted to present ourselves," Lloyd explains, with a clarity partially benefiting from 20/20 hindsight. "There were definitely things to avoid: The pretentious kind of 'Look at us, we're so special!' attitude that was later labeled 'corporate rock,' and a conscious avoidance of the excess of the metal and hair and glam bands. We traded more on the idea of the glamour of poverty, which came largely from Richard Hell.
"It was the glamour of the runaway, the lost boys who were fragile, and on their own, but completely carefree. That was fresh and unusual at the time, then the English took it to its cartoon extreme and called the movement 'punk' or 'new wave.' But to my way of thinking, being a lifelong New Yorker, a punk is a sad creature. A punk is a guy in prison who can't defend himself and needs a friend to help him out, whether he wants one or not. Punk quickly became a sad replica of what we were about."
Television's first incarnation (1973-1978) was not unlike the Velvet Underground, another highly influential New York band that was never able to find its own niche. Television eschewed the blues-based format of almost every other rock band in favor of the more free-flowing, improvisational approach of a jazz combo, spiked by the consciously poetic and defiantly obscure lyrics of vocalist Tom Verlaine. The band's early songs broke away from the usual boy-meets-girl stuff to deal with alienation, paranoia, and survival on a primal psychic level. Like David Byrne, Verlaine had a nervous talk/squawk singing style that served more as rhythmic punctuation than as lyrics. Songs -- or more properly, compositions -- were built around repeating clusters of notes or simple progressions that served as backdrop for the freewheeling improvisations. They jettisoned the notion of swing to concentrate on a more off-kilter, although powerfully propulsive, rhythmic approach. The band's journeys into the unknown could sometimes lose focus and deteriorate into self-indulgent noodling, but when they were "on," the energy was transformative, both for the band and its fans. Musicians in particular loved the band's open-ended approach to performance. You could say they were the first jam band.
"No!" replies Lloyd emphatically at the idea of being inadvertently compared to hippies. "I think of jamming as digging for ore, taking a chance that you'll find something worthwhile on your exploration, but within a structure. When you go to the circus and watch the high-wire guys, you don't go to watch them fall, but that element of danger and uncertainty is always there. That's what improvisation is about."
Despite critical raves and a strong cult following, Television, in its first incarnation, only put out two albums: 1977's Marquee Moon, a blazing avalanche of guitar and skewed rhythms, featuring the harmonized guitar work of Lloyd and Verlaine, and vocal lines that worked against the main melodic structure of the songs, and '78's Adventure, which was slightly more song-oriented, and benefited (some said ruined) by a smoother production style. Although their live shows were the stuff of legend, the band was never able to find its audience and dissolved. Both men went on to solo careers, with Lloyd putting out albums like Alchemy and last year's The Cover Doesn't Matter and Verlaine releasing a host of albums including Flash Light and Warm and Cool.
When the band quietly began work on Television for Capitol in 1992, it was one of the more subtle regroupings in rock history. They played England's Glastonbury Festival to solid reviews, and while the album was more song-oriented and lacked some of the flair of their youthful work, it was a solid effort, and was well-received. On love songs like the jaunty "1880 or So" and the more mysterious "Rhyme," Verlaine's lyrics showed a mature sincerity, while the guitar interplay between Lloyd and Verlaine was more focused, often building to sparkling, almost baroque resolutions.
"I think the band operates along the lines of a jazz group, or a group of Indian musicians. We're able to come together and make our own unique music, and then we go our own separate ways and live our own lives. In the West we seem to have this 'All for one, one for all, my band' mentality. When a band breaks up we act like it's a tragedy, but as musicians we like to separate and come back together. It makes it more precious when we are together. We're not a commodity like cornflakes."
Since the current tour and reunion seems to be ongoing, the next obvious step would be another album, right?
"We've been trying to get a live album out for the longest time, to try to come to terms with all the bootlegs that are circulating," Lloyd says. "We've been recording live shows through the soundboard it seems forever, but something always goes wrong. Sometimes it's all vocals and no guitars, or one side is perfect and other is dropped out. And there are some new songs that we're having a good time playing, so a new record wouldn't surprise me, but we'll have to wait and see."
The set list for the band's current tour, for the curious, will encompass the band's entire oeuvre, including some new songs. "We've unearthed some of the very old stuff of late, and they're going over quite well, so we'll be playing them in San Francisco, as well as stuff from the Capitol album and some new compositions that still have floating names," he says. "On Television the credits read 'lyrics Verlaine, music by Television,' and that way of working continues."
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