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“It’s Either through a Low Cultural Coup or a Drug Glut That Television is Ignored as the Great American Rock and Roll Band”

When even the Grateful Dead start professing the need to sober up and start taking care of their bodies, you know there’s been a widespread movement toward straightness. With this being said, I wasn’t alive back in the ’70s, but from the general rhetoric I come across, it seems like you’d be hard pressed to come across anyone who wasn’t immersed in some sort of drug scene, of which I’m casually and implicitly pushing the definition past basic “marijuana” territory. So I was wondering about the possibility of an epoch that were just completely drug-soaked, hence explaining the popularity of some of those shmaltzy, high-budget late-’70s and early-’80s bands parodied in the movie This is Spinal Tap. At the start of the mockumentary there’s this real spaced-out chick attempting to deliver a spiel on the connection the bands make with the audiences but she can’t find find the words, or any words, presumably the product of recreational emaciation of brain cells.

Is it possible then that even key tastemakers like Robert Christgau had the need for speed, like Lester Bangs certainly did around that time. The Village Voice did at least like Marquee Moon (1977), calling Tom Verlaine’s lyrics “demotic-philosphical” and the Richard Lloyd/Tom Verlaine guitar duo as “penetrating and expressive.” He even goes so far as to say the lyrics alone could make the album standard, like a Jay-Z American Gangster type of thing, maybe. 

It’s funny, though, to me, that he chooses topics of lyricism and a “penetrating” aspect. Television’s second album, that is, Adventure, similar to another LP that grew on me with its placid ease over time, Stoned and Dethroned from The Jesus and Mary Chain, is attractive to me for its quality of being a backdrop, like a soothing reflection point, especially for autumn, perhaps. Also, he could be singing the phone book and it wouldn’t matter to me, at least for the most part — the grooves, melodies and the sound of his voice create an exciting vacuum of music that blends Goats Head Soup-era Rolling Stones with early Big Star, two obvious and chronologically exact influences the band must have gleaned. The guitar soloing, as it were, is pleasant and benign but also virtuosic and mournful, with copious effects pedal augmenting the album’s feeling and the strut and structure of the songs themselves.

And I mean, they’re decently good looking, aren’t they? Sorry to be so banal but I was trying to cater to the whole aesthetic appeal of pop stars that’s unfortunately so applicable to much of American culture. One thing’s for sure: punk took off around this time and that style had a look about it, not to mention issuing a license at hot, sweaty clubs to act like a violent, drugged-out jacka**. So popular was this lurid new way of life [1] that everyone mistook the movement in New York for just that, when really, the only popular punk band in the city was the Ramones, with the New York Dolls similar but occupying more of the mod/power-pop quadrant of the whole thing. Blondie were basically a pop group, like Savage Garden, and the Talking Heads were a lot of things but definitely not punk. Television were stripped-down and unpretentious, like punk is, but Christ, the title track on their debut is 10 minutes long. Imagine Bad Brains playing a 10-minute song. Their hands would be swollen by the end of it. To me, the most effective song on their debut is “Guiding Light,” which is very much the antithesis of punk. It’s got a slow, deliberate, textural and gorgeous guitar riff informing the whole thing, for instance, and its message is one of optimism and hope, rather than punk’s typical nihilism. In this way, actually, the artistic fabric so vital in New York at this time amounted to something very much outside of punk, what with the local recession going on that hit that community harder than anywhere else in the world, around that time. 

Well, punk took off, and now most everyone hates it, and hair metal took off, and now most everyone hates it, so maybe now it’s time to come back to Television, a band not known for its atypical garb or hairstyles but that did have somewhat of a poet on the mic (though he’s not to be confused with the French wordsmith Paul Verlaine, of course), and whose songs are crafted in a way that rewardingly maximizes things like sound, time and melody. Adventure opener “Glory” even romps along with a sort of cavalier attitude typical to punk, despite the deliberate pace and riff-oriented guitar attack. Verlaine’s lyrical moxie actually strikes me as something that would have fed into Thurston Moore’s fu**-all songwriting edict: “You say ‘blah blah blah’ / I got a killer stuck in my head”. Of course, Television do a great job, traditional within post-punk, of marrying these disturbing lyrics with happy, victorious chord changes, not unlike what the Pixies do so pedagogically on “Wave of Mutilation.” Overall, Adventure (1978) is, in my opinion, an even more consistent listen than Marquee Moon, and again, I like it just for what Robert Christgau applied were its shortcoming: its casual ease, and what smacks of a complete absence of an ambition to make music to amount to a “flavor of the week,” or punky trend, if you will. This is rock and roll in the traditional sense, sure, but it’s infused with great freshness, variety and emotion, right down to the jagged, almost KISS-like jaggedness of the guitar riff that opens the virile, moderately boisterous “Foxhole.” Television made one more album after Adventure, Television (1992), presumably inspired by a certain semi-messianic grunge figure of a year before, and they have several live albums available on Spotify, which I look forward to taking in within the near future. 

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[1] Don’t get me wrong: I grew up on punk and I do think it’s got some value, I just don’t think it always translates to subsuming the songs themselves with the most structure, emotion and instrumental skill, within the larger genre of rock.

One thought on ““It’s Either through a Low Cultural Coup or a Drug Glut That Television is Ignored as the Great American Rock and Roll Band”

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