Television appeared at the same time and place as American punk rock — in the mid-Seventies at the CBGB nightclub in New York's East Village. But while the band's bold attack and obvious affection for the Velvet Underground linked them to the rest of punk, Television's trademark chiming guitars and the tendency of lead guitarist (and main songwriter) Tom Verlaine and rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd to spur each other on to long jams evoked such psychedelic-era bands as the Grateful Dead. (Verlaine cited the Rolling Stones, classical composer Maurice Ravel, and jazz musicians Miles Davis and Albert Ayler as influences.) Television had a devout following in New York City and a major effect on British post-punk rock as well as American indie rock, but its albums were virtually ignored by the mass market at the time of their release.
Tom Miller (who renamed himself Verlaine after the French Symbolist poet) had dropped out of high school in Wilmington, Delaware, and had left colleges in South Carolina and Pennsylvania before coming to New York in 1968. Richard Hell was a onetime boarding school roommate. With Billy Ficca they formed a short-lived band, the Neon Boys, in 1972. When Lloyd joined in late 1973, they became Television, and were one of the first bands to play at CBGB, along with the Patti Smith Group. (Verlaine and Smith later collaborated on a book of poetry, "The Night.") Hell left in 1975 to form the Heartbreakers with ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders; later he led the Voidoids. Dee Dee Ramone auditioned as bassist, but the gig went to Fred Smith, who had played in the original Blondie. The new lineup played frequently in New York to critical raves and made an independent single, "Little Johnny Jewel."
In late 1974 Brian Eno produced the band's demo recordings. Despite a growing cult following, Television didn't release its debut album until 1977. Marquee Moon sold poorly upon its release, but it made many critics' ten-best lists that year with its meticulously crafted proto-new wave anthems. The album was listed at No. 128 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the Greatest 500 Albums of All Time. The album's best songs ("Friction," "Venus" and the epic title track) start out as focused, punky rock songs, but quickly move into extended instrumental passages in which Lloyd and Verlaine's interwoven guitar lines hint at jam-rock for intellectual listeners. Verlaine's warbly, nearly androgynous vocals presaged Eighties synth pop and Nineties indie rock, as did the group's unconventional songwriting approach. The music was punk in that it came from the same scene and it didn't have much in common with popular radio rock. But Marquee Moon's sound was clean, catchy and clearly played by proficient musicians. It helped illustrate that music can exist as an alternative to the mainstream without dumbing things down and/or screaming at the top of one's lungs, an idea that the likes of R.E.M. and Pavement would later nod to as inspiration.
In 1978, follow-up Adventure proved to be softer, more reflective, and more restrained than the debut, and sold a bit better. Tracks like "Foxhole," "Glory" and "Careful" were further examples of Television's highly specific sound, but overall the album wasn't nearly the revelation of the debut. Tensions within the group led to a breakup later that year, with Verlaine and Lloyd pursuing solo careers. Four years later a cassette-only live album, The Blow Up, was released.
Verlaine released seven solo albums, and though he retained a faithful following, he was still more a critical than commercial success. After recording the score for the film "Love and a .45" in 1994, he continued in that direction. In 1998 he was commissioned to compose original music for a collection of classic silent-film shorts by Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and others, which became the basis for performances — with guitarist Jimmy Ripp — at film festivals and performing arts centers. Lloyd has released several solo albums and in the early Nineties recorded with John Doe (of X) and Matthew Sweet. In 1980 Ficca resurfaced with the Waitresses, a New York-Ohio band (led by ex-Tin Huey guitarist Chris Butler) who had a hit with "I Know What Boys Like" in 1981. Smith has played with a number of artists, including the Roches, Willie Nile, the Peregrines, and the Fleshtones, among others, as well as in Verlaine's touring and recording bands, and on Lloyd's solo work.
In 1992 Television reunited to record a self-titled album that, as usual, sold modestly but was well received by critics, who noted admiringly that the band's trademarks — brilliant guitar work, clever songwriting, and noirish lyrics — were all still in evidence. The reunited band did a world tour in 1993, which was followed by another extended hiatus that ended with a performance at the 2001 All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Camber Sands, England. Coaxed into playing a series of shows at the festival, the Verlaine/Lloyd/Smith/Ficca lineup stayed together semi-permanently over the next six years, sporadically touring in Europe and America and playing hometown gigs in New York City.
Lloyd left Television again in 2007 after an illness caused him to miss a show in New York's Central Park; he has continued to perform as a solo artist since. With Ripp on board as a replacement guitarist, Television has also soldiered on, playing a handful of live dates each year. Verlaine has been hinting for at least as long about the band having written several new songs, but as of early 2010, no tangible releases have been forthcoming. Verlaine signed to Thrill Jockey records as a solo artist in 2006, immediately releasing a pair of albums, Around and Songs and Other Things. In 2007, he and Ripp (recording as Jimmy Rip) released Music for Experimental Film, an album capturing the pair's live guitar-duet accompaniments to seven short silent films.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Troy Carpenter contributed to this article.
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