Review Summary: The sole masterpiece by the band remains one of the greatest albums of all time, and extremely influential to this day
I'm sitting awake at 1 am on a school night, listening to this album. I don't know why, but I feel compelled to write about it. So here goes.
By now this album's legacy is cemented in history: It was released in 1977 to lukewarm commercial reception but high critical praise, and still has quite the cult following to this day. Television formed in New York City (where else) in 1973 and an early lineup included founding member and guitar wizard Tom Verlaine alongside childhood friend (and influential punk musician in his own right) Richard Hell, who would soon leave due to disputes with the band and flourish in his own right. The band played a residency at legendary punk club CBGBs to a mixed crowd and often scattered reception; the usual punks didn't know how to respond to this level of playing mixed with erratic song structure.
So how the hell did this band ink a major label deal with Elektra? Good question. The punk scene was all the rage since the Ramones and Sex Pistols debuted to high praise and sales, so NYC punk bands were getting lots of attention from major label reps-only problem was, Television wasn't a typical punk band. Hell, half of the songs on here could be considered classic rock, and most of them had strong jazz influence, though, despite catchy hooks and warm melodies, all were too strung out and all-over-the-place rhythmically to make it in either the underground club scene or the mainstream. The music wasn't aggressive enough to slam dance too (Verlaine had a strong anti-distortion policy), and it didn't have a dance-y enough rhythm (at least, one that didn't change time signature often), so sales wise, the album went nowhere.
That wasn't to say it was without critical praise; media outlets like NME and Rolling Stone hailed it as an innovation and a masterwork right off the bat, and it has been the cause of many a top 10 list and reunion tour since its 38 years (!!) in existence.
Enough of the history, on to the album: the thing kicks off with "See No Evil", one of the more structured and upbeat songs on the record. Lasting just shy of 4 minutes and having a standard verse-chorus-verse structure with catchy call and response vocals in the chorus ("I see..."I see no....EVIL !!!"), the song is more pop oriented than the others, but retains that jangly guitar approach that has influenced everyone from Joey Santiago to The Edge. The real art form here is how Verlaine's trembling Bowie-does-punk vocal style is so eccentric and in your face, but it keeps this warm, relaxed quality due to the bare bones production approach, the interlocking guitar lines and the awesome bass lines. The guitar playing in this album remains one-of-a-kind; Verlaine's parts go with Richard Lloyd's like bread and butter; an awesome tangle of chromatic riffs and jagged chord structures that are more than the sum of its parts. Combine that with Fred Smith's awesome stop-start picked bass approach and Billy Ficca's jazz oriented drumming style, and the song really rockets forward.
Moving onto another classic (and one of my personal favorites) "Venus" thumps forward with an oddly timed guitar riff over a completely unrelated Fred Smith doing his own thing (This odd approach of having different melodies/rhythmic interlocking lines going on simultaneously is one that would be adopted by many bands, such as The Strokes, Bloc Party, and Interpol). Though the melody is extremely warm-oh, that tone!-Verlaine's vocals here sound like a man breaking down inside, due to how much his voice trembles and wanes in and out of a pitch like nothing. It just kills me (keep in mind heroin played a strong role in this album, and understandably so).
Another upbeat little ditty (and where things really get weird), "Friction" rockets ahead with a palm-muted bluesy riff before going right into a chromatic run that sounds just intoxicating with Mr. Verlaine's Fender. The fact that no distortion is used on this albums really assists it's ability to sound casual and menacing at the same time. The chord changes in the chorus make Verlaine sound downright paranoid, climaxing in the "F-R-I-C-T-I-O-N" of the last chorus. This should be downright cheesy, but in the case of this song, it pulses with energy and life."
Next up, the closer of side one, is album centerpiece, the 10 minute long title track. At this point Marquee Moon's riff is forever embedded in my brain and to write out my thoughts about it seem bizarre and impossible, but i'll do my best. This really lays out every element of Television's sound-and everything that makes them work as well as they do together-in these 10 minutes. The song starts out with a stop-start two chord guitar riff that sounds deadlier than any two chord guitar riff has a right to, and every element of the song starts to slowly lineup as the second riff (featuring a rare hammered on chord), then the bass line, then drums come on. It's awesome that as this song progresses, those parts come in and out of the foray and show you step-by-step how Television dissects their sound, but it doesn't make it any less awesome.
The little drum hits and fills Billy Ficca hits in this song are a noted highlight, as are the multiple high hat suspensions in the verse. The way he adds so much finesse to each measure of the song, yet doesn't overexert himself, is something of wonder. The big highlight of this masterpiece is the solo section, of course, forever immortalized by Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine's trading lines and interlocking melody, finally building up into this awesome one chord battle and reverting back to the original melody, then the chorus again, just to remind you how goddamn wonderful this song is.
A shift in the second side of the album is obvious, as every song here is noticeably darker and more subdued. "Elevation" is the first side B cut, featuring a less-is-more approach with the creeping high pitch riff, and Verlaine's paranoid vocals in the chorus-"elevation, won't go to my head"-centering around a jagged rhythm that sounds strung out on the hardest drug you could imagine. This follows up with Guiding Light, the only song co-written by Verlaine and Lloyd. The slowest song on the album, you could almost call it a ballad, with it's piano-driven rhythm and slow, brooding bass line. This song is definitely a showcase for Verlaine, as his vocals guide (no pun intended) the song along. The biting irony within Television is obvious throughout the album-what with the sarcastic lyrical and vocal approach, and the jagged guitar lines playing around with pop accessibility-none more present then Verlaine here, basically singing an Elton John song through the lens of a punk fan brought up on jazz fusion. His cryptic lyrical approach is so goddamn effective in the sense that the song affects you, but you don't quite know why. Definitely one of the more out-of-place songs on the album, and just as great.
Prove It grooves along off an alternate palm muted/open strummed riff that really showcases the warm reverb-y tone of the Fender guitars being played on this album. It's propelled by a 50s type rock & roll rhythm, something Buddy Holly could've written, but as usual Verlaine's vocal approach and guitar melodies are unmistakable, and the song is just another successful case of Television broadening their sound.
Closer "Torn Curtain" is possibly the weirdest and most interesting song on the album. Starting off with a timpani roll and an almost gypsy jazz/waltz-y mode based progression and guitar riff, the song broods along at such a slow pace that Verlaine's terrifying vocals just float above everything. The piano melody and progression in the chorus as Verlaine moans, "Tears, rolling back the years" always provoke an emotional reaction in me. The effect of the slow chords after the chorus, coupled with the squirmy guitar lines Lloyd brings is devastating. The bass line in the verse lines up impeccably and shows the band even knows how to keep a groove at ~70 bpm. This song is so masterfully crafted, so simple in its approach yet unique, its chord changes so unpredictable but moving, that I damn near cry everytime. The weird ass solo-if you can call it that-in the middle of the song is one of the most cryptic sounding things I've ever heard in a guitar, and remains one of the most mysterious lines ever, almost 40 years on.
The cover of this album featuring a shot of the band over plain block-like text has always struck me, yet not for a specific reason, just like this album. Everything is striking-the riffs, the chord changes, Verlaine's vocal approach-at first it's hard to tell why, on the next listen, you wonder why you doubted your instincts in the first place. The way the band brings such a masterful approach to their instruments and artistry across the whole album, yet keeps a youthful pace and irony about the whole thing, is the key to its appeal. It's crazy to think this is the band's only album that really mattered, and that they accomplished such a cohesive work on only their debut, yet they did, and here we are. I felt compelled to write a review on this since I was so shocked at there only being two already, and though it's difficult to put into words, I never get tired of telling people about this album. It's influence is felt still, it's staying power and legacy cemented into popular culture at this point. I'm tired as hell, and need to go to bed, but first, I put on "Torn Curtain", and Tom Verlaine-cynical, drug abusing madman that he is-takes me away as I drift asleep.