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Television Time: No Boob Tube

After reading a recent series of posts on a KC music fan listserv about a concert at the Uptown Theatre April 1, 1977 that featured Television opening for Peter Gabriel, who was touring in support of his first solo album, I remembered this article, which was never published and now includes original photography from Darrell Lea, who must have been sitting over a few seats from me taking pictures that night (thanks, Darrell). And btw, it wasn’t a crime to do that back then — we took photos of many bands back in those days and nobody said a word. It was a different time.

April 1, 1977

Television at the Uptown (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Television at the Uptown (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Tom Verlaine is sitting across from me in a booth in a Holiday Inn coffee shop in downtown Kansas City on an especially overcast April Fool’s Day. Verlaine is the leader and songwriter for the band Television, which last month released its first album, Marquee Moon, on Elektra Records to critical acclaim. The band is in town today as the opening act for Peter Gabriel’s show at the Uptown Theatre.

Verlaine is 27 years old and has been playing since 1966, when he bought his first electric guitar, a used Gibson model. He is wearing the same shirt he is pictured in in stories I have read about him in New Musical Express and Village Voice and on the cover of Marquee Moon.

He grew up in Delaware with drummer Billy Ficca, and moved to New York in 1967 with vague hopes of putting a band together. He played mostly with friends until 1973, when he formed Television. The only change in band members since then is the bassist, which was originally Richard Hell, now of the Voidoids, who “didn’t practice enough,” Verlaine said, and was replaced by Fred Smith.

Verlaine is intense and quite proud of the album. I told him how much I liked it right from the first listen, and he could barely conceal his pleasure. “You thought it was pretty good?”

“I thought it was fucking great,” I said. “I don’t take it off my stereo for very long.”

Another concealed smile. I know it feels good to hear that.

I ask about the sound of those two guitars, so crisp and clear and strong, a Fender Telecaster coming out of each speaker like dueling cobras out of a charmer’s basket. He said that live it doesn’t sound that way except in a small club, because the air inside larger rooms muffles the crispness and sharpness that you hear on Marquee Moon. He said he has a new Plexiglas guitar to try and recreate that studio sound onstage.

Some songs have been with them since inception, the most prominent being “Venus de Milo.” That they have been together almost three years accounts for the tightness of the album’s sound. There was little overdubbing on Marquee Moon, he said, just some organ and piano that Verlaine, who produced with Andy Johns, added later. “We changed some of the parts as we went along.”

Tom Verlaine looking rather unhappy with the mix -- or something. (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Tom Verlaine looking rather unhappy with the mix -- or something. (Photo by Darrell Lea)

I asked if it worried him that bands that get high acclaim often crash and burn (thinking N.Y. Dolls), he replied that hype was just that, and that he was misquoted most of the time anyway. It could hurt or help them, he said, but that at this point he was just glad that he got his shot.

I suggested some influences that I heard on Marquee Moon. He said that, yes, he did like the first few Kinks LPs, and added that he really liked the Byrds, beating me to the punch, since a lot of the textures of his guitar style can be traced to McGuinn. But he said that he listened to a lot of tenor saxophone players, especially John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I mention that I hear some Tony Joe White on “Friction,” and said he hadn’t heard of him. I mention “Polk Salad Annie,” and he said he remembered that tune and that White played “some mean guitar.”

Was the music a reaction to the popular sounds of late, made with banks of synthesizers, mellotrons, keyboards and string sections? He said he wasn’t a synthesizer fan, but that the sound only reflected what he wanted to hear. Elektra gave him the freedom to work with a producer of his choice. Other companies, though offering more financially attractive packages, “wanted to stick us with a certain producer or put us in a certain category,” Verlaine said. “Elektra said they liked the group and would let us do the record the way we wanted.”

Peter Gabriel looks, well, young. (photo by Darrell Lea)

Peter Gabriel looks, well, young, doesn't he? (photo by Darrell Lea)

It’s pretty obvious later that night at the Uptown that everybody else is here to see the headliner. And Peter Gabriel does not disappoint. I was expecting the elaborate costuming and staging of his Genesis days, but he was in a sweat suit, explaining onstage that he had just seen Bruce Springsteen perform and that it made him want to work harder on his performances. The band makes the songs on Gabriel’s first solo album come alive onstage. The line-up is impressive: drummer Allen Schwartzberg (who I identified as Jim Gordon), legendary guitarists Robert Fripp (almost hidden stage right), Steve Hunter (that’s him on acoustic guitar on “Solsbury Hill”) and Dick Wagner, with Tony Levin on bass and tuba (!).

For Television, however, the sound is frightful and the band a knot of onstage contradictions. Verlaine seems impatient, like he’s on the verge of hitting someone with his guitar. When he cries in “Friction” that “you complain of my DICK–SHUN,” he accentuates it with little short bursts of guitar that emphasize the lyric.

Otherwise, he mostly stares down at the stage, venturing a look up every once in a while in the direction of Richard Lloyd, who along with Fred Smith, in dress and appearance, reminds me of what the early Zombies or Manfred Mann looked like in their Mod coats and suits. Lloyd stands motionless in front of his amplifier except to shake his head every once in awhile, like he’s just trying to stay awake. Then the lead swings over to him, and his body reels and staggers across the stage like a drunken marionette ash he picks out the notes as if in trance.

The set is chaotic and frantic, from the stammering chords of “See No Evil,” a song which seem to be on the verge of falling completely apart until they finally bring it to a finish four minutes later. But it’s also very exciting in its chaos. I am reminded of something that Verlaine said in the coffee shop, grinning widely, about how he can’t play a lead the same way twice. “My fingers just won’t let me do it.”


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