The Powers of Television: What to Expect When the Veteran Art-Punks Play S.F.
Thinking about Television's upcoming performance at the Independent this Tuesday (Nov. 5), the legendary New York rock quartet's very first Bay Area appearance comes to mind. It's documented on the 1978 album Live at the Old Waldorf, a recording of a night that at the time was just one more stop along Television's headlining tour promoting Adventure, the second and final album in its original incarnation. But Live at the Old Waldorf shows Television reconciling the physicality of punk with the intellectualism of the band's peers in New York, though not without the guidance of jazz. And there's no reason the group can't do the same in 2013.
Television's debut, Marquee Moon, appeared in 1977, but the band's formation dates back to 1973, when Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca, and Richard Hell (replaced by Fred Smith thereafter) swapped the moniker Neon Boys for Television and recruited second guitarist Richard Lloyd (who cordially left in 2007). In an age of hyped digital singles and trending music videos from upstart young groups, four years between formation and full-length debut seems very long. But that lengthy gestation period led to the vigor and chops on display on Live at the Old Waldorf. Poppy flowers unfold prematurely and look rumpled, but roses wait to bloom in sheer brilliance.
There's a clich├ęd characterization of Television as an art band, a hyper-literate foil to purely primal acts like The Germs or The Damned. The sentiment is illustrated by the opening lines of a condescending live review in the inaugural 1977 issue of Los Angeles punk fanzine Slash: "Here they were, the darlings of the critics, the avant-garde rockers from New York..." But Live at the Old Waldorf opens with a rebuttal. "The Dream's Dream" is a display of power. Slow and deliberate, the menacing instrumental intro is tough and assured. Guitar leads spiral up toward heaven and crash down, with a meteor shower of erratic drum fills in their wake. The follow-up, "Venus," is relatively syncopated and light, deferring to Verlaine's long joke about falling into the embrace of Venus de Milo, an armless statue thought to depict the goddess of love.
This opening duo of songs highlight Television's successful reconciliation of the punk era's insistence on urgent, physical performance with its own intellectual ambitions. There's both the pretense of a singer who copped the name of a 19th century French poet and the staggeringly expressive soloing of deft musicians who collaborated exhaustively for five years. Regarding the album's sneering cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," Alan Licht observes in the liner notes, "Compare this version to Devo's and see who's really arty." Or compare it to the Residents' version, for that matter.
Drummer Billy Ficca's jazz flare is glaring all throughout Live at the Old Waldorf, but the influence of jazz upon Verlaine and Lloyd is more subtle. Extended solos in a rock context aren't enough to justify jazz comparisons, but it's telling that Television soloed within musical modes, rather than traditional chord progressions, a characteristic of late-'50s jazz albums like Miles Davis' Milestones. Television drew upon an era of jazz in which soloists improvised modally around themes, either of their own composition or another's (like "Satisfaction"). Such loosely defined parameters of play enabled these jazz combos to deliver radically dissimilar versions of the same piece seemingly indefinitely. In performances in other cities along Television's 1978 tour, song lengths varied extremely from those on Live at the Old Waldorf, suggesting that the music's structure was subject to the whims of the band on each particular night.
But what does the intuitive feel, improvisation, and singular balance of intellect and power displayed in San Francisco 35 years ago have to do with Television's upcoming Independent gig? Indeed, we shouldn't expect a show like Live at the Old Waldorf on Tuesday, nor versions of songs quite like those on Marquee Moon or Adventure, but that's the point. Television songs aren't intended to be played the same way twice. Television songs are skeletons awaiting breaths of life from their performers' interpretation. The band's studio discography is slim, but Television's potential to generate unique versions of its inimitable songs is unlimited.