Saturday, January 28, 2023

RIP Tom Verlaine

Oddly, I don't think I've ever written anything substantial about the genius of Tom Verlaine. Well, there's the bit at the start of  a chapter in Rip It Up and Start Again where Television are briefly discussed as the building blocks for Echo & the Bunnymen and U2 (the "Glory Boys" chapter - the title itself an homage to Television). Mostly though he's been celebrated indirectly, as the foundation for later guitarists like Martin Bramah, The Edge, and Will Sergeant or groups like The Go-Betweens, R.E.M, The Only Ones. Either that or Television has come up as a reference point through affinity of spiritual purpose (as with Meat Puppets and The Blue Orchids).  

What can you say about Television, exactly? The lyrics are purest dream -  interpretation is beside the point, at once superfluous and sullying.  The music is the main thing, but that too defies description or characterisation. Television's kinetic abstraction works through elemental dynamics of tension-build and climax. It's not about anything except its own structure-in-motion, the tone and timbre of the immaterial material out of which it constructs itself before your ears. Something for the technical guitar magazines, in a way, and yet that kind of terminology gets no closer to the magic than mind's eye guff  does. 

Proof the pudding, from the horse's mouth, a September 1992 bit from Melody Maker's Control Zone:

But having said that about never having written about Tom Verlaine and Television head-on ... suddenly I remembered the piece below, which was published March 13th 1987, back when I used to do the monthly pop column for New Statesman. TV's not the sole subject of the column but his new album Flash Light and his influence and legacy is the focus and the lead item, as it were. This is a classic instance of that syndrome where a critic-fan uses the latest release (often a so-so solo album) from a beloved artist as a way of gushing about the earlier work on which the love is based (in this case Marquee Moon and "The Dream's Dream", although I don't mention neither by name in the column, strangely). To be honest, I don't remember anything about Flash Light, nor indeed much about TV's other solo albums either, or for that matter, the Television comeback album. But Marquee Moon and that one redeeming tune on the otherwise lacklustre Adventure are permanently engraved.  



Coming in spurts, you say? Well, the climb to orgasm is the basic structuring principle - sublimated and sublimed - in much Television, above all "Marquee Moon" (something it has in common with "Freebird").

A real odd one in his solo discography

People swear by this solo excursion Warm and Cool

It was allusions by Barney Hoskyns - in a February '82 celebration of Echo & the Bunnymen winning the NME's readers poll - that impressed upon me the urgent necessity of hearing Television: 

A serious note, as serious as the first bar of 'Show Of Strength', has been struck. Hipness, unlike music, is not eternal, and for Echo And The Bunnymen the tail of its comet has faded in the pale afterlight of day. What the hell, I'm no romantic rockist, but I seriously think Heaven Up Here is one of the most superior articulations of "rock" form in living memory….

Rock group Echo And The Bunnymen are as hopelessly, as gloriously unfashionable, as the cover of their second album, and even that – for all the Neville Brody's and John Saville's in the world – topped the poll. But can they stay afloat in the synthetic sea of Pop? And can we really say that Echo And The Bunnymen on the one hand are orthodox while the Human Society's million-selling 'Won't You Save Me' on the other side is somehow seen as modern and experimental?...

Mac: "A lot of it just doesn't sound very good. I think the use of basic drums and guitars can be a lot more inventive than all the so-called experimental stuff."

Pete: "It's also that the stuff that's supposed to be experimental has just been blanding out more than anything else. It's not experimenting at all, it's just using synthesizers to play pretty ordinary songs a lot of the time."

Les: "A lot of these kids just don't have talent. Any farmyard horse can kick a synth."

…. There's no doubt, however, that in the midst of all the synths and saxes and sex appeal, "rock" has been getting pretty short shrift. Who remembers Television, its first post-rock rockists? Echo and The Bunnymen do; in fact, they're thinking of re-releasing 'Marquee Moon', a record which changed our whole conception of "rock" sound, "rock" guitar, and "rock" rhythm section, on Zoo.

Other writings (and listenings) about Television and Tom Verlaine

Richard Williams on how he and Eno recorded the famous if failed demo sessions with Television 

Tom Verlaine playing records and chatting as guest DJ on Gaylord Field's WFMU show

Nick  Kent's original review of Marquee Moon -which was the cover story of that week's New Musical Express (just the record review - no interview! - but then the review was just shy of 1600 words long!!!)

Dean Wareham has some sharp thoughts about Television (good musician's stuff on guitars and techniques plus some nice memories of working with Tom Verlaine several times over the years (including the lengths he would go for love of curry)

Well that's one way of doing it - coming up with a kind of poem that parallels the poem that is the music. Patti Smith with an ultra-vivid lyrical remembrance in The New Yorker (but as Wareham notes wryly, the descriptions of the sound tell you more about PS than they do TV)

Useful piece about Verlaine's technique, written by guitarist Chris Forsyth for The Guardian - a boost for my thought that possibly technical guitar mags have more revealing things to say than rock writers who don't know one end of the instrument from the other.  

An interview with Richard Lloyd that gets into the nitty gritty of making Marquee Moon. Revealing but not necessarily illuminating. 

I have to say, having done a quick survey of the landscape of Television criticism - from the official obituaries in the papers to classic pieces by leaders in the field and frontline at-the-time commentators - I don't think anyone really gets near the magic and the mystery.  I found a lot of it rather predictably evasive - not consciously so but veering off nonetheless to talk about the lyrics (in actual fact, usually just quoting favorite lyrics) or inter-band dynamics, the conflict with Richard Hell, how Television fit and didn't fit into the CBGB punk scene, Verlaine's personality / artistic-literary interests and influences, the legacy etc. The magic and mystery gets written around more than written about. Which is something that goes on with a lot of music  - maybe most music -  but seems a particularly glaring absence with a group that is so purely musical - that says what it has to say through the music ( "say" itself is inadequate, not the right word -  when communication is so ecstatically non-verbal, can it really be described as communication? It's more like an electric communion, a pure zapping transfer of energy... like being electrocuted. "Lightning struck itself" is the perfect meta-lyric in fact).

My favorite out of the pieces I've read remains the Nick Kent paean - not necessarily because it gets much closer to the quick of it  - but because it's so immediate - there's a feeling of moment in the cadences  - you imagine the writer trembling with the sense of occasion,  the privilege of being the one who gets to  mount the podium and introduce the world to this transformational record... it's a tour de force of magisterially controlled excitement - in that sense, a prose mirror-image of its subject.


Talking about tributes, I'm surprised this hasn't come up in anything I've seen written. Then again in terms of what it sounds like, the tune would be better titled "Kevin Shields". Or perhaps "Harriett Wheeler". 

Whereas this track say is both a genuine sonic tribute-ary of the great man, and a brilliant example of how an exceptional artist becomes a style that subsequent others can actually write within, expressing themselves perfectly well through the ancestor's language.  The sui generis >>> genre transition. 

Here's another fantastic example of a debt transfigured, a sound made your own 


Apparently the Alvvays track was in response to Tom Verlaine doing a track called "Always".

And it's not the only song out there titled "Tom Verlaine".

There's a couple more - by Carbon Footprints and by The Family Cat 


Stylo said...

Is there a bigger example of a band particularly associated with a scene with which they stylistically had very little in common? The Stone Roses and baggy?


You got the Stones Roses on the brain!

I'm not sure what baggy really means, musically - it's that shuffly beat if anything. (Which the Roses used a few times). What would define it? Who is worth remembering? Apart from the Mondays and the Roses - who are chalk and cheese - there's not much.

It's a look and an attitude, I suppose, as well. A moment in time, a feeling. To give it its due.

Yeah Television had extremely long lyrical guitar solos (and indeed two guitarists in the band capable of soloing and who took turns to solo as in Marquee Moon). The guitar tone was clear and bright. Verlaine was influenced by Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape, Byrds, probably the Dead as well etc. The lyrics are hallucinatory and surreal. Overall, it's hard to think of anything more antithetical to punk. They seem like a band that Zigzag circa 1971 could have got behind.

Ed said...

A huge loss. Your line about “structure in motion” is a great point: the pure pleasure of the instruments and voices interacting is what makes Television’s music so alluring. It’s like jazz in that way, and IIRC Billy Ficca, who is a key part of the group’s sound, had been a jazz player. If you see him in live performances, he’s using “traditional grip” with his left hand, like Buddy Rich or Art Blakey.

My version of your Bunnymen -> Television journey went the other way; I was a huge Television fan, having discovered them through Patti Smith, and was then very excited to discover that bands who normal people had heard of, who got on TV and into the music papers, liked the same music that I liked.

To your point about Robert Forster being a great writer about music, this is a lovely piece from the Guardian a few weeks ago about the timeless beauty of Venus, “the most perfect song of all time”:

Ed said...

And if you look at the pictures of long-haired Verlaine and Hell in 1973, they were a bit glam styled, too! The Neon Boys is a fantastic glam band name. Funny when you think how absolutely antithetical to all things glam they became.

Ed said...

“I’d hate to hear [U2] using strings and horns” Haha they did of course use horns on their next album, and they did indeed suck.

A bit unfair about the strings, though. The glorious The Unforgettable Fire has a great string arrangement, and is probably my favorite U2 song.

The same for the Bunnymen, really. They used L. Shankar’s violin and some (synthesized) brass in The Cutter, and hit a career peak. And while the strings-driven Ocean Rain might be a bit too “own-label Forever Changes” to be truly transporting, it is very lovely at times.

Stylo said...

No, I think you'll find I've got the Happy Mondays on the brain. Yet again some critic credits the Roses for what the Mondays did, including lodging in my skull.

On a broad picture, you could really just say that baggy was just what British indie had evolved to ca. 1989, and in turn it would evolve into Britpop (Blur and Oasis never hid their debts to the Mondays and Roses). Much has been made of the acid house influence, but that has always struck me as weak tea: yes on the Mondays' Bummed, but not on the Roses at all. And it's worth remembering that many acts on your BritShit posting had definite shades of baggy. Maybe it was just a handful of good bands amid a division of chancers.

By the by, I once bought an Inspiral Carpets best of compilation. It was three discs long! (Admittedly, one was a DVD, but still...).

As for incongruous acts, Patti Smith seems equally misplaced as a punk artist. And to me, labelling the Stranglers as punk, while not tenuous, still may involve pretending that they didn't always sound like a pub rock band. A punk band recording Golden Brown would be unusual; a pub rock band recording Golden Brown makes far more sense.

Phil Knight said...

Back in the day I identified Free as the originators of this kind of plangent-but-dynamic sound:

After I wrote that I found out that Wire were such dedicated fans of Free that it was an obligatory condition of membership of the band. The only thing that separates Free from a lot of post-punk is their troglodyte lyrics (which I nonetheless of course enjoy).

Anyway, RIP Tom.


I think it was actually Gang of Four who were the total Free fanatics. It was one band they all loved - them and Dr Feelgood.

Funnily enough Wire did have one pre-punk group they all liked - the Groundhogs.


Inspiral Carpets - I forgot they existed. Very odd stilted sound they had. A tiny bit Stranglers-ish in moments, or perhaps rooted in some of the same things the same kind of things, Seeds / Strawberry Alarm Clock / Mysterions keyboard-driven psych. 3 discs does seem to be pushing it but I cannot claim to be familiar with the urrrv.

Happy Mondays, Stone Roses.... maybe one or two tunes by The Charlatans... Inspiral Carpets Then what's left of that moment? Northside, Paris Angels, erm, The High, ah, um, Mock Turtles... it's getting pretty dreggy. Does Candy Flip count? It is the bridge from Primal Scream phase 1 indie to Britpop. A step towards rock'n'roll-ness i.e. people start making records directly influenced by drugs rather than records influenced by psychedelic records. But the real innovation of baggy, the next dialectical step, is the introduction of swagger, narcissism, adore-me / "I see no reason why this group shouldn't be as a big as the Beatles". Whereas mid-80s indie was diffident and self-effacing and very much like, ignore us, we've withdrawn into our little corner of the culture.


Patti Smith was totally based around the Sixties, waved that freak flag high. Signposted it with the covers of Them, the Who, Hendrix. A song about Jim Morrison.

Stylo said...

On reflection, Inspiral Carpets were a perfectly fine singles band of the era, which was ultimately what they aspired to be: a contemporary garage rock band. Not essential by any means, but in no way regrettable (except for the name, especially when compared to the poetry of the nominer "Happy Mondays").

I don't disagree with that summation of baggy. Yes, you can find worthwhile nuggets if you look, but its legacy may well just be the legacy of two particularly significant bands, one of which was very good, and the other was one of the greatest, most inventive groups the UK ever produced (let's see if you can work out which one I mean by that).

Returning to Television, what is the contention regarding Adventure? I remember the Mojo review of the reissues of Marquee Moon and Adventure, which gave the former 5 stars and the latter only two. Having relistened to it today, it definitely suffers from not being Marquee Moon, but the midsection hangs together well, and it's not a humiliating follow-up. But do people see it as an overshadowed corker?

Stylo said...

Oh, as for indie narcissism, surely Morrissey was a personification of a very specific variant of narcissism? Narcissism is not necessarily self-love, but self-absorption.

Ed said...

Yes. And you can hear both Free and Dr Feelgood in Go4.

Although I see someone has just posted on Andy Gill’s Instagram account, saying that he and Jon King took a trip to New York in 1976 and saw Television at CBGBs, and that was what inspired them to start a band.

Ed said...

True. She very explicitly placed herself in that tradition. I know Elegie is about Hendrix. Which is the Morrison song?

Ed said...

Sorry never mind: I Googled it. It’s Break It Up. Didn’t know that

Matt M said...

I saw Television a decade ago on their inaugural tour of Australia. They were surprisingly unshit. In part because their schtick was never that rock. The standing section of the venue was full of chairs that must have come from a local community centre. I must has seen Kraftwerk the same year. Both musicians who were never that corporeal so aging bodies don't matter as much.

Check out the "In Popular Culture" section here:

Tyler said...

It's interesting - I just got through pontificating on how David Crosby's lack of affinity with rock 'n' roll ended up playing into his aesthetic, and you could say the same thing about Verlaine, fellow jazz snob converted by the textures of mid-60s rock (in the latter's case, the Stones' 19th Nervous Breakdown, the Ventures, and Mike Bloomfield). I don't know if the 'bleaching' was a conscious decision so much as an inevitable byproduct of his voice, though (he said he would've preferred Ray Charles covering Kingdom Come to Bowie, and Richard Lloyd had been mentored - with varying levels of involvement - by Hendrix and John Lee Hooker)

The 'un-punkness' of the initial CBGB's wave is only odd in hindsight because the Ramones were arguably the outlier - the quote-unquote 'gag' kid brother band that, for better and for worse, was immediately adopted as the template for everybody outside it. Sure, everybody there loved the velvets and the Dolls, but beyond that the influences ran very wide, from garage fundamentalism to Albert Ayler-isms to post-Hendrix maximum R&B to Californian filigree. Both Verlaine and Lloyd tended to evade or dismiss that last part in interviews, probably due to Bangs et al immediately dismissing them with it, but certainly there are too many innumerable similarities to be pure coincidence (even lyrically - Verlaine's impenetrably cryptic, crime-fiction-inflected wordplay connects him to his NYC poet contemporaries like Smith and Jim Carroll, but also to Robert Hunter's elliptical shaggy dog stories about hard-luck, none too bright outlaws and petty criminals)

His friend and peer Lenny Kaye, who has always been open about the effect that Garcia, Cipollina etc had on him, had a long-delayed retort about this in his recent book, when he mentions arriving too late at the Pistols show to see Lydon mock 'the hippies at the Roundhouse...horses, horses, horseshit!' - he writes (paraphrasing) 'guilty as charged - I may be a hippie, and proudly so, but that doesn't mean that I can't also be a punk. We're all miscegenated.'

Unknown said...

I know it's de rigueur to signpost how un-punk Television (and Patti Smith) were, particularly by noting their classic '60s influences, their reliance on solos, etc. but I think, at least in the case of Television, they were closer to a kind of punk aesthetic than anything to do with the '60s. The most important aspect in this regard was the total disavowal of blues cliches in the solos. That alone made them sound different whether you knew why. And add to that their sartorial choices and Verlaine's atonal and tortured vocals (which wouldn't necessarily be jarring to a punk audience), I can see why they might be a better fit opening for the Ramones than, oh I don't know, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Tyler said...

Unknown - I agree, but that opens up a whole other can of worms about what would be regarded as a 'punk aesthetic'. Lloyd later described their equipment choices of Fender guitars and amps with no effects as intentionally 'anti-Marshall and anti-hippie longhair', but that elides that plenty of punks were not about to forsake Marshall stacks, and that their usage versus Fender combos depended on the hippie longhairs in question - San Francisco psych and UK folk rock basically ran on Twin Reverbs, after all

Stylo said...

A piece by Alex Kapranos, calling Marquee Moon overrated, and touching on the issue of whether Television were actually punk.

"People expect us to love Television the way they think we love Gang of Four and were influenced by them - but we don't and we weren't! Marquee Moon is one of those records that I thought I loved, but it was only after a few years I realised I didn't love the album, just the first 10 bars of the title track, which are pretty astonishing. Those guitars that play off each other and the way the instruments go into wonderful places and the guitars are totally insane and that big cascade of drums - it's incredible. Then your attention wanders. You know when a boring guy is explaining to you the technical spec of a car, the fuel injection system and the leather seats, and his voice becomes so much background noise? Once I took the needle off this record, I realised I hadn't heard it at all. But what annoys me is the way people pontificate over the album; it's one of those staples of student halls of residence. People wax lyrical about it, but the reason it's so popular is because it's a prog rock album its okay to like. Because the words "punk" and "New York" and "1977" are associated with it, it's deemed cool. Really, though, they're a band who give guys who like 20-minute guitar solos an excuse. They were the Grateful Dead of punk, and I always hated all that jam-band stuff. They have the ethos of a jam-band but the aesthetic of a New York outfit. If anything, the Strokes took the look of Television, the aesthetic - and the Converse sneakers - and ignored the jam-band aspect. They took those first 10 bars of Marquee Moon and did something great with it! Tom Verlaine's lyrics didn't have much impact on me. I'm always uneasy when singers in bands profess to be poets - they can veer into pomposity and pretentiousness. But I've got to be careful: I once said something about Jim Morrison and the Doors, about their pseudo-poetry, and immediately all these articles on the internet appeared saying, "Kapranos slams Morrison!" I'm not slamming Television - I respect them. But Marquee Moon is an album I admire more than enjoy."


He's right about what the Strokes did (a stunting of Television yes... also turning something spurtingly Dionysian into something completely Apollonian, all about symmetry and precision). But apart from that, what horseshit! Well, everyone's entitled to their taste, sure, but how anyone with any feeling for music could find their attention wandering during the solo in "Marquee Moon".... It's the opposite of indulgent, every note makes a point, and the listener is rapt as the "story" unfolds.

(Besides, the rest of the album is tight and economical - the songs are all about four-five minutes tops,... the first side especially is tough, cogent, urgent... )

Also puzzled by this thing of people pontificating over Marquee Moon, halls of residence etc. Perhaps my student days (early to mid 80s) coincided with its temporary lull as a reference point, and it became tediously canonical later. But I don't remember ever being in a room where the record, or the group were discussed. In fact I'm not sure I've ever had a conversation about Marquee Moon or Verlaine - until now.

Stylo said...

For my uni experience (early to mid 2000s), Marquee Moon was by then very much an established music snob's album, with one mate admitting that he'd only bought his copy in order to impress girls. Guess it ties in with the popularity of the Strokes at the time (though in honesty I struggle to see the exact connection musically, and I'm not buying that employment of the Apollonian/Dionysian distinction; I think you could get much mileage arguing that the Strokes just considered Television a cool name to drop).

Matt M said...

Sitting somewhere between Simon & Stylo in UK uni halls (early 90s), Marquee Moon was not played very much at all. In terms of historical music, there was a lot of 60s/70s rock, funk and soul. There was punk/post-punk but it was all UK stuff (Pistols, Clash, maybe Wire). Marquee Moon was the wrong mix of country and genre. And its guitar sound couldn't be less grunge.

I don't think you get to accuse other people of "pomposity and pretentiousness" if you call your band Franz Ferdinand but what do I know.

Steve said...

Early 90s Halls of Residence? Rave - lots of it, the Orb, Primal Scream, 808 State, St Et, Pulp, MBV, Spiritualized... Nirvana, I guess... older stuff? Maybe some Pink Floyd or Nick Drake, some reggae but really rave was like year zero. Oh, Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead...Tindersticks...

Steve said...

On the baggy debate, there was this Jon Savage comp recently that deemed it "second wave psychedelia":

Which bundles together baggy and acid house, which was kinda how we were listening (back in my halls of residence). But the crossover of the sounds (although not the fans' tastes) was almost limited to Primal Scream and St Et.

Although that Boo Radleys song Lazarus kinda did that. And there was Soon, of course. Oh, the Beloved had their moment. The Soup Dragons were crap but also kinda great when you were 16. Trust me. The Shamen were pre-baggy really but really quite good for a short time. And highly influential on that lot probably.

If you forget the term 'baggy' and replace it with 'indie dance', it definitely was a thing but more for dance remixes of indie tracks rather than a genuine musical crossover. Oh, Chapterhouse Pearl! And then, the sublime Global Communication remix album, which kinda proves my point.

On Inspiral Carpets: that track they did with Mark E Smith was ace.


The Shamen managed to go from indie-psych to psych-techno fusing without any intervening period of being baggy.

They certainly had a huge influence on my life, through those event they put on (Progeny I think it was called when I went, something else before that) where it was them playing but mostly DJs playing techno and a group like Orbital doing the 'live techno' thing. The one they did at Brixton Academy with Orbital was my rave conversion experience.

Also did some good tunes along the way, once they shed that didactic politicking In Gorbachev We Trust approach. Although there remained a bit too much of that sermonising uplifting aspect still, the positivity / motivational lyrics, 'move any mountain' etc.

Stylo said...

Why on earth did Jon Savage include the Pet Shop Boys on his baggy and acid house compilation? I can't read the liner notes, so I can't see his reasoning, but I am struggling to suss out his logic. At the very least, surely the Pet Shop Boys were too overtly intellectual for a movement as hedonistically unthinking as acid house, let alone baggy? As I recall, their E anthem was called I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing, and that came out in the relatively late 1993. I'm not a Pet Shop Boys fan, so maybe someone else can show me Jon Savage's workings.
Also, I Want You, that Inspiral Carpets/MES duet is corking. I believe it was MES' only top 20 hit. Surprising he got even that. Although thinking more, the Fall albums Extricate, Shift-Work and Code: Selfish all show clear baggy and acid house influences (just listen to the heavy bass and wacka-wacka guitar on the Coldcut-produced Telephone Thing). Is that a unique example of the Fall following a trend? Or was MES more prone to fashion than he let on?