The Angular Guitar Sounds of Television

Television, Tom Verlaine (1977). Photo by: Gus Stewart / Redferns, Getty Images.

As alternative rock and post-punk innovators, Television is one of the most lauded rock bands ever. Their opus, Marquee Moon, retains a withdrawn cool that sets them apart from their peers like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Yet no matter how canonized and widely influential they have become, Television will always feel like a band for the heads. If I’m getting to know someone early on and they express admiration for the act, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t garner them some immediate cool points in my book.

Television formed in the ‘70s, as a partnership between guitarist Tom Verlaine (born Thomas Miller) and bassist Richard Hell (born Richard Meyers). The musicians bonded as teenage troublemakers at boarding school in Delaware, then later moved to New York City as young adults to try and make it as poets. (Fittingly, Verlaine’s adopted last name is an homage to the French poet Paul Verlaine.) They played in a short-lived group called the Neon Boys together, which broke up in the wake of recording a lone 7-inch.

Not long after that band hung up its hat, the duo reconvened with a new guitarist named Richard Lloyd. The trio called this fresh band Television because of their distaste for the medium—they hoped their music could provide listeners with an alternative. They cut their teeth for almost a year before finally playing their first show, but hit the ground running pretty quickly after initially taking the stage. Within just a few months of unveiling their work, Television was gigging heavily in the booming CBGBs circuit and had played at additional hot spots, including the vaunted venue Max’s Kansas City.

The title track of Television's 1977 magnum opus Marquee Moon.

While Television easily found their footing as a live act, a long road led up to the release of their work in the studio. Verlaine and Hell initially split the difference as songwriters, but tensions rose when other band members wanted to contribute more behind the scenes. Hell—a boisterous punk personality—refused to hone his craft, and consistently brought an inappropriate level of energy to Television concerts. Eventually, he parted ways with the band and would go on to have a prolific career as a founding member of the Heartbreakers and, later, as the front person of The Voidoids.

Hell was replaced by downtown scenester Fred Smith, who had previously played with Blondie for a spell. Television’s new lineup tried recording some ill-fated demos with Brian Eno in ‘74, before finally putting out their first 7-inch, “Little Johnny Jewel,” in ‘75. At this point, they were one of the buzziest bands in the New York City underground, and signed with Elektra before hitting the studio with Rolling Stones engineer Andy Johns to bring a proper album to life.

The end result of those sessions was Marquee Moon, which came out in early ‘77. It was met with solid praise, and seemed to carve a lane of its own. The album is defined by cryptic lyricism that is often tethered to seedy allusions. If Television peer Lou Reed’s penchant for writing about drugs and crime was his life and his wife, in Verlaine’s hands grit was more like an elusive lover. “I knew it musta been some big set-up/All the action just would not let up/It's just a little bit back from the main road/Where the silence spreads and the men dig holes,” he sings in the first verse of the rollicking track “Friction.”

Marquee Moon was also driven by wiry, masterful guitar work. Intricate riffs interlock and divert over spirited, rudimentary grooves. “The band never breaks for a squall of energy, yet the whole record crackles with it, and they never rely on atmosphere to make their case,” Chris Dahlen wrote in a 2003 review of one of the album’s reissues for Pitchfork. That publication would later rank the record as the third best album of the '70s.

It’s easy to trace the impact of Marquee Moon on 20th century indie rock, and also on a recent generation of scuzzy experimentalists like black midi and Squid. Marquee Moon was followed by the comparably refined ‘78 album Adventure, which was a commercial flop, eclipsed by its predecessor. However, it has held up as an underrated classic—a snapshot of a virtuosic band sharpening a singular sound. A few months after their second album hit shelves, torn apart by disparate egos and Lloyd’s substance abuse, Television called it quits.

Television performs "Foxhole" during a 1978 appearance on BBC's The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Like Hell, most members of Television went on to successful solo careers before they reunited in ‘92. After that extended hiatus, the band put out a self-titled album and would occasionally tour. But they never fully recaptured the magic of their ‘70s heyday. Nonetheless, Television cemented themself as a relic of a graffitied, bohemian moment in the New York City art world. Without the band as a forebear, acts like Pavement and My Bloody Valentine would have probably sounded a whole lot different.

Verlaine was consistently the soul of Television, his songwriting eclectic and his musical chops truly intimidating. On top of his work with the band, he put out a number of solo albums that sometimes flaunt the over-the-top trappings of ‘80s production techniques, but still contain some solid songwriting. He was also a member of the supergroup Million Dollar Bashers, alongside members of Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Bob Dylan’s backing band. He would additionally collaborate with artists like David Bowie and Violent Femmes, and score films from Man Ray and Fernand Léger. Tragically, this January, he passed away at the age of 73 after battling a brief, unspecified illness. While he is sorely missed, he remains one of the most influential independent rock musicians of all time.

“I went to see Television whenever they played, mostly to see Tom, with his pale-blue eyes and swanlike neck," his love interest-turned-occasional bandmate Patti Smith wrote in an obituary published in The New Yorker. "He bowed his head, gripping his Jazzmaster, releasing billowing clouds, strange alleyways populated with tiny men, a murder of crows, and the cries of bluebirds rushing through a replica of space.” With this in mind, and in celebration of Verlaine’s legacy as a six-string legend, here are some of Television's quintessential guitar gear moments.

Television perform live at CBGB's in Manhattan in 1976.

Fender Jazzmaster

Verlaine’s primary instrument was a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster, which makes its presence powerfully felt on the title track of Television’s debut album. “If you have a pedal board that looks like the console of the Millennium Falcon or insist on implementing copious after-effects to your recordings, Marquee Moon is a great example of how you can get bold sound with just a guitar and amp,” writer Mike Duffy once wrote in a blog post for the iconic guitar maker’s website. He’s right: The 10-minute track thrives because of how pure its tones are. Verlaine’s angular soloing darts in and out of his collaborators’ taut jamming. It’s a testament to how punchy the Jazzmaster can sound when cranked through the natural distortion of a tube amp. (Verlaine was also notably fond of the Fender Jaguar, which feels like a sibling instrument to the Jazzmaster.)

Danelectro 59 DC

These days, Danelectro is best known for its affordable pedals and nostalgic reissues that call to mind the golden age of surf rock and psychedelia. The New Jersey company’s current branding feels tailored towards would-be flower children. But Verlaine actually used a 59 DC on stage back in the ‘70s. The lightweight guitar has a spruce body, and lipstick single-coil pickups that contribute to its blocky midrange tone. It offers a drab, defiant alternate glimpse at the brand’s otherwise colorful history.

Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi

Verlaine was certainly a Fender man, but one of the most iconic live photos of him actually features an Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi electric guitar. The clear instrument was introduced in ‘69, and is a weird-yet-wonderfully relic of Space Age design. It came to life as a collaboration between Ampeg and (if you can possibly believe it) New York City guitar wiz Dan Armstrong. Its body was constructed from polymethyl methacrylate, a substance that allowed the instrument to be both flashy (albeit somewhat heavy) and sonically interesting. Expensive and bizarre, the guitar is largely remembered as an oddity more than a treasure. But other famous musicians who have embraced it include Keith Richards and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Cambell.

Ampeg SSB Bass

Verlaine wasn’t the only Ampeg player in Television. Smith’s go-to bass was the brand’s SSB model, which remained his preferred instrument over the course of the act’s career. (He did occasionally use other basses, like Fender’s more conventional Mustang and Jazz Bass models.) The SSB is an elusive instrument that rarely seems to pop up on Reverb, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a gem. The bass playing in Television’s music straddles the lines between both rhythm and melody. Fittingly, the SSB’s tones land right in the sweet spot between treble and low end, complementing Smith’s distinctive musicianship.

Television perform "1880 Or So" on Later… with Jools Holland in 1992.

Fender Stratocaster

Lloyd’s contributions to Television are just as important as Verlaine’s. The band’s dual-guitar sound is a large part of what makes their music so gripping. Across their records and on-stage bootlegs, his playing weaves sepia-tinted streaks through his bandmates’ chunky chops. (For a prime example of this interplay, look no further than the above live video, circa 1980.) “Sometimes songs would pass back and forth, and it was, like, ‘you play the solo one night and I’ll play it the next night and we’ll figure out who does the better job,’” he said in a 2014 interview conducted by Gibson’s New York City showroom. His main musical tool was a ‘61 model of Fender’s widely-played Stratocaster, whose versatile, innocuous tone contrasts the coarser sounds that Verlaine often dialed up. (Verlaine would also adopt the Strat after the band’s reunion, although his was fitted with a custom Jaguar neck and lipstick pickups a la Danelectro.) It stands as the perfect metaphorical brush for conveying Lloyd’s challenging aural strokes.

Music Man 410-HD One Thirty 4x10 Combo

Verlaine used a lot of amps throughout his career, but the Music Man 410-HD One Thirty 4x10 Combo was at the heart of rig during much of the band’s heyday. Music Man was launched by Leo Fender—who is obviously best remembered for founding Fender—in ‘75. Music Man was his second company, which he started as soon as was legally allowed to after selling Fender to CBS in ‘65. The 410-HD amp features a solid state rectifier and four power tubes, which contribute to its strikingly clean signal. It has two channels—one without effects, and one with reverb and tremolo—and Verlaine’s sound seems distinctly tethered to the former setting. Verlaine also used a Vox AC30 later on in his career—a similarly timeless, sparkling favorite.

Fender Super Reverb Combo

Lloyd once told Vintage Guitar Magazine that he made the conscious decision to play Fender black panel amps because he was, “Anti-Marshall and anti-hippy longhair.” While he employed a host of amps over the course of his career, one of his early standbys was the Fender Super Reverb Combo. The 45 watt amp was produced between ‘64 and ‘67, and became popular because of its scooped mids. It’s almost identical to the Fender Super, but this more complex version features built-in reverb and tremolo effects. Tonally and aesthetically, it’s pretty comparable to Verlaine’s aforementioned Music Man 410-HD, which helps their sounds bleed together to intriguing ends.

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