Listening to…..Tom Verlaine

As I recall, the late and somewhat opinionated Lester Bangs once referred to Television as the Quicksilver Messenger Service of punk.

 Knowing Mr B, I suspect that this was intended as a grave insult to Tom Verlaine’s seminal late 70’s band, but as I was already a huge fan by the time I read Lester’s comments, I could see the truth of what he said– the twin guitars of Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine did indeed in some ways echo what John Cipollina and Gary Duncan had been doing out on the West Coast back in the ‘60’s.

 However, whether Bangs’ comments were intended to lift the lid on the New York punk scene or were just a throwaway put-down is something we’ll probably never know.  What is for sure in the year when Tom Verlaine closes in on his 60th birthday is that the major artists to emerge from the New York punk scene – Patti Smith, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads  – were none of them punks at all when set alongside the thrash and shriek of someone like Slaughter & the Dogs or the Westway agitprop of The Clash. 

Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the tracks on the Velvet Underground box set ‘Peel slowly & see’ where we hear John Cale & Lou Reed performing an early demo version of ‘I’m waiting for the man’ as a Dylan-ish country blues.

The fact is that by the mid-70’s, all the New York crowd were too old and too sophisticated to be anything other than ‘fellow-travellers’ of the Punk movement.  Punk was a way in and once over the threshold, they pretty much abandoned punky pretensions in favour of New Wave artfulness.

 You could argue that Television never pretended to be a punk band at all, but simply allowed themselves to be promoted that way.  I first heard ‘Marquee Moon’ in a Copenhagen record store and my immediate reaction was as per Lester Bangs –  Lou Reed meets Quicksilver Messenger Service.  The standard schtick about the punk movement was that all you needed was three chords and an attitude; musical competence was almost a disadvantage, apparently. And yet it was clear from the get-go that Television were both literate and accomplished players

 Their first UK tour (with Blondie as support) revealed a band who barely communicated with their audience at all, but just played a storm.  ‘Marquee Moon’ was (and is) one of the crucial artefacts of its time  and not even John Lydon it seemed was prepared to call out Verlaine over his muso hippie leanings.

 By the time ‘Adventure’ appeared in 1978 it was clear that Television’s moment had gone.  With the exception of the Byrds-ish ‘Days’, the songs all sounded like pale retreads of former glories.  The inevitable split just months after their second UK tour came as no surprise at all. 

 Since then, Verlaine has  over the last 30 years produced a modest but impressive series of solo albums that expand and develop themes explored as far back as ‘Marquee Moon’ – identity, relationships, reflections – all with that lyrical, almost Jerry Garcia-like guitar as a backdrop and a judicious but never flashy use of electronics alongside a solid rhythm section.  It’s these that I’ve been listening to over the last few days.

Verlaine will never be a millionaire, as he himself acknowledges, but he is clearly happiest pursuing his own muse or turning out to back old friends like Patti Smith from time to time.   His work increasingly seems to be veering away from  song-based forms towards instrumentals that  use beds of synth as a backdrop for his guitar lines.

 We all have our favourites and, personally, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing 1981’s ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘1983’s ‘Days on the mountain’.  Whilst nothing he’s produced will probably ever match the raw tension of ‘Marquee Moon’, listening to anything involving Tom Verlaine is almost inevitably time well spent.  A great guitarist, accomplished songwriter and, basically,  just one of the good guys

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5 responses to “Listening to…..Tom Verlaine

  1. Very nice article about Tom…it’s nice to see him being appreciated.

  2. Thanks for your comment….

  3. I’m actually new to both Television and Tom’s solo stuff. In fact, I just picked up Dreamland yesterday at my local record store.

    I live in the states and I find it interesting that Television seems to have always been more popular in England/Europe than it has been over here. I’m not sure why that is. Would you happen to have any thoughts on why that might be?

  4. Hi Deb,

    Nice to hear from you again.

    As for Television maybe being more popular here, I think there are two main reasons:

    First of all, I think maybe Punk took off in the UK quicker than it did in the States – Television were promoted as a punk band here, even though they obviously weren’t, any more than Talking Heads who came a bit later.

    I saw Television the first time they toured the UK and the Manchester audience was very punky but with a substantial number of older people like me as well. The trouble was that they were gone almost before they arrived; by late 1978 the band had split and so a lot of US fans who got into punk later on never got the chance to see them. By then, they had toured again around ‘Adventure’ and although that was nothing like as successful, the gigs were sell-outs – again with a pretty ‘mixed’ audience. Also, they had already had a lot of press and TV and people were already talking of ‘Marquee Moon’ as a ‘classic album’. So, in a way, they were an established band over here at a time when a lot of American kids were just hearing them for the first time.

    And that’s the second thing….the most influential music paper over here at that time was the New Musical Express, which supported Punk from the get-go. They employed some opinionated dickheads, but they had some good writers, too and in those dim,distant, pre-internet days, the opinions of these people could sometimes make or break an act or a record.

    One of their best writers was a guy called Nick Kent, who was very highly thought of, and he wrote an extremely hyperbolic review of ‘Marquee Moon’ in February 1977 when it first came out – that’s what got me into a Copenhagen record store to listen to it for the first time.

    The review caused a bit of a storm over here and also helped sell a lot of copies of that first album. Of course, once people actually heard it, they realised how good it was and word of mouth did the rest.

    You can read the Nick Kent review here:

    http://www.obbard.com/tvlist-archive/0202/msg00154.html

  5. Hey, I’m so sorry for the late reply. I just found my way back here again. Thanks so much for answering my question and also for that interesting review of MM by Nick Kent, haha. I’ve never read that before and it was really something else. haha Yes, I can see how that review would’ve sold many records. I mean, if I’d read something like that for an album it would spur me on to buy it too.

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