Who's the great band the Rock Hall forgot? Ty Burr checks in on Television, the seminal new wavers who keep gigging even though the industry's recognition is going to the Ramones, Talking Heads, and others
Who’s the great band the Rock Hall forgot?
Wednesday night, VH1 aired the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony that took place on Sunday, March 17. Since this is the first year that the many pioneers of punk rock and New Wave were eligible for induction — hard to believe, but it’s been 25 years since ”Blitzkrieg Bop” — viewers got to see performances by, among others, the reformed Talking Heads and the surviving Ramones.
Actually, it’s been a good time for rock’s Class of ’77, that noisy, disparate bunch of troublemakers that took over a New York bar called CBGBs in the early 70s, shamed the British into creating the Sex Pistols and the Clash in the mid-’70s, and helped toughen up the radiowaves with their album releases in the latter part of the decade. Cancer may have taken Joey Ramone from us last April, but he was mourned loudly, properly, and surprisingly in the mainstream media; his wonderful posthumous release, ”Don’t Worry About Me,” is proof that great rock simply CAN’T die. Patti Smith was recently the subject of a rapturous profile in the New Yorker. Blondie’s Debbie Harry was in last week’s New York Times magazine, looking downright regal in a photo spread on NYC’s women rockers. And there was the Hall of Fame induction, with Green Day on their hands and knees before the great gods The Ramones.
And if you had been in New York City on Tuesday or Wednesday evening, and you had wandered down to the Irving Plaza concert hall, you would have been able to hear some of the most crucial alterna-godfathers of them all, together again as if they’d never parted and playing like nostalgia was a dirty word.
Television wasn’t exactly punk, and it never got the breaks that came to Blondie and the Heads and Patti and the Ramones — even if the group WAS arguably the first to talk CBGB owner Hilly Kristal into booking a rock act in his club. In fact, if you’ve heard of Television at all lately, it’s only because rock critics like to compare the Strokes to them. Which is wrong, actually.
Television, in truth, may have been the primeval jam-band: a two-guitar assault weapon that was wielded by leader Tom Verlaine and second guitarist Richard Lloyd and that came on like the Grateful Dead with punk attitude and some Ornette Coleman albums under their belt. Now, this was not easy listening back then, and when Television’s two albums, 1977’s ”Marquee Moon” and 1978’s ”Adventure,” stiffed commercially despite critical fanfare, the foursome acrimoniously drifted apart, Verlaine to a series of brilliant cult solo albums, Lloyd to his own solo shots and back-up work with Matthew Sweet (drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith meanwhile went to wherever it is that rhythm sections go). They reformed for one album and a short tour in 1992 and then busted up again: Verlaine and Lloyd are one of those curious rock couples who have a psychic musical bond but just don’t seem to like each other much. But the group was together for a few dates last year, and then suddenly they were playing New York and L.A. this spring.
Although the club was packed on Tuesday night, you still could have bought a ticket coming in off the street; barely advertised, without a record deal, the four members of one of the great lost American bands simply played sinuous, intense, improvisational, tight rave-up guitar rock for two hours. Visually, the show was similar to the Memory Lane that unfurled over at the Rock Hall of Fame: the band looked paunchier and less hairy; the audience was largely the same kids they’d played to 25 years ago, now grown into moms and dads and blanching over Britney Spears. Old hits were played, as well as, surprisingly, a few new songs.
The vibe, though, was completely different from the Rock Hall fest. There was no self-congratulation, for one thing. There were no awards, no testimonials, no plaques for the museum wall. There was just that which the CBGB’s revolution was about in the first place: music, loud and electric and unbound.
There’s a song on Television’s first album called ”Prove It.” Alone among their peers, content in near-anonymity, they still do.