Guitar Legends: Television’s Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd – the punk guitar heroes who weren’t punk at all

They were tagged “punk” because of a time and place, but Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s guitar alchemy in Television was a lot more sophisticated than just rock ’n’ roll with a sneer at 99mph.

Punk rock wasn’t to supposed to give birth to “guitar heroes” was it? Wasn’t it centred on the notion that anyone could do it? You didn’t need to be super-talented.

Yet “punk” did give rise to two lasting heroes in Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. In many ways, Television fitted the punk ethos of arrive quick/make a fuss/get out quick, and in their first run they only cut two albums. But the truth is, Television – for all their late-70s cachet, which continues to be felt over 40 years on from their Marquee Moon debut – weren’t really punks at all. They were kinda ‘punk by default’.

Debuting in New York City in 1974, Television were certainly hanging with the right proto-punk crowd, though. Intellectual, inscrutable frontman Verlaine had been an early friend of Richard Hell (who was also in the band’s early incarnation, The Neon Boys). They played regularly at CBGB in Lower Manhattan in a residency with Patti Smith. They firmly rejected any fuzzy blues rock. In short, Television were anything but “groovy 70s cats”. They looked like a street gang called The Feeble Four, not a supergalactic band of pin-up rock warriors…

And yet. Television also played a truly sophisticated double-lead guitar style. They chose an engineer (Andy Johns) for the debut LP because he’d worked with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin… and he didn’t understand them.

So, nah, Television weren’t “punk”. They were post-punk before anyone needed to think of such labels. They were new wave before the next wave had even started. Richard Lloyd once reflected on their roots that “Television would be out of place anywhere,” but time has proved the opposite. From U2 and Wire, from Sonic Youth and Pavement, on to The Strokes and Built To Spill, the influence of Television on guitar outliers remains pretty much everywhere

Television
Image: Lynn Goldsmith / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

In their own words

“I really can’t remember solos very well and I don’t really care; sometimes I’ll start a solo the same way just to get by for a few minutes while I’m thinking or feeling my way into something different.” Tom Verlaine

“We’re like blues from another planet… like rock music for aliens. Ahmet Ertegun didn’t want to sign us to Atlantic Records because he claimed we didn’t play ‘Earth Music’. I think he was right.” Richard Lloyd

“I like thinking of myself as invisible. I find it a very advantageous way to live. Unfortunately, it’s not the way the music business works.” Tom Verlaine

Guiding lights

The band’s name, incidentally, was not inspired by the growth of ‘low culture’ media. Very much the opposite. It was based on Verlaine’s interest in “old aspect of vision… the classical aspects,” and translating that to sound. “Tell a vision.”

With lofty ideals, Television soon bleeped on radars of the super-hip. Brian Eno, not long departed from Roxy Music and making his name for outsider art-rock such as Here Come The Warm Jets, visited NYC to record Television demos for Island records. Verlaine later said he liked Eno, but not the guitar sounds he got. Plus, “there was a very uncool A&R guy who took the tapes back to London and played ’em for every fucking artist on Island Records.”

Verlaine claimed many of Television’s ideas for the own debut album, particularly for dynamics, ended up on Roxy Music’s Siren album of 1975. In an infamous interview with Crawdaddy magazine in 1976, Verlaine railed: “It happens a lot, especially with the English… I mean they ripped off a whole fucking artform from Americans.” Enough of that…

Tom Verlaine of Television
Tom Verlaine of Television. Image: Roberta Bayley / Redferns

After one independently-released single, Little Johnny Jewel (1975), Television hunkered down in late 1976 for their debut LP proper for Elektra records. For Marquee Moon, they chose the lauded UK engineer Andy Johns to co-produce with Verlaine, because the New Yorkers specifically liked the guitar tones he’d got on Stones and Mott The Hoople records, if not the actual bands. But Verlaine reckoned, “I wanted someone who had no preconceptions about our music,” and said Johns didn’t even hear Television before taking the project on. But there was soon a culture clash.

Richard Lloyd told Uncut, “Andy is a real child of rock’n’roll. He was used to being with people who are also rock’n’roll, and you can imagine whatever that means in the 1970s. He was used to people who didn’t mind taking it very slack in the studio. You know: you’ve got a 2 o’clock start, and the engineer shows up at 4.30, and the guitarist shows up at 5 and the singer rolls in at midnight. But Television were not like that. We were punctual. And serious.”

In the liner notes for Marquee Moon’s reissue in 2004, Verlaine says, “[Andy] would say things like, ‘Is this a Velvet Underground trip? What kind of trip is this?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know; it’s just two guitars, bass and drums. It’s like every band you’ve ever done.’ So he said, ‘Okay, I’ll come back after Christmas…” Verlaine says that, for the most part, he produced Marquee Moon himself.

Even so, Johns and Television’s partnership did sometimes gel perfectly. For Elevation, Johns suggested a rotary effect on Lloyd’s guitar solo but a Leslie speaker was too expensive/complicated to rent. So, Lloyd remembers, “Andy took a microphone, and while I did the guitar solo… he stood in front of me in the studio, swinging this microphone around his head like a lasso. He nearly took my fucking nose off! I was backing up while I was playing.”

But what really set Marquee Moon apart was the interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd. The latter has called their playing relationship “telepathic” but in truth it required a lot of choreography: one waggish observer said Television made music where “everything is a guitar solo and nothing is a guitar solo.” The album was rehearsed and rehearsed – with room for improv – and then essentially cut live:  Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitars were recorded and multi-tracked to left and right channels, and the final recordings were left uncompressed and unadorned with studio effects.

The best way to appreciate Marquee Moon remains simply to listen to it: Guiding Light, Torn Curtain, Friction, Venus and the title track still sound fresh and futuristic.

As Verlaine later told Select magazine, “I always thought Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I’d realise; Christ, the title track is 10 minutes long. With two guitar solos!”

The LP was a solid performer in the UK, reaching 28 in the album charts: not bad for such an otherworldly band. But it had limited success in their native US, and only two months after its February 1977 release, Television were back in the studio…

Tom Verlaine of Television
Tom Verlaine of Television. Image: Hayley Madden / Redferns

New adventures

Television’s Adventure album, released in 1978, is sometimes written off by critics as a “failure”, but possibly only because Marquee Moon has proved so influential over the years. Adventure didn’t fail, anyway: it reached Number 7 in the UK album chart.

It did, however, remove some of the more jagged edges of that debut. Verlaine hired John Jansen to co-produce with him this time: the Electric Lady Studios veteran, previous sidekick to Eddie Kramer, was a lot more measured, and had already worked on perfecting Hendrix out-take albums and with bands such as Supertramp. It was perhaps telling that one of Adventure’s standout cuts, Carried Away, was organ-led and not guitar-based.

But there is still much to enjoy in Adventure. Foxhole, Ain’t That Nothin’, Days and the quieter, more layered guitars of Glory and The Dream’s Dream still demonstrate Verlaine and Lloyd’s unique dual six-string vocabulary. They retained a unique vision and approach.

Verlaine: “I had read that Wagner would write something and then write it out backwards. He’d have violins play the main theme backwards. I thought that was interesting. And I always liked The Byrds so I asked Lloyd if he could play Mr Tambourine Man backwards. We took that and changed it a little bit and that became Days.”

As is the way with intense bands, the original four-piece Television fractured… and disbanded after Adventure. They eventually reconvened for 1992’s eponymous third album. Some grunge acolytes of the time had been quoting Television as an influence (if only as an anti-rockist yardstick) but Television itself only served to prove that Television the band still weren’t very punk. Television is almost pristine in its tones.

Richard Lloyd of Television
Richard Lloyd of Television. Image: Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images

Life beyond Television

It would be a disservice to both Verlaine and Lloyd to suggest they ‘disappeared’ after Television. The mainstream may have forgotten them to a large degree, but guitar fans could still revel in a bright series of solo and collaborative projects. These did, however, serve to emphasise the difference between the two players.

Verlaine’s solo projects were varied, from the very Television-alike (Dreamtime) to more ambient instrumental collections (Warm And Cool). He was still considered capable of sprinkling fairy dust, though: Jeff Buckley hired him to produce his second album and TV’s influence was undoubtedly there… sadly, Buckley himself rejected the recordings helmed by Verlaine, although many survive on Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, released posthumously.

Lloyd was always the bluesier soloist of the two Television men… even if his playing is iconoclastic and combustible. Field Of Fire (1985) has more punky edge than anything Verlaine would likely attempt, but some of his best guitar work is with power-popper Matthew Sweet. Lloyd was Sweet’s regular guitarist in the early 90s (sharing duties with the equally outré Robert Quine) and revelled in his role of caustic soloist. “I get more lead time than there is stage time with Matthew” Lloyd joked, “because that’s what he wants. It’s a lot of fun, it’s very exciting. But with Tom, it’s like we become one guitar.”

The reality is, though, that both will be forever defined by the remarkable 10-out-of-10 debut of Marquee Moon. Lloyd says he more than happy for it to remain in those endless Greatest Ever…lists. He knows they hit on something spectacular.

The more scrupulous Verlaine, Marquee Moon’s main author, has always looked back with more wariness. “It’s basically a live record with the mistakes patched up and with some editing here and there. I never think of it in any context in particular. It seems to get rediscovered by a new generation every 10 years or so, which is kinda cool,” he admits.

In 2000, Verlaine said, “The people that have mentioned it to me in the past 20 years or so have been young enough to be my children, which is interesting… but I don’t want to really talk about that record any more… So much has been mentioned about that album… there’s probably not much more that can be said.”

Richard Lloyd of Television
Richard Lloyd of Television. Image: Chris McKay / Getty Images

Guitars and FX

Verlaine didn’t intend it, but he played a major part in rehabilitating the Fender Jazzmaster as an ‘alt rock’ electric of choice. “They’re really problematic tuning-wise, but they were the cheapest guitars in the 70s, so I’m used to them! They were $95 because no one wanted them,” he said in the 1980s. He only got his first Jazzmaster when he moved from Delaware to New York, and lived through the supposed ‘surf guitar’s newfound popularity that he part-started. “Now they’re up to $400, probably because Elvis Costello had his picture taken with ’em so many times.”

He admitted he wasn’t really interested in the “twee” electric guitar for a long time – he had an obsession with jazz for a lot of his youth and played sax and piano – until he heard The Yardbirds and Mike Bloomfield (with Bob Dylan). It was then he sought his own “cranked surf” guitar sound, and for the first two Television LPs he used his Jazzmaster, an Epiphone Al Caiola, a perspex Ampeg, Danelectro and Fender Super Reverb amps. Johnny Marr is a fan of the latter Fender amp, and you can hear similarities in tone. Verlaine also likes Vox AC30s, “fatter” Ampeg SVTs and Fender Strats.

But he’s no generally fan of rockist staples nor the guitarists who use them. “They all go for those $3,000 Les Pauls and Marshall amps. There’s a real lack of the individual with that stuff.” His strings started super-heavy just as a way of keeping his 1958 Jazzmaster in tune: 15s or 14s for the top E down to 0.054s for low E.

Richard Lloyd was more the traditionalist and leant heavily on the ’61 Fender Strat with jumbo frets that he owned when he joined Television. Live, he also plays Fender Teles. He used a few effects, but never many, and describes the Television gear decree as “Fender guitars and blackface Supers. No effects. Conscious decision. Anti-Marshall and anti-hippy longhair!”

Television
Image: Richard E. Aaron / Redferns

Essential listening

There’s no getting away from it – pretty much all of Marquee Moon is a must-listen. This Guitar.com playlist adds the best of the other two albums, retrospectively released live recordings, choice solo cuts and some Lloyd sidekick moments which are also brilliant.

For more essential guides, click here.