An Intimate Night With the Greatest Punk Band That Ever Was

(Photo by me)

Whomever said punk is a young man’s game is sorely mistaken. Last night, I got to see Television live, and even in 2015 they absolutely crushed it. I’ve been doing some thinking lately, nothing more than shower musings, about who I think is the best band in each genre of music, the one that defines it the most. I haven’t come to many conclusions, but one that I did come to was that Television was the best punk band. Sorry, Clash. The band’s attitude and style is what did it, but they convinced me as much in 2015 as they would have in 1976.

Punk, as I have come to understand in my years transitioning from Rancid to Patti Smith, is more a spirit than a genre. It’s not necessarily about anarchy and destruction, though a part of it. It’s about doing what’s unexpected, unwanted; breaking the status quo. Iggy & the Stooges did this in Detroit, so did the MC5. They rallied against the sex, drugs and blues-rock and roll of the time in the same way Black Sabbath did. They upped the volume and came out angrier. The Ramones changed the game again by setting a template – power chords, 2:30 songs with apathetic or political lyrics. This template is still in place today – everyone from NoFX to the Dropkick Murphys to FIDLAR follow this format in some way. But that’s the problem – it’s a format. Punk, itself, has an incredibly tired and ironic template to it.

Television was one of a few CBGB’s bands in the late 70’s that seemed to foresee this template problem. Blondie and the Talking Heads added pop elements, and took off a whole new genre. Patti Smith was setting her spoken word poems to music. Television looked less at the music and more at the template – short songs, fast, loud music, and did away with all of it. Their classic album “Marquee Moon” is marked with slow-burners, tracks over (or well over) five minutes, and long, technically proficient guitar solos on every song. A virgin ear might mistake them for a classic rock band living in the wrong part of the city. Their songs are restrained, but the band has an energy to them – noticeable on the very first chord of “See No Evil” – that says they can run with the big dogs, they’re just choosing not to.

Tom Verlaine’s lyrics, making allusions to poetry and art (the Venus de Milo, for instance), didn’t stand on the same platform as, say, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Maybe Television was in the right place at the right time. Or maybe, when we look back at them today, we still consider them a punk band because their music demands so. Technically remarkable lead and rhythm guitars interlock across albums, with Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s tension almost palpable. And with the general lack of guitar distortion, and a clean, jazzy sound, it was the purest of music. It was what the other bands weren’t doing. It was punk.

I truly had no worries about Television ruining this legacy for me. I knew that if they couldn’t sound great live, they wouldn’t tour. And they delivered, from a performance standpoint – next to nothing was changed in the songs. At first I was disappointed in the lost opportunity for longer solos, but then I remembered that their albums aren’t punk statements, they’re works of art, and fine art should not be tampered with. And as such, their setlist consisted of every song off “Marquee Moon,” out of order. Verlaine played piano sections on his guitar, muting his strings to sound like piano keys. And on a number of songs, he self-indulged and plucked and warped the strings to sound like a one-man string section. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and I still can’t.

The crowd was as diverse as expected – fathers and sons, lost young scuds like me, and older burn-outs. A man in front of me who could have passed for Hilly Kristal wore a Patti Smith Group sweatshirt and jammed to every song like it was his 200th time seeing the band, gleefully ignorant of the 35+ years behind him. To the right of me was a pretentious 30-something who played air guitar the whole night, despite having a drink in one hand and his other arm over his girlfriend’s shoulder.

But aside from the performance, Television delivered in the punk spirit as well. Permanent Lloyd stand-in Jimmy Rip came out in a bowl hat and beard that looked like a high-dollar Tom Waits Halloween costume. Verlaine, in an unzipped hoodie that may have been a size too big (he hasn’t gained a pound since they shot the “Moon” cover). The setlist consisted of “Marquee Moon,” but the encore was pure unpredictability – “Little Johnny Jewel,” a cover of Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” (always a staple of their live show), and an unreleased track called “I’m Gonna Find You.” Their second two albums “Adventure” and “Television” were left untouched. The show itself had an aura of unpredictability – opener Dennis Driscoll performed with an improvised saxophone, courtesy of Morphine’s Dana Colley, and his set ran long. Soon into Television’s set, someone behind me yelled to turn the bass up, to which Verlaine pointed to Fred Smith and said aloud, “Move closer to him.” Verlaine was louder when he was talking to the audience than when he was singing into the mic, the vocals lost in the music. And in the encore, when they were transitioning between “Reaction” and “Find You,” a game being played by an excruciatingly bored security guard on his phone was audible. For a show with 65+ year old men on stage, in a small but classy venue and a randomly assorted audience, a punk spirit still came through. The Ramones may have passed, the Sex Pistols riddled by death, the Clash riddled by maturity. But for one night, the spirit of 1976 came through, if only briefly. Television, keep doing your thing.

-By Andrew McNally (photo credit is mine)

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