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Back into the arms of Venus de Milo

TV 1The muffled tolling of church bells prefaced last night’s performance by Television at the Roundhouse in north-west London, a lovely noise that filled the purple-lit dome of the old engine shed. When the band appeared, they began their set with an episode of seemingly random tuning-up that slowly transmuted itself into a series of guitar phrases that sounded like calls to prayer, punctuated by sustained ensemble power-chords. And then, with the distinctive riff of “(The Arms of) Venus de Milo”, came the first cheers of the night.

Tom Verlaine seemed to be in a benign mood and good voice as the quartet worked their way through all eight tracks of their 1977 debut album, the classic  Marquee Moon, scrambling the running order and interspersing the songs with a handful of others, including “Little Johnny Jewel”, their first single, and “1880 Or So” from their fantastic 1992 reunion album. There were two songs I didn’t recognise. One was a long excursion into the realm of raga-rock, its meandering tune sung by Verlaine in unison with his guitar line, the instrument’s notes shorn of their attack through his manipulation of the volume control. The other, the second of the two encores, took the surprising form of a country-soul ballad that could have been plucked from the repertoire of Percy Sledge, and might have been called “I’m Coming For You Someday”. Perhaps those two songs were among the 16 they are said to have recorded in a New York studio six years ago, and which have never seen the light of day**.

Generally they’re sounding much as they did at Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, when they were at the height of their hipster vogue and were supported by the emerging Blondie. A little chunkier, perhaps, in the contribution of Fred Smith’s bass and Billy Ficca’s drums, but still sounding like a band searching for the infinite spaces between the 13th Floor Elevators and the John Coltrane Quartet. Purists will claim to miss the blend of Verlaine’s guitar with that of Richard Lloyd, but Jimmy Rip — who replaced Lloyd in 2007 — illuminated “Prove It” with a magnificently dramatic solo and acted as the perfect foil for Verlaine’s flights of invention.

For me the best moment came when “Torn Curtain” was wrenched by Verlaine’s long solo out of its somewhat leaden beginning and into the realms of the sublime. The song was rounded off with a gorgeously delicate coda, the kind of soaring crystalline structure created from the contrasting timbres of two Fender guitars — the glassy sound of Verlaine’s Strat and the metallic twang of Rip’s Tele — reminiscent of Television at their finest, while also suggesting that their work might not yet be done.

* Sorry about the quality of the photograph (although I kind of like it). If you want to know what Tom Verlaine actually looks like in 2013, go to Dave Simpson’s Guardian review of the Gateshead show here.

** Thanks to http://www.setlist-fm, via my friend Tony Paley, for the information that the raga-rock tune is called “Persia” and the country-soul ballad is called “I’m Gonna Find You”.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. A. Isn’t it Little Johnny Jewel? That’s what I see when I close my eyes and imagine holding the single in my hands.
    B. Has Verlaine’s voice improved? I image age might have taken away some of the reediness.

    November 20, 2013
  2. A. It is, of course. Sorry about that. Brain-fade, as we say. Obvious, if unlikely, confusion with post-war English music hall comedian Jimmy Jewell (part of a team with Ben Wariss), or with the saxophonist of the same name who used to be in Keef Hartley’s band. That’s my excuse, anyway.

    B. I always liked it anyway, but I think it has grown in expressive and dramatic range. You can hear that on his last CD, “Songs and Other Things” (2006). But the reediness you mention is certainly still a feature.

    November 20, 2013
  3. Glad your photos are as bad as mine! Lighting was very subdued. But a wonderful concert. it’s a bit obvious, but I thought “Marquee Moon” was magnificent, Tom Verlaine’s long solo out of this world.

    November 20, 2013
  4. MedianAge #

    They were excellent in Manchester on Sunday night, too: TV even cracked a joke when a thick Mancunian accent called out “Go on Tom!” Little Johnny Jewel and Torn Curtain were wonderfully jagged. There’s a good clip of the latter on YT from Sunday’s gig.

    At one point (I think during ‘Persia’), Tom was hitting his strings with what looked like a fork handle, poking shards of noise through the song.

    Someone called out for Foxhole, and Jimmy Rip shook his head and wagged his finger as if to say “don’t even bother asking …”

    November 20, 2013
  5. m m #

    Richard,thanks for the review,I saw them in Manchester too,and the interplay between Jimmy Ripp and Verlaine was astonishing at times,especially on the gorgeous 1880 or so-dont know why everybody grouches so much about him joining when he has been playing with Verlaine for years! Persia sounded like an extension of the modal playing Roger Mcguinn was exporing around Eight Miles High.

    November 27, 2013
  6. Hi Richard,

    Nice to see your comments. Two facts: one… The Ramones were going to open when Johnny decided he had to visit his parents in Florida, and Talking Heads opened the show, not Blondie.

    Second, I remember you asking if we minded that you bring Eno along as you didn’t now as much of your way around the recording process and we agreed, but when Brian (Eno) showed up he came with all these crazy ideas like cutting up the lyrics and treating them like a tossed salad = “No”. He wanted to do crazy things like attach the guitar amps to the ceiling etc…= “No” We nixed every idea he had, and simply wanted to be recorded.

    The studio itself was terrible for our sound and we were not fond of the results.

    Then there was the issue with Hell, who I loved much about his bass playing… strangely redolent of a supremely intoxicated Paul Mc.Carthy, but when you start recording it becomes painfully obvious the musically the band had no stability because of Bill Ficca’s Jazzy drum style (I could tell you that Tom wanted a less inventive drummer but I stood up for Billy by stating that ALL the guitarists in classic rock had crazy drummers – guitar solos could fall on the floor without that urgency provided by the lunatic drummer) But after Richard ‘Hell’ left and Fred replaced him (almost quit myself when ‘Hell’ was kicked out and I was moved to the side so Tom could take the middle). As soon as I gave Fred half a chance I saw how solid and incredibly inventive he was as accepted it FOR THE SAKE OF THE BAND.

    34 YEARS I kept Television as my first priority. And played live basically from about 1995 through 2007, and in that time we talked about recording every year, but in 14 years had written 8 (Eight) new songs half of which Tom disliked and after working with him for 6 months on a new song he would lose interest and go back to playing old television theme music or twangy reverb drenched C+W melodies. No lyrics. 14 years. So I decided to retire from the band and Tom replaced me with his long time buddy Jimmy Ripp and Ripp began posting about producing the next Television record by the end of the year (2007), which came and went…

    In 2012 they embarked on a world tour that continues even as we speak… Jimmy Ripp is quite capable of recreating my parts and is a good guitarist, so what they continue to call Television is out of my hands. I’m happy for Fred, Billy and Jimmy and Tom and wish them well.

    Regards, — Richard Lloyd

    November 27, 2013
    • Dear Richard

      Great to hear from you. The last time I saw you was at the Mercury Lounge, when you were playing with your band. Howard Thompson took me along, and I enjoyed it a lot.

      I have to say I don’t remember anything at all about Brian Eno trying to alter the lyrics or wanting to attach the microphones to the ceiling. And I wasn’t bothered about the quality of the studio because we were there to make demos, not masters. And as I said in a previous post, they still sound pretty good to me.

      All best

      Richard

      November 27, 2013

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