Back into the arms of Venus de Milo
The 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”.