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Posts tagged ‘Brian Eno’

Marianne & Joan

In 1965, when she was 18 years old, Marianne Faithfull was cast as Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, a Roundhouse production swiftly transferred to film. Two years later Bill Gaskill directed her in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court, alongside Glenda Jackson: “Marriane (sic) Faithfull looked Irina most plausibly,” Philip Hope-Wallace wrote in the Guardian, “even if she could still get more out of the words.” Today, in her maturity, Faithfull knows that the best lines can be allowed to speak for themselves.

Lines like Keats’ “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing”, for example, and Tennyson’s “The mirror crack’d from side to side.” They’re heard on her new album, She Walks in Beauty, in which she recites verses from the Romantic poets over backdrops created by the Australian musician Warren Ellis.

I’ve no idea whether, following her recovery from a bout of Covid-19 which put her in intensive care for three weeks, she has plans to make any more albums. If not, She Walks in Beauty would make a fitting capstone to a career that began in 1964 when, at a party for the singer Adrienne Posta, Andrew Loog Oldham spotted a convent schoolgirl who was already in thrall to the poetry she reads here.

The album adheres to a single mood, tending towards the ethereal: drifting ambient soundscapes sparingly garnished by Ellis’s violin, Vincent Ségal’s cello, Nick Cave’s piano and, on two pieces, Brian Eno’s treatments. Faithfull’s delivery of the verses is respectful and measured: her deep contralto has the grain of experience, grounding the poetics. About half the tracks received their voice tracks after her recovery, which might explain why one or two of them are more deliberate than the rest, although not obviously or disturbingly so.

Among the pieces I particularly enjoyed are Byron’s title piece, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy”. I was amused, too, that she borrows a tactic perfected by her old admirer Bob Dylan with “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”: the trick of leaving the collection’s epic performance until last. In this case it’s the 12 minutes of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which she gives in the 20-stanza version published in 1832, 10 years before the author revised the ending to suit Victorian sensibilities. (It’s a shame her script — repeated in the accompanying booklet — gave her “Through the squally east wind keenly/Blew…” rather than “Though…”, but the blemish is fleeting.)

It’s worth adding that ownership of the special edition of She Walks in Beauty is much enhanced by the inclusion of reproductions of a dozen watercolours — including the cover illustration — by the English artist Colin Self, any one of which I’d be happy to have hanging on the wall.

As a collateral benefit, Faithfull’s album sent me back to Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, a 1968 release in which Joan Baez read and sang poetry over music by the composer Peter Schickele. Conceived by Maynard Solomon, the co-founder of Vanguard Records, it was an ambitious project in which Schickele created bespoke settings for verses from poets ranging from anonymous medieval Chinese and Japanese writers through John Donne, William Blake and Walt Whitman to Arthus Rimbaud, Wilfred Owen, Henry Treece, James Joyce, Federico García Lorca, Jacques Prévert, Countee Cullen and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

The album is bookended by Treece’s “Old Welsh Song”, a fragment sung by Baez, backed by a harmonium. Much more of a mosaic of miniatures than Faithfull’s album, the mood of the programme is defined by a hatred of war and bloodshed, beginning with Whitman’s “I Saw the Vision of Armies”, read to softly rolling tom-toms and cymbals, and the Chinese verse “Minister of War”, punctuated by a distorted guitar and a clashing gong-like effects. A hovering unison cello and bass line wanders disconsolately behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of Prévert’s “Song in the Blood”, glockenspiel and celeste accompany the sung version of Joyce’s early “Of the Dark Past”, a jaunty string quartet matches the vivacity of a fragment from the same writer’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If the flute and harp embroidering Rimbaud’s “Childhood” are a bit twee, his “Evil” gets a cinematic soundtrack whose opening sounds of strife thin out as they give way to pathos. The flute, viola and celeste colouring Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Japanese haiku are appropriately exquisite, and Schickele gives Baez a lovely melody for e.e. cummings’ “All in green went my love riding”. Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, with its devastating payoff, is wisely left unaccompanied.

Baez was 27 at the time of this recording. Sometimes her delivery could be a little over-reverent, but mostly she found the right tone, nowhere more powerfully than on the two short poems at the heart of the album: Blake’s “London”, with its appalled visions of the corruption of the flesh and the spirit, and Norman Rosten’s “In Guernica”, where a simple, almost photographic description deepens into tragedy through a single word: “In Guernica the dead children / Were laid out in order on the sidewalk / In their white starched dresses / In their pitiful white dresses.” Both pieces employ the tolling of tuned percussion over strange drones.

By 1968, Baez had sold a lot of albums. Her two In Concert albums had made the Billboard top 10 in 1962-63, and in a year later Joan Baez 5 reached the UK top three. Baptism made it no higher than No 84 in the US and failed to register at all in Britain Somehow, though, partly for its sense of adventure and partly for “London” and “In Guernica”, it’s the one that’s stayed with me.

Re-reading Brian Eno’s diary

Many of these new words suggest the dissolution of a certain quality of public discourse that we have taken for granted since the Enlightenment, which hinged on the possibility of reaching evidence-based concensus — albeit even temporary — about what constitutes reality. The post-modern scepticism of any distinction between ideologically derived value systems and evidence-driven science is now grasped at gratefully by libertarians, populists, identitarians and tax evaders the world over: “Why shouldn’t there be a special reality just for me?” they demand. An early warning sign of this attitude creeping into politics was when a member of Dubya’s entourage, questioned about the veracity of some claims he’d made in support of the Iraq war, said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

It’s interesting to watch that kind of hubris crash up against a little strand of RNA — and conspicuously lose the battle. As I write this, we’re five months into the Covid pandemic, and it turns out that even an empire can’t change biological reality. I wonder if it will make any difference to how we view the role of leadership in the future, when we evaluate the various national responses to Covid and notice that the people who dealt with it most successfully were not the macho braggarts, not the “we-make-our-own-reality” brigade, not the “man-up” populists, not the Panglossian libertarians, but the people who had the humility to listen to the science and the humanity to care enough to act upon it.

Those words are taken from the new introduction to a 25th anniversary edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno’s diary of 1995, and form part of a commentary on a list of words and terms created since the original publication: AI, Airbnb, Alexa, algorithm, alt-right, alternative facts, Amazon and so on — several pages of them, fact, all the way to zero-hour contract, zero-tolerance, Zooming and zoonotic.

The original diary, written in a different world, records collaborations with David Byrne, Dave Stewart, U2 and the band James, conversations about drugs with an Eritrean taxi driver and presenting the Turner Prize with Nicholas Serota, outings to judge Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competition and to lunch with Bono and Eve Hewson at the Colombe d’Or in the hills above Nice, digressions on stuff like the art market, the Bosnian conflict, the language of car horns and the three principal debts to African music (pushed rhythm, flattened scales and call-and-response), chat about buying a computer for his young daughters and looking at Dan Flavin’s neon tubes in the Guggenheim, repeating a very good Tommy Cooper joke, and then another.

He’s a serious thinker but his sense of humour is never far away, along with a gentle self-mockery (17 April: Lou Reed, Lenny Henry and David Bowie all called. Enjoying Tricky CD. He didn’t call21 December: At the party, Rob Partridge said to me: ‘You gave hope to other balding men.’ My new epitaph: ‘Co-wrote a couple of decent songs and went bald shamelessly’).

All this makes it well worth reading, or re-reading, today, for both entertainment on trivial matters and the application of critical thinking and common sense to some of the big problems of our time. And it prompts me to wonder how different our lives would be right now, had Brian Eno spent 2020 as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Failing that, I hope he’s at least been compiling another diary.

* The new edition of A Year with Swollen Appendices is published by Faber & Faber.

Roxy in the Hall of Fame

Roxy demo

Roxy Music will be among the performers tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame opens its arms to the latest group of inductees. No one really needs the validation offered by this much derided and arguably unnecessary institution, but it’s like the Oscars or the Booker: at least it gives you something to argue with.

I suppose Roxy are getting in on the strength of Avalon, the band’s only million-selling album in the US. In their home country, their biggest impact was created — as David Hepworth notes in A Fabulous Creation, his new book about the history of the pop LP — by their debut album, which slid a dagger into the heart of progressive rock and endless boogie in the summer of 1972.

Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera will be there tonight. Brian Eno and Paul Thompson won’t, for various reasons. Nor will Graham Simpson, the original bassist, who left before the first album came out but without whom, as Ferry has said, there would probably never have been a Roxy. Simpson died in 2012; he’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Miranda Little, several years in the making (here is the trailer).

Anyway, just to amuse you, here (pictured above) is the original Roxy demo tape, recorded on May 27, 1971 on Eno’s Ferrograph. Ferry, Simpson, Mackay and Eno were on it, but not Manzanera or Thompson. The guitarist then was Roger Bunn, formerly with Pete Brown’s Piblokto! and Giant Sun Trolley, and the drummer was someone calling himself Dexter Lloyd, a draft-dodging classical percussionist from Chicago whose real name was James Strebing (both would be gone by the end of the summer).

A month later, the demos were dropped off at my flat in Shepherds Bush. “4.30 Brian somebody with tape at home” is the entry in my diary. “Brian somebody” was Ferry. That’s his writing on the box, and his phone number. I just tried calling it, but no one picked up.

David Enthoven: the last goodbye

EG King's RoadOn my way to David Enthoven’s funeral this morning, I walked from Sloane Square down the King’s Road and paused at No 63A, where it all began. The weather was glorious: in the perfect sunshine, it was easy to drift back to the Chelsea of an imagined and sometimes real ’60s.

David died in London last week, aged 72, five days after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. Behind that door and up a flight of stairs, he and Johnny Gaydon, his schoolfriend and first business partner, set up EG Management in 1969, with King Crimson as their first clients. Marc Bolan, ELP and Roxy Music soon joined the roster. They were great days. (And here’s the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.)

When I got to St Luke’s, a large 19th century Anglican church just off the King’s Road, it was already close to packed with people wanting to say farewell to an extraordinary man. As they lingered in the sunlit churchyard after the ceremony, the event had something of the qualities of an English garden party, which was just as it should have been.

Tim Clark, his friend and partner in IE:Music, his second management company, gave an address which stressed the life-enhancing qualities that made David special to every single member of the congregation. Robbie Williams, whose life and career David and Tim had salvaged and remade, sang “Moon River” — a lovely choice — accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Guy Chambers. Lucy Pullin and a choir sang “Angels”, which Williams and Chambers wrote after David and Tim had brought them together. Lamar led the singing of “Jerusalem”.

The congregation included Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson, and all five surviving members of Roxy Music from the sessions for the band’s debut album in the summer of 1972: Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson, who came down for the funeral from Newcastle, where he now plays the drums with Lindisfarne.

One of the morning’s pleasures, over which the man in whose memory we were gathered would certainly have shared a chuckle, was the sight of Fripp, Eno and Ferry (so much history there, from Ferry’s failed audition for King Crimson to Fripp and Eno’s collaboration on No Pussyfooting and beyond) joining the singing of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. You don’t get that every day.

Brian Eno: The Ship

Brian Eno The ShipSomewhere in West London, there is said to be a dealer in second-hand hi-fi equipment whose face lights up every time Brian Eno walks in. Eno’s interest in speakers of all types and sizes was on show this morning in his Notting Hill studio, where a small audience gathered to listen to a 15-channel 3D mix of his new album, The Ship. After the playback, I took the photograph above in order to give a partial sense of the configuration.

Originally commissioned by a gallery in Stockholm, The Ship has also been seen in Barcelona and Geneva in a larger audio-visual form which enables Eno to describe the installation as “songs you can walk around in”. When plans to install it at Somerset House fell apart, Eno decided to present this stripped-down version privately on his own premises, but there are still hopes of a full public treatment in London in the near future. I hope that happens, because to sit in the middle of it — with the sounds coming from all angles and heights, distributed by Eno and his collaborator, Peter Chilvers, according to the individual speakers’ inherent characteristics — was a very worthwhile experience.

This, Eno says, is his First World War album, treating the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as a prelude to the slaughter that began on the Western Front two years later. To paraphrase him, its subjects are the relationship between hubris and paranoia, and the way the oceans and the land persist while “we pass in a cloud of chatter”. I had no idea of the theme before I sat down to listen, but I couldn’t miss the sense of a threnody running through the two pieces making up the album: “The Ship” itself, 21 minutes long, and a 26-minute suite in three parts called “Fickle Sun”, in which voices and lyrics are allowed to drift in a sea of sounds largely familiar from Eno’s adventures in ambient music.

At first, listening to the slow electronic washes and bleeps and the dislocated recitative of “The Ship”, and noting a tolling bell, I wondered if this was his elegant way of saying goodbye to his friend David Bowie. Wrong there, apparently. But a lovely piece nonetheless, its overlapping layers of synthetic sounds and occasional choirs of distant shadow-voices gradually building a mood of subdued disquiet.

“Fickle Sun” begins with tintinnabulation and flutter, soon thickened by a muffled bass-drum and a wandering rubberised bass line. Eno’s sombre, careful delivery of his stately melody reminds me of Nico singing “Frozen Warnings” or “The End” — at least until organ and staccato synth-brass chords intrude with a faint echo of Holst’s “Mars”, raising the tension before the textures thin out again to support a conversation between the double-tracked natural voice and its synthesised sibling. The short second movement features the actor Peter Serafinowicz reading Eno’s poem “The Hour is Thin” against simple acoustic piano figures: “The hour is thin / Trafalgar Square is calm / Birds and cold black dark / The final famine of a wicked sun…” The suite concludes with a gently paced cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free”, that famous declaration from the Velvets’ third album, with Eno’s lead vocal, sometimes double-tracked or harmonised, floating on the bell-like keyboards of Jon Hopkins, the guitar of Leo Abrahams and the violin and viola of Neil Catchpole.

Placed at the end of the album instead of being located in the middle of side two, as it was in its original incarnation on The Velvet Underground, this deceptively reassuring song seems even more unsettling. Which, at the end of a cycle of pieces dedicated to investigating the eternal interplay of hubris and paranoia, was presumably the intention.

* The Ship is released on April 29 on the Opal label in various CD and vinyl formats. The full audio-visual installation is travelling to Belgrade, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Mantua and Lodz.

Discreet Music: 40 years on

Discreet Music 3

My contribution to the creation of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was a tiny one, but I’m proud of it. Back in 1975 Eno was preparing the release of the first batch of four albums on his Obscure label, under the umbrella of Island Records, where I was in charge of A&R. Almost everything had been taken care of by the time he departed for a trip abroad (to New York, I think). I was left with a single task: to provide a title for a track on the album’s second side, the middle movement of a three-part suite based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The titles for the first and third movements — “Fullness of Wind” and “Brutal Ardour” — had been chosen by Brian at random from the sleeve note to his favourite recording of the Pachelbel piece, by the conductor Jean-François Paillard on the Erato label, and he invited me to follow suit. My eye fell on the phrase “French Catalogues”. So there it is. Well, I told you it was tiny.

It was impossible to predict, 40 years ago, that Discreet Music would become so a significant a progenitor of what we hear around us today, or that it would eventually become the subject of a concert such as the one at the Barbican in London last night, when a nine-piece group directed by David Coulter and Leo Abrahams performed extended variations on both sides of the original album.

One third of the ensemble consisted of the members of the Necks: Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass), and Tony Buck (drums). They were positioned on the left-hand side of the stage. On the extreme right were the great reeds player John Harle, the cellist Oliver Coates, and the violinist Emma Smith. In the middle, at the base of a deep V, were Coulter (vibraphone, musical saw and iPhone) and Leo Abrahams (guitar), with the desk containing the synthesiser and other hardware manipulated by the electronics specialist Benge (Ben Edwards) front and centre. Flanking the stage were a pair of large screens on which a selection of cards from the Oblique Strategies series devised by Eno and the late Peter Schmidt were projected, containing helpful counter-intuitive maxims and admonitions: “Repetition is a form of change”, “Abandon normal instruments”, “Disconnect from device”, and so on.

For the first half, devoted to an extended version of the piece titled “Discreet Music”, which was originally created by the composer with the modest means of a synthesiser, a sequencer, an echo unit and two tape recorders, a vertical screen above and behind the players showed the slowly changing images of Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Eno’s 47-minute film of the New York skyline. Electronics opened this new treatment, outlining the two simple but rather haunting phrases — one ascending, the other descending — on which the piece is structured. Clarinet and bowed vibes took over, followed by gentle guitar, violin and cello, with Harle switching to bass clarinet. The Necks’ entry came about 20 minutes in: the first to join in was Swanton, playing sonorous arco phrases, then Buck, with a brush on his hi-hat, and finally Abrahams picking out liquid single notes. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, after the other instruments had fallen away, the performance evolved in a passage of full-strength Necks collective improvisation, their surges reaching a pitch of thunderous but beautifully controlled violence before receding as the other musicians rejoined for the finale. The arrangement both honoured the original and expanded it in several dimensions, investigating the flow and interplay of texture and line, producing something both intellectually absorbing and absolutely gorgeous. The ovation from a full house was entirely merited.

The stage lighting turned from blue to red for the Pachelbel piece, which first came to my attention when Eno used the Erato recording as the introductory music on an early Roxy Music tour. His refracted and discursive version on Discreet Music, arranged with the help of Gavin Bryars, was performed by the string players of the Cockpit Ensemble. Once again the expanded resources at the disposal of Coulter and Abrahams succeeded in opening out the work, allowing us glimpses of the Canon’s familiar phrases while introducing new elements: a duet for bowed saw and guitar, a poised solo piano interlude, some lovely clarinet/violin/cello counterpoint, and a double-trio passage for the two formations at opposite ends of the stage, eventually interrupted by harsh electronics that preceding the elegant closing diminuendo.

One thing that struck me about the evening was how the nine musicians, despite being strung out across the full width of the Barbican Hall stage, managed create such a powerful sense of intimacy. Aside from the individual phrases familiar from the original versions, it was often hard to tell where the new score ended and the improvising began. Everyone emerged with maximum credit, not least the man whose remarkable imagination and appetite for adventure had made it possible in the first place.

Nico, Eno and John Cale in Berlin, 1974

Nico, Cale, EnoFrom the look on their faces, the Grepos guarding the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie had never seen anything like Brian Eno. This was October 5, 1974, and I seem to remember that Eno had dyed his long hair green. They looked askance at John Cale, too. But somehow they let the three of us through the barriers and barbed wire and past the lookout towers that marked the official crossing point in the Wall, enabling us to stroll up the Friedrichstrasse and turn right on to the Unter den Linden for a taste of the Cold War from the other side.

Nico couldn’t come with us. It was something to do with having a West German passport, but I don’t think she was at all upset. To her, Berlin was the city in which she had lived with her mother between 1940, when she was two years old, and 1954. The young Christa Päffgen had worked as a seamstress and a salesgirl in the famous KaDeWe department store before leaving for a new life in Paris, and a new name, at 16.

We were there because the three of them were performing that night in the Neue Nationalgalerie as part of the Meta Musik-Festival. This was month-long event which also featured Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Musicians, the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing “Music in 12 Parts”), Tangerine Dream, Alvin Curran, Musica Elettronica Viva, Tony and Beverly Conrad, a group of Tibetan monks exiled in Switzerland, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and various others. Quite a line-up.

The festival’s director, Walter Bachauer, had taken note of the well publicised event at the Rainbow in London four months earlier, when Nico, Cale and Eno shared the bill with Kevin Ayers. At Island, to whom all four were all contracted, we got our fingers out and got a live album titled June 1, 1974 in the shops within three weeks of the concert. They repeated the event in Manchester and Birmingham, if I remember correctly. When the West Berlin date came up, Ayers wasn’t available. But Bachauer was happy to take the other three, presented under the heading British Rock of the Avant-Garde.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a classic piece of Bauhaus design by Mies van der Rohe, a low steel and dark glass building erected in 1968 in the middle of what was then a wasteland just south of the Tiergarten (the physical scars of Berlin’s wartime devastation had yet to heal completely). The audience, mainly students, sat on the floor, on white expanded-polystyrene cushions supplied by the museum.

The room was darkened, with three spotlights picking out the performers. Nico had her usual harmonium, Cale had a beautiful grand piano, and Eno had his VCS3 synthesiser plus a card table on which he placed a couple of dozen wine glasses, filled with water to varying heights, all miked up.

The idea was to split the evening between the songs of Cale and Nico. She sang “Frozen Warnings” and “No One Is There” from The Marble Index, “Janitor of Lunacy”, “The Falconer”, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied” from Desertshore, and three tracks from her new album: “You Forgot to Answer”, “Innocent and Vain” and the title track, the Doors’ “The End”. He performed “Guts”, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Buffalo Ballet”, Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Fear”, the title track of his new album.

For me, “Fear” was the real first high-point, not least because the point of the card table and the amplified water-filled wine glasses became apparent. Eno tapped on the glasses to make tintinnabulatory noises and then, as Cale’s dramatic song neared the point of explosion, he started to smash them. Fluxus had come to the Bauhaus.

But that was just a start. A certain amount of restiveness had been apparent in the audience from the start, in the form of mild heckling and booing. Back then Berlin audiences had a marked tendency to make their feelings known, and — given that 1974 was the time of the Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhoff and the Red Army Fraction — this lot probably spent as much time at political demonstrations as at concerts.

What really set them off was Nico’s decision to sing “Das Lied der Deutschen”, the old national anthem, with its tune by Haydn and its triumphalist words by August Hoffman von Fallersleben. It had been readopted by the Bonn government in 1952, using only the third verse: a hymn to peaceful unification. The verses about “Germany above all in the world” and “German women, Germany loyalty, German wine and German song” were omitted. Nico, inevitably, ploughed her way through the lot, seemingly oblivious to the gathering crescendo of disapproval. Cale responded as one knew he would, by hammering Rachmaninoff-style arpeggios up and down the keyboard, while Eno gamely produced a variety of lurid war noises from his little synthesiser. The booing and the heckling became shouting and chanting, and dozens of the white polystyrene cushions were hurled (quite harmlessly) towards the stage.

As the cushions flew through the spotlights in the darkened space amid that anarchic din, with Nico imperturbable at the centre of the storm, you could not help but think of the events of 30 years earlier, and what she must have witnessed as a small child. I never knew what her motivation for performing that song was, and I never felt like asking.

Meta Musik 2

Double exposure

Television 1By the time Brian Eno and I pitched up in New York to make a set of demos with Television in mid-December 1974, Richard Hell was on his way out of the band. I didn’t know that at the time, although it was apparent from his demeanour that he was already somewhat semi-detached from the other three. And perhaps I should have recognised the significance of the fact that none of the five songs we recorded during a three-day stay was written by Richard. They were all the work of Tom Verlaine, which meant no room for “Blank Generation” or “Love Comes in Spurts”, two of the Hell-composed songs that had been performed when I saw the band a couple of months earlier and would become, after Richard had moved on to the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids, anthems of the New Wave.

I suppose that if anyone is entitled to boast of having invented the punk movement of the late 1970s, it’s him. And he does make that claim, quietly but firmly, at various points throughout his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Published in the US by Ecco, it tells the story of his life from his birth in 1949 up to the point at which he abandoned his career in music, in 1984. Since then Richard has become a novelist (Go Now, Hot and Cold, Godlike, etc), so he knows how to write and his book is an entertaining, informative and mostly unvarnished — although inevitably subjective — story of sex and drugs, garnished with a little rock and roll. Set mostly in the streets of the Lower East Side, its cast of characters includes Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Dee Dee Ramone, the poet-turned-agent Andrew Wylie, Malcolm McLaren, Seymour Stein, a number of drug dealers and many girlfriends, including the wife of the artist Claes Oldenburg, immortalised in a picture caption that sums up the book’s tone: “At the beginning, she was just a funny rich chick who liked my company and took good care of me and loved having sex.” And, of course, Tom Verlaine, with whom Richard ran away from school in Delaware (they were called Tom Miller and Richard Meyer then) and with whom he was reunited as they created their new identities in New York City in the late Sixties.

No band can exist for long with two leaders, which is how Television started. Especially not when their ambitions are so divergent, as Hell’s and Verlaine’s became. Both were poets, and they collaborated happily on a small poetry magazine during their early years in New York, but only one of them was really interested in music per se. When I talked to Verlaine, our conversations ranged from Booker T and the MGs (later he sent me a copy of their rare Christmas album that he’d found, still shrink-wrapped, in a Chicago thrift shop) to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, and the way he played and wanted the band to sound reflected his obsessions. Hell was far more interested in what music could achieve on a social plane: not just as a way of getting girls into bed, although that was clearly the priority, but as a vehicle for what became the DIY philosophy of punk. His dandyish deployment of ripped and safety-pinned clothes and his spiky hair certainly made him a pioneer, and there is a certain disdain in his attitude to the way the English new wave appropriated his notions (although he admired McLaren and approved of the Sex Pistols). Not that Verlaine was unaware of the aesthetic dimension: no one ever brought the fugitive-poet look to rock and roll more effectively.

It was in 1972 that Verlaine found a second-hand Danelectro bass guitar for $50 and told Hell that he could teach him enough technique for the kind of music they were going to make together with a drummer, Billy Ficca, in a trio calling itself the Neon Boys. Verlaine himself was on his way to become an expert and highly original guitarist, and a couple of years later he found a fourth member, Richard Lloyd, to help him create the intricate two-guitar filigree that was in his head. Now they were called Television, a name chosen by Hell and approved by Verlaine (“Much later I noticed that ‘TV’ was his initials,” Hell notes drily).

Television 3That was the line-up when I was taken by my friends Richard and Lisa Robinson to see them at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre on East 4th Street (now the home of the New York Theatre Workshop) in October 1974. The newly formed Blondie opened the show, replacing the Ramones at short notice and performing a set that, beyond Debbie’s looks, betrayed little of their potential. Television’s set was tense, sometimes rickety, but spellbinding even when a song like the never-recorded ballad “Bluebirds” threatened to fall apart. The one that really made an impact had an unforgettable chorus: “I fell… (Did you feel low?) Not at all.. (Huh?) I fell… right into the arms… of Venus de Milo.” And Verlaine’s stage presence, with its sense of suppressed anguish, was as compelling as his laconic, sidelong delivery. Hell sang “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”, but I’m afraid he and his songs didn’t make much of an impression. I took away a poster for the band’s forthcoming appearances at Club 82, Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, with approving quotes from from David Bowie, Nick Ray, Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, plus a list of the 30-odd songs in their repertoire scribbled by Hell in ballpoint pen on the reverse side.

I was running the A&R department at Island Records in London then, and looking for something new, preferably something that wasn’t wearing denim, and when I got home I made arrangements to return as soon as possible and make demos with Television. They were keen, and no other company was interested at the time. I contacted Eno, who readily agreed to help out at the sessions; his presence, I felt, might help to influence my bosses at Island, and he might even get his management company, EG, interested in taking them on.

The studio we used, Good Vibrations at 1440 Broadway, a 25-story office building a block down from Times Square, was not an obvious choice. I booked it because I’d been doing some work with Fania Records, the salsa label, whose records Island released in the UK, and that was where they recorded Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of their stable, so I’d get a good rate and the use of an experienced engineer, Jon Fausty. And it was only going to be a demo session, so we didn’t really need Electric Lady or the Record Plant.

The five tracks we recorded over the course of two days, and mixed down on the third, have been endlessly bootlegged, often with inaccurate information attached. The tracks were “Prove It”, “Venus de Milo”, “Marquee Moon”, “Friction” and “Double Exposure” — the last of those being the only one that didn’t make it on to their debut album when they finally signed with Elektra two years later. The piano on “Marquee Moon” was played by Tom. Eno played no keyboards and did not sing on the tracks. And the location was not “Fairland Studios, Hollywood”.

Tom didn’t like the way things turned out, and later he blamed Eno. “The whole thing sounded like the Ventures,” he told Viv Goldman in a Sounds interview. “It sounded so bad. I kept on saying, why does it sound so bad? And he’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? It sounds pretty good to me.'” Tom might equally have blamed me or Fausty, but he and Eno didn’t get on, although there was no overt falling out. That still seems a shame. I didn’t realise at the time what a perfectionist Tom was, and that he wanted perfection even on his demos. But did we make those songs sound like the Ventures? I don’t think so. If you know the bootlegs, you judge.

Anyway, I took the tapes home with me and played them to my bosses, crossing my fingers that they’d get the point. Sadly, no one else was greatly impressed, and at the time Island’s success as a small independent label was based on the whole company getting enthusiastic about an artist or a band. In retrospect it would have been good to try and bring them to London, so that people could see them, but it might have been a year or two too early even for that. Tom was disappointed, I was disappointed, and gradually we lost touch. Before long he had squeezed Hell out of the band — they were also divided by their attitude to heroin — and brought in Fred Smith to play bass on their debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel”, released on a label set up by their manager/chief fan Terry Ork, and eventually on Marquee Moon, which deservedly became a classic.

Hell and Verlaine didn’t speak for a long time. “Tom was highly protected, well defended,” Richard writes in a shrewd but hardly impartial assessment of his erstwhile partner’s temperament. “There are good things and bad things about that. It gave him a certain kind of integrity — he wasn’t going to be blown around by fashion, he was discreet and reliable, but it made him really difficult to work with or be friends with. He was afraid of infection and robbery, so he lived in this high, remote, walled-in place, which enabled him to look down on everybody else… I respected his abilities and valued his friendship, but his coldness and egotism came more and more to the fore as he began to get more public attention. He was a lot easier to get along with before strangers started admiring him.”

Maybe Hell saw me as one of those strangers. I didn’t keep up with him because his side of the new wave didn’t interest me greatly, but I listen to everything Verlaine does in order to see if he’s still trying to get closer to the ideal version of what Hell calls his “crystal-clear crisp sweet-guitar suites”. In my view he came nearest to such perfection in Television’s 1992 reunion album, in great songs such as “Shane, She Wrote This”, “1880 or So”, “No Glamour for Willi” and “Call Mr Lee”. So here’s the promo video for “Call Mr Lee”, with wonderful lead work from Richard Lloyd:

and a TV performance of “1880 Or So”:

and, on the basis of equal time, here’s Hell with the Voidoids (including Robert Quine on guitar) in 1979 doing one of his contributions to the  early Television repertoire, “Love Comes in Spurts”:

Finally, here’s “Blank Generation”, also filmed at CBGBs the same year, making me think that it’s a pretty good song, after all: