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Best Television Songs: 10 Tracks That Broadcast A New Future For Rock
Roberta Bayley / Redferns
List & Guides

Best Television Songs: 10 Tracks That Broadcast A New Future For Rock

Combining the energy of punk with the intricacy of jazz, the best Television songs still sound as though they were beamed in from the future.

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Television lagged behind their New York City punk-era contemporaries Blondie, Ramones and Talking Heads when it came to releasing a record, yet they made an immediate impact when they got there. Issued through Elektra at the height of punk, in February 1977, their immaculate debut album, Marquee Moon, contained many of the best Television songs and was almost universally hailed, with a smitten Nick Kent, from NME, describing them as “one band in a million”.

In truth, while their music was shot through with the energy of punk, Television were leagues ahead of the era’s three-chord chancers. Though often neat, sharp and angular, their songs indulged in jazz-style interplay and counter-melodies, with twin lead guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, daring to flout their technical ability at a time when such virtuosity was frowned upon. Sadly, though, while the towering Marquee Moon and its underrated follow-up, 1978’s Adventure, helped redraw rock’s post-punk parameters, Television’s career was brief. They split in the autumn of 1978, before reuniting in 1992 to tour and record a self-titled third album. As a result, their catalogue is small, yet it contains some monumental music, as the best Television songs amply prove.

Listen to the best of Television here, and check out the best Television songs, below

10: Little Johnny Jewel (standalone ingle, 1975)

Originally featuring future NYC punk scenester Richard Hell on bass, Television formed in 1973 and crafted their unique sound through countless local gigs in venues such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Though still unsigned by 1975, the band built a large local following and – with former Blondie bassist Fred Smith replacing Hell – the group self-released their debut single, Little Johnny Jewel, through manager Terry Ork’s DIY imprint, Ork Records.

Loosely a tribute to Iggy Pop (real name James Newell Osterberg, Jr), Little Johnny Jewel broke the established rules for a punk single, as it lasted seven minutes and was spread across both sides of the 7” it was pressed on. This created tension within the band, with Richard Lloyd in particular opposed to the idea of releasing such a long track in this format. Despite this, Tom Verlaine was adamant the song would be released, and this intriguing, lo-fi track, highlighting what US writer Alan Light called “drummer Billy Ficca’s highly syncopated Bohannon beat and Verlaine’s William Blake-inspired lyrics” did much better than anyone expected. Selling out its initial pressing, it quickly attracted sympathetic ears, both at home and abroad.

“I put on Television’s Little Johnny Jewel and couldn’t believe that they had the nerve to record it,” former Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope wrote in his memoir, Head On. “It made the New York Dolls sound like Yes. The bass had no bass, the guitars had no power at all and the singing was awful. In fact the whole record was awful. And epic. And completely brilliant and we never stopped playing it.”

9: Ain’t That Nothin’ (from ‘Adventure’, 1978)

Following their landmark debut album, Marquee Moon, was never going to be an easy task for Television, so in some ways the band’s second album, Adventure, was on a hiding to nothing even before it landed on turntables. With hindsight, it might lack the jagged tension, energy and enigma factor of its illustrious predecessor, yet it’s still a fine album on its own terms, and much deserving of reappraisal.

One of the album’s obvious stand-outs, Ain’t That Nothin’, most definitely earns a spot among the best Television songs. Built upon Verlaine’s staccato riffs and rock-solid rhythms, it gradually morphs into Adventure’s most linear anthem, but it also offers both Verlaine and Lloyd the opportunity to trade elegant yet truly vicious guitar solos.

8: Prove It (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

A live favourite from the band’s earliest shows, Prove It showcased Television at their most playful. Driven by Spanish-sounding guitar figures and Billy Ficca’s clicking, rimshot-driven beat, the song’s highly accessible sonic backdrop was matched with lyrics influenced by the late-60s US TV detective series Dragnet (a precursor to Law And Order, starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday), from which Verlaine also copped the song’s hook, “Prove it… just the facts!” Though the rest of his lyrics were typically elliptical, Prove It still had an irresistibly catchy, radio-friendly appeal, and it rewarded Television with a chart peak of No. 25 – the highest of the band’s three UK Top 40 hits.

7: Days (from ‘Adventure’, 1978)

Most of the best Television songs feature stinging lead guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, but Days, from Adventure, is notably free of pyrotechnics. Indeed, this plaintive, lilting almost-ballad is a study in graceful restraint, with the two guitarists weaving folk-rock motifs over Smith and Ficca’s supple rhythms, and Lloyd embroidering the tapestry with a couple of subtle, quicksilver solos which are over almost before they’ve begun.

6: Guiding Light (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

Co-written by Verlaine and Lloyd, the elegant Guiding Light is the closest Marquee Moon gets to a ballad in the strictest sense. Framed by guitar arpeggios and strategic stabs of piano, and infused with more than a little soul, it also inspired one of Verlaine’s most impassioned vocal performances, with the song’s surging verses rising to a glorious, prayer-like chorus. Richard Lloyd’s guitar solo is surely the simplest and most direct on Marquee Moon, but it’s no less compelling for that.

5: Friction (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

With its dark, rumbling rhythms illuminated by lightning flashes of lead guitar and a wild, barely-contained Verlaine solo, the anthemic Friction is the sound of Television at their most elemental. A long-established live favourite by the time the band went in to cut Marquee Moon, it emerged from the studio as one of the best Television songs, with the on-trend nihilism in Verlaine’s lyrics (“I don’t wanna grow up, there’s too much contradiction!”) brilliantly contrasting with the menacing chromatic drama of the music, creating an age-defying tension which still hooks the listener in today.

4: Foxhole (from ‘Adventure’, 1978)

Though it sits proudly among the best Television songs, Adventure’s hardest rocker, Foxhole, is atypically direct, at least in the lyrical sense. Eschewing his usual obtuseness, Verlaine instead opted to compose an anti-war protest song, written from the point of view of a dying soldier (“I feel the shells hit, moonlight web/Goodbye arms, so long head”), which pulls precious few punches. On their own, Verlaine’s lyrics are stark enough, but when they’re allied to the angularity of the song’s main riff and the repetitive strain of the chorus, the direct and highly compelling Foxhole has an impact akin to The Doors’ equally outspoken anti-war song, The Unknown Soldier.

3: Venus (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

One of the sonic devices Television employed to make Marquee Moon such a satisfying listen was Tom Verlaine and (especially) Richard Lloyd’s decision to double track their guitar parts on several of the album’s songs. One of the best examples of this is on the record’s second cut, Venus, on which both guitarists layered their neo-classical-sounding guitar parts, which had originally been composed by Verlaine on piano, as he felt “two guitars could be the left and right hand of a piano, so that concept was different for a guitar band”.

Certainly, the end results were – and remain – spectacular. Unquestionably one of the best Television songs, Venus has both an elegance and a swagger about it, while it also features some of Verlaine’s most wonderfully surreal lyrics – especially the chorus (“I fell right into the arms of the Venus De Milo”), which namechecks the famously armless ancient Greek marble statue on display in the Louvre Museum, in Paris.

“It got me on first listen and stayed my favourite track through the countless times I played the album,” The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster told The Guardian. “It was a pop song, while still containing all the fire and poetic lyricism of the band’s other numbers… Perfect, I thought. A song could be highly melodic and still challenge.”

2: See No Evil (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

See No Evil opens Marquee Moon, and it’s the ideal introduction to Television’s off-kilter world. Compact, tight and angular, the music is propelled by a churning, circular riff and arguably Richard Lloyd’s best guitar solo – a beautifully plotted and perfectly executed showcase which, once over, dives straight back into the main body of the song. Elsewhere, the chorus (“I understand all destructive urges/They seem so perfect/I see no evil”) thrillingly encapsulates the nihilism of punk, even if – musically – See No Evil (and, indeed, the rest of Marquee Moon) had outstripped the movement and was already redrawing the boundaries for post-punk and beyond.

1: Marquee Moon (from ‘Marquee Moon’, 1977)

Having pulled it off with Little Johnny Jewel, Television repeated the trick of releasing as a single two parts of one lengthy song, when they gave Marquee Moon’s legendary title track a standalone release two months after its parent album hit the shelves, earning themselves a surprise UK Top 40 hit in the process. Marquee Moon, though, is best absorbed in its full ten-minute glory: as the closing track of the album’s first side, it’s a thing of wonder that more than deserves its place at the top of this list of the best Television songs.

The clipped, double-stop guitar intro is instantly recognisable, and from thereon in, everything about the song – from Verlaine and Lloyd’s duelling guitars to the track’s intricate, jazz-inflected structure; Verlaine’s impressionistic, noir-infused lyrics (“I remember how the darkness doubled/I remember lightning struck itself”); and his long, exploratory solo – is utterly crucial to the plot. Not just the defining moment of the late-70s New York punk scene, Marquee Moon remains one of the most influential guitar songs of all time.

“Television’s Marquee Moon contains a lot of the elements that put the final nail in the coffin of progressive rock,” Echo And The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant wrote in his first memoir, Bunnyman, recalling the impact the album had on him in 1977. “It can never in a million years be called prog. How did they pull this off? Television was my favourite band and will remain a major influence on me for the rest of my life.”

Looking for more NYC post-punk? Check out the best Talking Heads songs.

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