Following the release of their 1977 debut album and indisputable classic, Marquee Moon, the ink that Robert Christgau spilled on Television — that hardy brick in the decade’s downtown rock foundation — stained and dried in the form of a cohesive rave in three parts. First, he adored Marquee Moon, throwing an A+ its way in his Consumer Guide; then, his review of 1978’s Adventure glowed, albeit with a duller shine, as their second output earned them a slightly more tarnished A- by his metric. When Christgau caught them at the Bottom Line in 1978, his intense approval for both Television on tape and Television live and in the flesh lead to this review, “Television’s Principles,” which considers the genre lines they drew at the time along with their assault on ear drums and expectations as they continued to deafen audiences in Marquee Moon‘s wake.
From the Village Voice‘s issue that hit the street on June 19, 1978:
If Television aren’t slick enough to suit the virtuoso vultures, neither are they ruff ‘n’ tuff enuff for doctrinaire rock and rollers. Those who know the band only by their albums often dismiss Verlaine as a wimp, and complaints about thin recording on Marquee Moon have turned into charges of bland-out on Adventure. Me, I think the two albums are pretty much of a piece, although I prefer Marquee Moon because it rocks harder, and agree that Verlaine’s newer compositions seem rather reflective. I mean, I too am in this for the rock and roll. I don’t ask much from life—a classic new rhythm guitar figure at medium-fast tempo like the one on “See No Evil” can keep me going for months. When the call-and-response chorus of the song that follows peaks at a perfectly timed “Huh?” I begin to act silly. And when two consecutive albums, eight songs each, offer a total of 16 unmistakable ident riffs, I apply hyperbole first and ask questions afterward. So okay, I probably like the Ramones better. But not even Tommy Ramone’s farewell gig at CBGB last month had me screaming for more like the first of Television shows at the Bottom Line Sunday.
If these be wimps, they’re the loudest wimps I’ve ever heard, their notorious diffidence has been well modulated since they began to tour in 1977. Verlaine’s stagecraft is about what it’s always been—he rolls his eyes upward to indicate effort, exhilaration, amusement, or surprise—but he grinned openly on more than one occasion and like his bandmates seemed to have gained some looseness up there. To my disappointment, the two sets were very similar, incorporating eight selections from the albums plus “Little Johnny Jewel” and two covers—”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” an old standby, and “Satisfaction,” a new encore. But although it would have been nice to hear “Prove It” or “Torn Curtain” from Marquee Moon or “Days” or “Careful” from Adventure, any of them would have slowed down the set, and that’s clearly not what the band wants. They may be perfectionists in the studio, but live they’re rip-roaring rock and rollers without the macho staginess that implies.
The sound of the ensemble was hotter and fuller and tighter than ever before, but that in itself was not what the capacity crowds were there for. They craved guitar. “Richard Lloyd could play lead in any band in the country but this one,” someone yelled, and Lloyd proved it during his first-set solo on “Ain’t That Nothin’,” which climaxed with a simple climb-the-scale raveup that he pulled tighter and tighter, shedding stray note-clusters as he advanced. That remained the best guitar I’d heard all year until about 25 minutes later, when Verlaine launched into a portion of the “Marquee Moon” solo that was so eerie and airy and out of this world he could have been playing bagpipes. Many of the band’s most exciting touches are as prearranged as their song structures—when Lloyd began to wrench distortions out of a loose string during the first-set encore, I concluded that he was just pissed at tuning problems, only to watch him repeat the move at the close of the trouble-free second show. But both men really do improvise, and whatever they forsake in the way of bullshit chops, their melodic and rhythmic inventions are dexterous indeed.
Television’s House of Vans show comes after sets in Boston and Pittsburgh; the last time they performed in New York was at Irving Plaza on December 18, 2014.
Read Christgau’s thoughts on Television below in full, and if you were savvy enough to RSVP in time, see you at the House of Vans on October 8 for Television, Viet Cong and Lower Dens.