Television were one of the most creative bands to emerge from New York’s punk scene of the mid-’70s, creating an influential new guitar vocabulary. While guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd liked to jam, they didn’t follow the accepted rock structures for improvisation — they removed the blues while retaining the raw energy of garage rock, adding complex, lyrical solo lines that recalled both jazz and rock. With its angular rhythms and fluid leads, Television’s music always went in unconventional directions, laying the groundwork for many of the guitar-based post-punk pop groups of the late ’70s and ’80s.
In the early ’70s, Television began as the Neon Boys, a group featuring guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca, and bassist Richard Hell. At the end of 1973, the group reunited under the name Television, adding rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd. The following year, the band made its live debut at New York’s Townhouse theater and began to build up an underground following. Soon, their fan base was large enough that Verlaine was able to persuade CBGB’s to begin featuring live bands on a regular basis; the club would become an important venue for punk and new wave bands. That year, Verlaine played guitar on Patti Smith’s first single, “Hey Joe”/“Piss Factory,” as well as wrote a book of poetry with the singer.
Television recorded a demo tape for Island Records with Brian Eno in 1975, yet the label decided not to sign the band. Hell left the band after the recording of the demo tape, forming the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders; the following year, he began a solo career supported by the Voidoids, releasing a debut album, Blank Generation, in 1977. Hell was replaced by ex-Blondie bassist Fred Smith and Television recorded “Little Johnny Jewel,” releasing it on their own Ork record label. “Little Johnny Jewel” became an underground hit, attracting the attention of major record labels. In 1976, the band released a British EP on Stiff Records, which expanded their reputation. They signed with Elektra Records and began recording their debut album.
Marquee Moon, the group’s first album, was released in early 1977 to great critical acclaim, yet it failed to attract a wide audience in America; in the U.K., it reached number 28 on the charts, launching the Top 40 single “Prove It.” Television supported Blondie on the group’s 1977 tour, but the shows didn’t increase the group’s following significantly.
Television released their second album, Adventure, in the spring of 1978. While its American sales were better than those of Marquee Moon, the record didn’t make the charts; in Britain, it became a Top Ten hit. Months later, the group suddenly broke up, largely due to tensions between the two guitarists. Smith rejoined Blondie, while Verlaine and Lloyd both pursued solo careers; Lloyd also played on John Doe’s first solo album, as well as joined Matthew Sweet’s supporting band with the 1991 album Girlfriend.
Nearly 14 years after their breakup, Television re-formed in late 1991, recording a new album for Capitol Records. The reunited band began its comeback with a performance at England’s Glastonbury summer festival in 1992, releasing Television a couple months later. The album received good reviews, as did the tour that followed, yet the reunion was short-lived — the group disbanded again in early 1993. In 2001, Television again reunited for a handful of shows in the U.K. as well as an appearance at the Noise Pop Festival in Chicago, and they continued to perform occasionally when the spirit moved them. In 2007, Richard Lloyd announced he was leaving Television under amicable circumstances; guitarist Jimmy Rip, who had played on Verlaine’s solo albums and had sat in for Lloyd when illness prevented him from playing a concert with the group, became his permanent replacement for their occasional live appearances. Tom Verlaine died in New York City on January 28, 2023 after a brief illness. He was 73 years of age. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine