The CBGB scene of New York in the 1970s was a monumental time in popular culture. The New York Dolls, Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith; many of the most influential American musical figures of the era cut their teeth at that dingy bar in SoHo. Television was another legendary outfit that germinated and first found success in that sweaty hole.
These days they are one of the most well-respected guitar bands of all time. Their 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon, features some of the most iconic six-string licks of the whole scene. Hooky, complex and imagery laden, tracks like ‘See No Evil, ‘Marquee Moon’ and ‘Prove It’, cemented Tom Verlaine and the band CBGB’s very own guitar heroes. Their playing went far beyond anything that the New York Dolls had done, and with a minimalist outlook, set the foundations for future guitar pioneers Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and more recently, bands like Ought.
One classic feature of Television’s career is that punk icon, Richard Hell, was their original bassist. This was before he and former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders formed The Heartbreakers, which he also quickly left to form The Voidoids. Hell and Television frontman Tom Verlaine had met in school and became great friends. In fact, they even ran away from school and were arrested by the police for a spat on minor crimes before they moved to New York as young adults.
When Verlaine and Hell reconvened in New York in the early ’70s, they formed The Neon Boys with drummer Billy Ficca. In March that year, they hired second guitarist Richard Lloyd and renamed themselves Television.
In Television’s early days, the songwriting duties were split evenly between Hell and Verlaine, with Lloyd often adding parts to the mix. As the band started to gig and find their sound, tensions arose as Verlaine, Lloyd and Ficca developed their artistry and began experimenting with instrumentation and composition. Hell being Hell, he remained untrained in his musical style, and so the cracks started to show.
Verlaine felt that Hell’s manic onstage behaviour was overshadowing his songs and is alleged to have told him to “stop jumping around” during a set. It is also said that sometimes, he refused to play Hell’s songs, such as ‘Blank Generation’, which would become a signature of his and The Voidoids after departing Television.
A pre-fame Patti Smith wrote a piece on one of these early Television shows in an edition of The Soho Weekly. Of their unrelenting bassist, she said: “Hell raises it. He’s real neat, totally Highway 61. Tufted hair, perfect shades and a grey-blue gabardine suit reputed to have graced the frame of Raymond Chandler. The way he moves is so insane like a spastic Chuck Berry like as if the strangest spade was doing the split on desolation row.”
Smith opined: “His bass is total trash. A metallic gold fleck piece of shit he got in some pawnshop for $41. He has a driving monotonous way of playing it that comes on real sexy. He’s also a real fast mouth, spits those jokes from the spleen and keeps them coming.”
The conflict became to much to bear, and after the band were picked up by Island Records, Hell decided it was time to follow his own path. In 1975, he joined Thunders in The Heartbreakers, but then left to form his own outfit, The Voidoids in 1976.
Their debut album, Blank Generation, would become one of the most important pieces of art-punk ever made. It had a huge impact on The Clash, Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth and Minutemen, and showed that Hell was right in following his convictions and carving out his own colossal legacy.