Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Television, "See No Evil"

I was thinking about the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the year punk rock truly exploded. 1977 brought a ton of amazing singles and albums by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Wire, Clash, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Suicide, Talking Heads, Television, Heartbreakers, Damned, Buzzcocks, Blondie, and more. It was an amazing explosion of music that burned brightly and remade the rules for rock music, even if the initial burst quickly dissipated into a thousand different directions.

It makes me feel old that this happened forty years ago, even though I was way too young to remember it at the time. I discovered the music in the early 1990s, when it felt like this upheaval had happened the day before yesterday. In 1993, when I bought and read and reread an account of the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 1978 tour, it was only fifteen years before. Not recent, but not ancient history. Now the music is old, older than Chuck Berry and Elvis when I was first digging punk rock.

Despite its age, it still holds up. Before punk got ossified into a rules-driven, hidebound genre of music for a very self-enclosed subculture, it had an air of true freedom. If you listen to the earliest punk records, you'll notice that they are not all three chords and a cloud of dust, at least when we are talking about the good bands.

Television are the perfect example of this. They, along with the Ramones and Suicide, were the first of the first New York punk bands. The Ramones set the template of ur-punk in the public imagination, all ripped denim and leather jackets and direct, three chord songs with distorted guitars. They sang proudly about being cretins, their lyrics matching their droogish appearance. Television, on the other hand, had an artistic sensibility. Their lead singer, Tom Verlaine, named himself after a French poet, with lyrics to match. More importantly, the band had a twin lead guitar attack and long songs, not the kind of thing punks were "supposed" to do in later times.

There's no better introduction than "See No Evil," first track on their first album. It drops right into a tight, killer riff, the edgy guitars cutting across Verlaine's oddly contoured voice. The song never fails to get the heart pumping, but when it gets to the guitar solo the song reaches heights of sublimity that fear other rock songs have ever reached. It might be my favorite guitar solo of all time, since it takes such an engaging song and knocks it straight into the stratosphere. The rest of the song afterward is merely comedown.

Is that solo "punk rock"? Not according the Pharisees of punkdom, but who the hell cares what they think anymore? Forty years later we can stop with the orthodoxy and enjoy true musical ecstasy.

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