Television - The Blow Up
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
So, how do you feel about guitars?
Some people, of course, love ‘em. They won’t have anything to do with music that doesn’t have enough of them. And some people don’t like the instrument. Of course, both groups seem to be shrinking by the day, which is nice to see, and in most cases what they object to isn’t really anything intrinsic to the instrument but rather the cultural detritus that has become encrusted around the guitar like a pearl.
I personally was raised mostly, if not completely, on guitar-based music, and much of the music I listen to today has at least some guitars in it. I like them, but I’ve thankfully come a long way from when I was 10 and would have told you that something without guitars “isn’t real music”.
I’m glad I got over that bout of youthful prejudice, but some people go too far in the other direction. I was a bit stunned the first time I saw the term “rockist” tossed around derogatorily, and as much as I can see the point (and even agree with it in places), the whole idea that rock music, and guitars by extension, is/was bereft of any real excitement, enjoyment and innovation strikes as just as wrongheaded as its converse.
But one of the side effects of my following the various opinions concerning the guitar that float around the cultural ether these days is that I feel mildly self-conscious of my complete unconscious love of the instrument when played right. I agree with some of the thoughts on each side, but are people really going to think I’m a knuckle-dragger if I start talking rapturously about solos?
I’m probably worrying too much, I know, because I’d like to think no matter how much someone resents the baggage we’ve given the guitar could still get a charge out of Television’s posthumously released live double album The Blow Up. They might get it from a different disc than I do, but I think any music fan willing to give this one eighty-five minutes of their time and an open mind will come away satisfied.
The first disc, though, might scare some listeners off. All the recordings here were made in 1978, during Television’s last tour, and the sound quality on the nine shorter pieces on the first half is, to be polite, highly variable. Those of us who have already cut our teeth on bands like Pavement shouldn’t be bothered, but sometimes this stuff is hard to adjust to. It is the low fidelity of the recordings, though, that makes cuts like the electrifyingly sloppy take on “See No Evil” so perversely thrilling, guitars and Tom Verlaine’s keen vocals randomly cutting through the murk. “Prove It” is a definite highlight, the guitars spiraling over the audience shouting out the refrain.
And yes, the guitars are definitely what you come for in any Television disc. I personally like Verlaine’s voice and lyrics, but can see how the former would take some getting used to. On record, the guitars always sounded so clean and almost inevitable; the first time I heard the song, on Marquee Moon, it was if I’d heard it a million times before. Not in a derivative way (although like any other modern musical act, Television are certainly derivative), more in the way that there seemed like no other ways for the guitar to go; it all followed logically and beautifully.
But live, Television were a much more scuffed up and “punk” thing (as in the original meaning, back when Talking Heads and Blondie were punk, more an attitude than a style), the band briefly touching meltdown on “Venus de Milo” (aka “Venus” on Marquee Moon, and maybe their greatest short composition) and swaggering through “I Don’t Care”.
The first disc is rounded out, literally, with a chaotic rendition of the 13th Floor Elevators' "Fire Engine" (for unknown reasons called “The Blow Up”, although that fits the sound), and the best cover of Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” I’ve heard. Yes, like Guns N’ Roses’ version they stretch it out, but there’s more here than just an endless yowled chorus of the title. The guitar work here effortlessly shapeshifts from funeral to joyous, starting and stopping on a dime as Verlaine occasionally croaks out the chorus.
Throughout the first disc, the mix is watery, occasionally wavering between clear and muddy in a fashion that’s either thrilling or annoying depending on how much of an audiophile you are. If they’d left it at that The Blow Up would be good but more of a curiosity for fans than a classic.
But the second disc boasts not only much clearer sound, but the three best performances on the album. There are only four tracks, and “Friction” is another shorter song, great in its descending straight lines of guitar but lacking the improvisational fireworks of the other three performances.
The first track is the monumental, almost fifteen minute, take on Television’s debut single “Little Johnny Jewel”. The dueling guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd (who is often underappreciated when talking about Television) wrap themselves like barbed wire around each other, while the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca keep the rock solid beat. After seven minutes that already blow away anything on the first disc, the music comes to a halt, starting up again twice as strong. There’s slightly less structure, but the solo taken at about eight minutes in is one of the most beautiful sounds created by guitar I’ve ever heard.
After the brief pause of “Friction” the band lets go again with the title track of Marquee Moon, already ten minutes on record and half again as long here. The famous opening riff sounds much harsher immediately and, although the band mostly follows the recorded framework, everything sounds like it’s been dipped in acid and eaten down to the bare, raw essentials. “Marquee Moon” is justly famous and the live version here kills the original stone dead, abstract interlude at ten minutes included. The song starts ending twelve or thirteen minutes in, allowing the band to slowly disassemble it, eventually paring it down just to a single guitar rumble and Ficca’s impressive drumming.
The last track is just listed as “Satisfaction” on the back, but as soon as the first riff hits you know what you’ve got. More than anywhere else on The Blow Up, here the guitars swamp Verlaine’s voice. He sounds like he’s singing from a different room than the rest of the group. The whole crowd knows the song, of course, and so he and the crowd sing away as the drums and bass pound away and the indelible riff plays on. The crowd sings the “hey hey hey” part. God only knows how long it’s been since the Rolling Stones did a good live version of this song, but I have my doubts that any version would live up to the 7:18 on display here. The unearthly sounds heard on the track are so different from what you’ll hear on most live rock albums because, the liner notes tell us:
By the mid-section of the song most of the audible rhythm is the audience clapping in time. Verlaine sounds ghostridden as he howls out the lines of the chorus.
Every time I hear this version of “Satisfaction”, I’m reminded of the title of an old Miles Davis song off of Bitches Brew, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”. This album, and “Satisfaction” in particular, is Television running the voodoo down, a real ghost train of an effort. Spectral and powerful to equal extents, packing the collaborative fireworks of good jazz and the rifftastic tastiness of good rock, it would hopefully be enough to make us all grudgingly accept that, while they might not be the be-all and end-all, there’s something to be said for guitars after all.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-05-04