GUARDIAN / RICHARD WILLIAMS
‘They felt like a possible future’: how Brian Eno and I recorded Television’s first demos
hen Tom Verlaine wrote his great lyric about Broadway looking so medieval, he wasn’t thinking about the rather down-at-heel recording studio in an office building where his band, Television, made their first demos in December 1974. Good Vibrations was the name of the studio and it was a bit of a misnomer, given the way things turned out.
A few weeks earlier I’d been taken by some New York friends to hear Television and another new band, called Blondie, at the Truck and Warehouse Theater on East 4th Street. This was the kind of event on which the Downtown music scene built its 1970s reputation. A decade after Lou Reed had conspired with John Cale in a Ludlow Street apartment, lower Manhattan was still a place where artists could find affordable lodgings in a congenially picaresque environment. New bands performed in front of encouraging audiences comprising poets, painters, photographers, fellow musicians and scene-makers.
For all the unmissable allure of the support band’s lead singer, it would be a kindness to say that on this night Blondie were a work in the early phase of construction. Television were a little further along the evolutionary path and, at that stage, a lot more interesting. Verlaine, standing centre-stage, caught the attention for his anguished vocal delivery and the obvious brilliance of his songwriting, particularly in the one about falling “into the arms of Venus De Milo” and another with the hardboiled exhortation to “prove it – just the facts”. Most of all, at a time when people were wanting short, sharp two-minute songs as a riposte to the sprawling excesses of so-called progressive rock, Verlaine and his fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd revelled in their extended interplay, entwining their lines to create a compelling sonic architecture. On bass was Richard Hell, whose spiked hair and distressed clothes spelled attitude, as did the songs he sang, including Blank Generation and Love Comes in Spurts. On drums, Billy Ficca held the volatile elements together.
Good Vibrations wasn’t a great studio and it certainly wouldn’t have been the optimal place to record Television, but the sessions were only supposed to produce rough demos that I could take back to London in order to convince the company that they were worth signing. To strengthen my case, I took Brian Eno along with me. Two years after leaving Roxy Music, he had released two solo albums and was exploring his options. Like me, he was intrigued by the scene evolving in New York. He had been helpful when I signed Cale and Nico to Island and had shared a concert with them at the Rainbow a few months earlier. The debut album by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, in which he played, had given him a taste for producing. He was also signed to EG Management, who I hoped might take an interest.
We spent two days recording and one day mixing. Five of Verlaine’s songs were laid down – Marquee Moon, Venus, Friction, Prove It and Double Exposure – and none of Hell’s, in hindsight a sign that he would soon be out of the band, although I didn’t know it at the time. When I left with a copy of the master tape, all seemed well.
Back in London, however, it proved harder to turn my own feelings about the band into something contagious. Very few people at the company showed a positive response to the demos. And Island, back then, was a small independent outfit whose magical success was firmly based on two elements: the ears of the founder, Chris Blackwell, and the collective enthusiasm of the company at all levels, including the sales and marketing staff, who cared about the music as much as anyone else. If you didn’t have one of those factors on your side, you were probably wasting your time.
In retrospect it would have been good to try and bring Television to London so that people could see them, but it might have been a year too early for that. Tom was disappointed, I was disappointed, and gradually we lost touch. Before long he had squeezed Hell out of the band and brought in Fred Smith to play bass on their debut single, Little Johnny Jewel, released on a label created by their patron, Terry Ork. Eventually Elektra signed them and in 1977 they released Marquee Moon, one of the great albums of the era, containing four of the five songs we’d recorded together, re-recorded by the British engineer Andy Johns at A&R studios in New York – also located in an office building just off Broadway, with exactly the beautiful crispness and clarity Tom had been hoping to hear at Good Vibrations.
Eventually the Island tape was widely bootlegged – nothing to do with me, although I did keep a copy – and various versions of the story began circulating, first in interviews and later in autobiographies by Hell and Lloyd. Verlaine told journalists that he had hated the way the demos came out and claimed that EG Management must have played the tape to Bryan Ferry, who he thought had borrowed some of the ideas for Roxy Music’s next album, Siren, released in the autumn of 1975. Close listening reveals no obvious resemblance, but Verlaine was known for his quickness to suspect others. At an early gig he had confiscated a cassette recorder from Lou Reed, who he believed was also planning to steal his ideas.
But it was really the production of the demos that upset Tom, for which he put the blame on Eno. “The whole thing sounded like the Ventures,” he said to Vivien Goldman in a Sounds interview. “It sounded so bad. I kept on saying, why does it sound so bad? And he’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? It sounds pretty good to me.’” Tom might more correctly have blamed me for not realising at the time what a perfectionist he was, and that he wanted perfection even in his demos.