Television came out of the CBGB’s scene in New York (in fact, they were the first rock band to play the legendary club), but they never fit the “Punk” or “New Wave” label. They were unique, which is why their debut album Marquee Moon sounds timeless, as fresh today as the day it was released in 1977. Fronted by two great guitarists– the mercurial Richard Lloyd and the enigmatic Tom Verlaine, who also provided unorthodox vocals and most of the songwriting– Television would influence generations of bands that followed. Though they never achieved commercial success, Marquee Moon regularly appears on virtually every “Greatest Albums Of All Time” list. On this episode, we explore the track that opens the album, “See No Evil“.
“See No Evil” (Verlaine) Copyright 1977 Double Exposure Music Ltd. ASCAP
Hello once again, fellow music travelers. My name is Brad Page, and this is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, coming to you on the Pantheon Podcast Network. Each episode of this show, I pick a favorite song and try to get a handle on why it’s such a great song; what is it about this song that draws me in? Hopefully you find something in each of these songs, too. We don’t get deep into technical details or music theory, I’d rather talk about the arrangement, the performances, the production, and the emotional effect of the song. Our journey on this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast brings us to the band Television and the song “See No Evil”.
A couple of years ago, back on Episode 39 of this podcast, we explored a song by Richard Lloyd, one of the guitarists in Television, and we talked about Television quite a bit then. But last year– in fact, one year ago this month– we lost Tom Verlaine, the other guitarist and primary singer and songwriter for television. He passed away on January 28, 2023. So, I wanted to revisit Television and dive into one of their classic songs.
Television was one of the first, if not the first, so-called punk band to play the legendary CBGB’s club in New York City, and were critical in launching the punk and new wave movement that changed music history. Television was founded in late 1973 when two friends, Richard Myers and Tom Miller, who had run away to New York City in the 60’s, met a guitarist named Richard Lloyd, and they recruited a drummer, Billy Ficca. Billy had played with Myers and Miller before, in a band called Neon Boys, but they never went anywhere. Myers and Miller were actually more successful writing and publishing their own poetry. By the time Television came together, guitarist Miller had changed his name to Tom Verlaine, and Myers, on bass, became Richard Hell. This kind of self-invention is an essential element in the sound and the approach of Television. This was the era of glitter and glam, of long hair and Led Zeppelin. But Television, largely driven by the aesthetic of Richard Hell, wore their hair short and dressed in tattered clothes. Legend has it that Malcolm McLaren was inspired by Richard Hell’s look and brought that image back to England, and the Sex Pistols who he managed.
Patty Smith was there for Television’s early gigs at CBGB’s and as a writer and a critic for magazines like Cream, she was an early booster of Television and the whole CBGB scene, publicizing the sights and the sounds and helping to create the mythology that was the New York punk scene of the 1970’s.
In 1974, the band went into the studio to lay down some demos with Brian Eno producing. But Verlaine was not happy with the results, and no record label signed the band. So they returned to CBGB’s, playing two sets a night. These Eno demo tapes have never been officially released and remain among the most legendary, infamous bootlegs, much like the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany.
Television’s steady gigs at CBGB’s tightened them up and refined their sound. But tensions grew between Verlaine and Hell, as Verlane became more and more the focus of the band, and Hell quit the band in April 1975. It was a pretty acrimonious split. He was replaced by Fred Smith, who’d been playing bass with Blondie.
The band got tighter, better, and some songs got longer, with extended dueling guitars between Verlaine and Lloyd. This interplay is one of the most important elements in Television sound, right up there with Verlaine’s lyrics and idiosyncratic voice. Bands with two distinctive lead guitarists were not new, but Television brought the guitar solo into a punk and new wave context in a unique way. And it’s the thing that I love the most about this band.
Finally, around 1976, Television signed a recording contract with Electra Records. By this point, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Patty Smith had already released albums, even though Television had been on the scene first. They hit the studio in November ‘76 with producer Andy Johns, whose resume includes albums by Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Andy Johns has worked on some of the greatest records of all time. Verlane said they chose Andy Johns because he got decent rock and roll sounds without messing with the arrangements.
The first television album, “Marquee Moon”, was recorded in three weeks. The band wanted to keep the sound stripped down and minimal. No horns or strings, no synthesizers, no acoustic guitars. They wanted to capture their live sound, but they had spent months before rehearsing for the record, and they were ready.
Their debut album, “Marquee Moon”, is widely considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. An incredibly influential album, even though sales-wise it was considered a flop. It sold less than 80,000 copies in the US and didn’t even crack the Billboard Top 200. But today, look at any list of the greatest albums of all time and you’re guaranteed to find Television’s “Marquee Moon” on that list somewhere. It’s just another example where sales and charts are no indication of greatness.
The album opens with the song “See No Evil”. “See No Evil” was written by Tom Verlaine and performed by Billy Ficca on drums, Fred Smith on bass, Richard Lloyd on guitar, and Tom Verlaine on guitar and lead vocals. It was produced by Andy Johns and Tom Verlaine.
The track begins with Verlaine’s guitar on the left. The bass comes in with a few notes high up on the neck, and then the drums join in, along with Richard Lloyd’s guitar on the right.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the guitars here, because there’s two very different approaches happening: Tom Verlaine’s guitar is about as straightforward as you can get. It’s one guitar track, no overdubs or doubling of parts. Just Tom on his 1958 Fender jazz master, probably playing through a Music Man 410HD amplifier.
Lloyd, on the other hand, is playing multiple parts, doubled, tripled or more. Most likely, he’s playing his Fender 1961 Stratocaster through a Fender Super Reverb amp. So, you’ve got this mix of simplicity and complexity going on. Let’s hear that intro again.
This is where Tom Verlaine’s vocals come in for the first verse. Verlane’s vocals are easily the most punky thing about the band. If they had had a different, more traditional singer, they might not have even been lumped in with punk or new wave. Underneath the vocal, the band keeps churning, especially Richard Lloyd’s guitar and Billy Ficca’s drums, both giving the song the sound of a repetitive, unstoppable machine. Remember, this is the first song on their first album, and the first thing we hear out of Tom Verlaine’s mouth is “What I want, I want now” — quite a statement of purpose from a young band breaking new ground.
That delivers us to the first chorus. As the backing vocals repeat, “I see no”, Verlaine sings over the top, “I understand all destructive urges, it seems so perfect”. And then the band builds to a climax on “I see no evil”.
I love that chorus. There’s just so much great stuff going on there. Let’s listen to the bass and drums first. Listening to them by themselves, you might get the impression of a disco song. This was New York in 1976. Disco was at its peak and hadn’t worn out its welcome yet. That sound was in the air everywhere in New York City at that time, and a little bit of that flavor made its way into this track.
Add the guitars back in and they bring the edgier rock and roll elements again. Listen to the contrasts between the guitars. Verlaine’s guitar on the left plays big slashing chords, bringing the aggression, while Richard Lloyd’s guitar is playing arpeggios on the right, adding a sense of suspended tension, waiting to be resolved by that final walk down the scale to return to the verse melody.
And here we have the second verse. Let’s talk about Verlaine’s lyrics for a minute. Rarely anything literal, his lyrics move from really clever wordplay to indecipherable phrases. This verse has a little of both. It begins, “I get ideas, I get a notion, I want a nice little boat made out of ocean”. I like that one.
Then it continues. “I get your point. You’re so sharp”. That’s great. And then he sings “Getting good reactions with your Bebo talk”. Now, if you have any idea what “Bebo talk” means, please let me know. I think maybe only Tom Verlaine understood that line.
Now, if I had to guess, I would say that he was singing “when your people talk” there. But according to the official lyric sheet that comes with the album, it’s “Bebo talk”, so your guess is as good as mine.
There’s a nice, tasteful little drum fill there by Billy Ficca, and that gets us into the next chorus.
This time. Let’s bring up the vocals on the chorus.
That scream at the end there is great. That leads right into a guitar solo by Richard Lloyd. Both Verlaine and Lloyd were excellent soloists with their own distinctive style. On some Television tracks, they trade lines or play off of each other, but on this song, Richard Lloyd takes the solo by himself. He’s overdubbed this solo. You can hear his multi layered, repetitive pattern continuing to play in the right channel while the solo sits on top, in the middle. He begins with a melodically climbing pattern.
He tosses off some rapid-fire licks there, and then plays a descending phrase that has a middle eastern feel to it. I really like this bit a lot.
Again, some pretty flashy playing there at the end. As guitarists, both Lloyd and Verlaine were in a whole other league compared to most of the bands on the CBGB scene.
Let’s bring up the bass and the drums on this final verse.
Verlaine concludes this verse by returning to the opening lines, “what I want, I want now and it’s a whole lot more than anyhow”. And then he adds, “get it?” to drive the point home.,
Now as we reach the end of the song, they kind of merge the verse and the chorus together. Here’s what the guitars, bass and drums start playing. On top of that, you have one voice repeating “I see no evil”, while at the same time, another voice sings variations on “I’m running wild with the one I love. Pull down the future with the one you love”. It’s a somewhat chaotic but exuberant call to action. It’s a great way to end the song, and to open one of the most essential albums in rock history.
The bass is really grooving during this part. There’s also a guitar playing a nice little descending part in there, too.
Television – “See No Evil”.
Many critics raved after the release of the “Marquis Moon” album, the band toured both the US and the UK. They were more successful overseas, but in the US, outside of New York, they were relegated to playing clubs and college towns. Verlaine believed that the band were just too closely identified with that New York scene and that the punk label hurt them.
The band was broke. At one point, they had to sell all of their equipment just to survive, and Richard Lloyd was developing a serious heroin habit. The band recorded their second album, “Adventure”, released in April 1978. The album doesn’t really capture the magic of that first record. For one thing, Richard Lloyd had been hospitalized for weeks due to a heart condition caused by his drug abuse, and so his participation on that second album was limited.
At any rate, the second record fared no better than the first, and by July 1978, Television called it quits. Years later, a few reunions would follow, and they even recorded one final album in 1992.
As I mentioned at the top of the show, Tom Verlaine passed away one year ago, on January 28, 2023. He was 73 at the time of this recording. Billy Ficca, Fred Smith, and Richard Lloyd are still with us.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. I will be back in two weeks with another new episode. Until then, catch up on all of our previous shows on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com. Or you can also find us on any podcast, app or service– Amazon, Google, Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Yada yada yada, this podcast is available on all of them.
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Marquee Moon (album)
Andy Johns (producer)
Music Man amplifiers