Tom Verlaine’s impact on punk rock, indie music, and beyond

Television tom verlaine elektra publicity 1977
Television in 1977 (Elektra Records publicity photo)

Tom Verlaine, guitarist, singer, and bandleader of the immensely influential New York City punk band Television, died Saturday (Jan. 28) after a brief illness. He was 73. 

The news was shared in a statement by Jesse Paris Smith, daughter of singer Patti Smith, who was a longtime friend of Verlaine’s.

Born Thomas Miller in New Jersey in 1949, he later changed his name to Tom Verlaine after 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine. He played piano and saxophone as a kid, eventually switching to guitar. As a teenager he eventually gravitated to New York City with his pal Richard Myers, who, like Verlaine, changed his name and became Richard Hell. He and Hell first played as the Neon Boys, then changed the name to Television (Hell left the band soon after).

Television only recorded two albums during the 1970s, and neither sold very well or got much mainstream radio play. However, Verlaine’s jagged, edgy, complex style and the band’s adventurous melodies had an immediate influence on the burgeoning music scene – including at CBGB, the punk club where Television got it start (the band’s popularity, in turn, helped the club gain a global reputation). Patti Smith, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were just a few of the early CBGB bands that took inspiration from Television. 

When talking about the band Television, the album that comes roaring to mind is the band’s debut, Marquee Moon. And for good reason: when it hit stores in 1977, there was nothing like it. The music wasn’t the thundering blues-influenced rock of bands popular at the time (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), and it certainly wasn’t prog like Genesis or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But neither was it the in-your-face onslaught the Sex Pistols (whose own debut album would come out several months after Marquee Moon) or the raw blast of the Ramones (another New York/CBGB band that had debuted just a year earlier).

The music on Marquee Moon was almost self-contained, in that it didn’t feel like it was trying to be something outside of itself and made no apologies to anyone. Songs like “See No Evil,” Venus,” and especially the wildly elliptical title track (all on side one of Marquee Moon) were as new and different – as ‘punk’ – as anything out there. 

“I don’t know what [the song] ‘Marquee Moon’ is about except that it’s ten minutes long and you feel it’ll be perfectly OK with you if it goes on forever,” writes fame rock critic Robert Christgau.

“Nothing prepared me for the splendour and clout of [Television’s] debut album,” wrote musician Robert Forster in the Guardian earlier this month. “It combined every great flourish of cool ’60s rock – extraordinary guitar work with out-of-this-world lyrics, adding the crunch of late-’70s rock production and a quality to the songwriting that many mythic ’60s bands just didn’t reach.”

“I knew I could never write songs as textured and intricate as the band’s singer-songwriter Tom Verlaine, who also happened to be a virtuoso guitarist,” Forster continues. “But I was inspired.” Forster would go on to form the Go-Betweens, one of many artists – punk, post-punk, and beyond – who took massive inspiration from Television. 

“When Marquee Moon came out it was like nothing I’d ever heard,” wrote Kirk Swan, of the ’80s band Dumptruck. “This was not the Ramones or punk rock of the day that I was bashing out in my bedroom. This was something else, something otherworldly.”

“He was my guitar hero at a time when I needed one most,” Dream Syndicate founder Steve Wynn shared in a Facebook post. “I spent the entire year of 1981 practicing daily to Marquee Moon. Tom Verlaine’s soloing showed me you could be a virtuoso and dangerous at the same time, more [John] Coltrane or Ornette [Coleman] than the arena rockers of the day. It was a revelation.” 

“The Gun Club wore love of Television right there on our sleeve,” added Kid Congo Powers.

“You introduced me to a world that flipped my life upside down,” Michael Stipe wrote in an Instagram tribute.

Dream Syndicate, Dumptruck, the Gun Club, the Go-Betweens, R.E.M., True West, and Sonic Youth (phew! the list could go on and on) are just a handful of the indie/punk/alternative bands who took the influence and impact of Television (and Verlaine) in new directions during the 1980s and ’90s.

David Bowie (who recorded Verlaine’s song “Kingdom Come” on Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks)) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were also fans.

Other artists, coming a bit later, include Jason Isbell and Sleater-Kinney.

“While there are many guitar players whom we admire, there are very few whose work informed our approach to playing and writing,” the bandmembers share in a post on the Sleater-Kinney Facebook page. “Tom Verlaine was one of those guitarists. It was not only his serpentine style—jagged yet shimmering, capable of story-like melodies—but also how he played in conversation with his bandmate and fellow guitarist, Richard Lloyd. The intertwining of notes, completing each other’s sentences, toying with consonance and dissonance, beautifully colliding then breaking away; telling us so much without a single word. Thank you, Tom Verlaine, for guiding us.” 

The impact of Marquee Moon cannot be overstated. It’s title track alone is a musical masterpiece that Forster calls “a kind of punk rock ‘Stairway to Heaven.'” However, the band’s followup album, Adventure – which came just a year later – is also a gem. “I can’t think of a song that informed the entirety of our guitar playing on The Hot Rock than ‘Days,'” Sleater-Kinney adds. 

Before the ’70s were over, Television had disbanded. Verlaine soon embarked on a solo career, releasing a series of excellent solo albums, showing him holding true to his jagged, wirey style and his virtuosic ability to move in and out of pop/rock/jazz/punk or whatever musical styles and patterns he fancied.

While other early CBGB artists like Blondie, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads eventually found commercial success, the same can’t be said for Verlaine, as a member of Television or on his own. And not for lack of trying – he released some fantastic music during this time, including this music video for “Words from the Front” in 1982.

And even if his music wound up more on 120 Minutes than on regular MTV rotation, his reputation and legendary status as one of the ‘godfathers’ of punk only grew with every release. 

Television reformed in the early 1990s for a global tour and a new album. Simply titled Television, the music was familiar to longtime fans and as fresh as ever. Once again, Verlaine and crew didn’t pander to radio trends or show any signs of giving in to the ‘alternative rock’ sound of the time. As with their music in the ’70s, the Television of the ’90s wasn’t there to ‘fit in’ with the times. They did their own thing – and once again created music that even today feels strong, fresh, and undated. 

Since that reunion and third album, Television continued to play together sporadically. Verlaine’s solo releases slowed down, though they did include an instrumental album, Warm and Cool, in 1992 and Songs and Other Things in 2006. He also guested on releases for artists such as Luna, Patti Smith, James Iha, and, in 2019, the Violent Femmes.

And in another standout tribute, the band Alvvays titled a new song after Verlaine.

Tom Verlaine’s influence on rock and roll is immense, and we’ll probably be working through it for decades to come.

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