De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Tues 14th June
Television came from the Seventies New York punk scene, with guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine frequently playing with Patti Smith. And indeed it's that thar punk music played on the PA before they emerge. But they were always a strange fit even for that strange scene, misfits among the misfits, a chess move from their surroundings. Much like the Velvet Underground before them, it's much easier to see their influence on what followed (Talking Heads, the less noise-based end of Sonic Youth, British post-punk bands such as Wire) than anything before or around them. I always liked the idea they were named after the term 'far seeing' rather than the goggle box. (Though admittedly I've no idea whether that's true or not.)
It was Mark Radcliffe who commented they were like a string quartet who happenedto use rock instruments. Rather than ploughing the familiar furrows of lead guitar/ rhythm section, the players intersect in ever-shifting combinations. With guitar solos I normally only want to know when they're over. But Television's extended instrumental breaks are so interactive they become the main draw.
Of course they don't conform to the cartoon punk image, as taken up by the Ramones. But neither do they sound much like friend or collaborator Patti Smith. Her music's convulsive, orgiastic. While with Television there's no power chords, no fuzz, echo or distortion, the overall sound is clean.
However, if all that makes them sound like pointy heads making music with set squares and protractors, they're as equally possessed of a keen melodic sense. Like Verlaine's voice the music's sharp but lilting, lively and spacious. A track like 'Marquee Moon' is a catchy pop number and free-form space-out at one and the same time.
It's slightly hard to tell whether the band's a going concern or not. But then it always has been. After a lengthy pre-history, they peaked with their debut – the celebrated 'Marquee Moon' - in 1977, and since then have been waiting for everyone else to catch up. They've only released two studio albums since then.
Live there's no backdrop or rock and roll theatrics. Belying the notion New Yorkers are natural showmen Verlaine's an unassuming figure, most of what he does say lost to audience cheer. Following Radcliffe's string quartet comparison, it wasn't entirely dissimilar to seeing the Kronos Quartet. They're so adept at playing together, it makes for an enthralling live experience. I found I could only focus on each player's individual contribution by framing my vision on the player, otherwise all the ingredients go into a greater whole.
It was perhaps an eccentric set list, in both good ways and bad. We heard no 'See No Evil', while there was a track or two which didn't really make up for its absence. But for forty year old band with no new record, there were a surprising number of surprises. There was a long, slightly psychedelic piece in the middle of the show, which I'd gather is called 'Persia', which while appearing on none of their albums (not even live releases) audaciously stretched to twenty minutes as Verlane bowed his guitar. Tracks would often build from scratchy, freeform intros, and rarely be performed just the way they did on record. You left thinking that forty years later they still sounded unique...
You'll know what this is. From San Francisco...
...then the next night...
PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 15th June
Three years ago, in this very venue I saw the recently reincarnated Public Image Limited. And predicted the new line-up wouldn't last long under the weight of John Lydon's ego. Yet Lydon seems constantly able to surprise you, sometimes even pleasantly, that new line-ups still here and I am glad to be proven wrong.
With more new material under their belt, they're noticeably including less old stuff than ever. Jah Wobble must have played more numbers, despite only being in the band for two albums. And much of what they do play is quite radically reworked. 'Open Up', the track Lydon made with Leftfield, is all but transformed. While another uses the Swan Lake guitar part from 'Death Disco', but is to all intents and purposes a whole new song.
One old number which is retained is 'Albatross'. That the opening track from the seminal 'Metal Box' has been used as the opener both time I've seen the new PiL sounds like a statement of intent. The first time around, the references to “getting rid of the albatross” and “I know you very well”,delivered like the most withering put-down, sounded like a refusal to conform to anyone's post-Pistols expectations. Repeated it becomes like a credo, an avowal to never sit still but continue pressing forward. And the set end, morphing from 'Open Up', into the Tourette's syndrome abuse attack of 'Shoom' - suggesting age hasn't mellowed the man much.
It also suggests that Lydon's a keen judge of his own back catalogue, at least when looking at it in retrospect. In his time he's fostered as much shit on the gullible public as Lou Reed. Yet like Lou Reed, ultimately he knew when he was swinging it and winging it. Whole swathes of band history are eliminated, and while there's things you'd have liked to have heard nothing is included you wish hadn't. 'This Is Not a Love Song', though not from a favoured era, is a justifiably classic track.
And it all works because the band work as a band. Lydon often gesticulates at the musicians behind him, like some slightly demented conductor. But while in times past he's been content to hire a backing band for the Face of Punk, this lot are clearly a functioning unit.
It does at times feel a little less savage, a little more showy, than last time. Like they've got better in the un-punk sense of more accomplished and professional, and less edgy. Certainly 'Religion', which had previously reached white-heat intensity, becomes a black-comedy number with stream-of-consciousness rants. But the band still being here, still pressing forward, counts as an achievement.
Speaking of 'Albatross', slooow moootiooon from Sheffield...
LIFT TO EXPERIENCE
Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 10th June
When main main Josh T Pearson emerges clutching an electric guitar someone shouts “Judas!” at him. “You're a liar,” he quickly quips back.
The point being... Lift to Experience released the seminal 'Texas Jerusalem Crossroads' fifteen years ago. But their debut turned out to be their only release, Pearson swapped it's amped-up noise for acoustic music and was last seen around these parts playing country gospel at a church inBrighton. That gig came with gags about how broke he was, so reasons for the reformation may not be entirely uneconomic. But it's a rare chance to hear these classic tracks live, and the Royal Festival Hall is nigh-on full.
The electricity is not only back, the music packs such a punch you can feel it on your chest, the drummer often striking the skins with full arm strokes. But a better term than loud or heavy would be expansive. Texas-based and keen to tell you, they make music the size of their home state. Plus there's something of a psychedelic undercurrent. In their own way they're as sense-deranging as early Pink Floyd. When I first heard the band, inevitably enough for the era on the John Peel show, he compared them a spatial disorientation technique.
Yet combined with post-rock workouts and free noise there's classic songwriting. (Things often thought to be mutually exclusive.) Music and lyrics may both be summed up by the reference on 'These Are the Days' to “that great trumpet sound”. (Even though there's not a trumpet, great or small, to be found.) It draws on the wild apocalyptic imagery of American Christianity. Some songs even sound like they may be based on Pentecostal hymns.
It's a tradition which seems so foreign to us English it might as well come from a different religion, fiery revelation replacing announcements about village fates. But rather than the nihilism, darkness or derangement religious themes usually bring out in bands, for example Swans, it's – pun intended – elevating. Contrary to Hank Williams, perhaps we will be getting out of this world alive.
And yet at the same time they slam you in the gut the tracks have a twinkle in their eye. Borrowinga phrase previously used for Goat, it's bironic, the references to six-shootin' angels and promises of the promised land delivered with with tongue-in-cheek sincerity it's impossible to parse. (Pearson has said his Father was a Baptist preacher.)
But his greatest talent may well be compositional dynamics. The standard problem with the end of the world is that it doesn't leave you many places to go. (Creatively speaking, though I guess the problem applies in general.) If you come in with a big bang, what are you going to go out with? Yet Pearson can shift expertly between humungous soundscapes, shimmeringly beautiful ballads and aural-assualt noise, making you feel at every turn that the end of all things is just getting started.
I never saw the band back in the day, so don't have anything to compare them to, but they seem able to put the numbers over with full force and conviction. Backing vocals, sounding on record like they've been recorded by Pearson himself then overdubbed, disappear – and you kind of miss them. Plus there could have been space for another number with less banter, something Pearson confessed was down to lack of rehearsal time. But those are minor quibbles. Like the man says, it's never too late for the end of the world.
'These Are the Days' from their home turf of Denton, Texas, with that awesome ascending opening...
...plus the opening from the RFH (yes, the actual gig!) complete with "Judas!" exchange...