At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.
Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.
“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.
Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.
It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.
Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.
“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”
She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”
Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?
“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”
There’s a moment in every great band’s career where they shrug off their influences and assume their ultimate form. Blank Realm – that brilliantly erratic Brisbane quartet made up of three siblings and a “spiritual brother” – have long been the sum of their parts: a sound drawn from Krautrock, New York’s No Wave, New Zealand’s entire Flying Nun roster, and those closer to home, like the Go-Betweens.
Illegals In Heaven, though, is their definitive statement, the album no one other than Blank Realm could have made. It’s taken them a decade to reach this point, where their rough beginnings have been sculpted into a perfect marriage of pop, art and noise. If there’s a comparison to be made here, it’s with Sonic Youth, circa that band’s masterpiece Daydream Nation.
This is the band’s fifth album (not including the numerous, now impossible to find cassette recordings and CDRs from their formative years), and the first proper studio outing for this determinedly lo-fi band. To be honest, it’s not an obvious leap, sonically speaking: Blank Realm still sound thin and trebly, the mix a dogfight between Luke Walsh’s guitar and Sarah Spencer’s keyboards.
At times, the sound is practically bottomless. Drums and bass become all but irrelevant in the final passages of River Of Longing, Flowers In Mind and obvious single Palace Of Love. It doesn’t matter. These are breathlessly exciting songs, with tightly wound melodies that explode into unforgettable choruses and instrumental passages that see the band playing to the limit of their capacity.
Blank Realm have always been capable of moments of translucent beauty, the dizzying high points of previous albums obscuring the weaker moments. Illegals In Heaven, though, is both varied and consistent. For every bug-eyed monster like No Views – a whooshing slice of comet-rock that opens the album as if it’s been shot from a cannon – there’s a quiet, meditative counterpoint like Dream Date.
There’s a confidence here, too, that is reflective of a band on top of its game. Listening to Daniel Spencer belt out the lyrics to No Views (“I’ve been spitting blood in the dirt, baby, I’m tired but I’m ready to fight”) – is exhilarating, his earlier tremulous yelp replaced by something desperate and crazed. Sarah gets a turn behind the mic, too, singing lead on the shimmering ballad Gold.
There haven’t been many singing drummers in rock & roll. Daniel is akin to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, a punk-pop craftsman with a serious romantic streak. On Cruel Night, he comes on a drunk Lee Hazlewood backed by Spiritualized; on Flowers In Mind – the album’s centrepiece – he’s the wide-eyed dreamer: “You can waste a day or waste your whole life / Chasing fragments of dreams out in the night.”
At the opposite extreme is Palace Of Love: “I’ve been feeding the sharks, been diving down in the writhing dark / I’ve been listening to you, scramble my head like a Rubik’s cube.” In another place and time, this thrilling track – played at Ramones pace, but over five minutes – would be a massive hit; as it is, it’s the one that confirms Blank Realm’s arrival at the top of the noise-pop tree.
For most bands, a record like would be a career full stop. For Blank Realm, who have been developing at a dizzying pace since their 2012 breakthrough Go Easy, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in an already impressive story. If there’s a missing star on this album, it’s only reflective of what they could possibly achieve next, having found the sound they’ve spent a decade searching for.
Danny Fields – so-called “company freak” of Elektra Records in the late 1960s; the man who discovered the MC5 and then the Stooges; later the first manager of the Ramones – once rapturously described Television as the band with “the most perfect skin in the world.” They literally got under mine: on the inside of my right forearm, I have a tattoo of the design adorning the back of their debut album, Marquee Moon. On the original midnight-blue sleeve, the moon is dazzling; radiating white light. On my pale skin, it’s necessarily polarised. I’m occasionally asked if it’s a black hole.
Television – singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bass player Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca – was the first group to play CBGBs, the legendary New York dive that was also the crucible for Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads during its first, glorious era, between 1974 and 1978. Lean, short-haired and dressed in plain clothes, held together at times with safety pins, they were in the vanguard of punk, a movement they otherwise bore little relation to.
If anything, they were the anti-Ramones. Nick Kent, in a famously hyperbolic NME review, cocked them cold when he said to call them punk was akin to calling Dostoyevsky a short-story writer. Released in March of 1977, Marquee Moon anticipated post-punk six months before the Sex Pistols made the form instantly obsolete with Never Mind The Bollocks. To this day, it sounds as urgent and thin and wiry as the band (once) was, filled with ecstatic, extended guitar solos at a time when brevity was the sine qua non of rock & roll.
They made art-rock cool again, and it’s impossible to imagine hundreds of bands, from fellow New Yorkers Sonic Youth and the Strokes, to Australian acts like the Church and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, without them. Now, they’re here in Australia for the first time, firstly to play All Tomorrow’s Parties spin-off Release The Bats in Melbourne (where they perform Marquee Moon in its entirety), and tonight at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, which promises most of that album – we get seven of the eight tracks – plus a little more besides.
The only absentee is Lloyd, who quit the band in 2007 following a health scare. He’s been replaced by session musician Jimmy Rip, who has played alongside Verlaine in the latter’s solo ventures for years. But the words “No Lloyd, no Television” have been heard, and it’s not mere preciousness. The defining feature of the band was the interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd, whose tough, snappy counterpoints served to earth Verlaine’s explorations – without them, Television would be all crackle and pop. (Mind you, they took turns: this is the kind of band that listed who was responsible for what solo on each of their three studio albums.)
Perhaps also missing is the near-mythological status that accompanies Lloyd as one of the great junkie hellraisers of the New York scene; another contrast to the ascetic Verlaine. Lloyd was the man who wore the infamous “Please Kill Me” T-shirt that ex-band member Richard Hell, who designed it, was too afraid to wear. A photograph of Lloyd, taken at Beth Israel hospital, depicts the guitarist in a white smock, contemptuously lighting a cigarette in front of a “No Smoking” sign, staring at the camera with pinned eyes while hooked up to a drip.
Cannily, their set is front-loaded with songs on which Lloyd took the original solos, giving Rip an early chance to win over the audience. After an almost perfunctory run-through of Venus, the pinging introductory notes of Elevation really kick things off. But the mix is uneven, and Verlaine’s voice – never a strong point – is puny. On record, he’s commanding, even when he squawks like a chicken. On stage, he’s barely trying. It’s a shame, for the former Tom Miller (he renamed himself after the French symbolist poet) is a fine lyricist, albeit one prone to speaking in riddles: as he sings in Prove It: “It’s too, too, too to put a finger on”.
Still, a Television show is all about the guitars. The third song, 1880 Or So, is the only number from the band’s third, self-titled comeback album from 1992, and it’s a real highlight, its dreamy fluency punctuated by a jarring solo from Rip that builds upon the recorded version. Note-for-note renditions is not what this sold-out, solidly middle-aged crowd expects or wants: this is, as the recent Rhino reissue of Marquee Moon puts it, “jazz for the punk-rock set”, and they’re ready to go as far as the band are willing to take them.
Nothing exemplifies Television’s wanderlust so much as their first single, Little Johnny Jewel, its near-eight minutes originally split across both sides of a seven-inch single (a decision that prompted Lloyd to briefly quit the band on its release in 1975, despairing of their commercial prospects). Heralded by Smith’s descending bass riff, it sparks immediate whoops of glee, and is the first selection of the night to stretch beyond 10 minutes. This is the Verlaine show now, producing the piercing guitar sound one-time girlfriend Patti Smith compared to “a thousand bluebirds screaming”.
It’s followed by the taut See No Evil, the first song from Marquee Moon. And it’s on these shorter, more neurotic songs that you realise how loose Television are on stage – a long way from the mathematically precise group that laid down the album’s epic title track in one majestic take, which Ficca thought was a rehearsal. These songs had been performed and rewritten countless times before being recorded; the definitive articles are on the album. Television have not been a full-time concern since 1979; to expect them to re-make the masterpiece live is absurd.
Two entirely new songs, however, give notice that this version of Television is not all about the re-runs. Both tracks, neither introduced by name, are plangent, elastic, near-wordless meditations, anchored by the pulse of Smith’s bass, and a long way from the fiery guitar duels of the band’s early days. Adventure, the band’s much underrated second album (which, sadly, we don’t hear anything from) was a more mellow affair, while the third sounded like a collection of spy themes. The new material is calmer still, the group sounding more like a jazz quartet than a rock band than ever.
But they’re not what people are here for. It’s amusing to see the crowd take a rare opportunity to sing along to a chorus (Prove It); even funnier to see them attempting to dance to Marquee Moon itself, the show’s 15-minute centrepiece, and the one everyone is waiting for: predictably, they get lost as soon as Verlaine takes off for another hyper-extended solo. It’s a trip where he alone knows the destination, but not necessarily how he’s getting there: Kent claimed Verlaine could solo without ever losing the point; here, at times, he does.
They encore with Friction and an off-key rendition of the Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction, a reminder that Television are as indebted to the post-British Invasion garage bands of the ’60s as much as they are to anything more supposedly sophisticated. But instead of a frenzy, it ends in a slow, bittersweet sigh, a whisper: just as Television’s career first seemed to finish, with a 1979 show at New York’s Bottom Line which everyone, except the audience, knew was the end.
While Television are touring, Hell – squeezed out early by a clash of egos with Verlaine, taking one of punk’s great early anthems, Blank Generation, with him – is touting his autobiography. In its epilogue, the band’s original bass player and genuine punk icon recalls a recent encounter with Verlaine: “His teeth looked brown and broken in the night light, even worse than mine (he still smokes), and his face was porous and expanded and his hair coarse grey. I turned away and walked on, shocked.” Even tattoos fade.