Feats of Strength: Television

Last week, we took an in-depth look at Television’s brilliant debut album, Marquee Moon.  As one would expect, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the brilliance of the instrumentals on the album, noting the excellent work of each member of the band beyond the usual praise for the dazzling and intricate guitar.  For this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to be cliche and examine the band’s excellent guitar-playing, but do so for a song that is often overlooked: the album closer “Torn Curtain”.

We briefly mentioned “Torn Curtain” in our previous feature, but it’s definitely worthy of further examination.  There is a wonderful dichotomy between the restraint shown by the careful and deliberately paced music and the emotional and expressive lyrics, which are filled with various declarations and descriptions that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Consider the memorable chorus, with a reflective and cathartic Tom Verlaine mourning the passing of time with the other members emphasizing the words “years” and “tears”, while accompanied by straight-forward rhythm section that accentuates each beat, with a delicate piano twinkling over the top.  Fred Smith anchors the song with a sturdy bassline, with the occasional rhythmic flourish–pay particular attention to his sixteenth-note pickups in the second verse for example–while also providing some necessary counter-melody.  Billy Ficca also delves deep into his bag of tricks to loads the song with countless little drum fills and ornaments, beginning from his rolls in the beginning that change pitch with added pressure, to various accents using his ride cymbal to a keen use of his kick drum to accent certain beats.

Though there are stellar contributions all around, it’s Tom Verlaine’s solo guitar that stands out, especially his epic finale.  Throughout the song, he and Richard Lloyd trade riffs as they build on a simple minor key progression, relying on elliptical licks and strategically-placed open strings to subtly color the chord changes.  Verlaine has a nifty little solo that does a good job bridging the second and third chorus, but its true greatness is the fact that it foreshadows a second, more gorgeous solo after the third chorus.  Initially, it seems like the song will end after the third chorus, but Tom gradually begins to improvise around the lead lick introduced in the third chorus.  He steadily picks up steam as he incrementally makes his way up the neck.  As Verlaine works his way up the scale, he ratchets up the tension both by spending more time on each step and by increasing both the number and sweep of each bend.  The listener keeps waiting for the natural resolution of the solo, but Verlaine keeps delaying his march to the summit, until he finally hits the peak on a last gasp series of bends (6:20-6:23).   But right when he gets to the top, Tom abruptly breaks the tension by creating the illusion that his string has snapped, suddenly dropping to the bottom of the neck with a jarring riff using his bass strings.

It’s a stunning moment, and the result is a unique tone that’s instantly memorable; whenever I think of this song, this is the part that I think of instantly.  And despite this “drawback”, as the song fades away, Verlaine valiantly tries to make his way up the neck again.  When looked at in its entirety, it is then easy to see the guitar solo as a metaphorical depiction of persevering through various obstacles, even when one falls down the mountain, mirroring many of the themes of the lyric.  The solo also should serve as a lesson for aspiring musicians, as it’s proof that it’s not necessarily the notes, since the solo revolves around a fairly basic scale, but the rhythm and the touch that are most important.  That’s where a musician truly conveys his emotion; a decent melody is nice, and can result in a reaction from the listener, but without the right rhythm or touch, they will never make a true connection with the audience.

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