Tom Verlaine: 20 Great Tracks

The Television seer's finest moments

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To mark what would have been Tom Verlaine‘s 74th birthday today (December 13), we remember the Television seer’s greatest moments…


“Little Johnny Jewel”
(Ork Records single, 1975)


What a strange thing Television’s debut single remains, with spindly guitars, strangled vocals and thudding drums riding a descending bassline into the underground. In the live arena, however, Television would take “Johnny” to ever-ascending heights…

“See No Evil”
(Marquee Moon, 1977)

A glorious declaration of independence and ambition, with a churning riff and jagged power chords. “What I want, I want now”, Verlaine demands at the outset, “and it’s a whole lot more than anyhow”. On the ecstatic fade, he announces that he intends to “pull down the future” – and you’re ready to help him do it.


(Marquee Moon, 1977)

Robert Forster recently called “Venus” “the most perfect song of all time” – and you’ll find no argument here. Marquee Moon’s second track is positively sublime, a lucid dream brought to life via deliciously intertwining guitars and lyrics that evoke a nocturnal urban landscape: glowing neon, streets wet with rain, unknown pleasures and dangers lurking around every corner.

“Marquee Moon”
(Marquee Moon, 1977)

While its 10-minute duration puts it in league with such cosmic counterculture epics as the Dead’s “Dark Star” and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West”, “Marquee Moon” stands alone. It’s a beautifully oblique tale, American existentialism pared down to three concise verses: “The kiss of death, the embrace of life”. But whatever Verlaine is getting at, it’s best expressed by his questing solo, a Mixolydian masterpiece that builds to a delirious climax.

(Adventure, 1978)

Showing off Television’s playful side, the first 30 seconds of “Glory” layer hook upon hook to mesmerising effect. The sound of those chiming guitars would prove inescapable in the years to come, as bands like REM, The Feelies and The dB’s borrowed heavily from Television to create a new kind of alternative rock.

(Adventure, 1978)

Centred on a hypnotic guitar part conjured from Richard Lloyd’s attempt to play The Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” riff backwards, “Days” is Television at their pastoral best. Ever the contrarian, Verlaine here rejects the nihilism espoused by his former comrade Richard Hell with a hymn to longevity.

“Breakin’ In My Heart”
(Tom Verlaine, 1979)

“Breakin’ In My Heart” dated back to Television’s early days (the curious should seek out an awesome 1975 live rendition taped in Cleveland), but Verlaine didn’t take the song into the studio until his 1979 solo debut. It’s a riotous, “Roadrunner”-esque two-chord wonder, with B-52s guitarist Ricky Wilson egging Tom on to one of his most joyous solos.

“Kingdom Come”
(Tom Verlaine, 1979)

With a sunny riff that Lindsey Buckingham would be proud to call his own, “Kingdom Come” is one of Tom Verlaine’s high points, a jailhouse lament as powerful as Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. David Bowie knew quality when he heard it, quickly releasing his own rendition on 1980’s Scary Monsters.

“Souvenir From A Dream”
(Tom Verlaine, 1979)

Pounding piano and wiry guitar lines introduce Verlaine’s surreal depiction of small-town America – a dream that edges closer to a menacing nightmare as the song progresses: “Thirty lights in a row/Every one of them green…”

(Dreamtime, 1981)

Verlaine’s second album Dreamtime is perhaps his most cohesive solo effort – and in some alternate universe, it could’ve been his breakthrough. “Always” certainly sounds like a hit, with a crunchy, Stones-like groove, a lush chorus and a breakneck finish. Verlaine sings “Love remains the best kept secret in town” – as does this song.

“There’s A Reason”
(Dreamtime, 1981)

“‘There’s A Reason’ illustrates why Tom may have felt that he needed
to disband such a great combo as Television,” says Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate. “It creates a wild world of Tom-upon-Tom-upon-Tom, layering his guitars in a beautiful swirl, like a swarm of bees just set angrily loose from the hive.”

“Words From The Front”
(Words From The Front, 1982)

Verlaine had already visited the battlefield in Television’s “Foxhole”, and he went back to war for Words From The Front’s harrowing title track. Over a minor-key dirge, the singer inhabits the persona of a doomed WWI soldier writing home, realising the horrific futility of his position. The tense, mournful instrumental break recalls nothing more than Neil Young’s similarly styled “Cortez The Killer”.

“Days On The Mountain”
(Words From The Front, 1982)

An outlier in the Verlaine catalogue. Driven by a metronomic beat, darkly textured synths (or heavily processed guitars?) and haunted, echo-laden vocals, “Days On The Mountain” highlights the songwriter’s uncompromising and adventurous nature. Stretching out to almost nine minutes, it’s a hypnotic trip.

(Cover, 1984)

Starting off with a rambling inner monologue, “Swim” blossoms into one of Verlaine’s most gorgeous ballads. His vampiric vocal suggests he isn’t taking the endeavour too seriously, but you get the sense he’s enjoying himself all the same.

“The Scientist Writes A Letter”
(Flash Light, 1987)

As one of our greatest guitar heroes, Verlaine’s six-string prowess received the lion’s share of the attention in his obituaries. But he was an exceptional singer, too; unconventional, yes, but absolutely singular. Case in point, you can’t imagine anyone else doing justice to “The Scientist Writes A Letter”, a captivating half-spoken, half-sung reverie. Though naturally it does wind down with a terrific solo.

(Warm And Cool, 1992)

The all-instrumental Warm And Cool offered an eclectic variety of modes, from throwback workouts to unclassifiable jams. Towering above the rest, “Spiritual” is an appropriately celestial five minutes, as Verlaine meditates patiently on the timeworn melody of “She Moved Through The Fair”. Don’t miss the version with the Kronos Quartet from the Big Bad Love soundtrack.

“1880 Or So”
(Television, 1992)

Television’s reunion LP surprised some fans with a more laidback, somewhat groovier version of the band. But it’s a worthy addition to the group’s slim canon. “1880 Or So”, the album’s slinky lead track, features Verlaine and Lloyd’s serpentine guitars tangling over a driving motorik rhythm. That forward momentum is contrasted nicely by Verlaine, as he happily casts his mind back to simpler times in the lyrics.

(Television, 1992)

Time seems to stop as the lovely, enigmatic “Rhyme” unspools. It’s
a hushed performance, somehow both tightly wound and supremely calm, slipstream melodies blending into a steady, minimal rhythm. “Will our vibrations be close?” Verlaine wonders gently as he and the band spiral into a weird dream.

“23 Minutes In Brussels”
(Penthouse, 1995)

“It’s not a Verlaine composition per se, but Tom’s extended guitar solo on Luna’s “23 Minutes In Brussels” really tells a story,” says that band’s Dean Wareham. “It made it a whole different song. He recorded those five minutes of lead guitar in one take.”

“The Earth Is In The Sky”
(Songs And Other Things, 2006)

Aside from sporadic live appearances with and without Television, Verlaine was a rare presence in the 21st century. But his final vocal album, Songs And Other Things, suggested that he was far from a spent force. “The Earth Is In The Sky” is a highlight, with a guitar hook reminiscent of Richard Thompson and rapturous visions of wholeness in the verses. 


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