Television was a part of the early New York punk rock scene, contemporary with bands like the Patti Smith Group and the Ramones. In contrast to the Ramones' focus on rock n'roll minimilism, Television's music was much more technically proficient, defined by the dueling guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. In retrospect, Television pointed beyond punk rock to new wave and post punk.
Their first group together was the Neon Boys, consisting of Verlaine on guitar and vocals, Hell on bass and vocals, Bill Ayers (briefly) on guitar, and Billy Ficca on drums. The group lasted from late 1972 to early 1973. A posthumous 7-inch record featuring "That's All I Know (Right Now)" and "Love Comes in Spurts" was released in 1980.
In late 1973 the trio reformed, calling themselves Television and soon recruiting Richard Lloyd as a second guitarist. They persuaded CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal to give the band a regular gig at his club which had just opened on the Bowery in New York. Television was the first rock group to perform at the club, which was to become, along with Max's Kansas City, the center of the burgeoning punk scene. The members of Television reportedly constructed the first stage at CBGB's where they quickly established a significant cult following.
Initially, songwriting was split almost evenly between Hell and Verlaine (with Lloyd being an infrequent contributor as well). However, friction began to develop as Verlaine, Lloyd and Ficca became increasingly confident and adept with both instruments and composition, while Hell remained defiantly untrained in his approach. Verlaine, feeling that Hell's frantic onstage demeanor was upstaging his songs, reportedly told him to "stop jumping around and ultimately refused to play Hell's songs (such as "Blank Generation") in concert. This led Hell to leave the group and take his songs with him, forming The Heartbreakers in 1975 with former members of the New York Dolls, and later forming Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Fred Smith, briefly of Blondie, replaced Hell as Television's bassist.
Though Verlaine and Lloyd were nominally "lead" and "rhythm" guitarists, they often rendered such labels obsolete by crafting deft, interlocking parts where the ostensible backing role could be just as intriguing as the guitar solo. Al Handa writes, "Lloyd was the guitarist who affected the tonality of the music more often than not, and Verlaine and the rhythm section the ones who gave the ear its anchor and familiar musical elements. Listen only to Lloyd, and you can hear some truly off the wall ideas being played. The opening of the song "Marquee Moon", from the album of the same name, displays the band's characteristic interlocking melodic and rhythmic guitar lines.
As with many emerging punk bands, the influence of The Velvet Underground was pervasive. Television also drew inspiration from minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. Tom Verlaine has often cited the influence of The Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown" on Television's approach to the guitar, and he has also expressed a fondness for Arthur Lee's Love and the Buffalo Springfield, two groups noted for their dual-guitar interplay. Television's ties to punk were underscored by their late 60s garage-rock leanings, as the band often covered The Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" and the 13th Floor Elevators' "Fire Engine" in concert.
Lester Bangs and other critics heard in Television's music the influence of Quicksilver Messenger Service, due to the band's interlocking and psychedelic guitar playing and solos. Music on Tom Verlaine's solo albums has also been compared to the playing of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Tom Verlaine however has downplayed the comparison, citing the Ventures as a more apt reference point. In 2004, Robert Christgau pointed to the debt that Television owed to the San Francisco scene of the late 1960s, directly comparing Verlaine's guitar playing to that of Jerry Garcia. This comparison was also made in the 1970s, but then in a derisive sense, with Television being tagged "the Grateful Dead of punk due to their extended improvisatory jamming onstage.
Television made their vinyl debut with the "Little Johnny Jewel" 7-inch record on the independent label Ork Records in 1975. The song was split into two parts, one on each side of the single. Richard Lloyd apparently disagreed with the selection of this song (preferring the never-released "O Mi Amore") for their debut to the extent that he seriously considered leaving the band. Reportedly Pere Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner auditioned for his spot during this time.
Television's first album Marquee Moon was received positively by music critics and audiences, despite failing to go near the Billboard Top 200 - though it sold well in Europe and reached the Top 30 in many countries there. Upon its initial release in 1977, Roy Trakin wrote in the SoHo Weekly, "forget everything you've heard about Television, forget punk, forget New York, forget CBGB's ... hell, forget rock and roll—this is the real item." Recently, critics ranked it number 83 on cable music channel VH1’s 2000 list of the 100 Greatest Albums of Rock and Roll, number 128 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was ranked number two on Uncut magazine's 100 Greatest Debut Records, and number 3 on Pitchfork's list of the best albums of the 1970s. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that the album was "revolutionary" and "comprised entirely of tense garage rockers that spiral into heady intellectual territory, which is achieved through the group's long, interweaving instrumental sections.
Television's second album, Adventure, was issued in 1978 to less fanfare. The distinctive dual guitars of Lloyd and Verlaine are still evident on Adventure, notably on the tracks "Glory," "Days," and "Foxhole." The band members' very independent and strongly held artistic visions, along with Richard Lloyd's alleged drug abuse, led to the band's break-up in 1978. Both Lloyd and Verlaine pursued solo careers.
Television reformed in 1992, recording an eponymous third album, and have performed live sporadically thereafter. Since being wooed back on stage together for the 2001 All Tomorrow's Parties at Camber Sands, England, they have played a number of dates around the world, and continue to perform occasionally in New York while touring on an irregular basis.
In 2007, Richard Lloyd announced he would be amicably leaving the band after a midsummer show in New York City's Central Park. Unfortunately, owing to an extended stay in hospital recovering from pneumonia, he was unable to take his place with the band for this concert. His place that day was taken by Jimmy Rip. Rip has since been asked to stay on as a band member replacing Lloyd, and, as of December 2007, the group has been busy recording a new record.