Richard Lloyd, Alchemy (Elektra, 1979) It was recently the fortieth anniversary of one of the most widely acclaimed albums of all time, Television’s debut Marquee Moon, released in 1977. That album remains to this day a defining document of CBGB’s heyday, in particular of its artsier side—Television’s frontman is Tom Verlaine, and no, that’s not his real last name—and features some of the most inventive guitar playing ever recorded in a rock setting.
On that album, the other major lick contributor is Richard Lloyd. Though Verlaine gets a lot of credit for his idiosyncratic style and for being the creative force of the band, it’s clear that Lloyd is a crucial part of that album’s sound. Lloyd plays the solo on “See No Evil,” a masterpiece of concision, and elsewhere he delivers guitar parts that are, sure, less adventurous, arguably, than Verlaine’s, but more elegant and, for lack of a better word, prettier. “Guiding Light” is a perfect example of this. Lloyd got his only co-writing credit of the album on that song, and he provides a soaring, beautiful, and un-ironic solo that you could imagine Jerry Garcia playing for throngs of blissed-out devotees.
Television’s story, alas, is a short one—they managed to put out only one more album before breaking up, 1978’s Adventure (which would be a great album for any band not named Television). They reunited briefly in 1992, released one, eponymous third album, separated, and then reunited again in 2001, but only as a touring band (sans Lloyd this time).
As it turns out, post-breakup, Verlaine and Lloyd both put out their solo debuts in 1979—it's a delicious thought to imagine them hearing each other's record for the first time. I forced myself to listen to a few songs from the Verlaine album and then listened to all of Lloyd’s album and, I have to say, Lloyd’s is much more satisfying and, more importantly, reveals him to have a pop ingenuity that the more innovative Verlaine does not. In a way, what the solo albums reveal is that how much Verlaine's genius relied on having those guys as a backing band. Sure, Lloyd might not be as much of a visionary, but he can do just fine on his own. You realize, first of all, that he is a surprisingly charismatic singer, something that is only glimpsed on some of Marquee Moon's backing vocals.
Starting to listen to Alchemy, I was first struck in the first few moments by the guitar sound, which reminded me of Durutti Column, the band led by Vini Reilly, who was a huge influence on no less than Johnny Marr and also played on much of Morrissey’s first solo album, 1988’s Viva Hate. It also has a great power-pop feel, presaging Lloyd’s contributions to Matthew Sweet’s seminal Girlfriend (1991), which also featured guitar great Robert Quine (the two also played on the Sweet album before, Earth, as well as several after, with Lloyd continuing to appear on his albums as recently as 2008).
But what really stands out, most of all, is how satisfying the album’s power-pop breeziness is. Television bandmate Fred Smith rounds things out on bass, Vinny DeNunzio from the great band The Feelies plays drums (also co-writing “Should Have Known Better”) and a few others provide extra guitar work and backing vocals. This is an album that mixes The Buzzcocks, Cheap Trick, The Jam, and XTC with people like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Joe Jackson. (It also reminded me a bit of the Scottish band Orange Juice, which would be a fun band to write about at some point...) It is not as musically compelling as those bands and not as sophisticated as the best moments of the three songwriters, but it collects aspects of all of them in a way that is at once lighthearted and memorable.
Oddly, I also found myself thinking about Mac DeMarco at certain moments, a thought also prompted by the album’s guitar tone. Having this sort of association arise made me think of what sort of impact an album like Lloyd’s has had among post-2000 indie acts. Have the Strokes gentlemen heard this album? I haven’t come across bands mentioning Alchemy as a closet favorite of theirs, but I would not be surprised to find that it’s one of those semi-hidden points of reference for more bands than one would imagine, less for its quality than for its overall feel. I can imagine—if I were a songwriter—listening to it as a way to get excited about making music.
I realize that I'm not really concentrating on individual songs here because, on reflection, the album is most fun listened to all at once—with some exceptions, the whole is more memorable than the sum of its parts. The same song might sound weak in isolation and also be perfectly compelling in sequence. In this sense, the songs here have a mutually reinforcing quality about them; they hold each other up.
With its trim, 36-minute duration, Alchemy is a quick listen and the songs are effortlessly catchy in a way that makes it feels even quicker. I particularly liked the goofier moments like “Woman’s Ways,” which sounds like the Talking Heads covering “Uncle John’s Band” (I guess I really have the Dead on my mind today). Throughout the album, Lloyd’s command of the pop structure and his ability to come up with genuinely inventive melodies shows itself on virtually every song.
After some snarlier numbers toward the end of the album, we get the great closer, “Dying Words,” which might be my favorite song.
There is always something irresistible about young people singing earnestly about mortality (Lloyd was 28 at the time). Given that it was his debut, one could speculate that Lloyd felt this would be the beginning and end of his career as a solo artist. In a sense, this was true—he never recorded anything under his own name that rivals Alchemy, as far as I can tell. He did, however, find continued relevance as a sideman, as mentioned earlier. Though this came in a rather niche way (I have a feeling Matthew Sweet is no longer a household name, even in indie households), it nonetheless makes the figure of Lloyd an interesting through line from the 70s to the present, bridging the post-punk and power-pop and showing their latent and not-so-latent affinities. This album crystallizes that through line effectively, and it does so in a way as presently indie as any 70s album I have listened to lately.
In closing, it’s comforting, in a way, to know that Lloyd doesn’t play with Television anymore, though it also means that I probably wouldn’t go see them live (OK, maybe I still might). That is, it’s comforting to think that he doesn’t need Television, that playing on a legendary album was just one way of many to start a long-lasting and eccentric career.