Television's "Little Johnny Jewel" 45 RPM single, released on Ork Records in August 1975
In the early 1970’s Television began as the Neon Boys, a band which featured teenage friends Tom Verlaine (guitars, vocals) and Richard Hell (bass guitar, vocals) as well as drummer Billy Ficca. At the end of 1973, the band re-formed as Television, adding rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd. They got a regular gig at CBGB’s in New York City, and soon developed a cult following. In 1975, the band recorded a demo tape with Brian Eno for Island Records. Island opted not to sign the band, and soon afterwards, Richard Hell left the band, apparently due to increasing friction between he and Verlaine. Fred Smith, briefly of Blondie, replaced Hell as Television’s bassist. Having been snubbed by Island, Television released their debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel (Part One)” b/w “Little Johnny Jewel (Part Two)” on their own Ork label. This single also happens to be the featured single of the day.
“Little Johnny Jewel” is actually a seven minute-long song that was split into two parts for the single. The song did not appear on their first full-length LP, “Marquee Moon”, and as far as I know was not released on LP or CD until 2005. This is rather a shame since it seems to be an excellent song. “Little Johnny Jewel (Part One)” starts off with a three chord melody being strummed on Smith’s bass guitar; he is shortly joined by Verlaine, who at first is plucking a guitar rather tunelessly before playing a more coherent melody. Although Richard Hell had left the band by this point (and took his songs with him), the lyrics of “Little Johnny Jewel” mirror to a certain extent the nihilism of Hell’s “Blank Generation” (although it’s not as if Hell had cornered the market on nihilistic song lyrics). Verlaine evokes comparisons to Lou Reed in his vocal stylings as he barely sings, delivering the lyrics in almost a speaking voice: “Now Little Johnny Jewel/Oh, he’s so cool/He has no decision/He’s just trying to tell a vision”. The lyrics of part one tell the story of the protagonist referred to in the song title; the first verse ends with “[h]e loses his senses”, at which point the band launches into an instrumental break that closes out part one. As one critic has noted, “[t]he tense atmosphere of the track is rooted in the sparse interplay between bass and drums and builds towards a wide-ranging and inventive, but importantly thin sounding, guitar solo that was a sign of things to come.” [Steve Taylor, “The A To X of Alternative Music”, p. 261]
“Little Johnny Jewel (Part Two)” starts off in the middle of that same instrumental break, with Verlaine occasionally lapsing into plucking away at his guitar tunelessly, while Smith and Ficca provide the backbone of the band’s sound. What we end up with is a rather fluid, angular sound that smacks off free-form jazz. This takes us to the final verse, which starts about 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the track, and takes us right up until the end of the song. What is interesting about the final verse is that while one might expect some resolution – what happened to Little Johnny Jewel after he went to the airport and lost his senses, anyway – instead we get an admonishment: “Oh Little Johnny Jewel/He’s so cool/But if you see him looking lost/You ain’t gotta come on so boss!” While I openly admit that I find as much reason to look for hidden meaning in these lyrics as I find reason to look for hidden meaning in the lyrics to “Travelin’ Band”, this is still intriguing stuff.
Sleeve of 12-inch version of "Little Johnny Jewel"
The record (catalog #: Ork 81975) was issued without a picture sleeve. The record had a rather plain-looking red label, with the track name across the top, the label name in capital letters on the left side, the catalog number and running length on the right side, and the band’s name and other information on the bottom. Note that this was a monophonic single (as denoted on the right side of the label), which was rather unusual in 1975; almost all 45 RPM records issued, at least in the United States, had been issued in stereo since the early 1970’s. But then again, if WPIX can air an interview of Donald Rumsfeld in black and white in 1975, I guess you can have a mono mix of a single in that same year.While “Little Johnny Jewel” wasn’t an overnight success, it did become an underground hit and attracted the attention of major record labels. In 1976, the band released a British EP on Stiff Records further expanded their reputation, and they signed with Elektra Records, which released their debut album (“Marquee Moon”) in 1977. It didn’t chart in the United States, but it reached number 28 in the U.K. and launched their Top 40 single in the U.K., “Prove It”. Television supported Blondie during their 1977 tour, which still didn’t do much to improve their popularity. Their second album, “Adventure” (1978) did better in the U.S. than “Marquee Moon”, but still failed to chart, although it made the Top 10 in the U.K. Not long after the release of “Adventure”, the band suddenly broke up, apparently due to tensions between Verlaine and Lloyd. Thus the band would have to remain content with their status as one of the legendary bands of the punk era, although there would be a short-lived reunion in late 1991 (they broke up again in early 1993).
Television performing Little Johnny Jewel live in Dublin in 2002
Television performing Little Johnny Jewel live in Central Park