Television - Marquee Moon Television

Marquee Moon

Elektra

8th February 1977 (US)/4th March 1977 (UK)

It’s 45 years since Television released their landmark debut Marquee Moon, a defining moment in punk history. Tim Cooper recalls its impact the day he bought it in 1977 – and assesses how it sounds today.

It’s 5 March 1977. I’ve left school and I’m at college in a dead-end satellite town. Another bored teenager aboard the punk bandwagon that’s been gathering momentum for the past year. Today I will buy an album that changes my life.

It’s not the first: in the past 12 months I’ve had all my old musical preconceptions challenged, my boundaries moved, my reference points erased. First by debut albums from The Ramones, Patti Smith and Blondie, heralding a New Wave from New York. And then, as punk crossed the Atlantic, by singles and gigs by the Pistols and Clash, Stranglers and Saints, Damned and Buzzcocks, Slits and Siouxsie Sioux, Subway Sect and Slaughter & The Dogs.

No wonder they call 1977 the Year Zero of punk.

For a year or two I’ve been eagerly devouring increasingly breathless bulletins about the nascent New York scene in the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. The frontline is a downtown Bowery bar called CBGBs where a coterie of closely-linked but musically diverse new artists is creating some sort of semi-Warholian scene that threatens to be just as revolutionary in its cultural impact as the Factory was to the previous generation.

The trouble is, in a pre-internet age when albums are released in America before they reach the UK (Marquee Moon came out a month earlier there), we’re dependent on reading about them in the music papers and hearing snatches of them on the John Peel show. There’s literally nowhere else. Anticipation for the debut of Television, whose debut single Little Johnny Jewel was recorded back in 1975, has been heightened by Nick Kent’s rave review in the NME, describing them as “one band in a million.” I can still remember his hyperbolic opening sentence: “Cut the crap junior, he sez, and put the hyperbole on ice.”

By this time I’ve already seen The Ramones and Patti Smith in London but the UK punk world is different, and far less diverse than this New York one where snotty ramalama guitar bands like The Ramones and Dead Boys rub shoulders with nerdy art school types like Talking Heads and a retro girl group like Blondie and a beatnik revivalist like Patti Smith. And who can even define Television? Punk as we know it – knew it – involves ripped jeans and motorcycle jackets and spiky hair and one-chord wonders playing two-minute songs propelled by buzzsaw guitars and machine-gun drumming and angry slogans to sing along to.

Television are nothing like that. Their guitar-playing frontman, born Thomas Miller, is floppy haired and fey and has renamed himself after a bisexual fin-de-siecle French poet. We have John Beverley, who gets his “punk” name from his friend John’s hamster.

Television were not angry or aggressive. They did not play fast and loud. They had intricate guitar solos, which were anathema in Year Zero – something consigned to history along with hippies and flares and kipper ties – but now became a bit of a guilty pleasure: guitar solos we were allowed to like. At first glance Television were not punk rock at all; not, at least, in the way we knew it from our antisocial contemporaries, thrashing and yelling and hellbent on causing offence wherever they went. It wasn’t even rock’n’roll as we knew it. But I liked it.

In fact, with their lo-fi approach, and their contempt for the conventions of Seventies rock, with its big hair, big heels and classical pretensions, Television were the very essence of punk. And they were a breath of fresh air against the grim backdrop of the UK music scene in early 1977. In the week that Marquee Moon was released – a month after it came out in America – the album charts were topped by The Shadows, ahead of Slim Whitman, and Leo Sayer was No 1 in the singles chart, ahead of David Soul from Starsky & Hutch.

So when I bought my copy of Marquee Moon the day after its Friday release, from the Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill where we gathered every Saturday to socialise and see what new records had come in (mostly Jamaican reggae imports for me), and where they stocked my the punk fanzine I had started, Cliché, it was a big deal.

I remember the anticipation with which I eagerly slipped the disc out of the sleeve with that iconic Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo, accentuating Tom Verlaine’s swan neck and angular features, and placed the vinyl on my turntable. Immediately I entered a new world – a world where Symbolist poetry rubbed shoulders with West Coast guitar virtuosity.

I didn’t know either world; I didn’t know Rimbaud and Verlaine or their poetry, and I’d never heard bands like The Grateful Dead or Country Joe & The Fish because I’d been listening to T.Rex and Slade and punk proscribed guitar solos of the sort favoured by the likes of Jerry Garcia and Barry Melton. So I didn’t know that Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television’s twin guitarists, sounded a lot like them. The last guitar solo I’d enjoyed was Pete Shelley’s two-note contribution to Boredom.

As I placed the needle carefully on the groove of Side 1, Track 1, I didn’t know what to expect. It was, as the lyric to Venus goes, “All like some new kind of drug.” The effect was narcotic, an instant high as the needle found its way into the vein of that disc. And I was instantly addicted. “What I want / I want now,” sang Verlaine. Declarations of intent don’t come much clearer than those opening lines of the opening song, See No Evil. Nor the last line: “Pull down the future.” Television pulled down the future and placed it right under our noses. And our ears. And nothing was the same again.

Verlaine’s yelping voice was perhaps the biggest surprise of all: “You complain of my diction” he sang, but I had no complaints. It was a far cry from the angry roars and sarcastic whines of Strummer and Rotten. So too the lyrics: no slogans here, no calls to arms, no incitements to riot or bring down the system.

Like his adopted namesake, Verlaine painted pictures with words: “My eyes are like telescopes” / “The kiss of death, the embrace of life” / “Broadway looked so mediaeval.” He created a world where anything’s allowed, to borrow a phrase from Patti Smith, on whose songs we had first heard his weeping cascades of guitar. A world where darkness doubles and lightning strikes itself, and you can fall “into the arms of Venus De Milo” – a statue famously without any.

Patti Smith once said that Verlaine, her one-time paramour, played the guitar “like a thousand bluebirds screaming,” which is as perfectly poetic a description as there could ever be of his intuitive style. We had heard him on her debut single, a cover of Hey Joe, and on the celestial Break It Up from Horses, which he co-wrote with her, embellishing her lyric inspired by a dream about Jim Morrison taking flight from his marble grave in Paris.

Verlaine’s playing is instinctual, elemental, fluid; the yin to Richard Lloyd’s yang. While pretty-boy Lloyd, in thrall to those West Coast guitarists like Melton, meticulously planned and played his solos, double-tracking them to maximise their emotional impact, Verlaine was unable to follow suit because he was ad-libbing his contributions, going with the flow of the jazz-like interplay of Billy Ficca and Fred Smith, and would not have remembered them with sufficient precision.

They make a perfect combination. And they find their perfect foil in that rhythm section of Ficca, whose relationship went back to their first incarnation as The Neon Boys back in 1973, and Richard Hell’s replacement Fred Smith, playing the bass guitar with the same sort of slippery intuition as a Robbie Shakespeare or a Bootsy Collins – or, in a more direct parallel, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads – as if physically conjoined to his instrument.

And so to the songs. If you’re interested enough to read this far you know the songs. See No Evil, with its complicated rhythms and the first solo by Lloyd, his arpeggiated flights of fancy taking the song into a different realm, before Verlaine shows his skills – the same, only different – on the sublime Venus. Friction finds Verlaine playing with words, his unseen critic complaining of his “DIC(K)-tion”, and Prove It’s pulp fiction as a Chandleresque figure carries out his investigations (“Just the facts!”) before solving the mystery with the declaration: “This case is closed!”

There are two slow songs and they both come towards the end of the album: Guiding Light is a piano ballad of delicate beauty and Torn Curtain, referencing another master of mystery, Hitchcock, in its title, brings the album to an epic, elegiac close with Verlaine’s pearls of electric guitar fading into the ether. But the song you’ll remember most, the desert island track on a desert island album, is the title tune. A song so long it couldn’t fit on the original album in its full 11-minute entirety and had to be faded out because the vinyl could not accommodate it in its full length.

It begins with that reggae-like opening motif, Verlaine’s choppy riff answered by Lloyd’s filigree response, underlined by Smith’s bouncy bass. Then the story, a lyrical film noir set in a rain-sodden graveyard where a Cadillac picks up a man and takes him back to the graveside, all of it illuminated by not one but two guitar solos, the first by Lloyd, the second by Verlaine. And the fade on the abbreviated vinyl version, just after the song seems to have gone back to the beginning and started again, somehow makes for a better “ending” because of its circular nature… and because you simply don’t want it to end, so you can imagine it going on for ever and ever.

And because you should always leave your audience wanting more.

~

All words by Tim Cooper. You can find more of Tim’s writing at his Louder Than War author’s archive and at Muck Rack. He is also Twitter as @TimCooperES and posts daily at EatsDrinksAndLeaves.

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