by Patrick Williams
Pioneers of edgy, art rock-inspired punk, New York City band Television rose to prominence through regular performances at the city’s famous CBGB music club and the surrounding punk scene. Four years after they formed, Television radiated their clever, multifaceted sound farther outward via their 1977 debut, Marquee Moon. A perfect conglomeration of sincerity and meticulousness, and drawing from varied influences of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s arguably one of the best rock albums of all time.
Perhaps none of the group’s creations better exemplify their cult status than Marquee Moon’s title track, which still serves as an anthem for social outcasts and introverts with a penchant for self-reflection. On the song, singer-songwriter Tom Verlaine provides an in-depth look into loneliness, depression and the passing of time. He mercilessly sings, “I spoke to a man / Down at the tracks / I asked him / How he don’t go mad / He said, ‘Look here, junior, don’t be so happy’ / ‘And for Heaven’s sake, don’t you be so sad.’ ” Sure, it’s contradictory, but that’s the point, because that’s life. Throughout the track, Verlaine’s choppy rhythm guitar intermingles with Richard Lloyd’s slick lead playing, arguably midwifing some of alternative and indie rock’s most popular guitar techniques into being, right then and there. And no, the song doesn’t alternate between incredibly odd time signatures, or flaunt heavy distortion or phaser—or loop tracks into a swirling, confusing drone. The guitar is so raw that it gives the ’70s best players—David Gilmour and Eric Clapton alike—a run for their money, at least in terms of driving home an unadulterated, emotional message. And it’s decades ahead of the bar chord structure of the day’s other punk players (aside from a few exceptions, including Patti Smith and Richard Hell). The repetitive, near 11 minutes of “Marquee Moon,” never tires, even after the four-piece breaks it down into near silence around the nine-minute mark. Then, with enterprising style, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith revive its original rhythm, welcoming Verlaine and Lloyd back in.
Many of Marquee Moon’s accolades rest on the power of its title track, the fourth track out of the album’s eight, and concluding side one of the vinyl version. But Television spills it all out right from the beginning of the album, with the incredibly tight “See No Evil.” Verlaine is again picking the “rhythm” guitar here, and his relatively sloppy, intentionally delayed playing could give off the impression that these guys don’t care at all, and might even be oblivious of how music is supposed to work. However, it’s a farce, given away by Ficca and Smith’s exacting knowledge of the song’s structure.
Some of Marquee Moon’s then-quirky techniques feel more like gimmicks on Television’s comparatively disappointing second album, 1978’s Adventure. Throughout Marquee Moon, though, there’s always a fresh component for those yearning to listen to something odd. Verlaine lays down keyboards on “Venus,” and with the others, modernizes the age-old call-and-response technique in the lines, “Did you feel low?! / Nah / Huh??!!” On “Friction,” Verlaine and Lloyd switch off rhythm and lead guitar parts, with Lloyd playing an almost-Americana barroom riff and Verlaine keeping with the heavy twang. You can also tell Verlaine’s really feeling himself vocally. (“You complain of my dick…tion,” “I knew it must have been some big set up!”)
On side two, there’s “Guiding Light,” which Verlaine and Lloyd wrote together. It’s a slower tempo than the rest, and fits with the narrative that Verlaine was a fan of 1960s experimental and folk rock. The delivery of the chorus is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” (although that’s just one of many resemblances between the two bands). “Guiding Light” is followed by the single “Prove It,” on which Verlaine ingeniously disguises a love story about an argument into a detective mystery. He sings, “Prove it / Just the facts, the confidential / This case, this case, this case that I / I’ve been workin’ on so long, so long.” The album’s final song, “Torn Curtain,” is just as metaphorical and honest. Over pounding keys and dueling guitar solos, Verlaine sings, “Tears, tears / Rolling back the years / Holding back the tears / Rolling back the years / The tears I’ve never shed.”
With every listen, Marquee Moon becomes more and more enchanting and enigmatic. Television only went on to release two more albums after that, Adventure and 1992’s Television, separated by the band’s breakup. The self-titled album nearly rivals Marquee Moon in its scope and grandiosity, but like their first, largely went unnoticed by the masses because of its peculiarity and sense of irony. All of these albums deserve a listen, as do the musicians’ solo projects, but Marquee Moon deserves the most credit, for its timelessness and massive direct and indirect influences on underground rock.