Television – Marquee Moon
Released February 8th, 1977 on Elektra Records
Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school. Later, they moved to New York City, chasing poetry. Then, because it was NYC in the 1970s (or, rather, NYC at any time) they formed bands – first Neon Boys, and then in 1973, Television.
The story of Television is the story of a lot of seminal punk acts from the late 1970s on the Lower East Side, only they were there first. Their manager convinced Hilly Kristal, owner of the legendary CBGB club, to give them a gig in 1974; within two years the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and a zillion other acts would make their name playing there, but Television built that stage (literally). From 1975 onward they had a regular gig at CBGB’s, and in early 1977 they released the founding document of the era, Marquee Moon. It would be released without Richard Hell, however; Verlaine had gotten sick of Richard’s continual need to be the center of attention on stage (and, for the mostly-sober Verlaine, probably Richard Hell’s prodigious heroin usage). Hell would go on to inspire Malcolm McLaren (and thereby the entire “punk fashion” thing) as well as involvement with two other albums we’ll be celebrating this year. Television would become the playground of Tom Verlaine and the band’s other guitarist, Richard Lloyd.
As a “founding document” for punk rock, Marquee Moon can seem a little strange. It eschews a few things that people take for granted as being part of the basic construction set for punk. There are none of the “wall of sound” power chords that the Ramones and Sex Pistols were built on; there aren’t even the ragged open chords that The Clash made their own. Blondie perverted disco, Talking Heads appropriated funk and African rhythms, but Television built themselves on entwined guitar melodies, twisted leads, and a bizarre sense of trained music theory. A lot of Marquee Moon could be described as “prog-garage” – nicotine stained, recorded lo-fi, but very obviously put together by people who knew their instruments well and knew how to wring disturbed passion out of them to a great extent. Contrast that with Sid Vicious, who didn’t have the first idea how to play even a bass guitar. Secondly, the lyrics were obscured, comprised of snippets of poetry, impressionist prose, and a balance between urban and rural sensibilities that mixed insider Manhattan references with boats, oceans, and caves. Contrast that to the straightforward “I’m so bored of the USA” of the Clash, or even the “SCREAMING BLOODY FUCKING MESS” of the Sex Pistols, and you start to wonder what Verlaine and Television have in common with the rest of their scene. The truth is that they share a time and a place, and that’s about it. Marquee Moon, in terms of pure musicianship, a cut above the rest.
One consequence of this has been that Marquee Moon has been been relegated to an also-ran status, a remembrance that is more obscure than luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones. The album sold poorly at the time (only 80,000 copies) and the band only recorded one follow-up before disbanding. While critics have always held it in high esteem, it wasn’t until The Strokes reintroduced the world to NYC punk in 2001 that people seemed to really start discussing the band in a wider sense. The internet may have helped with this as well; certainly very few pre-internet publications would have ranked it to a level that the users of Rate Your Music have (#28 on the all-time list). Either way, The Strokes’ love of Television’s guitar leads gave Marquee Moon new life, and deservedly so. It’s influence was felt more subtly before then anyway: The Edge considers them an influence, as does Joey Santiago (The Pixies), John Fruisciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stephen Morris (Joy Division), and Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen). Chances are you’ve heard something that originally derived from a line on Marquee Moon, you’ve just never realized it before – unless you’re a Strokes fan, and then it’s been beaten into your head from day one.