Unlike my multi-faceted fellow scribes I’ve never really been into an artist, far less an entire genre, long enough to qualify as a “side” completely independent of what can be traced quite easily to what we now called americana. The interest I had in 1970s rock tended to be around those bands whose influences took me straight to the blues, country or folk. Pop, metal, glam, punk, prog, you name it, all passed me by.
However, an album back then that did make a deep impression was ‘Marquee Moon’, the debut album by New York band Television. While not exactly enough to make me move from the Ozarks to the Bowery, it is a record I loved at the time that I have continued to play occasionally ever since. In early 1977 while rummaging around in a record shop I heard Tom Verlaine’s eerie voice and surging guitars for the first time. In those days you could give an album a listen on a pair of tinny headphones connected to a turntable behind the counter. On that assessment alone you’d stump up £2.50 or so, roughly £13.30 today and off you’d go. I did and was not disappointed. This was a record like none other I’d ever owned.
Whether The Guardian, Melody Maker, Rolling Stone or many other arbiters, ‘Marquee Moon’ is considered among the greatest albums of all time. Television’s improvisations were far removed from the bombast that characterised much of rock at the time. Equally, their fresh clear style based around free ranging guitar solos that blended rock and jazz was far removed from the power chords of the emerging punk scene. Lyrically, Television eschewed the macho heavy rock themes or meanderings into Tolkien. Frontman and writer, Tom Verlaine was a poet who did nihilism, but very eloquently.
In 1973 Verlaine and fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd formed Television with bassist Richard Hell and drummer Billy Ficca. By 1976 they had built a solid following at New York’s alternative music venue CBGBs. Elektra, who wanted a New York band on their roster, signed them. Hell had departed, replaced by the more reliable Fred Smith. Their first recording was a single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, an unusually successful seven minute introduction to Television. Ahead of recording their debut album, the band were rehearsing up to six hours a day, at least as many days a week. Verlaine knew the order of tracks, all he needed now was a someone to produce and engineer the record. There was a catch. To quote Verlaine, “we wanted an engineer, we didn’t want a producer coming in with a lot of ideas”. Andy Johns, brother of Glyn, got the job for his ability to capture a band, right there and then. This is not nerdy detail, it is an important point because ‘Marquee Moon’ is stripped of all the big drums and elaborate techniques of the time. There were no compressors, EQ or any other gizmos on the soundboard. Verlaine again, “It’s just two guitars, bass and drums”. Johns wondered what he was supposed to do but he loved what Television were about. A week’s recording later he mixed the album.
Every time I hear those hypnotic chords on opener ‘See No Evil’ leading into Verlaine’s quavering voice I am reminded of just how different this was was to anything around then, a uniqueness that has stood the test of time. Lloyd tears off a solo as drum and bass drill right through the listener. Slowing down a bit ‘Venus’ flows along to cascading dual guitars as Verlaine, “fell into the arms of Venus de Milo”. An observation of night time New York first impressions of this, and several other songs, are of psychedelia. What are they on? Not much, this isn’t about hallucinogens but sheer unfettered imagination. And ability to explain. The staccato ‘Friction’ is perhaps the closest Television come to the punks sharing the CBGB stage.
The title track is the highlight of this glorious album. A clipped double stopped guitar introduces a ten minute forensic examination of Television’s many talents. A long jam feels as if it is going to peter out but Verlaine and Lloyd pull it back on course. A muse that swings from the nostalgic to just plain dark. ‘Marquee Moon’ is a one of the purest sonic meditations I’ve ever heard. Time has not diminished its power.
Side two has a gentler feel. The elaborate rhythm of ‘Elevation’ is the current that pulls and pushes Verlaine’s vocal tide. ‘Guiding Light’ sounds classical, a theme developed with the arpeggios of ‘Prove It’. The final track, ‘Torn Curtain’ closes the album in a sullen, lingering mood, as if they did not want to stop. Lyrically very obscure, even Verlaine admitted some of his lyrics were beyond his understanding. Metaphor abounds.
What is strikingly clear though is the album art. Robert Mapplethorpe took the photo of the band but what became the cover was not the original but a photocopy, hence the grainy almost flimsy, look.
Despite Television’s New York following ‘Marquee Moon’ was a far greater success in the UK, reaching 28 in the album charts. It did not even get into the top 150 in the US. To much anticipation Television released ‘Adventure’ the following year. A softer record all round it rather fell into the difficult second album hole. Television split up a few months later.
Verlaine pursued a successful solo career in his collaborations with many artists, most notably Patti Smith. In 1992 Television reformed, toured and made their third studio album. Eponymously titled this was far removed from their debut. Instead of that nerve shattering immediacy was a much more relaxed, yet still experimental, sound. Verlaine never stopped exploring.
To claim Television has been my other side for decades would be overstepping the mark. They were, and remain very much ‘Marquee Moon’.