Not every band that came out of the CBGB’s scene during the advent of punk was as easy to describe as just that. For example, the band Television, despite having a distinct edgy sound covered in New York City grime, weren’t about loud and fast. Their songs were intricate, and particularly in the construction of the guitar parts, as played by main songwriter Tom Verlaine and musical foil Richard Lloyd on a variety of Fenders. Their sound was closer to Talking Heads than the Ramones, but never enjoyed the commercial success of those bands. Still, they managed to leave us with a classic debut, the wondrous Marquee Moon. These eight songs fill up 45 minutes so well—just right for one side, or both, of a 90-minute Maxell—and haven’t dated in the least.
“See No Evil” is a perfect starter, balancing a chugging rhythm in one channel and a spiraling riff in the other. Verlaine’s strangled voice is an acquired taste, but he gets so much joy out of the words he sings. The shouted backing vocals help too, as they do on “Venus”, with the striking image “I fell into the arms of Venus de Milo”. “Friction” is a great garage band song, using basic chords, a wonderful dissonant main riff and an equally chaotic solo. The masterpiece of the album is the title track, which features three existential verses bookended by the simplest of riffs. After the third chorus, the riff starts again to support a majestic solo, as the band follows, matching the dynamics note by note. An incredibly primitive attack explodes into a reverie with almost birdlike sounds, then it all starts again with a repeat of the first verse. (On the original LP the song faded at the ten-minute mark, so it was a discovery akin to a holy grail when the first and all subsequent CDs extended the song for another minute to a full ending.)
Another simple rhythm part starts “Elevation”, a minor-key marvel with a fascinatingly interrupted meter. The band allows themselves one pretty song with “Guiding Light”, which somehow manages to sound like some of the slower songs by the Rolling Stones. A reggae strum underpins “Prove It”, and after a while you notice the wonderful bassline Fred Smith concocted. (It bears mentioning that drummer Billy Ficca holds down the fort expertly.) The weakest song is the last, the lengthy and tortured “Torn Curtain”, but just because it’s not up to the level of the rest doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.
Marquee Moon is not an easy album to sum up, nor is it easy to convince others of its splendor. People raised on Clapton, Stevie Ray and other guitar heroes may not appreciate it right away, but you can hear its influence in U2, the White Stripes and Radiohead. Too edgy for radio, too polite for punk, it’s not yet new wave, but it is rock ‘n roll. (One of Rhino’s better reissues was the expanded version of this album, which added three alternate takes, an unfinished instrumental, and the complete seven-minute version of “Little Johnny Jewel”, their first indie single.)
Television Marquee Moon (1977)—5
2003 expanded CD: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks