LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #9 - Television, the best band you've never heard of. Part one, Marquee Moon.

You all know the feeling: you come across a band whose music fills you with such delight that nothing else seems to compare to them, yet they have a tragically small discography. One album, perhaps two: think of Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Nirvana, The Sex Pistols and so on. In cases like this, it’s tempting to wonder what would have happened if the artist had produced more music. There always lies the possibility that the artist could have gone on to surpass the excellent music they had already created, and thinking about this can be frustrating. However, there also lies the possibility that the more music they produced, the worse it became. Of course, we’ll never know for certain if the likes of Jimi Hendrix would have made his masterpiece had he lived; we’ll always have to live in wonder. But one band that I never wondered about was Television. They’re not very well known to the general public, having made two albums in ’77 and ’78 before disbanding quietly. But those two albums, particularly their debut Marquee Moon, are so close to perfect that I don’t have to wonder if they would have made their masterpiece had they stayed together, because they already did.

Television emerged from the 70’s punk scene in New York, performing at the CGBG club alongside the likes of The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and so on. While sharing some of the attitudes of the punk movement, Television’s music was something radically different. Despite retaining the sneering vocal delivery, guitar-heavy sound and “in-your face” attitude of punk, Television’s music took on a more abstract, complex sound. Unlike punk, the band’s sound was less concise and more adventurous, combining virtuosity and introspection in their music. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine both shared lead guitar duties, and Television’s sound was defined by their interlocking guitar sounds: not one more prominent than the other but both combining seamlessly. Unlike punk, guitar solos featured prominently in their music, and these were often soaring and carefully composed, despite having an improvisational nature. The guitar sounds are clean and full but unconventional, not quite rock, not quite jazzy improvisation, but somewhere in the middle. The rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca on drum and bass were quite loose and free but still as technically advanced as the guitars, and their determination to never do the same thing quite the same way took the band another large step away from punk. Vocally, Tom Verlaine snarls and sneers like Jonny Rotten, but wrote meditative, philosophical lyrics that were in stark contrast to the brash and often nihilistic lyrics that defined punk music. The result of this remarkable union came Marquee Moon in 1977, an album that never had much commercial success but was widely regarded as one of the best albums of all time, and rightly so.
Marquee Moon is a miracle. The opening song, See No Evil, grasps you right from the onset with its interlocking guitar line, frantic drumming and frenzied vocals. The second track, Venus, is a more introspective ballad with a wonderfully tragic guitar line. Richard Lloyd’s wonderful melodic solo begins with a guitar effect that I cannot name which makes his guitar sound like a soft synth. A disorientating but exquisite touch. Tom Verlaine’s first-person lyrics deal with a sense of wonder and bedazzlement at the world outside. A refute to the rebellious sensibilities of punk comes in the final verse when the narrator’s friend suggests dressing up like policemen, to which the narrator thinks: “something, something, it said “you’d better not.””
Continuing on this amazing run of songs, Friction appears, a finer song than has appeared before. The guitar lines and vocals are sinister, the drumming frantic… Friction suggests paranoia, fear, and yet a certain sense of defiance. “I don’t wanna grow up/There’s too much contradiction/And too much friction.” The uneasy, contemplative mood that it creates takes us nicely into the title track, which in my opinion is one of the most incredible songs ever to have been recorded. I don’t throw that term about a lot. The 10-minute Marquee Moon is an utter triumph of recorded music. It opens with perhaps the best example of Television’s dual guitar sound, with Richard Lloyd providing a simple two-note motif while Tom Verlaine adds a contrasting series of hammer-ons. The bass and drums kick in, taking on a loose sort of groove (drummer Billy Ficca supposedly believed this take – the first take – was a rehearsal) that prepares us for the second part of the song. After three verse/chorus combinations, the music breaks down and begins a slow 5-minute guitar solo from Tom Verlaine. In these five minutes, the music increases in volume, intensity and passion, culminating in what can only be described as “musical nirvana,” to quote an Amazon reviewer. (Oh how I wish those words were my own) After a few moments of sheer bliss, the music returns to a final verse and chorus before a perfect ending. 10 minutes? Definitely doesn’t feel that long to me. A marvel.
The last 4 tracks, while not quite reaching the glorious heights of the first four, are no less inventive. Elevation opens with an interesting guitar and bass pairing before Tom Verlaine’s at-first-incomprehensible vocals come in. In the chorus, the guitar comes in what sounds like a bar early; the first time I heard it I was convinced my CD had skipped. Guiding Light is an utterly fantastic ballad with some of the most beautiful guitar playing ever committed to recording. The only track on the album to feature a piano, the song is like a delicate journey through a distant land; hesitant and nervous, yet ultimately hopeful. Lyrically they are the album’s most tragic: “Darling, darling, do we part like the seas?/The roaring shell, the drifting of the leaves?” The guitar and piano outro is simply transcendent. Prove It concerns a detective story and is a little more standard and upbeat. The closer is a repetitive, hypnotic dirge called Torn Curtain which unfolds like the credits of a film; slowly, carefully and climactically.
Marquee Moon is a triumph on so many levels: artistically, musically, philosophically. The interplay between the two guitarists is simply unparalleled, the overall interaction between band members is almost telepathic and Tom Verlaine’s penchant for writing a good song is as rare as it is welcome. His contradictory lyrics, such as “the kiss of death, the embrace of life,” “Don’t you be so happy, and for heaven’s sake don’t you be so sad,” “I woke up and it was yesterday,” and “it’s seen before but it’s always new” add a sense of unease and self-reflection to the music. In every aspect, Marquee Moon is as close to perfect as music gets, and if Television had released just this one album their place in history would have been sealed. But thankfully they released another studio album the following year before breaking up for the first time; the strong but somewhat less magical Adventure that I’ll cover in part two of this series.

Words - Adam

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