“Marquee Moon” by Television (1977)
Back in the day, your typical rock star had a certain look about him: Picture Robert Plant or Mick Jagger, or David Bowie or Elton John. They either made the stereotype or fit the mold.
The first time I saw the cover of Television’s debut album, “Marquee Moon,” I thought something along the lines of, what the (expletive deleted). Punk Rock or New Wave or whatever they wanted to label it hadn’t quite caught on yet in Harrisburg, PA. So seeing the stark Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Tom Verlaine (né Miller), Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca and Fred (not Sonic) Smith wasn’t going to make me plunk down $6 to take the album home.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the genius behind the quartet, which recorded only two LPs in its original incarnation before Verlaine decided he’d be better off in a solo capacity. While his subsequent albums that i’ve heard are enjoyable, they don’t quite measure up to what he did with Television.
“Marquee Moon” actually is neither Punk nor New Wave; it’s much more musically complex than either of those genres have to offer. Because Verlaine and company hung out with a lot of those types – he dated Patti Smith for a while, and Richard Hell was in an embryonic version of Television – his music generally was assigned to a certain category. But listen to the music, and you’ll hear a lot more than the usual three-chord thrash.
Let’s cite the title track, which is one of the more complex songs of the era. Each of the musicians plays a subtly different motif, melding together to utterly the basic 12 bars of rock ‘n’ roll to that point. Each plays slightly off the beat from one another, creating a fascinating tapestry.
Verlaine’s singing might be an acquired taste, but his scratcy, higher-range voice rings true compared with the processed vocalizing that’s prevalent today. In fact, I usually cite him among my favorite singers, with the likes of Lou Reed, David Byrne and Jerry Garcia: guys who lack/lacked golden voices but convey their material superbly.
That being said, the guitar playing of Verlaine and Lloyd is what makes “Marquee Moon,” the album and particularly the title track, a huge cut above most of Television’s contemporaries. They famously steer clear of traditional rock chord changes, opting instead for scales that simultaneously sound familiar and off the beaten path, creating a sound that for all intents and purposes hasn’t been duplicated.
Beyond the title track, the other seven songs live up to the established standard, albeit in a more familiar rock ‘n’ roll vein: from the riff-driven “See No Evil” to the more introspective “Venus” to the minor-key epic of a closer, “Torn Curtain.” And the reissued CD adds some essential material, included the band’s debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts 1 & 2),” an integral release in the context of the New York City music scene in 1976.
OK, I’ll admit my musical horizons weren’t broad enough to embrace “Marquee Moon” in 1977. But 35 years later, I highly recommend it to anyone who has a sense of adventure … which, of course, is the title of Television’s second album.