Television “Marquee Moon”

Marquee Moon

From the start it was difficult to understand how Television came to be identified with the punk movement. OK, so Marquee Moon appeared in 1977, but so did Dire Straits’s debut, and nobody ever put them in the punk bracket (though Elvis Costello’s also did, and he was lumped in with the punks initially. Ho, hum.). Richard Hell was their first bassist, but he was asked to leave pretty quickly when he proved antipathetic to their carefully constructed tunes and well-rehearsed playing. And while they played CBGB’s, that was in 1974, before punk was identified as a new and separate musical current. And what red-blooded punk singer would take as his stage name that of a nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet?

Television has been described by other reviewers as a minimalist rock band, eliciting comparisons with everyone from the Velvet Underground to Philip Glass. Televison’s clean, sinuous twin-guitar interplay and complex musical arrangements have no real roots in the Underground’s fuzzy two-chord oeuvre. Oddly, the nearest point of reference may be Neil Young with Crazy Horse; just listen to the title track from this album, then play Young’s “Down By The River”. Agree?

The sound throughout the album is pretty homogeneous, with chiming, crystalline Fender guitars and Tom Verlaine’s high, nasal New York voice constantly to the fore, but the songs vary greatly in tempo, key, and arrangement. There are guitar solos, but these are cleanly choreographed, lean and spare, without a note wasted. The lyrics are often opaque, frequently Dylanesque. The heavily solarized portrait of the band on the front cover, by art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, breathes intruigue. This is genuine art-rock we’re talking about here.

Unfortunately there’s not really room on this webpage for the magnificent ten-minute title track, but it holds the listener’s attention right from the deliberately ambiguous timing of the intro to the unexpected recapitulation in the coda. Of the two MP3s below, “Venus” floats along on a glorious arpeggio – and has a wonderful surrealist lyrical refrain about falling right into the arms of Venus de Milo! – whilst “Friction” comes closest to that Crazy Horse groove, with heavily-vibratoed modal lead guitar, staccato block chords and a funky bassline.

While researching this album I was surprised to find that on original release it did almost zip in the band’s home country, though it was very popular in Europe and especially here in the UK. Its high reputation in Britain has persisted; in 2003 the influential New Musical Express declared Marquee Moon to be the fourth best album of all time. (Certainly it’s in this reviewer’s top twenty.) Perhaps this Rising Storm post will introduce it to a newly appreciative audience in the States.

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:) Original Vinyl | 1977 | Elektra | ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2003 | Elektra | amazon ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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  • I can vouch for the fact that the album made no commercial dent at all here in the U.S. when it came out, although it did of course find an audience among followers of what we would have called “alternative rock” back then if someone had thought of it. Good question about why it got grouped with punk. Probably because there was no other available label for music that was different than “regular” rock’n’roll. Once the “new wave” label arose, and stuck, Television was placed in that category, by general consensus, among a growing number of bands employing literate, oddly-voiced front men (Talking Heads as one major example).

  • jim

    it was lumped with punk due to cbgb. patti smith, ramones, talking heads, new york dolls all loosely around that time.
    it wasn’t a hit in canada but it got around, even to my provincial hometown when i was 17

  • Marquee Moon has huge indie cred among new generations in the States. That doesn’t necessarily translate to sales or renown but it is highly respected by all who take the time to hear it, no matter their age or nationality.

  • dave

    I guess everything in 1977 that wasn’t Disco was called punk. Jilted John…John Otway etc.
    Personally I have always been bemused as to why the UK Pop press has raved about this record for the last 30 years. I just don’t get it at all. I never liked the vocals.

    However your previous posting about Jerry Williams was interesting. Around the same time he produced “In Between Tears” for Irma Thomas. Now THAT is a 30+ year old neglected masterpiece which contains the wonderful extended (must have been done in one take and then she collapsed on the floor) 10 minute version of “I wish someone would care”.

  • alllal

    To me Marquee Moon was always the New Wave’s Grateful Dead album. And that’s a compliment!!!

  • First time I heard it I was really hating the vocals. Didn’t get it. But then there were those two guitars, and the rest is history. One stone cold classic, not just to appreciate but to love. I now savour every moment of this album . In my Top10 for sure…

  • Michael

    In an interview in Wire magazine Tom Verlaine said how much he had hated “Down By The River” (it was rhythmically slack) and didn’t get into Neil Young until Zuma. So, no to that idea.
    Verlaine’s solos had some similarities with Barry Melton or John Fogerty but the feel was different, (clue: the Stones / 13th Floor Elevators covers they performed live). Were Television punk? The answer probably depends on whether you think of punk as a rigid set of stylistic tropes (musically) descending from the Ramones, or an attitude. They were certainly anti pretty much everything else that was happening in rock music at the time. Gary Mukholland, in his book “Fear of Music” credits Television with introducing beauty to punk rock. I would add an urge for transcendence also. Anyway, certainly in the top ten best rock albums, regardless of sales. But interestingly I also know younger people, rock fans , that also don’t get it. At all. Love

  • Len Liechti

    Mystery solved! In his excellent sleeve notes to Richard Hell & The Void-Oids’ Blank Generation album, John Piccarella says that “unlike the politically-minded rabblerousing of the British punks, New York’s underground was romantic, intellectual and individualistic”. It’s certainly clear that about all the US and UK punks had in common was their dress sense and their dislike of the bombastic music of 1970-75, even if they did both draw their original influences from the likes of the Stooges and the New York Dolls. With a few exceptions UK punks were Xerox copies of the Sex Pistols template, all attitude and no musicianship. Their US counterparts were notable for both their ability to play and for their diversity, exemplified by the founding partners of Television. Piccarella again: “Sometime in the mid-60s, Richard Meyers and Tom Miller, two teenagers . . . were arrested in Alabama for setting a field on fire. One said he wanted to keep warm (he later changed his name to Verlaine). The other said he just wanted to watch it burn (he changed his name to Hell).” Small wonder this erstwhile partnership didn’t last long. I have the Void-Oids’ album and will offer a review shortly.

  • butcher pete

    Television were rightly regarded as punk at the time IMO. The meaning of the word “punk” subsequently changed under duress of UK punk to designate something much narrower in scope and ambition.

    Television played CBGBs in 1974. But so did the Ramones in 1974. Patti Smith’s first album came out in 1975. The Ramones was early 1976. This was all long before all the gobbing in London.

    I like the bit about the New York scene being “romanitc, intellectual, and individualistic”. That’s sounds apt. No one would call Mink Deville punk today, but they were part of that scene and those three adjectives fit them to a tee as well.

  • Phil

    In many respects, I prefer Noo Yawk punk to its British counterpart, but IMHO it think it’s kinda simplifying things a bit to state that UK punkers were generally blatant copies of the Pistols. There are more than just subtle differences amongst The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Vibrators, The Damned, Generation X, The Jam, The Adverts, and The Stranglers, along with groups which released their first records a little after the initial Brit-punk upheaval, The Undertones and The Rezillos. New York-Manhattan-Bowery punkers were perhaps more individualistic and a lot less socially oriented, but then maybe what was happening in US society was a lot different from the economic-social circumstances in the UK around ’75 – ’78.

    In any case, I don’t think Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, and Ohio transplants Stiv Bators and Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys were intellectual at all. Aesthetic rock ‘n’ roll rebels, sure, but not nearly as literate as Hell or Patti Smith. And, interestingly, Joe Strummer of The Clash and The Jam’s Paul Weller were very much romantics, albeit not of the French symbolist poet variety.

    Maybe a lot of UK punk sounds “xeroxed” from the Pistols’ template because it became more of a mass phenomenon than it ever did Stateside (prior to the eventual eruption of hardcore bands). As a result, you had many younger groups aping Rotten, Strummer, and co. in much the same way that mid-60s American garage bands were explicitly inspired by the Stones and The Animals during the garage band explosion.

    Jon Savage’s superb book, “England’s Dreaming” is a great account of the UK punk scene with a discography that puts English punk in context with the New York City punk underground, and Greg Shaw’s excellent writing in one of the greatest zines ever, Bomp, beautifully and passionately illuminates the importance of BOTH Manhattan and U.K. punk. Check out the book, Bomp! Saving the World One Record at a Time, that came out a couple of years back for excerpts.

  • Matt

    Len and Pete have it about right, I think. CBGB spawned a scene that was diverse and without labels. The press (and then the business) had to name it (but I guess the romantic in me will excuse Legs and Holmstrom).
    And there is a Romanticism and noble notion of the Hero in Televison’s music (Certainly musically if not lyrically). I mean, Richard Lloyd is a Samurai warrior of the guitar, after all.
    Transcendant music, indeed. I still listen to this record all the time and I still don’t quite feel I get it.

  • Nick

    couldn’t help reacting to your little quip “And what red-blooded punk singer would take as his stage name that of a nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet?”

    ever heard of Crass’s Penny Rimbaud? Yeah, I didn’t think so….

  • Len Liechti

    Ah, thought that was Penny Rambo!

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