Lightning Struck Itself: Marquee Moon at 45

The debut LP from Television remains a master class in New York Punk

Marquee Moon turned 45 on February 8th (Images: Elektra)

There’s no arguing the fact that no one has ever torn the roof off the sucker as effectively as George Clinton, but for a brief stretch of the late ‘70s, there was an entity capable of ever so stealthily burrowing into the skulls of those within its reach and taking the tops off those heads with cool precision – Television.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

 

The quartet, built around the expressionist guitar work of Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine, and the abstract lyrical mazes carved out by the latter, stood starkly apart from their peers in the nascent New York punk scene, both in terms of sound and vision. Where the Ramones cultivated a gang-like image – a uniformity that extended from the leather-jacketed look to the adoption of a shared last name –  and Talking Heads all but single-handedly made “quirky art student” a viable costumoption for Halloween pop-up stores, Television came across more like a shadowy sonic cabal, determinedly aloof and seemingly (to quote Chic) lost in music.

That attitude can be attributed to the sheer will of Tom Verlaine, a solitary Delaware kid who switched his allegiances from jazz to rock as a teen, then changed his surname from Miller in homage to the French poet whose influence veins his lyrics with a compelling delerium, one that teases by alternating between beckoning and distancing.

Those seeds had already been planted when the earliest version of Television (or its predecessor, the Neon Boys) took its first steps onto the stage of the then-obscure CBGB. The original lineup, by all accounts, was made more menacing and more shambolic because of the tension between Verlaine and original bassist Richard Hell, who injected his own set of songs and his nascent junkie-rapscallion vibe into the mix. The center couldn’t hold, and it didn’t.  As Hell put it in his memoir, A Very Clean Tramp, “By the winter of 1974-75, Tom was shutting me out beyond a doubt. He had not only stopped allowing most of my songs onto set lists, but he’d told me not to move around onstage while he sang. He didn’t want any attention distracted from himself.”

 

VIDEO: Television The Full Ork Loft Tapes 1974

Enter bassist Fred Smith, who was then entrenched as a member of Blondie.  Stable, well-versed in the ways of Wyman and McCartney, he managed to mesh with Verlaine in terms of personality and vision. More importantly, he was a more effective foil for drummer Billy Ficca, whose spare, skittering style was a round hole that could never provide a fit for Hell’s alternately hexagonal and completely free-form playing. 

After a number of false starts, Television started to generate some interest in the corner offices of the Big Apple-based major labels (a bigger deal back in the pre-consolidation days). While Ahmet Ertegun gave big thumbs-down, saying what they created was “not earth music,” the band found plenty of enthusiasm at Island Records, which put them into a studio with Brian Eno, thinking his highly conceptual approach would be a good fit.

Think again.

The Eno sessions, which were widely bootlegged before getting an official release decades after the fact, didn’t satisfy anyone involved. Years after the fact, Verlaine elaborated in an interview with Sounds, saying “The whole thing sounded like the Ventures. It sounded so bad. I kept on saying, why does it sound so bad? And [Eno would] say, ‘Whaddya mean? It sounds pretty good to me.’”

That ended Television’s  dealings with Island, but the quartet managed to rebound with a more palatable Elektra Records deal and a teaming with producer Andy Johns, who developed a remarkable facility for figuring out when to let Lloyd and Verlaine mix it up in mid-ring, and when to send them to neutral corners in order to showcase their sonic combinations separately.

 

AUDIO: The Brian Eno Television Sessions

That skill manifests itself from the onset of  “See No Evil,” the opening salvo of their towering debut album, Marquee Moon, which marks its 45th anniversary this week. Verlaine, the more aggressive oof the two, starts the song with a deceptively simple riff, one that gives Lloyd room to bob and weave, ultimately breaking into a solo that builds from an echo of the song’s melody into a glorious cacophony. The track gives Verlaine the chance the chance to play with the twin themes of nihilism and optimism, progressing as he does from acknowledging “I understand all destructive urges/and it seems so perfect” to the final exhortation to “pull down the future with the one you love.”

“Venus,” which follows, transports the listener to Verlaine’s abstract, decidedly non-idealized version of Gotham, where “Broadway looked so medieval, it seemed to flap like little pages.” The darkness is pierced, again and again, with a five-note guitar fillip that repeats itself throughout, a rejoinder to the singer’s increasingly addled incantations and a subtly effective way to raise the tension level. By the time Verlaine yelps “Richie, Richie said ‘hey man, let’s dress up like cops, think of what we could do” (a reference to Mr. Hell, perhaps), you get the sense he’s going over the edge. But rather than dive headfirst into the debauchery, the singer pulls back, countering “something , something said you’d better not.” There’s no such hesitation in his playing, however.

“Friction” and “Elevation” display the most jagged edges of the album’s eight tracks, harkening back to the untethered sound of Double Exposure, a fan favorite bootleg made up of 1975 demos and live tunes, as well as the freewheeling expansiveness of influences like the 13th Floor Elevators, whose “Fire Engine” was the band’s go-to set opener for years. Johns, who makes judicious use of space on most of the album, wisely lets the principals tussle in close quarters here, and rather than use their guitars like scalpels, Lloyd and Verlaine wield them more like chainsaws to slash through the rhythmic thickets.

As exciting as they are at full throttle, the band actually grows more compelling when the mood is more contemplative:  “Guiding Light” comes in like a whisper, a gentle beckoning to lean in close to Verlaine’s strained pleas, before it bursts into full flower on shimmering waves of Lloyd’s guitars, layer upon layer of gossamer sound. It’s worth noting that Marquee Moon’s notes carefully credit each solo to the player responsible, more like a vintage jazz session than a standard rock outing. 

 Throughout, Verlaine paints scenes that somehow come into vivid focus, even though most of us have never been to a place “where the silence spreads and the men dig holes” nor know what it feels like to “fall into the arms of Venus de Milo.” He alternates between that romanticism and a hard-boiled reportage redolent of classic film noirs – an influence he may have absorbed from Lloyd and Hell, who worked together at Cinemabilia, a wildly overstuffed movie memorabilia shop that served as a mecca for fans of those classics. And even though his reedy tenor and wispy frame temper the threat factor of lines like “If I ever catch that ventriloquist, I’m gonna squeeze his head down into my fist,” there’s no disputing the keenness of his extra-legal forays.

Television Marquee Moon, Elektra Records 1977

All of those elements – the sonic chiaroscuro, the Chandler-via-Serling short story couched in the lyrics, the suspension of time – come together on the album’s epic title track. “Marquee Moon” unfolds as ten minutes of tension and release, supposedly recorded in one take, a backstory that’s believable given the locked-in vibe that emerges within the song’s hypnotic minute-long intro — which builds from Verlaine’s insistent, minimalist strum to a full-on masterclass in drone. The ground shifts when he launches into the song’s cryptically doomy plot with the inscrutably disturbing opening line: “I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall lightning struck itself.”

The band pushes inexorably forward as the tale unfolds, pausing three times for extended guitar solos, Lloyd’s chiming and melodic contribution carving out space after the second chorus and Verlaine’s exploding, firework-style following the third, its dominant scale grounding giving way to a crescendo that splits the difference between John Cipollina and a transliterated John Coltrane (fitting, since Verlaine began his musical explorations as a sax player. As the song winds down to its coda, Verlaine is beckoned into a Cadillac bound for a graveyard – shades of “Room for One More, Honey,” – but he declines the invitation, and returns to the song’s beginning, repeating those initial couplets. The implication is that the song will linger forever, and its memory certainly does.

Television existed in the margins for most of its four-year existence. The band was never anointed as the “next big thing,” never caught the eye of the gatekeepers at a single late-night show (not even Fridays) and never so much as scratched the Billboard 200 album chart. Appropriately enough, they departed the world with the same fanfare that greeted their arrival on the scene. Richard Lloyd recalled the denouement in a 2001 interview with Mojo’s Ira Robbins, saying “We’d broken up a couple of weeks earlier. There was no mention made at the show, but I knew that was it. It was a relief at the time, quite a relief I remember leaving the Bottom Line, hitting the air and going, ‘Whew, that’s it.’ And no one knows.”

Four decades – and a best-forgotten reunion of the original band – have gone by the wayside since Lloyd took that deep breath. To quote from the fading outro of Marquee Moon’s closer, “Torn Curtain,” there’ve been a lot of “Tears rolling back the years and years holding back the tears.” But rather than get lost in sentiment, it’s best to remember that Television truly did, as the song concludes, “burn it down.”

 

AUDIO: Television Marquee Moon (full album)

 

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Deborah Sprague

Deborah Sprague is a former editor of Creem magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, New York Daily News and Newsday. She’s contributed to books including Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Kill Your Idols and Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. She lives in Queens, New York with her partner.

3 thoughts on “Lightning Struck Itself: Marquee Moon at 45

  • February 15, 2022 at 11:24 am
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    I believe that Andy Johns (who has done amazing stuff) wasn’t there during some of the overdubbing for MM, however. The guitar arranging is probably more due to the band themselves. I’m not sure that he cut the vocal tracks, either. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for finding a great, authentic sound for the music, no question!

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  • February 16, 2022 at 7:09 pm
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    Brilliant, insightful capture of a brilliant, insightful record. I’d like to add a bit about the cover. Why is this photo — just the four guys standing there — so memorable and arresting? In his excellent memoir, ‘Everything Is Combustible,’ Richard Lloyd tells a great story about how that cover came to be. Lloyd relates that Patti Smith got her friend Robert Mapplethorpe to shoot the band and the photos were so great that all the guys wanted a copy. There were very few color xerox machines in those days and the one Lloyd brought it to kept turning out goofy colors. Lloyd asked if he could twiddle the xerox knobs and when he did, the images that came out were very different from the straight shots the great photographer had created. The band chose one of those “wrong” color xeroxes and that’s the cover, which endures to this day.

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