When visiting my cousins on the Upper East side, I liked to head off on my own, speed walking downtown checking my progress by the street signs. 62nd. 56th. 49th. 42nd. I had all the nervous, frenetic energy that came with being thirteen and taking ones life in one's hands, venturing into the dangerous city alone in search of cheap secondhand record stores and bookshops.
Marquee Moon would have been the perfect soundtrack to such ramblings, but the Walkman was still a few years away and I, like most of America, completely missed Television's debut album. The album actually did chart in the UK, reaching 28 with both an abbreviated title track and "Prove It" entering the UK Top 30.
History tells us this was a storied time, of a murderer's row in New York City where Patti Smith bellowed from one stage and The Ramones buzz sawed from another. Of Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille and Suicide. But at most only a few thousand people really knew what was happening at CBGB's.
The best musicians of the lot were in Television. They got that way through ruthless practice sessions. Tom Verlaine led the band. His spiraling guitar solos were woven into the discordant lines of Robert Lloyd. The rhythm section was solid : Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums. They had all these great songs down cold and recorded them live. Nothing sounded like this before and nothing sounded like this that followed.
Along with Blondie and the Ramones, Television achieved their initial notoriety while playing in the same place (an esophagus of a bar called CBGB, in lower Manhattan), and have been lumped together with other habitués of this joint as purveyors of "punk rock." In their self-consciousness and liberal open-mindedness, these bands are as punky as Fonzie; that is, not at all.
Marquee Moon, Television's debut album, is more interesting, audacious and unsettling than either Blondie's eponymous debut album or the Ramones' Leave Home. Leader Tom Verlaine wrote all the songs, coproduced with Andy Johns, plays lead guitar in a harrowingly mesmerizing stream-of-nightmare style and sings all his verses like an intelligent chicken being strangled: clearly, he dominates this quartet. Television is his vehicle for the portrayal of an arid, despairing sensibility, musically rendered by loud, stark repetitive guitar riffs that build in every one of Marquee Moon's eight songs to nearly out-of-control climaxes. The songs often concern concepts or inanimate objects -- "Friction," "Elevation," "Venus (de Milo, that is) -- and when pressed Verlaine even opts for the mechanical over the natural: in the title song, he doesn't think that a movie marquee glows like the moon; he feels that the moon resonates with the same evocative force as a movie marquee.
When one can make out the lyrics, they often prove to be only non sequiturs, or phrases that fit metrically but express little, or puffy aphorisms or chants. (The chorus of "Prove It" repeats, to a delightful sprung-reggae beat: "Prove it/ Just the facts/ The confidential" a few times.)
All this could serve to distance or repel us, and taken with Verlaine's guitar solos, which flirt with an improvisational formlessness, cold easily bore. But he structures his compositions around these spooky, spare riffs, and they stick to the back of your skull. On Marquee Moon, Verlaine becomes all that much better for a new commercial impulse that gives his music its catchy, if slashing, hook.
Television treks across the same cluttered, hostile terrain as bands like the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, but the times may be on the side of Verlaine: we have been prepared for Television's harsh subway sound by a grudging, after-the-fact-of-their-careers acceptance of those older bands.
More than thirty years later, NME 's Alan Woodhouse summed up the growth of Marquee Moon's reputation in this way :
The influence of ‘Marquee Moon’ cannot be overestimated. The post-punk movement certainly took on board numerous aspects of the record – the clinically precise instrumentation, the clean sound and the introspective, vaguely gloomy feel. That filtered through to the indie movement of the ’80s, for whom the record became one of the sacred texts, while even bands like The Strokes have clearly taken inspiration from it. It would not be an overstatement to say that ‘Marquee Moon’ is to the ’70s what ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ was to the ’60s.
Marquee Moon topped Sounds magazine's list of the best albums of 1977. In the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll, it finished third.
1. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 412 (32)
2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia) 367 (33)
3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 327 (26)
4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.) 318 (26)
5. Steely Dan: Aja (ABC) 266 (23)