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Marquee Moon

Released: May 1977

Tom VerlaineAlong 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.

- Ken Tucker, Rolling Stone, 4/7/77.

Bonus Reviews!

The New York Art and Punk Rock underground has been received with justifiable suspicion elsewhere, since the New York critics are the only people who've actually heard the groups in question. Albums by three of the better-known outfits are now available and the results, though mixed, are a definite improvement over the New York Dolls. Of the lot, Television's Marquee Moon is easily the most accessible. Singer/songwriter Tom Verlaine's quavering, intense vocal style owes a lot to Lou Reed and Patti Smith, though it's likely that Patti took more from Verlaine than vice versa. The lyrics -- striking, frequently brilliant pieces of the darkly romantic, jungle-of-cities genre -- are complemented by spare, slightly menacing musical settings, with the band employing repeated minimal riffs much in the manner of the early West Coast groups.

- Playboy, 6/77.

It's hard to overrate this one, which features whiplash guitars, thrusting rhythms, and Tom Verlaine's piercing vocals on his best set of songs. * * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Marquee Moon is Television's undisputed masterpiece and a landmark in modern rock. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd achieve guitar nirvana; drawing on the Allman Brothers technique of harmonized guitar lines, the guitarists line songs such as "See No Evil" and "Torn Curtain" with delicate melodic passages that soothe the angular attack of the rhythm parts and countermelody the vocals. Marquee Moon manages to simultaneously evoke the influence of mediative acts such as the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads and the aggressive virtuosity and arranging skills of bands like the Allmans and Led Zeppelin. * * * * *

- Dave Galens, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Tell those Strokes fans to listen to what is probably one of the most influential rock records: a sinuous, entrancing and gorgeous debut -- the finest album of the class of CBGB's 1977 -- from the great American proto-punk outfit that embodied scruffy artiness of New York's downtown scene. Plunge into the guitar nirvana of Richard Lloyd and unsung hero Tom Verlaine -- it's still enough to make any decent person's eyes cross. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

I had a roommate obsessed with Marquee Moon. The title song especially, with its metronomic drumbeat, its pulsing, two-note bass, all ten minutes of it bleeding through the thin wall separating the living room from my bed. I hated it, God I hated it: that shrill repeating guitar riff, and Tom Verlaine's thyroidal singing, or "singing," since it sounded more like the protest of a neck-wrung hen. I was getting over something -- a headache, a hangover, a bad girl experience -- and that song, that song, was trying to stop me. I went into the living room, finally, while my roommate was out. I thought I'd hide the record, bury it somewhere he wouldn't find it, at least for a while. The cover art, Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph, showed four men, frozen and haloed in a spooky bluish glow. They looked like statues, and at the same time like flesh made supra-real; they were still, and yet they were moving; the man at the picture's center -- Verlaine -- had gigantic hands, and a swan-like hauteur. So arresting was this image, I had to play the record immediately, whether I'd hated it thus far or no. And as soon as the needle touched down, the chiming, fire-alarm guitar of "See No Evil" came leaping out of the speakers. i was transported. The record made sense to me, as it hadn't heard casually, filtered through a wall. Billy Ficca's careening drumming, Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's immaculate, interlocking guitars, and -- especially, all of a sudden -- Verlaine's singing. Which seemed to straddle a line between panic and exhilaration, the whole song tumbling forth in a giddy, ass-over-tea-kettle rush. Followed by the cascading, koan-like "Venus," the taut, spring-wound "Friction," and at last, my bête noire, "Marquee Moon." Which this time, at long last, caught me. With a guitar -- a solo, although I'd spent my entire adolescence yawning in secret over the heavy indulgences of the rock guitar solo before punk rock excused me from such a thing -- or rather, two of them. First Richard Lloyd's concise, spiky, over-and-out break, and then Verlaine's. Which stammers, glimmers, spirals, and soars: a sound so exultant it is more like the greatest transcendental jazz (Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders) than any "rock" sound I have ever heard. By the time it ended, with one jubilant, pealing wave after another and then a return to that same rocksteady pulse I'd initially detested, I was goose-pimpled all over, and ready to hear it again.

Months would pass before I could even bring myself to flip the album over. And be no less astonished by the marvels of side two: the angular pop of "Elevation," the stop-start playfulness of "Prove It," the stately and exquisite "Guiding Light." To this day, I remain completely in the record's thrall, mesmerized by its marriage of passion and detachment, the latter just enough to ensure the former never wears out. I cannot imagine my -- or anyone's -- collection complete without it.

Marquee Moon was voted the 83rd greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Matthew Specktor, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

One of the masterworks of the '70s New York punk scene era, a multi-layered thrill ride of interlocking stun-gun guitars and leader Tom Verlaine's nervous vocals. A

- Marc Weingarten, Entertainment Weekly, 9/26/03.

When the members of Television materialized in New York, at the dawn of punk, they played an incongruous, soaring amalgam of genres: the noirish howl of the Velvet Underground, brainy art rock, the double-helix guitar sculpture of Quicksilver Messenger Service. As exhilarating in its ambitions as the Ramones' debut was in its simplicity, Marquee Moon still amazes. "Friction," "Venus" and the mighty title track are jagged, desperate and beautiful all at once. As for punk credentials, don't forget the cryptic electricity and strangled existentialism of guitarist Tom Verlaine's voice and songwriting.

Marquee Moon was chosen as the 128th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Television were the least commercially successful major band to come out of the punk scene they helped to create at CBGB's. However, their finest hour, Marquee Moon, was as good, if not better, than contemporary seminal works such as Patti Smith's Horses (both of the albums sported a Robert Mapplethorpe front cover) and Talking Heads' debut.

After being shopped around to various labels, Television signed with Elektra in 1976 for their debut. The band was operating without original bassist Richard Hell, who left the group to start the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunder. Bassist Fred Smith was a most fitting replacement, but his greatest contribution was in introducing Tom Verlaine to Andy Johns (Glyn Johns' brother), who knew enough not to tinker with the blurry jazz-punk sound honed at CBGB's.

The result was a guitar album like no other. Turning away from the bluesy sound that had dominated rock guitar since the 1960s, Television created a work that in its own way is every bit as sweeping as Led Zeppelin's finest offerings. Starting with the churning "See No Evil," Verlaine and Richard Lloyd tangle their stinging leads into spiraling celebrations of urban grime and street culture. The 11-minute title track led some to draw comparisons with hippie bands, but there was no flower power -- just power -- to be found in "Prove It" and "Guiding Light."

Marquee Moon received a lukewarm response from the public but was hailed by critics, including New Musical Express's Nick Kent, who enthused that "the songs are some of the greatest ever."

- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Article: "A Highly Selective
Basic Library of Punk Rock"

Television Lyrics

Television Videos

For a moment there in the mid-'70s, it looked like guitar rock had pretty much run its course. The major works of the British blues-influenced bands (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple) were in the past, and the American iterations, like Aerosmith, were blatant copycats. The most influential band in the U.S. was nearly unknown, those dystopian explorers the Velvet Underground. The most promising rising stars, like the Ramones, were savage primitivists with limited skills. Then came Marque Moon.

Television's debut amounts to a radical rethinking of rock guitar. The singer and primary songwriter Tom Verlaine and his technically adept lead player, Richard Lloyd, did not bludgeon listeners. They needled them instead, with fantastic barbed-wire melodies and sprocketed counterlines. The New York band's sound was built on the precise alignment of several contrasting motifs: Verlaine would establish a rhythmic phrase, against which Lloyd would spatter defiant, often deliriously dissonant, melodies. "There weren't many bands where the two guitars play rhythm and melody back and forth, like a jigsaw puzzle," Lloyd said in an interview marking Marquee Moon's 2003 reissue. "It was what we were obsessed with when we recorded." This twin-guitar attack inspired bands across the rock spectrum -- scruffy alt-rockers (the Pixies), noise specialists (Sonic Youth), and big arena acts like U2. (The Edge, U2's guitarist, simulates the intricate Television sound all by himself, with effects pedals.)

With their extended instrumental sections, impenetrable moods (see "Torn Curtain"), and often-lofty lyrics ("I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo," goes one), the songs of Marquee Moon advanced ideas far more ambitious than those of the New York punk brigade. Television knew its rock history (traces of Chuck Berry and the early Rolling Stones creep into songs like "Friction") and, more important, knew what it needed to avoid -- the cursory punk snarl. That knotted-up and spectacular sound drew massive love from critics, and has since been cited as a cornerstone of modern rock -- Marquee Moon is number 120 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Yet Television hasn't connected with a large audience, suffering commercially for an innocent crime: This band was way too hip for the room.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

Yet another alum whose sales are inversely proportional to the outsize influence it had on generations of disillusioned youth. CBGB's dueling guitar gods Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine plug in and crank out a fantastically wonky punk classic.

Marquee Moon was chosen as the 63rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

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