Essential Classics: Television – Marquee Moon

It is October, so that means it is time to analyze and celebrate one of the great Halloween albums of all-time: Television’s Marquee Moon.  Many of you are probably confused by that particular claim, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to it and explain ourselves in a bit.  There is no argument however that Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar-rock albums of all-time, but in addition to that distinction, it can also be argued that the album is capable of bending the rules of time and space itself.  How else could a band that was on the vanguard of the Punk movement have created the seminal Post-Punk masterpiece with their debut album?  It is a conundrum that should puzzle both music historians and physicists alike.

My first experience with the band Television was back in high school, during my initial forays into exploring the origins of punk rock.  I read several articles and books that discussed Television’s history and their influence on the New York punk scene as one of the original CBGB’s bands, and I quickly set out to track down copies of their first two records.  (Let us all take some time to acknowledge the fact that I approached punk rock in the nerdiest manner possible: research.)  There was one specific aspect of Television’s music which each piece emphasized that captured my attention, and that was the band’s masterful guitar-playing.  Being a budding guitarist myself, it was clear that it was vitally important for me to listen to these albums to help develop my own skills.  As a child of the 90’s though, I was completely unprepared to process Television’s approach to the guitar: a heavy emphasis on the treble strings (and no power chords), intricate but decidedly unflashy solos, and little-to-no distortion (at least of the kind with which I was familiar).  It all seemed so alien to me, and considering the portrait of the band that made up Marquee Moon‘s cover art, this may not have been a bad guess.

Most puzzling of all to my adolescent mind was how this pleasant if slightly bizarre album could be considered “punk” (it was a hopeless endeavor at that time to begin to comprehend what the hell “post-punk” could be, beyond the most literal definition, so that was not a pressing concern at the time).  But after several repeated listens and a gradual appreciation of the context in which the band flourished, I came to understand that even if there seemed to be little connection to The Ramones on the surface, they were both made up from the same basic DNA and were a reaction to the same movements in music.  The musical parts of “Friction” may have been much more complex than “Blitzkrieg Bop”, but one could easily see that both songs were stripped down to the barest elements in contrast to the bloat of prog or disco.

Television proved that “punk” didn’t have to mean “easy,” as each member of the group was an expert on his instrument.  The twin-guitar attack of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd has been universally lauded, and rightly so, but their other two bandmates should be given their proper due as well.  Fred Smith crafted some amazingly beautiful bass lines, shifting between providing an impeccable rhythmic foundation and creating innovative counter-melodies, and Billy Ficca was a genius behind the kit, anchoring the songs with intricate rhythms and delicate textures, effortlessly shifting between different patterns and providing the perfect accents to each musical phrase.  As for Verlaine and Lloyd, it should be apparent how they inspired generations of guitar players, from the early post-punk of bands like Wire to contemporary indie rock bands like The Strokes.  They were a perfect tandem that fed off each other beautifully, alternating between unique chord choices and lyrical solos, interspersed with bits of brilliant one-off figures and licks.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, an epic monster clocking in at over 10 minutes (Fun Fact: on the original vinyl edition, the song faded out before it hit ten minutes, but the CD version keeps the original recording intact and includes the full version, while still listing the vinyl running time of 9:58).  Its intro of dueling guitar riffs (Lloyd providing the double-stop alarm-type bit, Verlaine the countering quick swirl) is instantly memorable, but also merely a hint of what is in store.  The verses give way to an instrumental pre-chorus that shifts the song into something much more rhapsodic and cinematic with its winding guitar lines, followed by a chorus that gradually increases the tension with its ever-escalating chord changes.  Lloyd’s guitar solo after the second chorus is a master class in terms of both beauty and efficiency, with its mirroring of the melodic structure of the chorus accompanied by some gorgeous personal flourishes.  But it is the second, much longer solo by Verlaine and its accompanying full-band instrumental section that is the real show-stopper–the solo provides a brilliant example of how an improvised, meandering take can help ratchet up the tension, and the constantly-ascending full-band breakdown pushes the song to its limits.  Lloyd eventually joins in, and the two guitars overlap into similar winding lines, until the whole band suddenly becomes a single cohesive unit as they dramatically repeat in unison a series of sixteen eighth notes.  As the band makes its way up the scale, cracks begin to form in the union, as the drums begin to approach a frenzy and the bass peels off with some additional flourishes, gliding up and down the neck.  But together the band pushes the melody to the very top, culminating in a gorgeous explosion as the summit is reached, with little guitar twinkles helping add to the effect.

Even to the untrained ear, it is clear that from the music alone “Marquee Moon” is a special song, but now consider the instrumentals in conjunction with the intriguing and mysterious lyrics.  “I remember how the darkness doubled; I recall, lightning struck itself.  I was listening to the rain; I was hearing something else.”  The imagery of those first two lines captures a wonderful sense of dread, first with the description of an ever-enveloping darkness, followed by the contrast of the light cutting across the dark.  The lines also baffle the listener as well, as he/she contemplates the physical possibilities of how lightning can strike itself.  The next two lines help set up the listener for an uneasy scene, as things may not be what they seem: amid the rainstorm lurks an unknown…something.   It’s the perfect opening for a horror story!  The other verses support this interpretation, first with the meeting with the strange man down at the tracks, whose seemingly perceptive advice of don’t succumb to either the highs or lows of life taking on a darker edge when placed in context with the rest of the song, followed by the scene in the third verse of the Cadillac pulling from out of the graveyard, grabbing the narrator, driving back in, and throwing the narrator into the graveyard.  Spooky stuff.  After this scene is the long instrumental section, which can be interpreted as the narrator’s journey through the graveyard, with the culminating unison riff being the aural equivalent of the Big Reveal in a horror movie of the Monster or the Terror.  The song ends with a repeat of the first verse, which could indicate either that time has looped back on itself (much like how a “post-punk” classic can also be created at the beginning of the punk movement), or that underneath what seems like a restoration of what’s normal lurks a dark undercurrent.

Long story short, I am ready to declare that the narrator has become a zombie.

It is clear then that “Marquee Moon” is a perfect Halloween song, but what about the rest of the album?  The song is not only the centerpiece of the album in terms of track placement, but it also serves as a showcase to a lot of the musical ideas that are the connective tissue of the record.  The double-stop guitar figure is given a slight variation in the very next song, “Elevation”, for example, and “See No Evil” is the title of the opener, which makes the horror themes even more apparent!  It is also simply difficult to disconnect the song from the rest of the album, as each song flows beautifully into the next.  Television also provides wonderful bits of dark humor throughout Marquee Moon, perhaps best exemplified by the song “Venus”.  I was hoping that because of the lines “Then Richie, Richie said: ‘Hey man, let’s dress up like cops.  Think of what we could do!” the song would find a place somewhere in a movie that came out this summer, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Instead we will have to strike out on our own to consider the subtle beauty of the explanation that “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo” (a line that took far too many listens for me to realize the irony inherent in the claim), instead of having it soundtrack a scene of crazy hijinks.

Marquee Moon is simply an exquisite and dazzling album through and through, with each of its eight songs a classic in its own right.  Perhaps the greatest example of the beauty of the record is the underrated closer, “Torn Curtain”.  The ballad is filled lyrically with melodrama and over-the-top emotion, but is balanced by a delicate and nuanced restrained musical accompaniment, before the two components become intertwined with a triumphant final guitar solo that provides the perfect conclusion to the album.

But the album is more than just brilliant guitar compositions; as I mentioned before, there are plenty of fantastic bass lines and stunning drum parts throughout the entirety of Marquee Moon.  So listen to the album a few times to get a feel for the beauty and majesty of the guitar, spin it a few more times to pick up on the intricacies of the rhythm section, and then repeat it again a few more hundred times–because even though the album is nearly forty years old, it will never get old.

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