INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork FEBRUARY 8, 2017 - by Tyler Wilcox
TELEVISION'S PUNK EPIC "MARQUEE MOON", FORTY YEARS LATER
In 1974, an unknown band named Television convinced CBGB owner Hilly Kristal to let them take over the club's typically dead Sunday night, unwittingly kicking off New York's punk scene. Though Television could lay claim to getting there first, the band lagged behind its Bowery peers in actually releasing a full-length LP. Patti Smith's Horses hit stores in 1975, and the self-titled debuts of both Blondie and The Ramones soon followed in '76. With a volatile lineup and a mercurial frontman in Tom Verlaine, a fan at the time might've wondered whether the band would ever get around to painting their masterpiece.
Finally, on February 8, 1977, Television released Marquee Moon - a debut well worth the wait. That month, the NME's Nick Kent called the album "a 24-carat inspired work of pure genius, a record finely in tune and sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics." Other records might wither in the face of such a rave. But forty years later, Marquee Moon remains a singular achievement that transcends the "punk" label and still sounds fresh. It's a classic from start to finish.
Looming at Marquee Moon's direct center is the album's title track. Clocking in at just under ten minutes on the original vinyl release (reissues include the full 10:40 take) and featuring an exploratory Verlaine guitar solo, Marquee Moon is miles away from the Ramones' minimalist rock antics or Blondie's ironic pop moves. For precedents, we'd have to go back to the expansive West Coast psychedelia of the Paul Butterfield Band's East-West or even the Grateful Dead's twin epics Dark Star and The Other One - even if the mid-'70s crowd at CBGB would likely shudder at such comparisons. To celebrate forty years of Marquee Moon and the album it defines, let's trace the song's history.
THE ORK LOFT REHEARSAL
Apparently Marquee Moon was even less punky when Verlaine first imagined it. "Marquee Moon was written about three years ago and actually it had twenty verses to it," he told Melody Maker's Caroline Coon in 1977. "It's a song I used to do on acoustic guitar." But there's no recorded evidence of this mellow embryonic version. The earliest Marquee Moon available to collectors comes from a lo-fi rehearsal tape recorded at Television patron/manager Terry Ork's loft in early 1974. The interlocking puzzle pieces of the song are roughly in place already: the opening guitar's unmistakable morse code stutter, a thudding bass pulse (played here by Richard Hell); and guitarist Richard Lloyd's nagging riff (a subliminal nod to the horns on James Brown's I Feel Good). As with most of the band's Hell-era recordings (he left the group in early 1975), it's a ramshackle thing, with helter-skelter rhythms and barely in-tune instruments. But the abbreviated end, with all involved racing towards the finish line behind Verlaine's shivering solo, hints at the heights they'd reach in the coming years.
THE ENO/WILLIAMS DEMO
Later in 1974, riding a bit of underground hype on both sides of the Atlantic, Television recorded a demo with Brian Eno and Island Records A&R man Richard Williams. The demo didn't result in a record deal, but it did leave us with an essential (and still officially unreleased) glimpse of what could have been. Ultimately, Verlaine and Lloyd weren't fans of the overall sound Eno, Williams, and engineer John Fausty cooked up for them, but their Marquee Moon is a solid attempt, if not as magisterial as the song would become. The best part comes right after the ascending climax, as Verlaine's cascading piano washes over the listener; it's a moment that looks ahead to the more keyboard-heavy approach of Adventure, Television's sophomore effort.
Television earned a devoted audience during their time as regulars at CBGB. But the band wasn't universally beloved by any means. "[T]hey reminded me so much of the Grateful Dead, just boring solos, y'know," Lester Bangs complained in conversation reprinted in Richard Meltzer's A Whore Like All The Rest. "Endless, laborious climbing up in the scales, then get to the top and there'd be a moment of silence and everybody in the crowd would go berserk applauding, ha!" Bangs was likely referring specifically to Marquee Moon, which became a fan favorite at CBGBs as Television began stretching the song well past the ten-minute mark. (It's actually a bit surprising that the renowned critic didn't find more to like; he and Verlaine shared a love of raw garage rock and challenging free jazz.) Thanks to crude audience tapes from 1975 and 1976, we can hear Marquee Moon come into its own onstage. To my ears, these performances are worthy of berserk applause, as Verlaine and Lloyd's intertwining guitars shoot off considerable sparks while new bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca find a transcendental rhythmic zone beneath them.
"I make so many mistakes when I play - it's just that people don't pick up on them," Verlaine told Rolling Stone in 1977. "There are any number of ways to get from one place to another on the neck of the guitar that I don't know about." Modesty notwithstanding, Verlaine's six-string skills had deepened considerably by 1978, when Television played its final shows (before '90s and '00s reunions, of course). And there was no better showcase for those skills than the nightly ritual of Marquee Moon, which usually served as the band's pre-encore closer. We've got a few officially released 1978 performances to choose from: one drawn from the ROIO cassette The Blow-Up, another from a San Francisco FM broadcast. Both are fantastic. But perhaps the finest Marquee Moon of all, taped a few days after the San Francisco show in Portland, Oregon, remains officially unreleased. Here, the song balloons well past the seventeen-minute mark, but not a moment is wasted, as Verlaine's quicksilver solo (with shades of Brit-folk guitar hero Richard Thompson) builds and builds over his cohorts' fluid backing. If he's making mistakes, you won't pick up on them here. And if you listen closely, you might just hear the sound of lightning striking itself.