Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Television - Marquee Moon (1977)  

'I just thought Richard Hell was incredible. Again, I was sold another fashion victim's idea. This was not someone dressed up in red vinyl, wearing bloody orange lips and high heels. Here was a guy all deconstructed, torn down, looking like he'd crawled out of a drain hole, looking like he was covered in slime, looking like he hadn't slept in years, hadn't washed in years, and looking like no one gave a fuck about him.'

Malcolm McLaren

'Verlaine withdrew himself more and more until he saw himself as being superior all the time to everybody and everything - so that he possibly couldn't lose. Tom got horrible man. He gradually decided he lived by separate rules from everyone else. And if anything fell apart, Tom would just say that he was a misunderstood genius, and that nobody else understood him.'

Richard Hell

'I just don't like other people coming up and saying something. It immediately makes you become insincere. There is no way you can react to it sincerely.'

Tom Verlaine

'An extraordinary feat. The guitars of Tom Verlaine cross and contrast, each note planned to fit, while the rhythm section of Ficca and Smith remains dry and immaculate throughout - they punctuate not only the music but the lyrics too. As for Verlaine's songs, They're chilling, gripping, haunting and lots of other words I can't think of. The nearest rock ever got to an Austrian spook movie in black and white.'

Tom Hibbert, The Perfect Collection 

'Richie... Richie said. Come on, let's dress up like up cops. Think of what we could do...' 

'Broadway. Looked so medieval...' 


'Lightning struck itself...'

Marquee Moon 

'Fred Smith fucking quit Blondie. I was pissed. I was pissed at all of them - all of Television, all of the Patti Smith Group, and Patti and Fred. I was pissed at Patti because she talked Fred into joining Television. Boy, did he make a mistake. Ha ha ha.'

Debbie Harry

Did Fred Smith make a mistake? You decide.

I'm not planning to write so much about Marquee Moon as I have about other parts of the band's journey and story, just because I think it speaks for itself and you're probably going to love it or be rather indifferent to it. Some might even mention the dreaded 'Overrated' word. It's certainly rated extremely highly by many. You may well have made you're own mind up about it anyway. I imagine most people on here will have heard it. Or parts of it anyway. It's a pretty well known record.

Personally I don't think it's easily dismissed. There's a reason why it has such a reputation. It's the major statement of one of the major, original New York Punk bands. They were doing something quite unlike any other band around them at that point. It gave something ro rally around for those for whom the two chord thrash of so much Punk on both sides of the Atlantic at that point was not enough and even rather wearing.  It made quite a splash when it came out even though it didn't necessarily shift an enormous number of actual copies at the time. It's sold pretty solidly since.

So this essentially is the band's legacy and their claim for immortality and it makes a strong one despite the fact that on the surface it's so weird in so many ways. I was thinking just that when listening to it yesterday for god knows the how many-eth time. Utterly countless the number of times I've listened to this album. Personally I really think it has every right to be considered one of the finest guitar records ever made. It's certainly kept me more that happy for the forty years I've known it and loved it. And I'm not planning of tiring of it just yet. I'll be interested to know what others think. Anyhow, back to the story.

By 1975 Television had already come a long way. 'Once the most underground of the underground, now they sport a chic notoriety.' (Duncan Hannah). But the friendship and partnership that had sparked, inspired and driven them was now on its last legs. Eventually, having had his songs dropped from the set one by one and his bass playing ceaselessly disparaged, Richard Hell had little choice but to leave the band he had co-formed. He duly did so in  and formed The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of The New York Dolls pretty much immediately.

Although Hell left rather than being fired, it was a de facto coup on Verlaine's part to get the sound and sensibility he wanted. Lloyd was always a significant force within Television but he didn't go back as far with Verlaine as Hell had, and anyhow the band name shared Verlaine's initials, which was probably never entirely accidental. From now on, Tom was in charge. Fred Smith needed little persuasion to leave Blondie, generally perceived as the runts of the CBGB's litter and join Television. A far superior musician to Hell, Lloyd said the difference in terms of the quality of the band's sound was immediately apparent and frankly, they were simply a different band from now on.

The band's profile and reputation were growing. Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent spread the word about them in the NME. Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Dolls in their disastrous final months, was immediately enraptured by Hell's attitude, look and sensibilities when Television supported them, and tried, unsuccessfully to persuade him to come back to London with him to front the Pistols, who were beginning to warm up and hadn't met Rotten yet. Hell turned the invitation down.

In October '75, came their first official release. Little Johnny Jewel, a song split, over two 7 inch sides which showed just how unorthodox and startlingly original they were. Released on Terry Ork's own label, it was one of the oddest initial vinyl debut releases ever made. Surely intended as a statement to fan the mystery and enigma of the band more that one to make a commercial splash, Lloyd actually left the band in protest for a week or so and was replaced by Pere Ubu's Peter Laughner. an indication of how brittle band relations could be within the band. Verlaine had even considered replacing Ficca, towards the end of Hell's time in the band and had held unsuccessful auditions with that end in mind. A decision I find completely impossible to comprehend. Firstly the two were good friends and never mind that, Ficca is a quite phenomenal drummer.

As for Little Johnny Jewel itself:

'Johnny Jewel is how people were, maybe two hundred years ago,' says Verlaine. 'Back then, when people got up in the morning, they knew what they had to do to get through the day. - there were 100% less decisions, Nowadays we have to decide what we want to buy in grocery stores, what job to take, what work to do. But not Johnny.  For him it's all there - it's a freer state. That's what my music is looking for. To understand Johnny, you should think of William Blake. He was the same kinda guy.'  

Tom Verlaine

It must have sounded outstandingly weird to the curious on its arrival on import in the UK in mid-76. On the surface, a tribute to James Jewel Osterberg, (Iggy Pop), its narrative is distinctly other worldly, a proclamation of difference and individuality. 

Still unsigned by a major, while most of the original CBGB's bands had been before them, generally on bad deals. Television stood back, waiting for an offer that suited them. Considered by Atlantic Records for a whilepresent Armet Ertegun said, 'this is not earth music.' It's not difficult to understand exactly why labels might have held back, wondering exactly how they were going to go about actually selling this stuff. Eventually they opted for Elektra Records, which seemed a natural fit given the label's original roster of the likes of Love, The Doors and Tim Buckley all of whom you might listen to and be able to make some tentative connections with Television to from their music. The band went into Mill Studio in New York in September 1976 to start work on their first album..

Given their initial experience with Eno, they knew exactly how they wanted it to sound. Very little was recorded apart from the songs that eventually made the eight track running list. Andy Johns, brother of Glyn, who engineered the record, had worked on The Stones' Exile on Main Street and several Led Zep records. Pretty much everything that Glyn produced,  Andy had worked on too.

The songs had been refined and honed to the nth degree over their years of rehearsing and playing in CBGB's which made it sound quite unlike any album previously recorded, although it could easily considered a companion piece to Patti Smith's debut Horses, (from two years previously), which adopts a not dissimilar approach. With the addition of Fred Smith they now had the line up Verlaine had been working for, with Smith and Lloyd coming from more a more conventional Rock approach and Verlaine and Ficca taking a more Jazz inflected, improvisational slant..

The record still has an odd, full on, intense chemistry. It's a twisted, twitching world in itself. A whole new universe, though some may not take to it. Grounded essentially on the guitar interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd, interlocking and swapping melodic and rhythmic parts, it takes you to a place that few other records do. It's all atmosphere. The lyrics meanwhile are astounding, somewhere between the Symbolist poetry that Verlaine devoured in his formative years and the goofy, off the wall 'be bo' talk as he describes it in opening track See No Evil.  I've been playing it constantly for almost forty years now and it still sounds incredibly fresh even though I know it back to front.  In Lloyd's words: 'There was a certain magic happening, an inexplicable certainty of something, like the momentum of a freight train. That's not egoism, but if you cast a spell, you don't get flummoxed by the results of your spell.'

It would be pointless and unnecessary for me to try to review the record. I couldn't really do a good job on it. Blessed with an incredible cover from Robert Mapplethorpe, a picture of the band that captures so much of their mystery and enigma, it really needs to be heard first and foremost and anyhow, Nick Kent wrote one of the best and best known album reviews of all for the NME when the record was released in February 1977.

I just love Kent's review. If the record means much to you I urge you to read it because it's probably the best album review I know of. It quite consciously attempts to read the way the record sounds, in an almost hallucinatory manner and I think it's staggering. Given the degree to which the notoriously drug addled Kent must have been intoxicated when he wrote it, it really is some achievement

The band  made the cover of that week's issue of NME, even though it didn't include an actual interview with the band. In the words of music journalist Barney Hoskyns, 'pale boys on masse sloped out to buy it.' I love it from start to finish. I think it deserves to be heard every time at a single sitting. All I would say for fear of boring anyone with comments on every track, is I simply don't understand why See No Evil wasn't chosen as a single. I know very little about the genesis of this song. It seemed to appear between the recording of the Eno sessions and those of Marquee Moon. As with the decision to put out Little Johnny Jewel as their debut rather than something more immediate like Double Exposure it seems rather contrary to opt for Prove It instead and I wonder whether Verlaine was behind the decision. I love Prove It. It's a weird, quirky, funny Pop song. But surely See No Evil would have swept all before it and it's clearly deeply Punk. Why not release it at the height of Punk? Another Television riddle within a riddle.

Marquee Moon made quite a splash at the time, even though it didn't sell an enormous number of copies. It reached Number 28 in the UK albums charts and the title track and Prove It, both flirted with the lower reaches of the singles charts. Television toured the UK later in the year with Blondie which must have been an incredible experience for UK Punk fans hungry to hear the New York sound that they'd read so much about in the music papers for a couple of years. Its reception in the US was more muted outside the underground scene and it hardly made a dent sales wise .Most people at the UK gigs massively preferred either Blondie or Television and the latter apparently, were not the most supportive headliners, cramming Blondie into a small part of the stage in their support slots possibly through fear of their audience preferring them. Blondie by all accounts were getting pretty damned good now.  

This has been recognised as a true landmark record since and regularly features highly in lists of the best albums ever made. It's also made its way into the collections of people like us, (a reason I was slightly surprised there hadn't been a Television immersion on here before), even though some of us probably play it more than others. Despite some of the other great things the band released, it remains their ultimate statement. Enjoy it for what it is. Whatever you think, it will outlive us all. My take. It's a work of absolute Art. In the best meaning of the word. I don't think of many records in that way.

There you go. And all without using the word seminal once.


Nick Kent's 1977 review of Marquee Moon 

How to play See No Evil on Drums 

How to play Venus on guitar

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