“Marquee Moon” is one of the great New York New Wave albums of the late seventies. No, it’s more than that. It is, for me, one of the great albums of all time. It may even be in my top ten. Certainly my 20.
I was reminded of it recently when I made a comment on a blog I follow called Culture vs Nutella, by Lulu Rou, who is French and writes in both French and English. She wrote something about the Strokes, another great band. I said something about them being influenced by Television, and someone else contradicted this, saying the Strokes had denied that they’d ever listened to Television before they made their debut album, “Is This It”. That’s true enough, I now realise – somehow I’d missed this at the time, but it’s there on Wikipedia. So, you have to believe them, but…
All I can say is listen to the two albums. Both exceptional. Different tempos , but to my ears, rooted in the same philosophy of sound and feel. Both so distinctively New York albums, though 24 years apart. Can I explain what I mean by that? Not really. They just are. And of course the Velvet Underground are at the root of both.
I’m writing a book about my musical journey, and below I’ve extracted the piece I wrote on Television. Part of a chapter on New Wave music, US and UK. Hope you like it. With a couple of Youtube videos slotted in.
There was some of the Velvet’s epic quality in a band that jumped out of the New York new wave in 1977 with an album that was truly different, truly original. It was one of those albums that sounded like nothing that came before and hasn’t been matched, even by the band themselves, since. Plenty of bands have been influenced by it – notably the Strokes in the US and early Razorlight here in the UK – but no-one has ever come up with quite the same sound as “Marquee Moon” by Television. The band were part of the New York punk scene, supported the Ramones at CBGBs, featured Richard Hell for a while, etc, etc. So where did this music come from? It wasn’t punk: no two minute three chord bashes here. It was a set of fragile, intense songs, anchored by the title track, a ten minute epic of swirling, filigree guitars and anguished vocals, driven along by a metronomic, jerky bass line. The metaphors that come to mind are all about delicacy but also sharpness: shards of glass, diamond edges… cold and pristine… but on the edge of breakdown.
The singer, writer and lead guitarist was Tom Verlaine. Good name – that French touch seemed right for the music. I don’t know how he was feeling when he made this album, but it could have been intensely happy or intensely sad. Or both. But intense, sensitive, raw – it wasn’t just the day job. That guitar sound had to come deeply from within. The only sound which I think is comparable, and might have been an inspiration, is the epic soloing of Neil Young on songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane”. They have a richer, deeper guitar, but have the same visceral quality, and the same layering of sound, like a meandering river in search of its destination.
Each song on “Marquee Moon” felt like a lament, or an argument, or just bewilderment. Fragments of icy guitar intertwined with anxious vocals, leading nowhere in particular. Songs without resolution, hanging on a nervous ledge. Songs on the edge. “Torn Curtain”, “Venus”, and my favourite, after the title track, “Elevation”:
“I sleep light on these shores tonight, I sleep light on these shores. Elevation, don’t go to my head….”
“Marquee Moon” was ecstatically received in the NME. The great Nick Kent wrote the canonising review. Television were the new heroes… until the next album. “Adventure” was given the classic build-‘em-up-knock-em-down treatment. Julie Burchill was brought in to bring it down, to destroy the myth. Television were no longer the untouchable heroes. And the truth is, that second album wasn’t great and the band didn’t do much after that. Tom Verlaine released some decent solo albums where the guitar runs occasionally reached the heights of “Marquee Moon”; but it looks like genius touched Tom Verlaine for just a short while. Enough to make one of the great albums, an album like no other, a diamond amongst pearls. But just the one.
Thanks, John. A great piece, if I may say so.
My own memories of Television are sadly blightly by the fact that, on its release, “Marquee Moon” was played obsessively for about three months by a bearded, pasty-faced, Yorkshire-born, vodka-swilling, chain-smoking engineering student of our mutual acquaintance. (I know we had several of those, so keep thinking.)
Whenever I hear those iconic chords starting up, this image rears up in my head. And yes, I’ve tried therapy.
But yours is a fine tribute to a startling – if, as you say, fleeting – talent.
Blimey! That’s a memory and a half. I feel your pain…
I love this write-up. MM is truly one of the greatest albums of all time. The rawness, the guitar tones, the lyrics, the vocals, the creativity … everything is there. The recording style is perfect as well. I think the essence of the album is something that you never come across anymore.
I also actually think you are in fact right to say The Strokes were greatly influenced by this album. Albeit, it may have been inadvertently influential in the respect that they never listened to the album directly. This album has influenced bands since the moment it was released who then influenced other bands that influence other band and etc. It’s simply ignorant to deny the fact that The Strokes have been touched by the influence of Television in one way or another because so much of The Strokes sound was influenced by bands that were influenced by Television. The fact of the matter is, Television has influenced music greatly, beyond what we can measure and beyond what they are recognized for.
Thanks for your thoughts and your article John. Great work!
Todd, thanks for such a brilliant comment. I think we are at one on Television!