Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29: Television, "Marquee Moon"

Artist: Television
Album: Marquee Moon
Year: 1977
Label: Elektra

Television, who hold the distinction as being the first rock band EVER to play at the famed CBGB's club in New York City, may not have the name recognition of The Ramones or Patti Smith, but of all the "Bowery bands," they are easily one of the most important. While the attitude and sparse "feel" to the music is as present as any of their contemporaries, this is where any similarities to their peers ceases. The biggest difference is that, to put it simply, the music of Television is FAR more musical than any of their peers. Writing "complete" songs, instead of the quick, jolting numbers of a majority of the punk pioneers, Television was out to prove that there was more to the punk aesthetic than was thought. Much of the bands' influence can still be felt in today's music, and genres like "post punk" and "new wave" may very well have never existed had it not been for the innovative work of Television. Releasing a pair of brilliant studio records before breaking up, Television's 1977 debut record, Marquee Moon, remains one of the most important and highly regarded albums ever recorded.

When one speaks of Marquee Moon, it is impossible NOT to talk about the title track itself. With the complete version (found on the 2003 remaster) clocking in at nearly eleven minutes, and the original release fading out about a minute earlier, it is truly THE epic song of the genre. The song itself, which features long guitar solos throughout, is, in many ways, one of the few occurrences of what could be considered a "jam" punk song. Amazingly, the entire song was recorded in a single take, though drummer Billy Ficca was under the impression that they were only rehearsing. Perhaps part of the reason that Marquee Moon is so much more musical than other releases of the genre is due to producer Andy Johns. As the younger brother of Glyn Johns (owner of Olympic Studios in London), Andy produced and engineered records for the likes of Joni Mitchell and Blind Faith. But Andy is easily best known for his work on Led Zeppelin IV and the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street. Another aspect of interest about Marquee Moon is that the cover photo was, in fact, taken by the often controversial artist, Robert Maplethorpe. On a final note, it is, in fact both Television, as well as Marquee Moon, that are subject to abuse and ridicule from U.K. legends, The Damned, on their song, "Idiot Box."

Keeping things sparse and open, the music of Television takes the "no frills" approach of punk rock, yet refuses to sacrifice beautiful melodies and quality musicianship. At the core of the music of Television is the dual guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. The way in which the duo trade off between lead and rhythm parts, playing superb solos and riffs, is one of the main reasons that their sound is so different. It is also the guitar playing that makes Television sound more like a more "traditional" rock band as opposed to anything having to do with the burgeoning punk scene. The interplay between the two musicians is perhaps no more clear than on Marquee Moon's stunning title track. Yet, even when one may get lost in the fantastic music, the reality is, most of the time, the guitarists are simply making the traditional "three chord punk" sound like something far more musically involved. Though Fred Smith was the bands' second bass player (co-founder Richard Hell left the band in 1975), it is very much due to his skilled work that the band was able to push their sound to the next level. Not to be confused with Fred "Sonic" Smith, "this" Fred Smith was a far more proficient musician, and the band would have never found similar success without his contributions. Drummer Billy Ficca brings a more jazzy style to his drums than any of the other drummers of the "Bowery" scene. His playing is also far more forward in the mix on Marquee Moon, and yet, the tone he achieves on his kit retain the sparse, urgent feel that defines the punk sound. Though many of their songs have a far slower tempo, and lack the yelling of most punk records, there is little doubt that the core elements behind the aesthetic are just as present, and Marquee Moon proves that there is far more to "punk rock" than had previously been thought.

Band founder, guitarist, song writer, and singer Tom Verlaine is undoubtedly one of the most talented and amazing musicians in history. With a voice that is a strange combination of peers like David Byrne, Patti Smith, and even a bit of Iggy Pop, there is truly nobody that sounds similar. Singing with great pitch, it is the somewhat detached tone, with a slight sense of disdain in Verlaine's voice that makes the record unquestionably punk rock. While his voice usually stays in the same pitch range, it is the perfect compliment to the underlying music, and there are numerous occasions where his sound makes the music extremely reminiscent of The Velvet Underground. Many singers on both sides of the Atlantic have taken from Verlaine's vocal style, and elements of both his sound and delivery are still heard throughout music to this day. On top of being an outstanding guitar player and singer, Tom Verlaine was also a top notch song writer. That is what makes Marquee Moon so sensational; each song is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether it is the detective story of "Prove It" or more abstract songs of love and life like "Venus" and "Elevation," Verlaine's lyrics are simply amazing. Again, unlike many of his contemporaries, the lyrics are all clearly delivered, and the diversity in subject matter and sound style further separate Marquee Moon from anything else in music history. While the music on Marquee Moon is nothing short of phenomenal, it is the writing and singing of Tom Verlaine that truly takes the album from "excellent" to "legendary."

Many other bands have achieved far more commercial success than Television, yet few have even come close to the musical mastery that is on display throughout Marquee Moon. Preserving the musical aspect that made early punk bands like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges so outstanding, Television proved that true punk did not need to sacrifice musicianship in favor of impact or sense of urgency. The album is truly a "crossover" record, as it straddles the line between punk and traditional rock, and is undoubtedly the catalyst for what became the "post punk" and "new age" genres. Bands like Joy Division, Gang Of Four, and even more modern artists like The Strokes and Jeff Buckley owe much of their sound and success to the pioneering efforts of Television. The unmatched talent of the quartet, combined with the extraordinary writing and singing of Tom Verlaine truly make Television one of the most important and sensational bands in music history. Sadly suffering the fate of many great bands, the group only lasted a few short years (though they re-formed in the early 1990's for a bit), yet every piece of their recorded catalog is nothing short of phenomenal. High atop their other records, as well as nearly every album of their peers stands their magnificent, and indispensable 1977 masterpiece, Marquee Moon.

Standout tracks: "Venus," "Marquee Moon," and "Prove It."

No comments: