Television
Marquee Moon
Elektra

Television emerged out of the NYC scene of the late 70s along with the other post-punk stalwarts, Blondie and the Talking Heads.  They weren’t as street-wise as the former nor as weird as the latter.  What they were was a brilliant rock’n’roll band, with a unique sound from the music to the vocals of frontman Tom Verlaine.  They also launched the career of Richard Hell, the original bassist of Television, who became more famous as a punk, more famous for his turn in The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders (though he was turfed out of that band quick snap) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.  Hell was long gone from Television by the time of Marquee Moon.  He and Verlaine were old friends, having forged a bond at a boarding school in Delaware.  It was Verliane who kicked him out of Television, replacing him with the more technically proficient Fred Smith (not that Fred Smith, the one from MC5, married to Patti Smith, though Verlaine once dated Patti Smith).

The other thing that set Television apart from the other NYC post-punk bands was their technical brilliance, Verlaine, lead guitarist Richard Lloyd, Smith, and drummer Billy Ficca are all brilliant musicians in their own right.  Hell, for his part, was punk, he refused to follow his bandmates to technical proficiency.  It worked out ok for him, too.

The band had formed away back in 1973, and rose up through the NYC music scene, playing everywhere from CBGB to Max’s Kansas City, evolving out of the Neon Boys, which was Verlaine, Hell and Ficca.  They became underground cult legends in NYC, releasing their début single on Little Ork Records in 1975 with ‘Little Johnny Jewel (Parts One and Two),’ the choice of which had upset Lloyd so much he almost quit the band.  Rumour has it that they had Peter Laughner of Pere Ubu lined up to replace him.  It didn’t happen.  Fortunately.  One of the best things about Television is the interplay of the guitars between Verlaine and Lloyd.

Meanwhile, Television had been receiving interest from major labels by 1974, but took their time picking a label, waiting for the right one to come along.  This meant they turned down Island, with whom they did some demos with Brian Eno producing.  The band did not like Eno’s sound, and so they waited. Patti Smith got Arista, her label, interested, but still the Television boys waited.  Verlaine wanted to produce the album himself, which most major labels in the 70s would not have allowed, given he had no experience.  Finally, Elektra came along, and they agreed that Verlaine could produce the album, so long as he agreed to be assisted by a big name engineer.  The band could live with this, so long as Verlaine was not going to be ordered around in the studio, and so he approached Andy Johns, who had worked with the Rolling Stones on Goat’s Head Soup; Verlaine was impressed with the guitar sound on that album.  In the end, Johns was credited as the co-producer.

Verlaine was rather structured about the band’s time at A&R Recordings in Manhattan, pre-determining the structure of the album.  They practiced diligently before heading into the studio, wanting to be as technically proficient and geared up as possible before laying down the tracks.  But once they got there, they realized they didn’t want to record much of the songs they’d written over the previous three years, and so, they wrote two new ones on the spot, ‘Tom Curtain’ and ‘Guiding Light.’  Johns joined them in the studio, and most of the tracks were recorded live off the floor in one take, including the epic title track, which is 10m46s long.  Ficca thought they were just rehearsing at this point and Johns wanted a second take, which Verlaine ixnayed.

The album itself is pure brilliance from opening to closing note.  Verlaine’s lyrics are pastoral and he is a story-teller, mostly nocturnal trips around the city, primarily in and around the East Village. This was especially clear on the lyrics to a song like ‘Venus,’ where Verlaine sings over a looping guitar:

You know it’s all like some new kind of drug.
My senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves.
Broadway looked so medieval –
It seemed to flap, like little pages
And I fell sideways laughing
With a friend from many stages.

But this is perhaps clearest on that epic title track.  The song starts with a guitar riff that has been borrowed by damn near every post-punk band of the twenty-first century, and then the second guitar, a higher arpeggio, also ‘borrowed’ by all post punk guitarists later, then Smith’s loping bass takes us on a tour of the Bowery:
I remember how the darkness doubled
I recall, lightning struck itself
I was listening, listening to the rain
I was hearing, hearing something else.
Life in the hive puckered up my night
The kiss of death, the embrace of life
There I stand ‘neath the Marquee moon
Just waiting.
I spoke to a man down at the tracks
And I asked him how he don’t go mad
He said, “Look here junior, don’t you be so happy
And for Heaven’s sake, don’t you be so sad.”
Life in the hive puckered up my night
The kiss of death, the embrace of life
There I stand ‘neath the Marquee moon
Hesitating.
Well a Cadillac, it pulled out of the graveyard
Pulled up to me, all they said, “Get in” (Get in)
Then the Cadillac, it puttered back into the graveyard
Me, I got out again.
Life in the hive puckered up my night
The kiss of death, the embrace of life
There I stand ‘neath the Marquee moon
I ain’t waiting, a-a.
I remember how the darkness doubled
I recall, lightning struck itself
I was listening, listening to the rain
I was hearing, hearing something else.
This is one of my favourite songs of all-time, but even if it was just that couplet ‘I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall, lightning struck itself.’  I mean, holy fuck!  But Television were a band that could back it up, that guitar play between Verlaine and Lloyd, Smith’s bass, which carries the songs along, and Ficca’s drums, filling in spaces between the bass, clashing with the guitars.

I bought this album for the first time around 1990.  I honestly don’t know why, I had a vague familiarity with Lloyd’s solo stuff, I  loved the first Richard Hell & The Voidoids, but I don’t think I ever put it altogether.  I bought it at A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver.  This was one of my first pilgrimages into the city for music, it was the spring, or the slightly less rainy season.  I was in Grade 11, out in Port Moody, a suburb about 30km east of downtown Vancouver.  The ride into the city was one that came to be very familiar to me.  First, the 148 Ioco bus from the village of Ioco, where I lived, an old company town for the Imperial Oil Co. (get it?), but it was more a ghost town by then, its heyday long past.  From Ioco, it was into Port Moody proper, and in front of the Moody Arms, a long gone flop house and cheesy bar, came the 160 bus into Vancouver.  From then it was down St. John’s St., the main street through Port Moody.  Port Moody is now an affluent, shiny suburb.  When I was 17, it was not. It was pretty rough and down on the heel, at least in the downtown core.  Dive bars, Dairy Queen, Chinese restaurants, off-licenses, liquor stores, second-hand shops, it got nicer towards the western end, near Port Moody Senior Secondary and the right turn onto the Barnet Highway, which by and large hugged the coast of Burrard Inlet into Burnaby, where we re-entered the city, finally, and began the long, slow ride down East Hastings St. to West Hastings and the downtown.  I can’t count how many times I rode the 160.  Probably into the thousands.
And at A&B Sound, I was digging through the older albums, they were packed sideways like a book on a shelf, and for some reason, the cassette jumped into my hand.  And I took it home, threw it on the stereo and was captivated.  Verlaine’s high-pitched, slightly nasal voice, those guitars!  And the stories Verlaine told about his nocturnal wanderings around Lower Manhattan, it was just this entirely different world than mine in suburban Vancouver.  And it’s a world, that like mine in Port Moody, 1990, no longer exists.  New York is no longer a big, dangerous, gritty city.  Instead, it’s a DisneyWorld of a city, it’s no longer affordable for mere mortals, it’s no longer, really, all that interesting, at least in large parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
So Marquee Moon is an historical document, it was when I first heard it in 1990, twelve years after Television had split.  It is even more so now.
When Television released their second album, Adventure, in 1978, pretty much no one noticed.  And that’s sad, this was a band that should’ve been as big as The Cars.  They did eventually reform in 1992 and released one more album, the eponymous Television, which was a great album, and though they still play gigs, still tour, Television have not released another album ever since.  Our loss.