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Television - Marquee Moon
Marquee Moon is one of the best examples of an album, or any sort of “art” for that matter, that can simultaneously feel so timeless, yet feel so definitive of a very certain and very specific period in history. Of course, that period is mid-to-late 70s New York; more specifically the burgeoning punk rock scene centered around CBGB’s. Except for the people who experienced it first hand, all we have now is overtly romanticized ideas of its past glory. And admittedly, it’s hard not to romanticize it all. Truly classic and groundbreaking music was created out of this period, whatever it was, and it indisputably changed music forever. But hearing the luminaries of this era speak about it, it sometimes seems like talking about what you had for lunch would be more interesting.
You could view this as disappointing and cheap nihilism, but I feel it makes the music even more remarkable. Creating something extraordinary under horribly ordinary circumstances cannot be anything but remarkable. As for Marquee Moon, the usual consensus is (at least nowadays) that it’s a classic album. But if you think about it, it’s still a curious choice as the classic album of 1970s New York punk. Tellingly, no other band of the time (with the possible exception of Talking Heads) has been under such scrutiny in terms of ”punk or not?”. Even the Talking Heads have a bona fide punk classic in “Psycho Killer”, but it’s a bit harder to imagine a Television song making it onto a boring, budget-priced ”PUNK! NEW WAVE!” compilation found at Best Buy.
The reason for this isn’t exactly a mystery either. Television, with their diamond-hard and crystal-clear guitars have always been overshadowed by the buzzsaw-pop of The Ramones. And indeed, The Ramones are much more immediate and easier to “get”, which explains a lot of it, but at least The Ramones’ influence gets the attention it deserves. Television…not so much. The reason being, it’s simply harder to gauge exactly how influential they were/are, but it’s painfully obvious. Television almost single-handedly proved that punk rock and virtuosity were not the polar opposites of each other. Punk could be cerebral; you could make artistic and inspired music without bloated and pointless excess. Television’s extremely tight, complex, clean, interlocking, poetry-laced, and alternately ice-cold/soothingly-warm sound ended up being much more important to post-punk. Television accomplished a hilarious and rare feat: being possibly the first proto-post-punk band.
Another interesting aspect of Marquee Moon is how much it evokes pre-punk music. Despite being the scene’s most innovative group at the time, Television’s music is loaded with obvious influences from 1960s psychedelic-acid-art rock bands; some tracks are just straight-up rock songs. Soul music is something that I personally hear all over the album, with the famous call-and-response on “Venus” (Venus honestly deserves its own essay), and most obviously on the flawless track, “Guiding Light”. Tom Verlaine’s nervous, wavering (although very rhythmic and powerful) vocals invert the very idea of “soul”, but he’s not detached and he’s not passionless. The music is not psychedelic, but you can still space out to it in the same way. The music is not the generally accepted idea of “soul” music, but it’s as fiery-passionate as anything.
The music itself, which isn’t all beautiful, quicksilver, melodic and inventive playing, (there are some pretty harsh sounds on this record), combined with Verlaine’s voice, has an almost indescribable anxious, panic-stricken, desperate, sick feeling. It’s almost as if The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man” have been stretched out for 45 minutes, but he’s not searching for drugs, he’s not searching for anything in particular, and is almost comfortable with or least accepting of it, and that’s the sick part. Just sick of dirty, neon city life. But, in all honesty, what else could be better?
So it may not actually be a “1977 New York punk rock” album, and although it doesn’t need to, I doubt it will ever be truly accepted as such. But, it couldn’t have been created under any different circumstances, or at least not in the same way. And thank goodness it wasn’t.