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‘Marquee Moon’'s Glimmer of Inimitable Subversion

Sound and Vision

Marquee Moon
Album cover of 'Marquee Moon'
“There I stand ’neath the Marquee Moon / Hesitating.” In a beautiful album full of striking images, the most memorable part of Television’s “Marquee Moon” is at its center, as the 10-minute title track comes to a climax. Television’s singer, guitarist, and lyricist Tom Verlaine hesitates between those lines, and since the instruments have also paused, his fermata creates a rare moment of peace, an eye in Television’s hurricane. Then, the instruments crash back and the other guitarist Richard Lloyd launches into another gorgeous, tightly-crafted solo.

Verlaine’s vocal delivery elevates those lines to a near-apocalyptic significance. Surely, the marquee moon promises something great and terrible. But what? It never arrives. The third chorus instead concludes “I ain’t waitin’, uh-uh!” Throughout the album, we see Verlaine frantically roaming an impressionistic New York exploding with light, sound, and friction, seeking something that would help him transcend everything bombarding his senses. When he finds it, whether it is the titular lunar skyscape or falling “into the arms of Venus de Milo,” he runs into another problem—that experience does not deliver, either. At least, we never learn what he makes of these moments. We only hear his angst through riffs, solos, basslines, and fills.

“Marquee Moon” was released at a turning point in music history. Punk was drastically changing the contemporary rock landscape, leaving behind the increasingly long-winded prog and art rock of the period and moving towards radical simplification. Bands like the Ramones and artists like Patti Smith had helped shape the increasingly successful punk scene.

Television was a significant early leader in the movement, with Tom Verlaine playing lead guitar on Patti Smith’s cover of “Hey Joe,” a song often considered the first punk song. Television had a substantial cult following in New York, but they had yet to release an album. In the time between 1974 and 1977, the band had turned down several major labels in search of a record deal they felt was appropriate. They also passed up the chance to work long-term with Brian Eno, after they felt initial demos minimized the expressive, guitar-driven sound they sought. Then, founding member Richard Hell left the group because of creative differences. The other members had grown increasingly adept in their instrumental and compositional abilities, while Hell insisted on a frantic, raw sound. It was Hell’s departure that allowed Television to create the distinct sound of “Marquee Moon.”

“Marquee Moon” was simultaneously a culmination of the punk sound Television helped create and a drastic departure from the category as a whole. Punk was a style that depended on brevity and wildness, but every song on “Marquee Moon” is an extended bout of extreme control. Save for the hook-filled opening duo “See No Evil” and “Venus,” no song is below four and a half minutes. The guitar lines are drawn out and are generally straightforward like in punk (except for the solos), but all the pieces come together to create long, powerful songs far bigger than the instrumentation itself. The deceptively complex arrangements somehow feel simple. From the riffing on “Friction” to the tension of “Torn Curtain,” every note is calculated. “Marquee Moon” uses the simplicity of punk to create the lengthy, precise pieces like those of their prog contemporaries. Rebelling against punk’s own revolution of wild simplicity, Television harnesses that simplicity to make long, technical, and controlled music.

Television’s big shift is instrument-driven. The interplay between the crashing, twisting guitars and the accompanying rhythm lines creates a powerful intellectual headspace that harnesses punk’s simplicity within far bigger and multifaceted pieces. The guitars that envelop the album’s sound in songs like “Elevation” and “Friction” verge on disorder, but the harmonic meshing between instruments grounds the band, building a sense of calming exactness such that “Marquee Moon” feels faultless.

People often wonder why there was never another album like “Marquee Moon,” and the answer is simple: Television is one of those bands that is so weird they are basically impossible to fully imitate. As Matt LeMay wrote for “Pitchfork,” “Everyone who plays guitar will, at some point, learn the solo from ‘Stairway to Heaven’, but it’s practically impossible to sit down and actually play anything from ‘Marquee Moon.’” Indeed, while some have attempted to imitate Television’s sound—The Edge, for example, uses an effects pedal in an attempt to emulate Verlaine’s tone—no other band has ever been able to turn the chaos of punk into such carefully tempered energy. Verlaine’s low whine and the high, wavering dual guitar sounds working in perfect harmony with the bass and the drum lines allow Television to create a radical album while remaining perfectly in unison.

While there was never any true successor to “Marquee Moon,” the album essentially created the genre of post-punk. If Television is inimitable sonically, they can at least be stylistically approximated. Bands with similar avant-garde aspirations can use the same style of punk simplicity to achieve powerful results.

Though “Marquee Moon” laid the groundwork for later trends, nobody could ever hope to match its expertise or the perfect unity of the musicians playing it. In many ways, it’s the “Citizen Kane” of albums, the unassailable height of accessible experimentation. No album has more powerfully subverted the expectations of a genre since,and in this sense, few albums have ever been so revolutionarily original. “Marquee Moon,” through the use of increasingly conventional punk tactics of simplicity, created a perfectly complex avant-garde masterpiece. As the riffs build and dissemble, the lyrics meander from near-climax to near-climax. Television may not find any meaning in the mayhem, but they certainly find beauty.

—Staff writers Edward M. Litwin's and Trevor J. Levin's column, "Sound and Vision," evaluates the cultural legacy of the late 1970s, one album at a time.

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