New York punk rock was, early on, far more encompassing than the willful minimalism of the Ramones or the New York Dolls, and more of an art/poetry movement than the jackhammer scream of culture and class warfare that it became in England. The scene that grew up around CBGB's, a squalid bar in the Bowery, included this quartet, who produced the entire movements most durable and sublime statement.
Far from three-chord disciples, Television's music was a swirling and jagged cyclone of complex musical invention, but not forced or gratuitous, like some of the tortured, less deft prog-rock groups of the era. Television owed as much to free-jazzers like Albert Ayler, as to raw garage rock merchants like the Count Five or the Shadows of Knight. Their leanings towards long, esoteric improvisations, in their live performances, led to comparisons to the Grateful Dead, of all people, although it is doubtful that they ever covered "Uncle John's Band " or "Terrapin Station". They were, though, totally original, courageously open, and uniquely expressive. And they produced one of twentieth-century music's most mesmerizing albums.
Marquee Moon starts off with a clipped, near-standard rhythmic guitar figure, paving the way for the swirling, hypnotic signature guitar line that forms the dominant hook of "See No Evil". The guitar solo is an economic legato burst that sounds like Eric Dolphy and Peter Green fighting over the use of each other's gray matter. And the song ends with one of punk rock's more memorable and haunting refrains : "Pull down the future with the one you love."
And that's just the first song; we've got a pretty intense seven more to go.
This is a very different kind of guitar album, with it's vaguely Indo-Asian melodic construction and focus on virtuosity of expression, with purposeful single figures rather than showy bombast. Unafraid to toy with dissonance and unorthodox tunefulness, the two guitars often play in unison, showcased particularly well on the album's centerpiece title cut, a nearly ten-minute affair that belies it's length and complicated structure. It's a difficult piece, but it sounds totally natural. It is said that punk poet and songwriter Richard Hell, the band's first bass player, was booted because he simply couldn't hang with the complicated arrangement of "Marquee Moon". And for those so inclined, there are several live bootlegs with even longer versions, including the epochal fourteen minute version on the cheaply recorded but musically amazing "official bootleg" The Blow Up.
Guitarist Tom Verlaine is the band's primary singer, and his vocals can be a little off-putting at first. His voice is thin, guttural and hiccupy, not unlike a rawer David Byrne. But, like the finest rock vocalists, he knows how to put an idea out with complete conviction, even if the delivery is unconventional.
Take, for example, this pretty pedestrian lyric from the title cut:
"I was listening,
listening to the rain.
I was hearing,
hearing something else."
To read, it's nothing special. But Verlaine's plaintive wail carries it through with unusual intent, and compels the listener to believe every word, even bringing dimension and unexpected meaning that a lesser vocalist would simply leave unturned.
Marquee Moon gets more play at chez kudzu these days than it ever did, and it keeps revealing, inspiring, and edifying. It is an astounding statement, and a singular achievement.