Counterbalance 25: Television – ‘Marquee Moon’

Television’s 1977 masterpiece Marquee Moon is the 25th Greatest Album of All Time, but is it too “too too” to put a finger on? Counterbalance sees it all backward.

Marquee Moon
8 February 1977

Klinger: Now here’s a real puzzler of a record for our Counterbalance purposes. Most everything we’ve covered so far has either been an immediate game-changer or has had an impact that’s reached far beyond its initial standing. Television’s 1977 album Marquee Moon, although charting modestly in the UK, is an LP that’s seldom discussed outside the realm of critics and rock nerds.

But regardless of its relatively minor cultural impact, Marquee Moon is like nothing else we’ve covered so far musically. Combining the precision and flair of Hendrix, the street smarts of Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground, and the nods to pop tradition of Ziggy-era Bowie and the Clash, Television feels like a culmination of everything that makes albums great. So is it sheer musicality that’s brought Television into these lofty heights?

Mendelsohn: Well, it sure wasn’t their ability to write monster, radio-friendly pop hits. In all seriousness, this is one of those albums that I find quietly reassuring about music in general. It’s reliable, fun to listen to, well-executed rock and roll.

On the other hand, it’s one of those records that never achieved the mainstream success that would merit an album being placed so high on the list. And that makes me worry that we’ve stumbled onto some hipster secret, one that the Über-cool would prefer we didn’t talk about lest they show up upon our doorsteps, unshaven and prepared to waterboard us with the dregs from cans of warm PBR. They still drink PBR, right? Or have they moved on to Blatz or Schlitz or whatever?

Klinger: I have no idea, Mendelsohn—my Ironimeter has been on the fritz ever since “Don’t Stop Believin'” became our national anthem. But that’s neither here nor there; I’m concerned that you might be damning Marquee Moon with faint praise. After all, merely solid albums shouldn’t be this high up in the Canon. To whatever extent Television got lumped in with the proto-punk CBGB’s movement, they were operating on a whole other level from those bands.

While guitarist/songwriter Tom Verlaine and co-producer Andy Johns got a raw, sparse sound throughout the album, Marquee Moon’s sheer architecture gobs in the face of the idea that minimalism requires sloppy, reckless playing. From the propulsive “See No Evil” to the towering title track (which brings Verlaine’s early love of classical to the fore) to the noir-sounding “Torn Curtain”, there’s not a note out of place here, and yet it never sounds prissy.


Mendelsohn: I am damning them faintly, damning them faintly with my words. But what else would you have me do? Drop buzz words like proto-punk, art-house rock, or New Wave? Connect the dots between every single New York “It” band starting with the Velvet Underground and ending with the Strokes? (If you do connect those dots, you get a picture of Frank Sinatra. Weird, right?) Or would you have me make vague statements and then fail to back them up, like, “Television is the godfather of indie rock!” What do you want from me, Klinger?

These guys laid some massive groundwork that is still being used to prop up lesser band three decades on. But they aren’t the Beatles and if I had to guess, most normal music fans have no idea who Television is. So pardon me if I feel like I’ve just tripped into the Twilight Zone

Klinger: Exactly—casual music fans have no idea who Television are. They’ve been sadly deprived of the complex interwoven guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the tough-but-tender foundation of drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred “Not Sonic” Smith. And situations like this are one time when rock critics play a vital role (another time is when a deli tray is about to go bad). The fact that Marquee Moon has turned up on so many Best Album lists means that there’s a chance that new generations might still pick it up, and that’s cause for optimism in my book. As the importance of critics championing a band declines (replaced by the ephemeral nature and built-in backlash of the blogosphere), the Canon is shaping up to be a pretty restricted little club.

But back to the album itself, Mendelsohn. You sound like you’re a little on the fence here, even in the face of my exuberant and joyous pontification. Is it possible that you’re having trouble connecting to this album?

Mendelsohn: No connection problems here, Klinger. I’m all over this record. But then, I also have a large, soft spot in my heart for complicated rock masquerading in the guise of minimalist post-punk or post-rock or post-whatever. Television’s propulsive, jangly guitar-driven music, half-shouted, half-sung lyrics, and driving drum beats that flirted with the idea of dance provided the foundation for what would go on to be the loosely organized genre of indie rock. If you are looking for the impetus to one of rock’s most wide-ranging sub-genres, it’s all in Marquee Moon.

Off the top of my head, the Pixies, Built to Spill, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Spoon, Titus Andronicus, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Japandroids, the Strokes, and Tapes ‘N Tapes all take cues from Television. Add a splash of Bob Dylan, and this list gets bigger. Add a dash of Bruce Springsteen, and the list gets bigger. Drop a 4/4 going 125 BPM, and suddenly we’re butting up against post-dance, half-rock acts like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, TV on the Radio, Yeasayer, and even Radiohead.

Klinger: Wow, I’ve been listening to this album for years, and I’ve never thought about it having elements of dance music in it. But then my dancing has often been described as Woody Allen-esque. Which songs here lead you to make such a bold claim?

Mendelsohn: This may be a bit of a stretch but bear with me as I try to work around the post-whatever buzz words. There is a subcategory of indie rock where the lines between rock and dance/electronica start to blur. Yes, it’s got guitars, but it also has a very regimented, repetitive beat. Go back and listen to “See No Evil”, and you’ll hear precisely that. It’s a high tempo, 140 BPM proto-dance rock number. Strip away the guitar flourishes and substitute some synth, voila, more dance than rock. I think it has a lot to do with Ficca’s drumming. It’s lock-step, and it’s in the way he rides the high hat. I swear, it’s in there. “Friction” is a bit slower and has more groove, but you get the same thing.

Klinger: Well, huh—I’ve never thought of it that way. I was all set to stake a claim that Verlaine’s ability to create impeccably structured cityscapes of sound feels like it draws from Pete Townshend’s work on Who’s Next. Both that album and Marquee Moon seem like they could go off the rails at any time, and in other musicians’ hands, they probably would, but there’s a level of discipline there that neither Television nor the Who get enough credit for.

Mendelsohn: I only agree with half of that statement. Television deserve the credit. Leave the Who out of this.

Klinger: Oh, not to worry—we’ll deal with our Shepherd’s Bush friends soon enough. Meanwhile, this album has often been lumped in with the works of their fellow travelers in the Bowery, and Marquee Moon is certainly a cousin of Blondie, the Ramones, and Verlaine’s former paramour Patti Smith. But I’ve long suspected that there’s something quite different going on here, and an album that can sound like a missing link between “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Losing My Edge” is clearly in its own place altogether. And come to think of it though, when you rattle off those aforementioned groups, there’s a lot more diversity in their sounds than their CBGB roots might suggest.

Mendelsohn: That’s the great thing about a flourishing music scene, like the one that came up through CBGB in the 1970s. There is a certain amount of competition that drives these groups to take what the others are doing and push it to the next level. Everyone has their own idea of what the next level should be, so each band may start in the same place, providing that link, but by the time they are done, they are worlds apart.

Klinger: And at the same time, there’s a common thread running through the scene—in this case, a desire to move forward by embracing the past. The clichés, as these bands saw it, were true. Rock had become a grandiose Emerson, Lake & Palmerian spectacle that had lost touch with what made it great. But unlike their UK counterparts’ impulse to smash it all up, groups like these instead seem to have chosen to embrace the pre-bloaty bits, from garage bands to girl groups to the British Invasion singles. And on Marquee Moon, there are certainly times when we’re just a few “shang-a-langs” or “dip-da-dips” away from a Cameo-Parkway single from 1963.

And really, that’s where you’ll find the joy in the best of this Canonical rock—in the fond looks back as you keep plowing ahead. It might not have worked out so good for Lot’s wife, but it makes Marquee Moon a real treat for you when you’re ready to dive into the world of rock nerddom.

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This article was originally published on 18 March 2011.