Friday, March 11, 2011

Television — Marquee Moon

For those in the know, Tom Verlaine is the best alt.guitar soundsmith this side of Robert Quine, though those not in the know would be even less aware of ol' Quine. Picking up where Robert Fripp left off, Verlaine added sinewy, raw energy to Fripp's piercing laser lines. Amazingly, he took this style to CBGB in time for the punk explosion there and somehow stayed on the stage. He even fired the only punk among his group of actually competent musicians, Richard Hell. And yet, Television thrived during its brief lifespan, releasing just two albums and building a decades-long influence with only one of them.

Marquee Moon does not remotely sound like anything that came out of out CBGBs, including the work of Talking Heads. Mislabeled as proto-new-wave by those struggling to find some genre for the wild album, Marquee Moon is the greatest rock guitar record. to rest just outside the spotlight, neither obscure nor mainstream. It's too advanced and esoteric to ever fly as quickly to the lips of any sputtering wannabe axe-slinger as Are You Experienced? or Machine Head, but it's also too damn appealing and transporting to be ignored altogether.

By the time Verlaine made Marquee Moon, he ironed out all the wrinkles with Television, canning Hell (a move for the best for both of them), solidifying his interplay with rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd and hammering out his poetry. Yes, his poetry. That Verlaine took his stage name from the French symbolist poet was the first indication he might not jel with the ethos and style of the Ramones. Verlaine didn't even mesh with Hell or Patti Smith, who both traded in a more gritty, streetwise brand of poetry. For where Smith and Hell used harsh rock as a backdrop for socially conscious and rebellious lyrics, Verlaine used lyrics to weave in and out of the music, as if instead of imagery and meaning Verlaine obsessed over meter.

From the opening strains of "See No Evil," his approach can be vividly heard. Vocals bend and scatter with guitar lines, chugga-chugga rhythms fall apart into peeled-off notes at mid-tempo, as if someone took a shredder, slowed him down, then placed him over a crunchy post-punk riff to see if anyone would notice. When everything snaps together for the chorus shout of "I see/I see no/EVAHLLLLLLLL" the effect is, if anything, more disorienting than when the band all seemed to be doing their own thing. What might have passed for a more accomplished brand of slop from a half-talented punk group suddenly reveals itself to be a carefully modulated effort by supremely gifted and practiced musicians.

Just as you get a handle on this, the band launches into "Venus," a warped ode with a call-and-response chorus that makes the shaking yelp of the previous track seem tame. Lilting guitar lines always sound as if leading to a solo until it becomes clear Verlaine has been soloing the entire time over his plaintive lyrics. When the backups shout "Huh?!" one sympathizes. "Friction" brings Lloyd into the fore with Verlaine, trading intervallic licks and crunching effects as Fred Smith's bass and Billy Ficca's drums hold down some semblance of a beat. Ficca and Smith are superb in their own right: Smith's bass so fluid he must have torn out his hair dealing with the average string smashing goon holding down the low end in other CBGB favorites. He meshes perfectly with Ficca, whose jazzy style navigates the winding turns of each song.

Lloyd and Verlaine's intertwining guitars, unified only when not in direct, thrilling conflict with each other, find their true outlet on the next song, the title track. A 10-minute behemoth that severed any ties still linking Television to its earlier, rawer roots, "Marquee Moon" is the culmination of Verlaine's approach to music, much as it much chagrin him. Savage and beautiful, contradictory yet whole, the song is a mounting climax, Lloyd and Verlaine thrusting and receding, pitting Lloyd's more chord-based improvisations rubbing against Verlaine's legato style. But to lump in this cascading, wild soloing with the dinosaur rock Television's contemporaries raged against would be inaccurate: this is a whole other style of rock, one that incorporates jazz without being fusion (which came with its own host of lumbering, masturbatory musicians). As much as Verlaine might be the mastermind, the others are not there merely to back him up, and a degree of understanding and intuition exists between them one normally expects only from a jazz combo. It makes even their most drawn-out noodling thrilling, something to be taken in for more than mere admiration of musical chops. The solos here are alive, vivacious and emotionally engaging as well as jaw-dropping in a "how the hell did they do this?" kind of way.

Anyone else would have ended the album with such a show-stopper, yet Television regroups for a whole other side of material, all of which holds its own against the preceding leviathan. "Elevation" sports such a beautiful riff I find myself almost wishing it remained a simple tune just so I could hear it more, but Verlaine and Lloyd by now are emboldened; they used the title track to prove their mettle, freeing them to explore full-time. The rest of the cuts demonstrate the same degree of exploration as seen in the side-one closer at shorter lengths, cramming jams into manageable chunks. "Guiding Light," with its lilting melody, could have worked as an off-kilter slow dance tune, but even Verlaine's softer pleads have their witticisms -- I always get a kick out of "Never the rose without the prick."

The album closes with "Torn Curtain," a song that appropriately tears down the veil. Staccato lyrics flit around clanged chords and broken choruses. Everything falls apart, then it comes together just long enough to prove to everyone that the crumbling is a planned detonation before breaking down again. Still, even the mild insecurity of this double-check cannot hinder the raw energy of the song, its broken windchime-like jangles doing as much to pave the way for atmospheric post-punk as the two Joy Division albums a few years down the pipeline.

Marquee Moon exploded among the critical community in 1977, placing third in the Pazz & Jop poll and building mountains of hype the band could never hope to match. Their live shows were clear expansions of the rapport the band shared in the studio, long songs growing into longer ones (but still coherent and focused, in the band's singularly unfocused way), and the punks who might have tolerated Television in the studio found little use in their live act. Johnny Rotten himself, a not-so-closeted art rock lover, reversed his complimentary appraisal of them after seeing Television live and understanding he could not protect his punk cred unless he threw Verlaine under a bus.

When the group returned to the studio to record the follow-up, the wonderful Adventure, the pressure had taken its toll. Though Adventure is more than a worthy successor, it received and continues to be received indifferently by many for the terrible sin of not being as revolutionary as Marquee Moon. Few albums are. Even today, the guitar work of Verlaine and Lloyd defies easy description, and Verlaine's scattershot poetry holds up a great deal better than many of the supposed rock bards. Television broke up shortly after the release of their second album, and Verlaine went on to enjoy a decently healthy solo career befitting a cult hero, but everything in those albums can be traced back to this one wild slice of art rock outside any genre. Verlaine's name has faded from the minds of many, but I can't understand it. One listen to Marquee Moon and every neophyte will come away with a new guitar god. I'll take these magnificent fractals and searching melodies over Eric Clapton's tired crap any day of the week.


  1. One of the best albums ever, simple as that. I dig your counterintuitive comparison to jazz - it's got that constant alertness and sense of spontaneity in the musical interactions going on here. Adventure is pretty solid too, of course, but Marquee Moon is just an impossible-to-follow masterpiece with not a single misstep or dull moment.

    Hell, for his part, had at least one great song of his own, the title track to Blank Generation, with its wonderfully playful omitted lyrics and drunken staggering. As far away from Verlaine as it's possible to be.

  2. Yeah, it's hard to describe the jazzy-but-not-quite-jazz aspect of Television's playing. Robert Quine had the same quality in his playing.

    And I think Hell benefited from getting thrown out of Television. He was best as a lyricist so he and Verlaine would have just butted heads anyway and Television would have suffered with his stiff bass-bashing instead of Fred Smith's smoother lines. I think the whole of Blank Generation is brilliant, but as you say, you could never pair it with Verlaine, not even with Quine involved.

  3. I always had a soft spot for Quine that went above and beyond his guitar playing, which I do think is a wholly original and inventive beast as you suggest and the one thing, alongside Hell's songwriting when it's on, that positively makes Blank Generation as consistently good as it is. But after that Quine went on to work as a sideman for Lou Reed on and off during the '80s and I give him a lot of credit for helping bring Reed around once and for all to his 2 guitars bass drums aesthetic, if only because Quine was just so damn good. He's particularly good on The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, two outstanding Reed albums. And before any of that, Quine had the presence of mind to show up at Velvet Underground shows circa '69/'70 with a tape recorder and capture that band in one of its richest and most rewarding periods. Not taking anything away from Verlaine -- you've got him and his signature album sized up right I think. Verlaine peaked way higher than just about any of his guitar contemporaries, but his solo work has been scattershot, at least in the studio. Still a great performer, I understand. But I think Quine might even come close to rivaling him on lifetime achievement basis.

  4. Verlaine's solo work is certainly patchy, but I do love Dreamtime, Flash Light and A Miller's Tale. I'm not as big on Cover as many, though. I think he generally pursued the same direction he did with Television, which was fine because he never fully fit in with those around him until around Flash Light in '87 when everyone else seemed to catch up. But nothing can touch this album.

    As for Quine, I'd rank him higher than Verlaine. I think he's hands down the best alt.guitarist who ever lived and the only person who's fully expanded on the foundation Lou Reed poured. I've never forgiven Reed for throwing Quine out of his band in a fit of jealousy and resentment for crowds going as wild if not wilder for Quine as him. The Blue Mask is by far my favorite Reed solo album, and Quine makes it. That live gig in Italy is one of my favorite live pieces, especially with Quine's work on Sister Ray. Have you heard his album Basic? I love it almost as much as Marquee Moon in terms of off-the-beaten-path guitar albums, and Quine's is certainly more obscure.

  5. Thanks for reminding me about Basic. I don't remember much about it and went and tracked it down just now. Looking forward. Re Verlaine solo: I do like more than half of Dreamtime quite a bit and scattered tracks from other albums, but have never followed along that closely. Interestingly, I tend to appreciate his songwriting much more than his guitar playing in the studio work. As for Lou Reed, yeah, he is what he is and always unfortunately seems to expose that capacity for being his own worst enemy, often at the worst times (cf., Cale, Warhol, Sylvia, on and on). He and Quine were a terrific match for one and another and I too was sorry to see it end. And as I say I give Quine a lot of credit for clarifying Reed's aesthetic once and for all after a decade of (interesting) dithering.