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40 years later, ‘Marquee Moon’ remains a punk pioneer

Why New York's punk pioneers' debut album still influences many

American punk rock band Television perform in Milan, Italy, in 2014. Photo: Rodolfo Sassano/Alamy Live News
American punk rock band Television perform in Milan, Italy, in 2014. Photo: Rodolfo Sassano/Alamy Live News

If you go by the conventional definition, punk rock songs are quick, short and raw. The instrumentation is minimalist, including usually just a lead guitar, bass and drums, the recordings are rough-hewn, and the lyrics iconoclastic. By that definition, Marquee Moon, the debut album by New York City’s Television, can seem unlike what it is: one of the most influential albums of 1970s-era punk. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Marquee Moon, and that is good enough reason to revisit Television, an early punk rock band that may have well been the inspiration or, at least, the trigger for the rise of New York’s thriving punk scene of the time.

Today, Television aren’t a band whose name readily springs to mind when you think of that era’s punk in what was then a far grittier city than it ever has been. Instead, you would likely recall the more well-known ones such as the Ramones, New York Dolls, Blondie or Patti Smith, all acts that were regulars at the East Village’s famous music club, CBGB, which shut down more than a decade ago.

Yet, Television are the punk scene’s catalyst band. It’s where it all began. And Marquee Moon their most important album. There are eight songs on Marquee Moon, and, just for the record, none of them is punk-style short. The title song is really epic, the original version lasts for nearly 11 minutes, and is unlike any other punk song that you may have heard. It’s almost like improvised jamming. Television, like others in the punk genre, were a guitar-driven band—in fact, they had two guitarists—and on the title track there are two raw solos that cast you in different directions, but so seamlessly that you could wonder: “Am I listening to 1970s punk, or what?" But you are.

Television were indeed a punk band, but like none other. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd both played guitar (Verlaine also did the lead vocals for the band) and while the former ostensibly played lead and the latter rhythm, the distinction vanishes on many of their songs, including Marquee Moon. Instead, the two interact in a manner that could recall improvisational musicians or even the guitar-driven jam bands of the West Coast.

Yet, Television kept things punk-style simple. Their performances and songs ooze with high energy; their melodies and tunes are stripped of the embellishment that the music of rock bands before punk was layered with; and their recordings, although less garage-y than other bands, had an edge to them. It took time for Television to make their debut album.

The band had been around for a while before that happened. Formed in 1973, Television’s early line-up included, besides Verlaine and Lloyd, Richard Hell, another flamboyant star of New York’s punk scene. Verlaine and Hell collaborated with musicians such as Patti Smith and Television began playing regular gigs in New York’s music clubs, including CBGB. Those gigs attracted fans in the underground music scene but it took a while before the debut album was released. By then Hell had left to pursue a solo career. Marquee Moon, interestingly, got more critical acclaim in Britain than it did initially in the band’s home country.

At home in the US, other punk acts had already released albums before Marquee Moon came out—the Ramones had by then become regulars at CBGB and their first album was out; so was Patti Smith’s Horses; and Blondie’s debut album. The delay in debuting with an album may explain in part why Television’s pioneering status in New York’s punk rock is sometimes overlooked. Also, perhaps, because the band was not as overtly “punk" as others of their era, many of whom had other trappings. The Ramones, for instance, had quirky trademarks of band members adopting pseudonyms with Ramone as the surname and a regulation uniform of tattered denims and leather jackets.

But as Marquee Moon grew on listeners—and it does even now if you listen to it—it became a sort of watershed for the genre. At the core of the album is, of course, the title song, which showcases Television’s ability to take punk’s simple, minimal oeuvre and add guitar virtuosity that, surprisingly for a punk band, appears to draw on genres such as jazz and funk. But every song on Marquee Moon demonstrates that aspect of the band. As with all punk rock records of the time, the songs on the album swell with dynamism and the energy levels never subside. Still, they are a contrast with, say, the music of the Ramones, who became far more popular but whose songs seem dumbed down and less artistically wrought than Television’s.

But the band was short-lived. Television released two more studio albums. Adventure came out in 1978, the year the band broke up, partly because of Lloyd’s drug abuse. There was a reunion in 1992 and a third self-titled album, but nothing more. Since then, Television have performed irregularly as a band, both in the US and in Britain, but the peak that they reached with Marquee Moon has never been scaled. Many bands, especially of the 1980s, including notably R.E.M., have cited that album as being a big influence on their music, and critics and fans through the years haven’t stopped voicing their appreciation for it.

What better time to give it another listen than on its 40th anniversary?


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. Marquee Moon by Television from Marquee Moon

2. The Dream’s Dream by Television from Adventure

3. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker by the Ramones from Rocket To Russia

4. Blank Generation by Richard Hell & The Voidoids from Blank Generation

5. Gloria by Patti Smith from Horses

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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