MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Television: Marquee Moon
There once was a famous decadent poet named Verlaine in France. Less than a century after his death, a young punk rocker and aspiring poet named Tom Miller moved to New York City to meet up with a friend, another aspiring punk-poet named Richard Hell, and started a band. They loved wild music like the 13th Floor Elevators and Albert Ayler and wanted to make ‘punk’ rock, that was more musically inspired by that kind of stuff. Tom Miller changed his name to Tom Verlaine and they began playing shows, eventually doing a residency at CBGB’s. They were feted by various record labels for a couple years, then Hell left in 1975, Fred Smith replaced him, refining their bass, and they signed with Elektra in 1976 – the year I was born. This is their debut album, an essential record, and one of the greatest front-to-back ‘rock’ records of all time, employing just guitars, played by Richard Loyd and Verlaine himself, bass, played by Fred Smith (not ‘Sonic’ Smith of MC5), and drums played by Billy Ficca, a jazz aficionado, going beyond the simplistic three-chord barrage of most punk at the time, and aspiring to a complex melodic and counter-melodic twin guitar attack. The album is notable for the long sections of complex interplay between the guitars, adventurous free-jazz solos, and surrealist poetic lyrics about life in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The first thing I ever heard by Television was an old beat-up tape of “The Blow Up,” a 1982 live recording of Television that I found at a thrift store and I remember thinking I had to try and find one of their records because the music itself was some missing link of my understanding of punk, somewhere between rapidly strummed old barre chord stuff and the more angular post-punk live-wire industrial weird, but the recording quality was lacking. Then one night, I heard the entirety of the title song at a friend’s place and I was utterly transfixed, especially the crescendo of the song, the second solo after the bridge, that is some of the most angelic guitar weaving ever created; it was as though I was having a religious experience. I vowed to get this album, “Marquee Moon,” as soon as I could find it.
This is surely one of the earlier ‘art-punk’ records: as I listen to it on headphones, enraptured, I’m struck by the sheer drama of the record; it’s not goth by any means, but it has an almost Antonin Artaud-like sense of foreboding energy. It is wiry nervousness and apprehension; it is an attempt at describing the sheer enervation of existence through both words and music.
It IS kind of shocking to think that Brian Eno recorded demos for them for Island Records but Verlaine didn’t like them, finding them ‘cold and brittle.’ When they finally got around to the sessions for this record, they got an engineer, Andy Johns, who had worked on the Rolling Stones’ “Goat Heads Soup,” because they wanted the warmth of his guitar sound, which they found ‘expressionistic,’ according to Verlaine. Alas, it is the production that makes this now, ultimately sound like a ‘classic’ art-rock record (as consonant to “classic rock”) for the ages, something that still coalesces seamlessly with “classic rock,” like many ‘prog’ records are “classic,” but is ultimately more odd, more strange than most rock and roll fare. I wonder… what do those Eno demos sound like? Could it be they took for granted the unique ‘cold and brittle’ sound captured and not realize that it was the embodiment of a break from a “classic” mode (think of Martin Hannet’s production of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures”), such as befit the unique music? If anybody’s heard them, please let me know.