Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 5: Television - Marquee Moon

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week, after an extended break we are returning with a look at Television's seminal 1977 debut
Marquee Moon, a guitar masterpiece and an all-around fantastic record. So check the replies for our thoughts and full Rdio and Spotify streams of the record, and feel free to jump in with any comments, anecdotes, or discussion questions you may have.

Chris Collum: 1977 must have been a great year to have been living in New York City. Rising up from the fertile ground sown by bands such as The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, and equally inspired by the Michigan scene that included The Stooges and the MC5 and the London punk scene that would birth the Sex Pistols and The Clash among others, punk rock blossomed, exploded and then imploded. Centered around the hallowed club, CBGB's, the NYC punk rock scene was the stuff of legends, and certainly an extremely crucial, albeit short-lived, portion of the history of American popular music. The band that many people generally associate the most with that scene of course is the Ramones, but their music really was inspired by 60s AM pop and surf music as much as by the aforementioned "proto-punk" bands.

Television, meanwhile, also drew from different influences than the rest of the NYC punk scene, but their influences had almost nothing in common with the Ramones. A quick glance at the track lengths on Marquee Moon can tell you that they certainly seem to exercise a different aesthetic than the blitzkrieg, two-minute loud fast loud motif of the Ramones. Often branded as the first "art punk" record, Marquee Moon is an album built around carefully calculated riffs and pre-composed solos executed with precision by guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.

Inspired by jazz and avant-garde music, the pair comprise one of the greatest guitar duos in rock history. The highly melodic, almost lyrical, “call–and-response” style guitar lines found throughout Marquee Moon are truly the highlight of the album. Very few, if any, records released before or since feature such memorable guitar work that captures the imagination like this. The “hooks” on this album are pretty much the guitar riffs. You may not remember the vocal melody of the title track, but the needling, warbling riff in the intro and the soaring crescendo of the pre-chorus are certain to remain etched in your brain for a very long time.

As I am writing this piece, I’m discovering that it’s pretty hard to talk about great guitar work—capturing the emotion and power of Verlaine and Lloyd’s riffs using words really is not possible. You really have to listen to the record to truly understand what I’m talking about.

While the guitar work is certainly the highlight of the album, there are other great things going on here too, however. The drum parts are syncopated to perfection and often play off of the guitar lines and bass line. The bass lines too are melodic in a way that is especially peculiar to “punk” when so often bassists tend to simply play root notes of whatever chords the guitarists are playing—although since Verlaine and Lloyd largely eschew chords I suppose that makes sense. Verlaine’s lyrics and vocals capture an eerily apocalyptic and yet simultaneously romantic sense of gritty street grandeur that can at times rouse and at other times send shivers down one’s spine. The only downside of the album is that it is mixed rather thinly, and sounds especially trebly when played via compressed digital files as opposed to the original vinyl.

Finally, the influence of Marquee Moon cannot be overstated. Legions of fantastic and influential guitarists in their own right count it among their influences and favorite records, and you can hear the influence of Verlaine and Lloyd’s “call-and-response” style in, say, the likes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, or The Strokes’ Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., especially on the group’s first two records. Additionally, the Wilco albums A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky also owe a huge debt to Television, especially since the outro jam that is the second half of “Impossible Germany,” a highlight from the latter record could have been lifted directly from the grooves of Marquee Moon.

This record is a must-hear for fans of intricate and original guitar work, and really for any music fan. I personally feel that of all the bands from New York that put out debut albums in 1977, Television has best stood the test of time, as Marquee Moon sounds as much like a masterpiece now as I’m sure as it did in ’77. Unique among its peers at the time, and unique today in the annals of rock history, this is a record you should not miss out on if you have never heard it.

Craig Manning: Well, as Chris showed us last time with Fleetwood Mac, a divergence of tastes happens with even the most like-minded music listeners, and even with the most universally acclaimed classics, and I must confess that I didn’t find much to love in my introductory listens to Marquee Moon. Note the phrase “introductory listens” there, however, because it’s definitely relevant that, as I write my piece of the feature this week, I’m doing so on limited time and knowledge. I don’t think Television had ever even pinged my radar before Chris brought them up as one of his upcoming choices a few weeks back (though I probably heard the name dropped a few times, without registering it, during the garage rock revival of the early 00’s), so my thoughts below about Marquee Moon are little more than first impressions, on both the album and the band as a whole.

As someone who has spent the past few years studying the art of the voice in intimate detail, the first thing I tend to notice about any given recording is the vocals. And that, I suppose, explains why Marquee Moon initially didn’t impress me, because this is neither a singer’s record, nor a lyricist’s really. Tom Verlaine isn’t a bad vocalist, and he’s certainly far from a weak frontman—he’s cut from the same charismatic cloth as Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, and those are two guys I generally like a good deal—but his borderline histrionic, so-called “apocalyptic” vocal delivery (solid term, Chris) isn’t the sort I often gravitate towards. In fact, the first time I tried to listen to Marquee Moon, in a worn-out mood after an exhausting, week-long barrage of work and other obligations, the music actually struck me as grating.

But then again, it’s never good to gauge first impressions on a piece of art when you’re in a bad mood. You project your own woes and frustrations upon the recording at hand, and not even the best music can withstand that. So I turned off Marquee Moon before I finished side A, and I told myself I’d come back to it. Two weeks passed before I made good on that promise, when Chris and I decided that we were finally going to get off our asses and get volume five of this feature out into the world (sorry about the extended wait, by the way). And I’m glad I did, because there’s a lot to admire here.

I doubt that Marquee Moon will ever be a favorite record of mine, or that I will ever really come to love Television the way I love the rest of the artists we’ve talked about up to this point. But once I came back to the record, with a fresher state of mind and a more relaxed temperament, once I resumed side A and got to the epic, nearly 11-minute tour-de-force that is this album’s title track, something clicked. The problem I had faced the first time was that I had remained so fixated on Verlaine’s voice that I almost missed what was going on around it. And Chris is right, the guitar work on this record is some serious out-of-this-world, needs-to-be-heard level musicianship. The vocals, the lyrics, practically every emblem of more traditional song structures, they all exist, more or less, to provide bridges from guitar section to guitar section, and with solos as sublimely visceral as the ones on this record, that’s a very, very good thing.

In hindsight, I’m a little surprised I never checked this album out sooner, because the influence of Verlaine and Lloyd’s dueling guitars is literally saturated across the canvas of rock ‘n’ roll history. Chris hit some of the big ones: Sonic Youth and the Strokes, but elements of the Television sound can be heard everywhere, from the rush of early R.E.M. records, to the aforementioned garage rock revivalists like The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, or Bloc Party (and many more), and even on into to the realms of seemingly disparate genres like roots rock. For example, when I heard the incendiary roar of the guitar solos on “Marquee Moon” and “Prove It,” the first thing I thought of was the blistering style that Counting Crows’ lead guitarist Dan Vickrey assumed on that band’s louder records, while the soaring and wistful guitar moans on songs like “Guiding Light” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Skynyrd record. And the influence goes even further: U2’s the Edge has credited the album’s title track as the song that “changed [his] way of thinking about the guitar.” Hearing this record is like watching Casablanca for the first time: you don’t realize how often it is emulated, referenced, or downright ripped off until you experience it firsthand.

All of this is just a long, roundabout way of saying that we should never necessarily trust our first impressions. I’m glad Chris chose a record I was entirely unfamiliar with (hopefully I can return the favor one of these weeks), and I’m glad that I gave it the second chance it deserved after my initial disappointment. I still think Marquee Moon is merely a good record that goes all the way to great when the band trades vocals for guitars, but with so many memorable instrumental moments, that still means there’s a lot I love here.

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