1977: Television / Marquee Moon
by J A Gray
Dad, Mum, Marcus and I were all sat in the family car. It was sometime early in 1977, and Marcus had just bought a single by The Sex Pistols called Anarchy In The UK. Mum didn’t really approve of the group’s name. Nevertheless, Marcus was trying his best to explain the latest youth culture movement. It was the first time I heard the words “punk rock”. I’ve met a lot of people down through the years, most of them older than myself, that felt at best uncomfortable, and at worst threatened by punk rock. Older musicians especially. In fact I still come across people who remain disgruntled by this whole period of music history. I was lucky. At 10 or 11 years old, I was too young to get on my high horse (and probably too short as well). As far as I was concerned it was just another kind of music to listen to. And it helped that the first few punk records I heard were ones I liked.
Marcus was surprised that I liked The Clash’s first LP. He thought it would be too brutal and minimalist for my tastes. But what I heard was an album chock-full of hooks and singalong choruses. And despite their often distasteful attitude towards women and sex, it was hard to resist the The Stranglers. At the time there was much talk about whether The Stranglers were really punk. Apparently they were too old. Oh and they could play their instruments. And they had a keyboard player. A keyboard player with long hair and a moustache! Such arguments didn’t stop me liking who I liked, but they did raise an interesting question – what exactly was punk rock anyway?
I also remember 1977 as being the year when I first became aware of the 12″ single. Whenever we stayed at Glo’s house in Manchester, there was a limited amount of ways to while away the days. Marcus and I didn’t know anybody of our own ages there, and boredom could set in quickly and easily. That in turn often lead to overeating and acute nausea. The alternative was striking out for Moston Lane. Oh, the glories of Moston Lane! To get there you went down an alley at the end of Glo’s row of terraces, over the end of another street, into another alley which opened up into a patch of wasteground where you turned right, then left, and carried on for a wee while, and then jumped down onto a street from a low wall. You were now on Moston Lane, but not yet at the good part. So you trudged on for another five minutes or so and there was the first port of call – a sweets and toys shop. This was fine for a lightning-fast raid for emergency rations, but to get to the real booty, you had another ten to fifteeen minutes walk ahead of you. Up there were more toy shops (the best of which sold just about every Action Man accessory you could ever wish to find). There were shops filled with electrical goods – my first ever transistor radio, a woodchip-panelled Murphy, was bought from one of these. And, better yet, there were two record shops. One of them was a common-or-garden small independent franchise – the kind that Americans call “Mom and Pop Stores” – but it was well-stocked and often had what you were looking for. I remember buying George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord 45 there. And, a few years later, Roy Harper’s Bullinamingvase LP (with a limited edition bonus EP!). The other shop was different – there you found huge wooden racks on your right, just as you walked in, filled with ex-jukebox singles. These records had the centres popped out meaning that you needed to make sure you had a plastic insert in order to play them once you got back home. Marcus and I bought all our Mott The Hoople singles from here back in 1974.
Sometimes Marcus did the Moston Lane run on his own. His boredom threshold has always been much lower than mine. Plus he was older and infinitely more restless and desperate to escape the company of parents and grandparents. On one of these occasions Marcus returned with a record the size of an LP, but that played at 45rpm and only had one track per side. A giant single. What was this witchcraft?! This particular record even had the same song on both sides, once in stereo and once in mono. It was Marquee Moon by Television and it lasted just short of 10 minutes.* Marcus was by now deep into punk rock, and was rarely buying anything that didn’t fit under punk’s umbrella. The songs tended to be short, sharp shocks. Anything over 3 minutes was a rarity, but 10 minutes, hell, this was prog-rock territory.
The record starts with a guitar riff. It’s joined by a second guitar playing a different riff. Then the bass and drums join in. Then the singer, Tom Verlaine, starts singing these strange impressionistic words in a strangled voice – the singing at least was definitely punk. After the second verse, at around the 3-minute mark, there’s a concise guitar solo (from Richard Lloyd), and then we get a third verse. And that, according to the rules of the game, should have been that. What we get instead is the four instruments re-introducing themselves – this time it’s guitar, then bass, then drums, and then lastly the second guitar joins in. The second guitar, played by Tom Verlaine, begins to play a solo. That solo slowly builds until before long the whole band is raging full-on. Then it sounds like it’s winding up to a full-stop, only for that to dovetail into a second build-up, and then again, with an even more insistent “we are all done here” riff which dies away before Tom’s guitar impersonates birds and butterflies flitting here and there over a rippling stream of piano. The solo has taken nearly 5 minutes to unfold, but it’s so perfectly structured and executed, and so damned exciting too, that it’s over before you know it. But they’re not finished with us yet. The instruments take a third round of individual bows. This time it’s drums, bass, guitar, guitar – the reverse mirror image of the beginning of the track. Verlaine starts to sing the first verse of the song again, but just as he gets going, the track fades out. This was a very neat trick – by fading out during the reprise of the first verse, we get the impression that the track was cyclical and never-ending.
In short – wow. I’d never heard anything like this before. Sure, I’d heard epic recordings by various 70s bands, but Television were utterly different. There was no trace of faux-classical bombast, nor was there hint of drifting off on a mariajuana-enhanced reverie. This was highwire taut and switchblade sharp. The band sounded like they were in the same room as one another playing this in real time. And the room sounded like it was your room, with you sitting in front of it all. The whole band had so much spirit and energy. It’s easy to pick out Tom and Richard on those guitars, but Billy Ficca on drums was a revelation – his drumming is expressive, dynamic and intelligent. His snare and cymbal work owe as much to jazz as rock, but he has drive as well as finesse. Some people have told me they find his drumming too busy on Marquee Moon. Off with their heads, say I.
Marcus bought a second Television 12″ single shortly afterwards. This one was on green vinyl. Not only were singles getting bigger, but they were suddenly coming at us in all the colours of the rainbow too. I stared at that big green record spinning with wide-eyed pleasure, and that was before the music even started. This time we got Venus on one side and Prove It on the other. Neither track was as epic in length as Marquee Moon, but both maintained the same high standards of words, music, and band interplay. Again the words were opaque and full of hipster lingo, but I soon cottoned onto one very smart bit of wordplay. Tom sang the line “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo”. Venus was the goddess of love, so Tom was singing about falling in love. But the Venus de Milo famously has no arms. So Tom fell in love with no safety net, with nobody to catch him. He fell into a void. I was so struck by that when I eventually worked it out. That’s clever lyric writing.
Marcus liked those records but he could tell that they were getting under my skin even more than his. He suggested I got the Marquee Moon album. I duly found it in a shop in Wigan. It only had eight songs on it, and we already had three of them. I hesitated for weeks because of this (things like that used to bother me a lot in those days), but thankfully I soon snapped out of it. By the time of the next holiday over at Glo’s, Christmas 1977 perhaps, I had a copy of the LP. As I sat there getting to know songs like See No Evil, Friction and Elevation for the first time, I pored over the lyric sheet. I hadn’t got a clue what most of this stuff meant. I still don’t, truth be told, but it sure sounded intelligent and mysterious. The words suit the black album sleeve – there’s a lot of ‘film noir’ in there. A real feel of New York’s urban landscape too. I remember Mum being intrigued by the words too, but she was very sniffy about Verlaine rendering the word “because” as “cuz”. Fair enough.
About six months later, I leant my copy of the album out to Andy. Andy was the joint-best fighter in my school year.** He was also into punk. I didn’t like lending records out and everyone told me it’d be a mistake and that he’d not look after it, but he was the joint-best fighter in my year and he wanted to borrow my album. I lent it to him. And he promised to treat it with special care. He returned it several weeks later and it looked like he’d eaten his dinner off it. Ah well. Even worse, he hadn’t even liked it. It didn’t sound like punk rock to his ears.
I suppose Television are one of the least punky punk bands I’ve ever heard. They could all play their instruments really well. They played long songs. They took solos. They sometimes even get called “The Grateful Dead of punk”. But unlike most of the old-school guitar bands, they kept their sound pared down. Billy’s drums had a natural room ambience on their records rather than a big stadium wallop. Tom’s guitar never went through an effects pedal. His voice was certainly an acquired taste, like many punk voices were. They were contemporaries of The Ramones and Patti Smith – Verlaine and Smith even dated for a while. Richard Hell, the first man to sport the spikey haircut and the ripped clothes which would soon become punk’s ubiquitous uniform, was their original bass player. So they certainly had the right credentials, even if their music sounded utterly different from anyone else on the scene.
All of this highlights the main error which most people made regarding punk back in 1977 (and they did the same with the American ‘hardcore’ scene a few years later). There never was a generic punk rock sound. Punk was a movement that prioritised self-expression for anyone who wanted to get up and do it. You made your own sound or painted your own picture. Anybody who wanted their punk rock homogenised was looking at life with blinkers on, and the more that punk bands tried to sound like punk bands, the more tedious the music became.
Marquee Moon contained two tracks that departed from their signature sound. Guiding Light and Torn Curtain were slower than the other songs, almost what you might call ballads. They also had more texture, thanks to Verlaine adding piano. At first I didn’t care much for these songs, but Guiding Light in particular has gone on to become one of my favourites. This was a style that Television would explore to a greater extent on their second album Adventure. Adventure has taken a lot of stick over the years, mostly, it would seem, for not being Marquee Moon. I would agree that it’s not the five-star classic that the debut album is, but I’ve always found the critical opinion on Adventure to be horribly out of kilter. My only real reservation about the record is that the band sounds less lively, less in-the-room. I suspect that much of this is down to Billy Ficca playing more straightforward drumming. It sounds like he’s been told to hold back. Maybe Verlaine was listening to the people who found Ficca too busy. But there are some truly first-rate songs on Adventure, and you also get to hear the band widen their musical horizons. I play both records a lot and I suspect I may actually listen to Adventure more often. In short, if you’ve never heard it because you were put off by the reviews, then for God’s sake dive in.
Most people continue to celebrate Television because of the guitar playing. In Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd they had not one, but two guitar gods. It’s not just about those solos either – even during a song’s verses the two guitars are always doing something interesting. They really thought about what they were playing. If you listen to a Television track you’ll hear that nobody is being lazy or just strumming – nobody is a makeweight. Everybody’s parts are clearly defined. The arrangements are so watertight. My oldest friend Ed had such a Road to Damascus experience when he heard Marquee Moon that he would forever play Fender guitars through Fender amps, and he eschewed effects pedals for life. If one album can become a musician’s blueprint in that way then it must be something special. One thing’s for sure – nobody worries about whether Marquee Moon is or isn’t a punk rock record anymore.
* On subsequent CD versions of the Marquee Moon album, the title track runs for 10’38” and is complete. On the original vinyl LP, and also on the 12″ single, the track fades out at 9’58”. It’s nice to be able to hear the complete recording, but you do miss out on that sense of a song without ending.
** I was lucky enough to also be on good terms with Mike, the other joint-best fighter in our year. Mike was a Stranglers fan. Both Andy and Mike were very sweet natured unless someone was looking for trouble. These weren’t your average hardknocks. They were appointed joint-best fighters because others had insisted that the two have a punch-up to settle who was hardest. Neither of them had their hearts in it and a draw was declared.
N.B. Marquee Moon is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with bonus tracks, including the band’s legendary debut single, Little Johnny Jewel.
My other nominations for 1977 albums of merit:
Culture / Two Sevens Clash
The Stranglers / Rattus Norvegicus
Ian Dury / New Boots And Panties!!
Elvis Costello / My Aim Is True
Roy Harper / Bullinamingvase
Fleetwood Mac / Rumours
Pink Floyd / Animals