I became quite obsessed with Marquee Moon on second listen. It wasn’t just that it had eight instantly memorable songs (out of eight). I don’t think it was because of the tremendously hooky riffs, or the artistic improvisatory guitar solos. Neither was it down to the spacy (in a really good way) lyrics. Nor the fantastic musicianship (both the guitarists – Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd – are technically superb, and the rhythm section is wonderfully sympathetic). Nor even Verlaine’s distinctive yowling vocals (‘strangled’ seems to be the adjective of choice among critics).

What made Marquee Moon really special to me was the classical piano training and jazz tastes of Verlaine, who wrote all the songs: the album displays classical influence throughout, albeit emphatically not in the orchestral/symphonic sense employed in The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle [sic], for example. Verlaine has said that the idea behind the intertwining lead and rhythm guitar parts was to mimic the right and left hands of a pianist. Then there are the Baroque-ish, arpeggio-like phrases and grace notes in ‘Venus’, and the descending chromatic scale employed in the riffs of ‘Friction’. The most exquisite instance of classical device is, however, in the title track: it seems to end after a long, instrumental section that builds, and builds, and finally climaxes in a gorgeous flurry of guitar peals at a tinglingly high pitch… but doesn’t end, and in fact goes da capo!

All this may sound a tad cerebral. But, for all this classical stuff, the energy that pervades the whole album is wholly rock and roll. The pace isn’t manic, even though Television are sometimes categorised as art-punk, that is, a more arty variant of the punk played by the other bands in the New York scene at the time (1977). It’s more like… contained intensity. I can’t help but marvel at the title track’s – all 10 minutes and 40 seconds of it – conciseness. ‘Marquee Moon’ is tightly structured, and even Verlaine’s improvisatory solo can be followed note-for-note in the way a really great piece of classical music, or jazz, holds your complete attention. This is improvisation that really, actually, goes somewhere with its musical ideas, and furthermore is free of the usual clichés of rock improvisation, perhaps because of Verlaine’s unusual influences, and the fact that he was self-taught. (To be sure, Lloyd’s solos are really good, but Verlaine’s are simply out of this world in terms of rhythmic and melodic inventiveness, I think.) So, the music is intellectual. But it is also visceral, perhaps because of the abundance of electric guitar – out of which Verlaine and Lloyd manage to extract a whole range of timbres and tones – and the humour.

Of course, the humour is most evident in the lyrics. They’re just too cute: whimsical, goofy, romantic, poetic, and, at times, completely droll. As in ‘Venus’:

And Richie

Richie said:

‘Hey man let’s dress up like cops, think of what we could do’

Something… something

It said:

‘You’d better not’

And there’s the call-and-response format of the chorus – not to mention its delightful last line – from the same song.

And I fell…

Didja feel low?

Not at all.

Huh?!

I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo.

And then there is the afore-mentioned spaciness of Verlaine’s musical persona, aptly demonstrated and described by this line in Prove It’:

It’s too ‘too too’

To put a finger on.

But sometimes the humour is in the delivery. Christgau describes Verlaine’s vocals as ‘laconic yet extravagant’, which are somehow in keeping with the latter’s musical persona. Verlaine yelps ‘Prove it!/Just the facts!’ just before dropping to the proverbial conspiratorial whisper for ‘Confidential’, and at the very end he intones solemnly: ‘This case is closed.’ And even the presentation of the lyrics in the album insert is amusing, what with the capitalisations (for emphasis) and colloquialisms.

Marquee Moon was Television’s debut album. I’ll be honest. At this point, I have not yet listened fully to the follow-up, Adventure, which Verlaine and gang managed to crank out before they disbanded. But judging from the debut alone, it’s difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that Verlaine is some kind of eccentric genius. He is certainly a very musical and literary man (he was born Tom Miller and took his stage-name from the French poet), and comes across that way in interviews, too. What’s more, he looks like the dreamy sort. Not in the sense of being very good-looking, though I think he’s attractive (how much of his supposed attractiveness being a function of my liking his musical abilities, I don’t know). Dreamy as in… slightly detached from the real world, or at least from its practicalities and prosiness.

The consensus seems to be that Adventure and the subsequent string of solo albums released by Verlaine, as well as the eponymous reunion album of Television, are pretty good. Are, not were, because Verlaine’s still going. However, they’re not a patch on Marquee Moon. (The evidence of my own ears, too, tells me this – I have heard almost all of Verlaine’s solo work.) Well, it’s not too surprising: Marquee Moon is so wondrous that it would be nigh impossible to top it, or even to match it. And yet it’s something of a pity too.

Advertisements