Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marquee Moon

Television’s Marquee Moon is #38 on that Rolling Stone list from 1987. I didn’t hear this record until my sophomore year of college, after I started working at WCBN, hosting the stereotypical 3-6 a.m. slot one night every two weeks and spending those three hours running back and forth between the broadcast studio and an old production studio so that I could not only get music out over the air, but also dub four albums every shift. One of the first tasks I gave myself was to track down as many of those 1987 top 100 albums as I could. Marquee Moon was one of those.

And I loved it. The vinyl that I taped it from was a little beat up, and the whole thing just barely fit on one side of a tape, but I loved that thing. It was one of my go-to tapes that winter and I have clear memories of walking to my logic class listening to it and taking an extra lap around a hallway so that I could hear those last few desperate notes of “Prove It” before I sat down to an hour of Venn Diagrams.

And God, it’s still good. The tape has been replaced by two different CD issues, but the thing is still magic. It still crackles with this intensity, this tension, this electricity that’s unmatched, for me, by anything else from that mid-1970s New York punk scene. It’s not just the twin guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, either (though they are justly lionized). It’s the skittering drums, always solid, but rarely predictable. It’s Fred Smith’s bass weaving its own melodies around the guitars. It’s the songs themselves, with their interlocking riffs and the bizarre couplets that emerge from Verlaine’s pen, like

My eyes are like telescopes
I see it all backwards, but who needs hope?

Yet it’s the guitars you remember. Lloyd’s more traditional solos and Verlaine’s unexpected jumps and leaps, the flashes of Neil Young rumblestorms and the moments of Richard Thompson fury, the psychedelic raveups and the third-eye explorations. It’s the neurotic, tense quality of Verlaine’s solo on “Friction.” It’s the way the notes of “Prove It” seem choked off, emerging from whatever the guitar equivalent of clenched teeth is. It’s the way the riffs of “Venus de Milo” run around the lyrics with what seems like complete abandon. It’s hearing Lloyd’s solo in “See No Evil” and comparing it to Verlaine’s in “Friction” and wondering just how much of the band’s greatness was driven by fundamental tension between their differing approaches to the guitar.

The only song I’m impatient with now is “Guiding Light,” which, in the context of so much that seems otherworldly, that taps this anxious, desperate nerve so effectively, comes across as predictable, as pat, as out of place. It feels like a song that anyone could have done, whereas the rest of the album is almost dauntingly singular. I remember really liking it in college, appreciating its relative calm, its chiming arpeggios, even Lloyd’s melodic solo, but now I just feel like it drags, and I find myself impatient to get to the glorious barbed wire solo of “Prove It.”

And last thing: this is Television’s debut. The debut. The first record. How many other groups can claim such a debut? How many other first albums are this strong? Big Pink, maybe? Freak Out? Appetite for Destruction? Please Please Me? Slanted and Enchanted?

I don’t know that I’d move it any higher than #38, but I have absolutely no problem with this making the list.

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