Wizards Dressed as Punks

March 3, 2022
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Television sprung from the mid-70s CBGB scene with contemporaries such as Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, Suicide and The Dead Boys. Even in this varied company, Television proved an outlier. When their audaciously ambitious debut album, Marquee Moon was released in 1977, their otherness was accentuated further. Impossible to define, Marquee Moon was defiantly out of step with the times. Reductively lumped in with the punk/new wave movements of the time, Television simply refused to fit in anywhere. Marquee Moon provided a step out of time. Quite simply, it redefined the parameters of what could be achieved in the field of guitar rock.

I was seven years old when I first encountered Television. My dad brought the album home one night. There was something deeply unsettling about the whole thing. Scary spectral figures on the cover and eerie mystical sounds radiating from the stereo. The alterity of Marquee Moon had me transfixed long before I could fathom it. In a musical landscape from shock-troop, three-chord-thrash punks to the mega-selling soon to be dinosaurs of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, Television’s impenetrable meanderings came from a different place. You didn’t get this with Abba.

Coming in the wake of prog rock excess, musical virtuosity was positively frowned upon, conjuring up visions of blokes in wizard capes and twenty-minute drum solos. Yet in Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television possessed two guitar virtuosos whose intricate Mustang patterns meshed in and out of one another, becoming indistinguishable. The liminal nature of their guitar duals confused and confounded. Songs that could go on for almost ten minutes seemed anathema to the punk ethos, yet it was within this sphere that they were embraced, though even here Television’s disparity created a paradoxical response. Johnny Rotten loved Marquee Moon yet on seeing the band live hated every second, describing it as ‘horrible Pink Floyd music’.

Television were too good to last. Original bassist, Richard Hell had departed prior to Marquee Moon, with the time-honoured ‘musical differences’ being given as the reason. Hell went on to form the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, before later going on to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The powerful, idiosyncratic artistic visions among the remaining personnel were never going to remain compatible for all but the most fleeting of moments. By July 1978, it was all over. In a familiar tale of fractious inter-band relationships and rampant drug use, the band were unable to maintain their momentum.

There was to be a half-hearted later reformation yet momentum was lost and the lightning could never be rebottled.

Whatever the prevailing musical trends, Marquee Moon remains an album I have constantly returned to throughout my life. Forty-five years since its release, Marquee Moon remains incongruous, existing out of time and offering something new on each subsequent hearing. In the field of guitar rock, it is still to be surpassed.


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