Television undeniably exerted a significant influence over the evolution of punk rock, but upon hearing their music for the first time, the neophyte would most likely question how.
Television may have had a like-minded attitude and a similar snarl but their sound was complex and polished, their songs often lengthy with unexpected turns, their lyrics inspired by French poetry and their stage presence somewhat detached.
Johnny Rotten thought their long guitar solos were rubbish and after touring with Verlaine and crew, The Damned wrote the scathing “Idiot Box” (“Tom Verlaine you may be art, but you sure ain’t rock ‘n’ roll,”). Needless to say, they did not endear themselves to the British scene’s kingpins.
Their position had more to do with time and place rather than musically fitting in to the punks’ somewhat limited musical expectations. They were the forefathers of the CBGB’s scene, secured the club’s first residency and allegedly helped build the stage, but their refusal to mould themselves into the defining musical cast relegated them to cult status.
Despite Television’s early prominence on the scene, the major labels quickly snapped up other bands that followed in their wake, such as The Patti Smith Group and Blondie. Television responded by releasing a single on their friend Terry Ork’s independent record label, “Little Johnny Jewel”, a seven-minute opus spread over two sides of a 7-inch that had more in common with Can’s “Tago Mago” than The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”.
Over the course of a few years, Television cultivated their distinct musical blend and once they signed to Elektra, released the culmination of their efforts, the magnificent debut album, “Marquee Moon”. You could hear their early influences such as the psychedelic leanings of Love and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the experimentation of The Velvet Underground. But this was elegantly melded with the musical virtuosity of the more restrained prog rockers like King Crimson, the minimalism of Steve Reich and the freedom of expression of jazz artists like Albert Ayler.
The ten-minute title track is the finest example of their sophisticated brew. “Marquee Moon” opens with the complimentary contrast of the two guitarists as the rhythmic chords of Verlaine interplay with Richard Lloyd’s circling riffs (a sound later used as a springboard by The Edge and The Pixies). Then enter Billy Ficca’s drums and Fred Smith’s bass together forming a crisp rhythm section underpinning the song with a stark angular funk that predates 99 Records’ ESG.
Then Verlaine’s voice breaks through with a yelp that stylistically resembles his professional and one-time romantic cohort Patti Smith. Lloyd takes a brief guitar bow but it is Verlaine’s own solo that dominates half of the song and leaves one marvelling whether he will ever come back down to earth. He does and lands beautifully.
Although the album’s sound may have been ahead of its time, “Marquee Moon” has a timeless quality. Television’s musical refinement may appeal more to the adult taste and that may be the reason I discovered them later in life rather than in my teenage years. However, in my ears, the slow release of their musical intricacies has more staying power than the immediate and obvious explosiveness characteristic of their more punk contemporaries. Each time I listen to Television’s debut album, I am delighted by discovering a lyrical turn of phrase or filled with wonder as a guitar solo scales soaring heights. With each listen, “Marquee Moon” reveals something new.
Date: London 2nd March
Time: 5 – 8pm
Address: The Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, London N1 7DU
Ticket information: £8 on the door and £8 + service charge here
If you can’t make this event, grab a decent copy, turn the lights off and listen in full at home.