Anxiety, contradiction, nostalgia and emptiness might not seem very punk rock. Punk Rock though is all about the sublime. It’s rarely pretty or elegant and relies on intensity and stress to communicate with an audience. Punk is a reactionary kind of music and defining it precisely is problematic because, often, its identity has more to do with what it isn’t than what it is. Noise, simplicity and chaos conjure sublime feelings, but the unknown, darkness and obscurity can do just as good a job in skilled hands. A looming sense of weight or presence, a sense of connection or attachment that doesn’t quite make sense is more subtle but just as thrilling. Television’s first album, Marquee Moon, plays on the strange and arcane to make a piece of art that is defined by the punk rock era in which it was created, but lives as a pink elephant in a stable of giraffes.
Marquee Moon was and is a critics darling; it remains one of the best reviewed releases to come out of the NY punk scene in the days of CGBG. From the buying public on the other hand, it was met largely with indifference and the commercial failure of the record was a significant factor in the band’s subsequent fragmentation.
Television was born out of the burgeoning NYC punk scene which nurtured acts like Blondie and Iggy & the Stooges. The scene was composed at the time of a patchwork of accomplished art-rockers seeking new territory and amateur musicians trying to make popstars of themselves. Some of them very intentionally went about subverting music with knowledge and skill at their disposal, while others eschewed any kind of formal approach and simply threw themselves at the task of making music.
Television kind of straddled these two philosophies of how punk is made. Originally a collaboration between Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, Television’s early music was torn between Hell’s rambunctious performance-oriented style and Verlaine’s methodical, composition-focused approach to making something pop. Both were lovers of idiosyncrasy and as they worked together they moved in increasingly different directions. Hell rejected focused learning and practice, while Verlaine put his efforts into creating a unique method of teaching himself to play, and by extension, a unique way of playing.
Eventually the two split and the name Television went with Verlaine who recruited Richard Lloyd to replace Hell. Lloyd was a more traditional musician and suited Verlaine’s interest in thoughtful music writing and tight, rehearsed musicianship. Lloyd was a dedicated guitar player and devoted his time and energy to the craft of making music. By this point Television had scored a record deal, so Verlaine and Lloyd reworked some existing material, wrote some new songs and rehearsed like crazy in anticipation of laying down an album.
When Marquee Moon came out the literati embraced it, but audiences seemed not to care and Television didn’t tour it aggressively or exhaust themselves promoting it. Looking at the narrative around the album in retrospect it almost seems like the band understood the album in a way similar to the critics and believed they would be famous off the back of it. When they weren’t, it was a blow to their ability to work and play together. The only place it did really well was in the UK and it must have been a little weird to take a swing, connect and then realize almost no one was looking.
Television did go on to do a UK tour, but they were falling out of the scene and starting to fall out with each other. Supporting Blondie on their first UK trip they seem to have almost gone out of their way to separate themselves, believing they were a different kind of band than the ones they came up around. Marquee Moon was a record where Television worked hard to make a space for themselves apart from anyone else so it seems natural that the band would keep heading in that direction. The band members and the music pushed the boat out further and further until they wound up all alone and fell apart.
The front man and author of the album’s lyrics, born Thomas Miller, grew up fast and lifted a new name from French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. This act was a bunch of things, but primarily it was a way to create some distance from his roots and make an homage to Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman). Paul Verlaine lived a troubled, often isolated, impulsive and antisocial life. On some level the poet did this in service to his art. Equally though, in reading accounts of his life, it seems like his art was shaped and maybe even damaged by his inability or unwillingness to live a normal life. He became a sort of romantic figure for the life he lived and the work he created as part of the Symbolist movement.
Tom takes on Paul’s rejection of his contemporaries, respect for form and craft, and willingness to get wholeheartedly lost in search of something important. It’s kind of pretentious and a little bit daring and sometimes it works. Everyone wants to feel like they’re doing something important and the two Verlaines lean into that self-aggrandizing and self-important desire and pretty much manage to make that work, if sometimes at a personal or professional cost.
Tom takes pages from his adopted namesake throughout Marquee Moon in the content and style of his lyrics. Ambiguity, metaphor, reference and even punnery lend a consistently and intentionally troubled and unclear tone to the music. Marquee Moon embodies a kind of intentionally alienated urgency and disconnected, fragmentary appeal to universal truth that serves as a counterpoint to the unbridled hedonism and reckless abandon that drive a lot of punk rock music, especially at the time.
All of this stuff winds up in the songs. Verlaine and Lloyd play off one another extremely well but there are inconsistencies and contrasts in their playing that betray how different their musical backgrounds are and how new their relationship is. The meticulous practice regimen means each song is conscientiously worked out in almost painstaking detail and it can be difficult to separate improvisation from written sections, especially because many of the written parts are noticeably unconventional. There’s also an excited anxiety and loneliness that colors the whole thing, possibly as a result of the circumstances the album was made under.
This is an album about truth, never directly addressed but talked around in circles and adorned with a rich, interlocking, rehearsed rock and roll foundation. The guitars do most of the work on the record, supporting the lyrics and building on the base provided by the rhythm section. At times its abrasive but a strong melodic sensibility and a thoughtful rhythmic construction make the jagged riffs and lines that Verlaine and Lloyd play fit with the structure of the record.
The thing overall sometimes feels like a vehicle for something else, sometimes its the words and sometimes the long, jammed out “dual guitar solo” sections and sometimes a thing seems very apart from the actual performance. It’s full of references to lower Manhattan–where much of the inspiration, writing, and recording of the album took place–side by side with nautical symbols, theatrical imagery and surreal, semi-narrative anecdotes.
The overwhelming impression these qualities give the record is ambivalence, darkness and tension. It successfully recalls the colors and motion of a city in rain seen through slightly drunk or otherwise affected eyes. The title song is something of a manifesto for this mood, contrasting precise guitar parts with a wandering and uncertain story about driving around in the rain at night. The lyrics rely heavily on a combination of nearly Springsteen-esqe American suburban/townie folk images (racetrack, Cadillac etc.) and much older more universal symbols like lighting, darkness and the sound of rain.
The events detailed in the song have a kind of surrealist structure that point outside the story at something inexpressible and so never really mentioned. The narrator is “listening to the rain” but hearing “something else,” and constantly returns to a place of “waiting” or “hesitating.” It’s a little like Samuel Beckett meets the French connection in weird way. In turns the idea of waiting comes with shades of menace, hope and melancholy.
“See No Evil,” “Venus” and “Friction” open the record on a nearly mainstream punk note. These up-tempo tunes are deceptively simple sounding, but evolve into more layered and dense compositions. “Venus” in particular has some of the best guitar harmonies on the record and sounds almost like a 60’s rock song while “See No Evil” and “Friction” betray the intensity and confrontational attitude of the scene the record came from.
“Marquee Moon” comes on next and is the axis on which the record starts to turn into its more sedate second half consisting of “Elevation,” “Guiding Light,” “Prove It” and “Torn Curtain.” “Guiding Light” is the slowest-feeling track and is kind of the nadir of energy in the track list. It’s almost a balladic compliment to “Venus.” “Elevation” and “Prove It” are also a little easier on the tempo but have a similar kind of harmonic tension in them that jibes with “See No Evil” and “Friction.”
Everything comes to an end with “Torn Curtain.” The end of the record has a savage color that flows well out of “Prove It.” It feels like an actual curtain call that reiterates a lot of the musical and lyrical contradictions in the body of the record. It also shifts the focus of the imagery squarely into the abstract and inscrutable. The denouement of a trend that starts somewhere in Elevation where the lyrical complexity ramps up near the end of the album before demurring. “Torn Curtain” returns to a very repetitive lyrical structure referencing water, time and stage dressing.
From beginning to end the record establishes intentionally confusing comparisons and parallels, and then dissolves them into structured themes, musical or lyrical, that force the erosion of and meditation on the tenuis strings that hold each little piece of story or musical interplay together. At the end, the entire thing dissolves into crying guitars and wailing appeals to the past that fade into nothing like tears in rain.