Roundtable: Marquee Moon

Connor: For Christmas, I received a telescope, and I’ve been trying my hand at space photography with limited success. Thing is, it can take an hour to get a few decent shots, so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to listen to music. One night, I tried out Spotify’s “Classic Punk” playlist. As often happens with Spotify curated playlists, it was 1/3 juvenile dribble, 1/3 ads, and 1/3 awesome stuff. Part of that last third was the title track for Television’s Marquee Moon, which I thought was one of the best songs I’d heard in a long time.

The album isn’t perfect: the vocals can be weak at times and a couple of the songs, like “Venus” and “Torn Curtain” feel a bit underwhelming, and “Marquee Moon” overshadows the rest of the album in terms of quality and length (its one fourth of the album).That said, I think if “Marquee Moon” had been released separately, Marquee Moon would still be a great sounding album. The rhythms are snappy but not overbearing, the lyrics are wistful and clever, and the guitar-work is just rad. Then, when you add the title track back in, which seriously blows my mind every time I hear it, you’re adding great to great. I seriously love this album.

Verdict: 1/1 lightning striking itself, would listen to again.

Alright guys, I’ve had my chance. Now come dump all over this thing I love! Is it too maudlin? Are the parts incoherent? Does the album lack something you’d want or expect from a more modern record?

Gerthquake: Connor, I was extremely excited when you picked this album, as I’ve alluded to in the group Facebook message we use to run this biz. There were three big reasons for my excitement: 1) I already knew this album front to back, meaning I didn’t even need to listen to it if I didn’t want to (I did anyway.) 2) I really like this album. 3) I was profoundly surprised by your choice, and indeed surprised you’d even heard of the album, much less enjoyed it, so I felt like I learned something about you (or at least about your musical taste) just by the fact that you’d picked it.

I also really like that you came across the title track on the “Classic Punk” playlist. I just looked that playlist up, and I’m sure that among that crowd “Marquee Moon” must have stuck out like a sore thumb on a hand with no other fingers. Television are *technically* one of the founding American punk rock bands. They don’t fit the stereotypical sound of “punk” as it’s been codified through decades of bands imitating each other, though. Their punk-ness has more to do with their time and place, and the bands they played with; they didn’t write two chord songs about sniffing glue, but they did literally help build the stage at CBGB in New York, which was the main venue the first American punk bands played at. (As a sidenote, I would gladly read your explanations of which songs you consider “juvenile dribble” and which are “awesome stuff” from that playlist.)

Anyway, I’m not going to dump on this thing that you love because I also love it. I agree with the broad strokes of your assessment: “rad” is the correct word for the guitar work; Tom Verlaine’s voice is pretty annoying sometimes. Honestly I think a lot of his best moments as a vocalist are the spots where he throws in spoken interjections: the “I ain’t waitin’, uh uh” part in “Marquee Moon” right before the first guitar solo, and the spots in “Prove It” where he says “just the facts” and “this case is closed.”

I will go to bat for “Venus” and “Torn Curtain,” although I agree they’re not the best songs on the album. “Venus” is really elevated for me by its guitar solo section, which transports the whole song to a more beautiful, jazzier dimension. I also like the “did you feel low?” “Not at all” “HUH!?” call-and response vocals. “Torn Curtain” is probably my least favorite song on the album, but I think it serves its purpose, closing things out on an appropriately spooky note.

It might seem a little obvious above to say “Venus” is redeemed by its guitar solo. Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar albums ever made. Every song has a guitar solo, and every song gets kicked up a notch when the solo hits. The best song on the album is the one that has two guitar solos. The guitar solos are individually credited on the CD, but you actually don’t need those credits to suss out who’s playing what: Tom Verlaine takes the long, weird, thin guitar solos, and Richard Lloyd takes the concise ones that feel like little songs of their own–you can hear the contrast clearly on “Marquee Moon” itself, where Lloyd’s solos is this 30 second outburst, and then Verlaine’s is several minutes long and kind of goes nowhere but stills feels satisfying. Lloyd’s solos have a fatter tone because he would memorize his solos and then record two takes on top of each other; the effect is clearest on his solo on “Elevation;” Verlaine, on the other hand, was too improvisatory to doubletrack his solos. It’s not just the solos that make the album, though: Marquee Moon has endured for 40 years because the way Verlaine and Lloyd wrote little interlocking clean guitar parts was really distinctive in the musical context of the ’70s.

I would argue that Marquee Moon is also one of the greatest cool intro albums of all time. The title track may in fact have the coolest intro ever. Very few bands write even one intro on that level in their career, but Television sandwiches it between the also incredible intros of “Friction” and “Elevation,” on the same album. The intros  of “See No Evil,” “Guiding Light,” and “Prove It” are second tier but still pretty cool. “Torn Curtain’s” intro is simple but very effective at setting the mood (listen to that fucking drum roll!) The intro of “Friction” in particular is really interesting to me because I think it illustrates, musically, the way Television were distinctively of their time while also being really strange and unique among ’70s bands: The first moments of the song actually bear a really strong resemblance to the beginning of the Eagles song “Back in the Fast Lane,” which is about as ’70s as it gets, but then the beat drops, and with it comes that totally alien, menacing guitar riff (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to the song again and you will); no one else was writing stuff that sounded like that, man.

Revisiting this album has given me a slightly greater appreciation of its lyrics, which I always thought were mostly pseudo-poetic nonsense that became sort of compelling because they were sung by a really fucked-up, weird voice. And I still think that’s basically what they are, but, I don’t know, I just like that more now. I really dig the chorus of “Prove It,” where Verlaine seems to take on the role of a film noir detective pondering his line of work as a Sisyphian metaphor: “This case, this case I been workin’ on so long,” he sings, wearily. The case is life itself, man. The part in “Marquee Moon” where the Cadillac pulls out of the graveyard and then immediately pulls back into the graveyard is still stupid, though.

If you Google Marquee Moon and read about it before you listen to it, you’re going to come into it with a lot of “classic album” baggage, so as a guy who was acutely aware of its reputation (as the 129th greatest album ever made according to Rolling Stone) going into my first listen, I am excited to see what you all think of it going in with (I assume) little knowledge of that shit (unless you’re reading this before you listen to it.) It’s interesting to hear stuff that’s acclaimed and influential with beginner’s ears, and just form your own opinion on it.

Verdict: Shreds, and Verlaine wails in a literal sense, but is not, actually, a good singer from a technical standpoint.

Connor: That’s some good insight, Gerth, I didn’t know pretty much any of that. And you’re right, the guitar solos are flippin’ rad. Regarding the playlist in question, an example of what I would consider “juvenile dribble” would be “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (I deleted my link because yours contributes more to the discussion and I don’t want two). To be fair, the guitar work is actually pretty good. But the lyrics and vocal quality make me use one of my precious Spotify skips when it comes on.

Gerthquake: I mostly agree with you on that Suicidal Tendencies song, but for what it’s worth it does have a pretty great video:

 

Easy J: Hey guys, it was neat to read both of you gushing over an album you both really love. My favorite song was not the title track, which is a bad sign. Here is the deal: I can’t do the vocals, I just can’t do it. I am just not into his voice. I am really bummed about it because the instrumentation, particularly the guitar work, is really good. The 2 guitar lines often dance as well as violin lines in classical music, that’s pretty neat.The rhythm section is never intrusive and  lot of the tracks have a neat sound. Back to my favorite track, I really liked “Guiding Light” honestly mostly because the vocals seem less in the way compared to every other track on the album. I would prefer the record if it was all instrumentals, I really can’t do it, I’m sorry.

There are so many people in the world who can at least kind of sing, maybe pick one of those people to sing in a band, just sayin. 9/20  17/20 guitar work

Connor (Just passing through to remove one of the “Institutionalized” links):  I’d agree that the vocal are the least good. I don’t know if I’d prefer not having them, but that’s an interesting idea.

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