Rarely, if ever, has a rock band so thoroughly and undeniably established themselves as one of the greatest of all time with a single release the way Television did with their first album, 1977’s Marquee Moon. Their studio debut was a long time coming, as the band, together since 1973, had begun receiving offers from record labels as early as 1974. However, it was more than worth the wait, as Marquee Moon turned out to be a musically innovative, technically impressive, and emotionally and intellectually gratifying piece of work, one that forever cemented Television’s revered place in classic rock history.
Much of the album’s power lay in the fact that it valued quality over quantity in terms of individual songs. It was clear that the band would rather spend as much time as they could perfecting one long-running and melodically intricate composition than they would churning out more radio-friendly and traditional two- to four-minute-long tunes. Thus, Marquee Moon contained only eight tracks, the majority of which ran over five minutes long and were astoundingly recorded in just one take. This demonstrated their status as a particularly proficient, accomplished, and coordinated group, the members’ skills honed as they were from years of playing live together, in addition to rehearsing four to six hours a day six days to seven days a week in preparation for the recording of their debut studio release.
Since the very beginning of Television’s career, frontman Tom Verlaine had always known exactly what kind of sound he wanted the band to have; so much so, in fact, that he held out on signing a record contract until he could find a label that would let him produce the band’s debut album himself. Elektra Records took them on in August of 1976, honoring Verlaine’s request under the condition that he work alongside a more experienced recording engineer: Andy Johns, best known for his work on the 1973 Rolling Stones album Goats Head Soup.
Before signing with Elektra, Television’s technical proficiency and wide-ranging musical capability had long set them apart from their peers amongst the original line-up at iconic New York City concert venue, CBGB’s. Many of these early punk bands, such as Blondie and the Ramones, tended to base their songs around a few specific power chords, but Television elevated the genre by incorporating complex, jazz-inspired guitar and melodic interplays in their work, the likes of which had not been heard before in popular rock.“See No Evil”, Marquee Moon’s first track, is an intensely satisfying pop creation. Between its irresistible, circular, central guitar riff, Verlaine’s passionate vocal delivery, and its tight yet free-wheeling style, this was a song that above all showed confidence. This band knew who they were, even if most of the rest of the world didn’t yet. By starting the album with this track, they proved first and foremost that they knew how to craft an all-around great rock song.
The album’s next track, “Venus”, introduced the band’s more poetic side, featuring lyrics like, “The world was so thin between my bones and my skin.” Heartrendingly beautiful guitars and an upbeat yet deeply felt melody made for an unforgettable track. If the album’s first song was designed to hook the listener, this one was meant to ensure they kept listening.
These first two tracks were the shortest on the album, chosen as an introduction to Television’s signature style. The third track, “Friction”, plunged the listener deeper into their world with intense, edgy, interlocking melodies and distinct guitar tones. The song embodied friction itself, with its high-pitched guitar squeals on every downbeat as Verlaine sneered through the verses.
The album’s title track, “Marquee Moon”, a live Television staple for years, was nothing less than transcendent, and served as the centerpiece of the record. “Marquee Moon” was arguably the band’s best and most seminal song. It served as an excellent example of the band’s trademark use of intricate musical layers and counter-melodies. Though it ran over ten minutes long, it never flagged due to its intensely listenable central musical theme. Verlaine’s and guitarist Richard Lloyd’s instruments wove around each other to create a musical whole greater than the sum of its parts. Amazingly, the pure sound of this song was achieved in just one take, which Andy Johns originally thought was a rehearsal.
“Elevation” and “Guiding Light”, the following two tracks, were both lofty and glorious-sounding. “Elevation” featured revolutionary guitar work, while “Guiding Light” was especially notable for its complex bass line and slower tempo. The next track, “Prove It”, sounded more traditionally punk-y than any other song on Marquee Moon, especially with Verlaine’s defiant spoken word phrase “This case is closed!” after the music ended.
The album closed on an epic note with “Torn Curtain”, a seven-minute-long song that led in with a drum roll before launching into a blues-y, almost Led Zeppelin-esque piece. With lyrics like, “I’m uncertain where beauty meets abuse/Torn curtain, love’s all ridicule”, the mournful and poetic beauty of this song wrapped around the listener like a diaphanous shawl. A lovely, lilting piano line accompanied the refrain of the word “tears” over the end of the song, indicating a double-meaning: tears in the eyes and tears in the fabric, or curtain, of reality that could just be glimpsed, yet never completely grasped.
Marquee Moon was one of the most seminal and important albums of the 1970s, and of popular music in general. Verlaine himself put it best when he said, in response to the overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim that the album received, “There was a certain magic happening, an inexplicable certainty of something…if you cast a spell, you don’t get flummoxed by the results of your spell.” There was indeed a special kind of magic captured on Marquee Moon. With it, Television cast their spell over the entire rock music world where it enchants to this day, echoed in the alternative, New Wave, and indie rock genres that their work directly inspired. The album that British music reviewer Vivien Goldman called at the time “an obvious, unabashed, instant classic” has proved to be as enduring and important a record as she proclaimed.