How Television's 'flop' Marquee Moon became the most influential album in alternative rock
It didn’t take Television long to record their 1977 masterpiece, Marquee Moon. Led by mercurial songwriter Tom Verlaine, who has died at the age of 73, the project was done and dusted in just six weeks. But its influence would span the decades and transcend the Manhattan punk scene – centred around the CBGBs music venue – from which Television emerged.
Echoes of Marquee Moon’s jangling intensity can be heard in everyone from Joy Division and The Smiths in Britain to REM, Sonic Youth and Nirvana in the US. And in underground darlings such as The Clean, Yo La Tengo and The Raincoats. Later, The Strokes and Interpol would take up the mantle of Verlaine’s Lower East Side insouciance – a potent mix of leather jackets, gleaming cheekbones and world-weary cool. By then, Marquee Moon had quietly become one of the most influential rock documents of all time.
Verlaine’s death has prompted a fresh outpouring of praise for the album. “He was the best rock and roll guitarist of all time, and like Hendrix could dance from the spheres of the cosmos to garage rock. That takes a special greatness,” tweeted Mike Scott of the Waterboys. “Name 10 minutes of music as good as Marquee Moon. You can’t. It’s perfect,” added Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, the Glasgow collective whose apocalyptic garage rock is steeped in the DNA of Television.
As Scott says, Verlaine’s guitar playing was superlative. But it was also subversive. In the mid-Seventies, guitarists were expected to strut and swagger. While punk was a coming force, this was still rock’s primordial era, ruled by swaggering beasts such as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
Television was the anti-Led Zeppelin. If Verlaine’s playing was molten it was also illuminated by an underdog spirit. Verlaine and the ensemble’s second guitarist Richard Lloyd (a former sex worker and bookstore clerk) were a product of Manhattan’s artistic fringes and they were determined to remain outsiders.
Marquee Moon’s co-producer and sound engineer Andy Johns received a stark lesson about where Verlaine and Lloyd were coming from when he arrived for the first day of recording at A&R Studios in Manhattan in September 1976. Johns’s background was in stadium rock: he had previously worked with Rod Stewart, Free and the aforementioned Zeppelin.
He didn’t appreciate that Television were on a different frequency. In preparation for the sessions, Johns had set up the drum kit in a standard rock configuration: a manner befitting Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Verlaine was appalled. He insisted Johns take down the drums and reconfigure them as something more minimalist. Marquee Moon was not going to be a vehicle for showboating.
Johns was struck, too, by Verlaine and Lloyd’s work ethic. Where he came from, musicians sat around getting high and living out whatever rock n’ roll fantasy they fancied at that particular moment. On Marquee Moon, however, Verlaine and Lloyd brought blue-collar diligence. They turned up early and toiled throughout the day. Television also resisted any attempt to embellish their taut and meticulously constructed songs.
“The Doors (debut) record was done in three days,” Richard Lloyd told online magazine Consequence in 2017. “Jazz records were recorded in the time it takes to play them. The thing about spending a year and a half on a record is more often than not, it’ll come out sounding like overdone pasta. The time did go into it, but it was before we went into the studio.”
Television were the opposite of overdone.“I understand all,” intoned Verlaine on the stark opener See No Evil. “I see no Destructive urges.” He delivers the line with the fervour of a slam poet, his and Lloyd’s guitars orbiting one another briskly.
That sensibility ripples through the record: Friction starts with a spiralling solo which gives way to a spare riff as Verlaine delivers a snarling lead vocal. The 10-minute title track meanwhile opens with a three-chord jangle that created the blueprint for alternative rock for decades to follow. You can still hear it in contemporary groups such as Yard Act and The 1975.
Marquee Moon was immediately acclaimed. Rolling Stone singled out its “arid, despairing sensibility, musically rendered by loud, stark repetitive guitar riffs”. Decades later, Pitchfork heralded its sound as “clean, raw and simple”.
There was, however, nothing simple about Verlaine. He was born Thomas Miller in 1949 and grew up in Danville, New Jersey, 35 miles west of Manhattan. He studied piano and saxophone as a child but became obsessed with guitar upon hearing The Rolling Stones’s 19th Nervous Breakdown as a teenager.
He moved to New York in the early 1970s, taking the stage name “Verlaine” in honour of the French poet Paul Verlaine. With his first outfit Neon Boys and then Television he became a fixture on the downtown scene. He dated the first lady of punk poetry, Patti Smith, and, as a regular at CBGBs, rubbed shoulders with Blondie and Talking Heads.
Television also came to the attention of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. Shortly before laying down Marquee Moon, the band confronted Reed when he turned up at one of their gigs with a tape recorder.
“We asked him to show us the tape and recorder and lo and behold it had tape and batteries in it, all ready to record. We said, “Lou, we’re sorry, we don’t allow taping”,” Lloyd told sport and pop culture website The Ringer. “We will give you back the tape recorder at the end of the night.’”
The implication was that Reed was trying to seek inspiration from the arriving force in New York punk. Perhaps he saw parallels between Television and his old band, The Velvet Underground. Both groups were commercial failures whose music would shape the sound of subsequent generations.
Marquee Moon was undoubtedly a flop. It peaked at 28 in the UK charts and in the United States it slipped rapidly between the cracks. As did the 1978 follow-up Adventure. Television broke up shortly afterwards, though they would reunite on and off across the decades (a self-titled third LP followed in 1992).
Verlaine was an eccentric figure. He never could reconcile to the norms of the music industry. Not even later in his career – a point at which musicians generally mellow. I learned this first-hand when I was due to interview several years ago. Late in the day, I was told that he’d changed his mind and wanted to instead take my queries by email. I duly submitted questions only to be informed that they hadn’t struck his fancy.
Instead he came up with his own questions. He wrote about Persian and Urdu poetry and claimed to have barely heard of U2, The Strokes or Franz Ferdinand (“Should I download them all right now?” he asked).
But he also talked about how Marquee Moon was the sound of a band determined to forge its own path. “We aren't a “blues-based” band,” he wrote. “We weren't bashing a lot of big chords throughout every song. A lot of it was maybe sort of intricate though, in a minimal style. Sort of like piano or violin.”
The alternative community has been vocal in their praise of Verlaine following his death. It’s a reminder that Television deserve to have their names up in lights. Verlaine may have gone, but the sun is a long way from setting on Marquee Moon.