Review Summary: "Hearing...something else..."
It is exceptionally difficult to comfortably settle on a rating for 'Marquee Moon' simply because, as with Sonic Youth's 'Daydream Nation', one of the many artists inspired by Television's alt-rock guitar heroics, it defies easy categorisation.
An album released in 1977 'should' be in one of two polarised camps: classical prog rock or raw punk rock. Somehow, Television take a little of both whilst being indebted to neither - their heads are in the surreal stratospheres of artistic, poetic, 'serious' rock yet their feet are firmly in the neon-lit, nightcity grime that punk crawled out of. Their stunning musical ability and very real, clear intensity makes them existential extraterrestrialists. "Elevation, don't go to my head", Verlaine croons, and indeed that balance between the real world and a liberating void is what makes each song here start from the ground and take off until it sounds like it's floating.
Each song gives the listener an embarrassment of tiny guitar riches: during the bridge, during the gloriously endless solos, during the intros, even during the choruses, when the focus should - that word again - be on the song's lyrical message, the twin Fenders of Verlaine and Lloyd interplay for dazzling trickery. Suffice to say, 'Marquee Moon' is one of the very few albums that could make a serious claim that it does not waste a note, but there are also moments when the guitar work pushes songs - by which I mean Prove It
- onto planes that the lyrics themselves don't even seem to consider existing in. Which is not, of course, to say that the guitar work carries tossed-off lyrics. Often, the understated surrealism weaves around the Fender's lean tangle to - again - slide perfectly in between prog and punk. Take the album's second track Venus
for example; the narrator's perception of a night-lit city is elegantly bent by drugs, creating an interpretation that is simultaneously clever, lurid and poetic, and even a little bit ironic:
It was a tight tour night, streets so bright.
The world was so thin and between my bones and skin.
There stood another person
Who was a little surprised
To be face to face with a world so alive.
How I fell...
I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo.
And how about My eyes are like telescopes - I see it all backwards, but who wants hope?
?. Surreal, slinky, transcendent and coolly dismissive. What more could you want out of a rhyming couplet?
The solos are as spectacular and transcendent as that of Pink Floyd's, yet they are unadorned by effects and production, instead favouring crisp tone and naked virtuosity. Television's discipline in this sense is remarkable: they buck both common trends of the day and essentially start from scratch. The two guitars, bass and drums line-up had rarely been taken to such weird realms in 1977 without considerable production behind it (Hendrix, Beatles, Floyd, Cream,et al
), but the Fender sound on 'Marquee Moon' is as dry and crisp as a 1950s rock 'n roll record: it's up to Billy Ficca's sparse grooves, Fred Smith's undulating bass and the wiry, frictitious tones of Verlaine and Lloyd to construct a cathedral out of match sticks. The stratospheric poetry of the album is therefore nothing short of spectacular. Astonishingly, they hardly even mess with their mid-tempo formula until the gloriously morose closer Torn Curtain
. There's hardly a trick in the music-as-drama-as-art book that Television determinedly avoid, seemingly in the attempt to see if their own brains and proficiency can make a great album. Oh yeah...and it's their debut. Nice job, lads.
'Marquee Moon' is truly like, as Verlaine himself says on the title track, "hearing something else."