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While often considered a seminal work to emerge from the New York punk scene of the mid-to-late 1970s, the album differed from conventional punk in its textured, guitar-based instrumental interplay and extended improvisation. As a result, it is also often cited as important to the development of post-punk in the late 1970s and 1980s.
"As peculiar as it sounds," Tom Verlaine remarked, "I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I'd realise, Christ, this song is ten minutes long. With two guitar solos."
Though it was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, the album failed to garner commercial success. Marquee Moon has since been cited by numerous publications as one of the greatest albums of rock music.
By the mid 1970s, Television had become a leading act in the New York music scene and helped persuade Hilly Kristal to feature more unconventional musical groups at his club CBGB. They waited for an appropriate record deal and turned down a number of major labels, including Island Records, for whom they had recorded demos with producer Brian Eno. Eno had produced demos of the songs "Prove It", "Friction", "Venus", and "Marquee Moon" in December 1974, but Television frontman Tom Verlaine did not approve of his sound: "He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance. We're oriented towards really strong guitar music ... sort of expressionistic." After founding bassist Richard Hell left in 1975, Television enlisted Fred Smith, whom they found more reliable and rhythmically adept. The band quickly developed a rapport and a musical style that reflected their individual influences: Smith and guitarist Richard Lloydhad a rock and roll background, drummer Billy Ficca was a jazz enthusiast, and Verlaine's tastes varied from the 13th Floor Elevators to Albert Ayler.
In preparation for the album's recording, Television rehearsed for four to six hours a day and six to seven days a week. Lloyd said that they were "both really roughshod musicians on one hand and desperadoes on the other, with the will to become good." Once the band signed to Elektra Records, Verlaine insisted they not have to be guided in the recording studio by a famous producer. Instead, they enlisted engineer Andy Johns, who Lloyd said had produced "some of the great guitar sounds in rock". Television recorded Marquee Moon in September 1976 at A & R Recording in New York City. Johns produced the album with Verlaine. They recorded two new songs for the album—"Guiding Light" and "Torn Curtain"—and older songs such as "Friction", "Venus de Milo", and the title track, which had become a standard at their live shows. Elektra did not query Television's studio budget.
Marquee Moon is a post-punk album. Both sides of the album begin with three short, hook-driven songs that veer between progressive rock and post-punk styles. The title track and "Torn Curtain" are longer and more jam-oriented.The former song was recorded in one take, which Ficca assumed was a rehearsal. When Johns suggested they record another take, Verlaine told him "forget it". Jason Heller of The A.V. Club described the album as an "elegantly jagged art-punk opus".
Verlaine and Lloyd interplayed their guitars between drum hits and basslines. Their dual guitar playing drew on 1960s rock and avant-garde jazz styles, and eschewed the layered power chords of contemporary punk rock for melodic lines and counter-melodies. Verlaine established the song's rhythmic phrase, against which Lloyd played dissonant melodies. Lloyd later said of their approach: "There weren't many bands where the two guitars played rhythm and melody back and forth, like a jigsaw puzzle. It was what we were obsessed with when we recorded." They traded rhythm and melodic lines several times on some songs and produced tension. Most of the solos on Marquee Moon follow a pattern wherein Verlaine runs up a major scale but regresses slightly after each step. Verlaine played in a Mixolydian mode and lowered the seventh by half a step on the title track, and on "See No Evil", he soloed through a full octave before playing a blues-influenced riff.
The album's lyrics combine urban and pastoral imagery. Although it is not a concept album, Marquee Moon features geographical references to lower Manhattan. Its songs celebrate stern adolescence in the urban pastoralmode. The album's urban nocturne theme derived from poetic works about Bohemian decadence. The lyrics also incorporate maritime imagery, including the paradoxical "nice little boat made out of ocean" in "See No Evil", the waterfront setting in "Elevation", parting "like the seas" in "Guiding Light", and references to docks, caves, and waves in "Prove It".
Verlaine's lyrical style drew on influences from French poetry. He narrated the consciousness or confusion of an experience rather than its specific details. Verlaine compared the songs to "a little moment of discovery or releasing something or being in a certain time or place and having a certain understanding of something." "See No Evil" opens with the narrator's flights of fancies and closes with an imperative about limitless possibilities: "Runnin wild with the one I love / Pull down the future with the one you love". Verlaine used puns and double-entendres in his lyrics, which he said were atmospheric in an interview for Punk magazine: "You don't have to say what you mean to get across."
The album's cover was shot by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who had previously shot the cover for Patti Smith's 1975 album Horses. His photo for Marquee Moon situated Verlaine a step in front of the rest of the band, who are in a tensed, serious prose. Verlaine held his right hand across his body and held his slightly clenched left hand forward. When Mapplethorpe gave Television the contact prints, Lloyd took their favorite shot to a print shop in Times Square and asked for color photocopies for the band members to mull over. Although the first few copies were oddly colored, Lloyd asked the copy worker to make more "while turning the knobs with his eyes closed." He likened the process toAndy Warhol's screen prints. After he showed it to the band, they chose the altered copy over Mapplethorpe's original photo, which Fred Smith had framed and kept for himself.
Released in February 1977, Marquee Moon was acclaimed by contemporary music critics. Peter Gammond of Hi-Fi News & Record Review gave it an "A+" and called it one of the most exciting releases in music, highlighted by "pure rock" and Verlaine's steely, Gábor Szabó-like guitar. Audio magazine's Jon Tiven, who graded the album's performance an "A" and its sound a "B", wrote that, although his vocals and production could be more amplified, Verlaine's lyrics and guitar "manage to viscerally and intellectually grab the listener". Joan Downs of Time felt that the band's sound is distinguished more by Lloyd's brazen guitar and said that he has the potential to become a major figure in rock guitar. Nick Kent, writing in NME magazine, said that Television are ambitious and skilled enough to achieve "new dimensions of sonic overdrive", and hailed the album as an "inspired work of pure genius, a record finely in tune and sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics". He also claimed that the music is vigorous, sophisticated, and innovative at a time when rock music is wholly conservative. Robert Christgau, writing in The Village Voice, asserted that the "demotic-philosophical" lyrics could sustain the album alone, as would the guitar playing, which he called "as lyrical and piercing as" Eric Clapton or Jerry Garcia "but totally unlike either."
In a negative review, Noel Coppage of Stereo Review panned the singing and songwriting, and wrote that the album sounds more like a stale version of Bruce Springsteen than avant-garde music. Gramophone magazine's Nigel Hunter found both Verlaine's lyrics and guitar playing vague, and felt that listeners need a "strong commitment to this type of music to get much out of it." Ken Tucker, writing in Rolling Stone, said that the lyrics generally amount to non sequiturs, meaningless phrases, and "puffy" aphorisms, but are secondary to the music. Although he found his solos potentially formless and boring, Tucker credited Verlaine for structuring his songs around chilling riffs and "a new commercial impulse that gives his music its catchy, if slashing, hook." High Fidelity said that the music's "scaring amalgam of rich, brightly colored textures" more than compensates for Verlaine's nearly unintelligible lyrics.
Marquee Moon was voted as the third best album of 1977 in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of critics run by The Village Voice. Christgau, the poll's supervisor, ranked it number one on his own year-end list. NME named it the fifth best album of the year on their list. Verlaine later said of the overwhelmingly positive response from critics, "There was a certain magic happening, an inexplicable certainty of something, like the momentum of a freight train. That's not egoism but, if you cast a spell, you don't get flummoxed by the results of your spell."
Marquee Moon was an unexpected success in the United Kingdom, where it reached number 28 on the UK Albums Chart. The album's two singles—the title track and "Prove It"—both charted on the UK Top 30. Its sales were partly fueled by Kent's rave two-page review of the album for NME. While holidaying in London after the album's completion, Verlaine saw that the band had been put on the magazine's front cover and called Elektra's press department, who encouraged Television to capitalize on their success there with a tour of the UK. However, the label had already organized for the band to perform on Peter Gabriel's American tour as a supporting act. Television played small theatres and some larger club venues, and received more mainstream exposure, but were not well received by Gabriel's middle-American, progressive rock audiences and found the tour unnerving. In the United States, Marquee Moonsold less than 80,000 copies and failed to chart on the Top 200.
In May, Television embarked on a highly successful theatre tour in the UK and were enthusiastically received by audiences. Verlaine said that it was refreshing to perform at large theatres after having played clubs for four years, but that supporting act Blondie were ill-suited for their show. Blondie's Chris Stein said that Television were "so competitive" and unaccommodating on the tour, and recalled one show where "all our equipment was shoved up at the [Glasgow Apollo] and we had like three feet of room so that [Verlaine] could stand still in this vast space." By Television's return to the US, Elektra had given up on promoting Marquee Moon, which they dismissed as a commercial non-starter.The band was dispirited by their failure to meet commercial expectations, which led to their disbandment in 1978.
Marquee Moon has since been cited by rock critics as one of the greatest albums of the American punk rock movement, including Mark Weingarten of Entertainment Weekly, who called it the masterpiece of the 1970s New York punk rock scene. Spin called it the CBGB era's "best and most enduring record", and ranked it as sixth greatest album of all time in 1987. Qmagazine gave it five stars in a retrospective review and included it in their 2002 list of the 100 greatest punk albums, while Mojo ranked it 35th on a similar list in 2003. In a 2004 review for Tracks, Christgau called Marquee Moon "the must-have—one of the great debut albums, period." It was named one of the greatest albums of the 1970s by NME, who ranked it tenth,and Pitchfork Media, who ranked it third. In 2003, NME ranked Marquee Moon as the fourth greatest album of all time, and Rolling Stone placed it at number 128 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It has been viewed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time by Marc Riley, who said that "there's been nothing like it before or since," and Mark Radcliffe, who called it "the nearest rock record to a string quartet - everybody's got a part, and it works brilliantly."
Marquee Moon was also one of the most influential albums recorded in the 1970s, and has been cited by critics as a cornerstone of alternative rock. It heavily influenced the indie rockmovement of the 1980s, while post-punk acts appropriated the album's precise instrumentation, uncluttered production, and introspective tone. Music critic Piero Scaruffi credited the album for defining the musical aesthetic of New Wave with its unsettling melodies and free jazz-inspired group jamming. Hunter Felt of PopMatters attributed the album's influence on post-punk and New Wave acts to the precisely syncopated rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca, and recommended 2003's "definitive" reissue of the album to listeners of garage rock revivalbands, whom he said had modeled themselves after Verlaine's Romantic poetry-inspired lyrics and the "jaded yet somehow impassioned cynicism" of his vocals.
According to Sputnikmusic's Adam Downer, the album "introduced the world to post-punk" with its unprecedented style of rock and roll. The Guardian said that it scaled "amazing new heights of sophistication and intensity" as a "gorgeous, ringing beacon of post-punk, even if it did come out six months before Never Mind the Bollocks." Allmusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said that the album was innovative for eschewing the "sense of swing or groove" of previous guitar rock and New York punk albums for a "heady intellectual" scope that Television achieved instrumentally rather than lyrically. Erlewine asserted that "it's impossible to imagine post-punk soundscapes" without the album, which he said remains a "fresh" listen because of "how Television flesh out Verlaine's poetry into sweeping sonic epics."
Verlaine and Lloyd's dual guitar playing on the album strongly influenced the Strokes, alternative rock bands such as the Pixies, noise rock acts such as Sonic Youth, and big arena acts like U2. In his work with U2, guitarist The Edge simulated their guitar sound by himself with an effects pedal. He said that he wanted to "sound like them" and that the album's title track had changed his "way of thinking about the guitar." Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stonecalled Marquee Moon "one of the all-time classic guitar albums" and said that the songs' tremulous, guitar twang shows how Television inspired bands such as R.E.M. and Joy Division. Joy Division's Stephen Morris cited it as one of his favorite albums: "I just felt that Marquee Moon and the stuff from New York was odd, and it was different, and it was weird ... It still had a lot of energy". English guitarist Will Sergeant said that Marquee Moon was one of his favorite albums and that Verlaine and Lloyd's guitar playing was a major influence on his band Echo & the Bunnymen.
All songs written and composed by Tom Verlaine, except where noted.
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Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.