Saturday 12 December 2009

Marquee Moon review by Nick Kent (NME Feb 1977)

Cut the crap, junior, he sez and put the hyperbole on ice.
I concur thus. Sometimes it takes but one record – one cocksure magical statement – to cold-cock all the crapola and all-purpose wheatchaff mix ‘n’ match, to set the whole schmear straight and get the current state of play down down down to stand or fall in one, dignified granite-hard focus.
Such statements, are precious indeed.
Marquee Moon, the first legitimate album release from Manhattan combo Television however, is one: a 24-carat inspired and totally individualist creation which calls the shots on all the glib media pigeon-holing that’s taken place predating its appearance; a work that at once makes a laughing stock of those ignorant clowns, who have filed the band’s work under the cretinous banner of “Punk-rock” or “Velvet Underground off-shoot freneticism” or even (closer to home, maybe, but still way off the bulls-eye) “teeth-grinding psychotic rock” (‘Sister Ray’ and assorted sonic in-laws).
First things first.
This, Television’s first album is a record most adamantly, not fashioned merely for the N.Y. avant-garde rock cognoscenti. It is a record for everyone who boasts a taste for a new exciting music expertly executed, finely in tune, sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics, chord structures centred around a totally invigorating passionate application to the vision of centre-pin mastermind Tom Verlaine.
Two years have now elapsed since the first rave notices drifted over the hotline from down in the Bowery. Photos, principally those snapped when the mighty Richard Hell was in the band, backed up the gobbledegook but the music – well, somehow no-one really got to grips with defining that side of things so that each report carried with it a thumbnail sketch of what the listener could divine from the maelstrom. Influences were flung at the reader, most omni-touted being guitarist mastermind Verlaine’s supposed immense debt to one Louis Reed circa White Heat/White Light which meant teeth-gnashing ostrich gee-tar glissando and whining hyena vocals. You get the picture.
Above all, one presumed Television to be the aural epitome of junk-sick boys straight off the E.S.T. funny farm – psychotic reactions/narcotic contractions. Hell split the scene mid-75 taking his black widow spider physique and blue-print anthem for the Blank Generation, leaving ex-buddy-boy Tom Verlaine to call all dem shots, abetted by fellow guitarist and all purpose West Coast pin-up boy Richard Lloyd, a most unconventional new wave jazz-orientated drummer, name of Billy Ficca – plus Hell’s replacement, the less visually imposing but more musically adept Fred Smith.
It’s been a good two years now since Television got those first drooling raves – two long years which led one at times to believe that Verlaine’s musical visions would never truly find solace encased within the glinting sheen of black vinyl. The situation wasn’t helped in the slightest by Island Records sending over Brian Eno and Richard Williams to invigilate over a premature session back in ‘75, the combination of the band’s possible immaturity and Eno and Williams’ understanding of what was needed to flesh out the songs recorded, resulting in the taping of four or five horrendously flat skeletal performances which gave absolutely no indication regarding the band’s potential.
Following that snafu, Verlaine became, how you say, more than a little high-handed and downright eccentric in his dealings with other record companies and potential middle-man adversaries to the point where even those who quite desperately wished to sign him threw up their arms in despair of ever achieving such an end.
Reports filtering through the grapevine made Verlaine’s behaviour seem like that of a madman. Even when the ink had dried on the contract Joe Smith signed with the band for Elektra Records late last year; Verlaine was apparently still so overwhelmed with paranoia that he activated a policy of never properly enunciating the lyrics to unrecorded songs in performance for fear that plagiarists might steal his lyrics before they’d been set to wax.
The only number he dared to sing close to the microphone at this point was ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, the one-off cult single of ‘76, a bizarre morsel of highly sinister nonsense verse shaped around a quite remarkably lop-sided riff/dynamic which set off visions (at least to this listener’s ears) of an aural equivalent to the visuals used in the German impressionist cinema meisterwerk Dr Caligari’s Cabinet, spliced in half (the track took up both sides of a 45 – labelled Parts 1 and 2) by a guitar solo which bore a distinct resemblance to, well, yes to Country Joe and The Fish. Their first album you know. The guitar pitch was exactly the same as that utilized by Barry Melton; fluid, mercury-like.
That’s the thing about Television you’ve first got to come to terms with. Forget all that “New York sound” stuff. For starters, this music is the total antithesis of the Ramones, say, and all those minimalist aggregates. To call it Punk Rock is rather like describing Dostoevsky as a short-story writer. This music itself is remarkably sophisticated, unworthy of even being paralleled to that of the original Velvet Underground whose combined instrumental finesse was practically a joke compared to what Verlaine and co. are cooking up here. Each song is tirelessly conceived and arranged for maximum impact – the point where decent parallels really need to be made with the best West Coast groups. Early Love spring to mind, The Byrds’ cataclysmic ‘Eight Miles High’ period, a soupcon even of the Doors’ mondo predilections plus the very cream of a whole plethora of those psychedelic-punk bands that only Lenny Kaye knows about. Above all though the sound belongs most indubitably to Television, and the appearance of Marquee Moon at a time when rock is so hopelessly lost within the labyrinth of its own basic inconsequentiality that actual musical content has come to take a firm back-seat to “attitude” and all that word is supposed to signify is to these ears little short of revolutionary.
My opening gambit about the album providing a real focus for the current state of rock bears a relevance simply because here at last is a band whose vision is centred quite rigidly within their music – not, say, in some half-baked notion of political manifesto-mongery with that trusty, thoroughly reactionary three chord back-drop to keep the whole scam buoyant. Verlaine’s appearance is simply as exciting as any other major innovator’s to the sphere of rock – like Hendrix, Barrett, Dylan – and, yeah, Christ knows I’m tossing up some true-blue heavies here but Goddammit I refuse to repent right now because this record just damn excites me so much.
To the facts then – recorded in A & R Studios, New York, produced by Verlaine himself, with engineer Andy Johns keeping a watchful eye on the board and gaining co-production credits, the album lasts roughly three quarters of an hour and contains eight songs, most of which have been recorded in demo form at least twice (the Eno debacle to begin with, followed a year later by a reported superbly produced demo tape courtesy of the Blue Oyster Cult’s Alan Lanier, which, at a guess, clinched the band’s Elektra deal) and have been performed live innumerable times. The wait was been worthwhile because the refining process instigated by those hesitant years has sculpted the songs into the masterpieces that are here present for all to peruse.
Side one makes no bones about making its presence felt, kicking off with the full-bodied thrust of ‘See No Evil’. Guitars, bass and drums are strung together fitting tight as a glove clenched into a fist punching metal rivets of sound with the same manic abandon that typified the elegant ferocity of Love’s early drive. There is a real passion here – no half-baked metal cut and thrust – each beat reverberates to the base of the skull, with Verlaine’s voice a unique ostrich-like pitch that might just start to grate on the senses (a la his ex-sweetheart one P. Smith) were it not so perfectly mixed into the grain of the rhythm. The chorus / climax is irresistible anyway – Verlaine crooning “I understand destructive urges / They seem so imperfect … I see … I see no e-v-i-i-l-l.”
The next song is truly something else. ‘(The arms of) Venus De Milo’ is already a classic among those who’ve heard it even though it has only now been recorded. It’s simply one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard; the only other known work I can think of to parallel it with is Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – yup, it’s that exceptional. Only with Television’s twin guitar filigree weaving round the melody it sounds like some dream synthesis of Dylan himself backed by the Byrds circa ‘65. It’s really damn hard to convey just how gorgeous this song is – the performance, – all these incredible touches like the call-and-response Lou Reed parody. The song itself is like Dylan’s ‘Tambourine’, a vignette of a sort dealing wiih a dream-like quasi-hallucigenic state of ephiphany. “You know it’s all like some new kind of drug / My senses are hot and my hands are like gloves! … Broadway looks so medieval like a flap from so many pages … As I fell sideways laughing with a friend from many stages.”
‘Friction’ is probably the most readily accessible track from this album simply because, with its fairly anarchic, quasi-Velvets feel plus (all important) Verlaine’s most pungent methedrine guitar fret-board slaughter, here it’ll represent the kind of thing all those weaned on the hype and legend without hearing one note from Television will be expecting. It’s good, no more, no less – bearing distinct cross-breeding with the manic slant sited on ‘Johnny Jewel’ without the latter’s insidiousness. ‘Friction’ is just that – throwaway lyrics – “diction/Friction” etc. – those kind of throwaway rhymes, vicious instrumentation and a perfect climax which has Verlaine Vengefully spelling out the title “F-R-I-C-T-I-O-N” slashing his guitar for punctuation.
It’s down to the album’s title track to provide the side’s twin feat with ‘Venus De Milo’. Conceived at a time when rock tracks lasting over ten minutes are somewhere sunk deep below the subterranean depths of contempt, ‘Marquee Moon’ is as riveting a piece of music as I’ve heard since the halcyon days of… oh, God knows too many years have elapsed.
Everything about this piece is startling, from what can only be described as a kind of futuristic on-beat (i.e. reggae though you’d have to listen damn hard to catch it) built on Verlaine’s steely rhythm chopping against Lloyd’s intoxicating counterpoint. Slowly a story unfurls – a typically surreal Verlaine ghost story – involving Cadillacs pulling up in graveyards and disembodied arms beckoning the singer to get in while “lightning struck itself” and various twilight loony rejects from King Lear (that last bit’s my own fight of fancy, by the way) babbling crazy retorts to equally crazy questions. The lyrics mean little, I would guess by themselves, but as a scenario for the music here they become utterly compelling.
The song’s structure is practically unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It transforms from a strident two chord construction to a breathtakingly beautiful chord progression which acts as a motif/climax for the narrative until the music takes over altogether. The band build on some weird Eastern modal scales not unlike those used in the extended improvised break of Fairport Convention’s ‘A Sailor’s Life’ on Unhalfbricking. The guitar solo – either Lloyd or Verlaine – even bears exactly the same tone as Richard Thompson’s. The instrumentation reaches a dazzling frenzied peak before dispersing into tiny droplets of electricity and Verlaine concludes his ghostly narrative as the song ends with that majestic minor chord motif.
‘Marquee Moon’ is the perfect place to draw attention to the band’s musical assets. Individually each player is superb – not in the stereotyped sense of one who has spent hour upon hour over the record player dutifully apeing solo, riffs, embellishments but in that of only a precious few units – Can is the only band that spring to mind here at the moment. Each player has striven to create his own style. Verlaine’s guitar solos take the feed-back sonic “accidents” that Lou Reed fell upon in his most fruitful period and has fashioned a whole style utilizing also, if I’m not mistaken, the staggeringly innovative Jim McGuinn staccato free-form runs spotlit on the hideously underrated Fifth Dimension album (which no one, McGuinn included, has ever bothered to develop).
He takes these potentially cataclysmic ideas and rigorously shapes them into a potential total redefinition of the electric guitar. As far as I’m concerned, as of this moment, Verlaine is probably the most exciting electric lead guitar player barring only Neil Young. As it is, Verlaine’s solo constructions are always unconventional, forever delving into new areas, never satisfied with referring back to formulas. Patti Smith once told me, by the way, that Verlaine religiously spends 12 hours a day practising his guitar playing in his room to Pablo Casals records.
Richard Lloyd is the perfect foil for Verlaine. Another fine musician, his more fluid conventional pitching and manic rhythm work is the perfect complimentary force and his contribution demands to be recognised for the power it possesses. Bassist Smith is always in there holding down the undertow of the music. He emerges only when his presence is required – yet again, a superb player but next to Verlaine, it’s drummer Billy Ficca, visually the least impressive of all members standing – aside the likes of cherub-faced Lloyd and super-aesthetic Verlaine, who truly astonishes. Basically a jazz drummer, Ficca’s adoption of Television’s majestic musical mutations as flesh-to-be-pulsed-out makes his pyrotechnics quite unique. Delicate but firm, he seems to be using every portion of his kit most of the time without ever being over-bearing. As one who knows little or nothing, about drumming, I can only express a quiet awe at the inventiveness behind his technique
Individual accolades apart, the band’s main clout lays in their ability to function as one and perhaps the best demonstration of this can be found in ‘Elevation’, side two’s opening gambit and, with ‘Venus’, probably this record’s most immediately suitable choice for a single. Layer upon layer of gentle boulevard guitar makes itself manifest until Lloyd holds the finger-picked melody together and Verlaine sings in that by now well accustomed hyena croon. The song again is beautiful, proudly contagious with a chorus that lodges itself in your subconscious like a bullet in the skull – “Elevation don’t go to my head” repeated thrice until on the third line a latent ghost-like voice transmutes “Elevation” into “Television”. Guitars cascade in and out of the mix so perfectly.
‘Guiding Light’ is reflective, stridently poetic – a hymn for aesthetes – which, complete with piano, reminds me slightly of Procol Harum in excelsis. ‘Prove It’, the following track, is another potential single. Verlaine as an asthmatic ostrich-voice Sam Spade “This case … this case I’ve been working on so long” and of course that chorus which I still can’t hesitate quoting – “Prove it/Just the facts/Confidential”. From Chandler, Television move to Hitchcock – at least for the title of the last song on this album: ‘Torn Curtain’ is one of Verlaine’s most recent creations – a most melancholy composition again reminiscent in part of a Procol Harum song although the timbre of Verlaine’s voice is the very antithesis of Gary Booker’s world weary tones. A song of grievous circumstances (as with so many of Verlaine’s lyrics); the facts – cause and effect – remain enigmatically sheltered from the listener. The structure is indeed strange, like some Bavarian funeral march with Verlaine’s vocals at their most yearning. The song is compelling though I couldn’t think of a single number written in the rock idiom I could possibly compare it to.
So that’s it. Marquee Moon, released mid-February in America and probably the beginning of March here. I think it’s a work of genius and had Charlie Murray not done that whole number about “first albums this good being pretty damn hard to come across” with Patti Smith’s Horses last year then I would have pulled the same stunt for this one. Suffice to say – oh listen, it’s released on Elektra, right, and it reminded me, just how great that label used to be. I mean, this is Elektra’s best record since… Strange Days. And (apres moi, le deluge, kiddo) I reckon Tom Verlaine’s probably the single most important rock singer/songwriter/guitarist of his kind since Syd Barrett, which is my credibility probably blown for the rest of the year. But still…
If this review needs to state anything in big bold, black type it’s simply this. Marquee Moon is an album for everyone whatever their musical creeds and/or quirks. Don’t let any other critic put you off with jive turkey terms like ‘avant-garde’ or ‘New York psycho-rock’. This music is passionate, full-blooded, dazzlingly well crafted, brilliantly conceived and totally accessible to anyone who (like myself) has been yearning for a band with the vision to break on through into new dimensions of sonic overdrive and the sheer ability to back it up. Listening to this album reminds me of the ecstatic passion I received when I first heard ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘Happenings Ten Years Ago’ – before terms like progressive/art rock became synonymous with baulking pretensions and clumsy, crude syntheses of opposite forms.
In a year’s time, when all the current three-chord golden boys have fallen from grace right into the pit to become a parody of Private Eye’s apeing of moron rock bands – Spiggy Topes and The Turds Live at the Roxy – Tom Verlaine and Television will be out there hanging fire, cruising meteorite-like with their fretboards pointed directly at the music of the spheres. Prove it? They’ve already done it right here with this their first album. All you’ve got to do is listen and levitate along with it.

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