Monday, October 27, 2008

Television. Marquee Moon (Elektra, 1977)

"I remember how the darkness doubled/ I recall lightning struck itself."

Despite being widely considered a true punk classic, Marquee Moon isn't punk at all, at least not in the narrow stylistic sense of the word. Instead of rushed "1-2-3-4-!" beats, thrashing distortion, and barked/screamed vocals, we have densely composed guitar symphonies and nervously spoke/sung impressionistic lyrics verging on the poetic, all riding on nimble, interlocking drum-and-bass platforms. If Marquee Moon is punk, it's because it so thoroughly bucked punk convention at a crucial point in the music's development, standing up for technical ability in the interest of boundary-smashing techniques and visionary musical configurations.

The heart of the issue is this: Television could play. Led by guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television sprung up out of the late '70s downtown NYC scene centered around CBGB's. And like fellow punk-weird-not-punk-hard brainiacs the Talking Heads, they consistently challenged people's conceptions of just exactly what punk was supposed to be. But unlike the Talking Heads, who embraced punk's amateurism and married it with postgrad theory, Television threw amateurism off a cliff. Lloyd and Verlaine wailed, trading lead and rhythm constantly, taking cues from Thin Lizzy's twin-guitar attack and largely favoring clean, luminous tones over fuzzed-out crunch.

And they weren't afraid to jam, either. Like an angry East Coast Grateful Dead raised on bad speed, china white, and paranoia (look at that cover photo!) instead of peace, love, and grass, Television constantly stretched out into jazz-savvy sonic explorations, but without sounding like some insufferable "jam band." It's the dread and fear permeating so much of Television's music that keeps these instrumental interludes from becoming boring or self-indulgent; every note sounds necessary and immediate, vital in some sinister way. Plus, the rhythm section is always tight enough to rein things in and keep Lloyd and Verlaine from wandering too far off into the ether, which always helps. Today you can trace Television's DNA in bands like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, who similarly embark on extended instrumental expeditions while retaining a sense of purpose and melodic discipline.

And punk or no, Marquee Moon is a stone classic, a constantly unfolding collection of compelling epics. It sounds timeless and of a place all at once, and offers something new and awesome every time I listen to it. "See No Evil" brings the rad right away, rising up around a crazily corkscrewing central riff on the sturdy scaffolding of Fred Smith's bass and Billy Ficca's kit. Tom Verlaine's high pitched, high anxiety vocals belt out in a amphetamine stutter, "I wanna fly, fly a fountain/ I wanna jump jump jump a/ Jump a mountain," with the rest of the band occasionally throwing out some call-and-response backing shouts. And then comes the 1:50 mark: pure shredding, courtesy of Richard Lloyd. The notes fly out in a relentless flurry, hot lava and acid spray. Shield your eyes.

And that's just for starters. Marquee Moon rolls on for seven more tracks, each one alone reason enough to elevate the band to the realm of the chosen. "Venus" is a creepily giddy excursion into hallucinatory revelry, with a ringing primary motif and vaguely martial drumming. "You know it's all like some new kind of drug / My senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves," exclaims Verlaine. "Friction" is a spy theme for a junkie James Bond, taking a mutant Peter Gunn bluesiness into some troubled territory. "My eyes are like telescopes," Verlaine warns, before muttering, "If I ever catch that ventriloquist/ I'll squeeze his head right into my fist." Slashing chords interact with Verlaine's serpentine lead guitar lines, as the song gradually, jerkily builds into a towering monument to reverb and bad vibes.

The title track is a gorgeous saga, and at almost ten minutes, never feels labored or overdone. It drifts from movement to movement like mercury, rooted in an infectious, coiled-spring chord progression and rocksteady primitive-disco rhythms. For the first few minutes, it's an exercise in bottled tension, with the occasional blinding guitar flourish to help you catch your breath. And then, at the 4:27 mark, "Marquee Moon" heads for the stratosphere, where it stays just long enough for Lloyd and Verlaine to wring out a career's worth of terrifyingly brilliant sounds before exploding into fireworks at 8:42, and bringing the band back down to terra firma. Incredible.

Though it's tough to follow up a song as genre smashing/defining as "Marquee Moon," the rest of album is first class all the way. "Elevation" uses a morse code melodic signature and plaintive single-note yowls to unearth a disquieting prize. "Guiding Light" is heartbreakingly pretty ballad, with a gently ping-ponging riff lifted from prom night 1960 and a central solo guaranteed to cut glass. "Prove It" would be a trifle in any other hands, but here it's a goofily inspired moment of lighthearted fun, and keeps the album overall from getting too serious (it's only rock 'n' roll). "Torn Curtain" brings everything to a close in harrowing fashion, a massive stomper hung with sheets of minor key gloom and Tom Verlaine's rusty scalpel guitar work.

The first time I heard Marquee Moon, I knew I had never heard anything like it before. And when I found out these guys were supposed to be punk, I was confused. But then I realized how well the punk label fits, in the right light: these guys were virtuosos, but not out of sheer wankery. They played long and hard because they were full of ideas and feelings and had to get them out, or else. Marquee Moon is the sound of demons and ghosts breaking the surface, just in time and at just the right angles. And somehow they got it all down on tape. And it sounds amazing.