Elektra – 1977
Television’s debut album redefined the role of the electric guitar in modern pop music; it remains one of the most influential, and greatest, debuts in the history of rock music.
I’ve been to New York City exactly one time: for less than twenty-four hours. I stayed in the theater district, looking down on the Ed Sullivan Theater, where The Beatles made their American television debut in February of 1964. The next morning, my wife and I walked to Central Park, to Strawberry Fields, and across Central Park West to the Dakota Building to pay our respects to John and Yoko. On the way back to the hotel, we shared an underwhelming $2 slice of pizza (sorry, NYC, but the Chicago stuff is better), and got in the car to make our way to Philly.
I’ve got nothing against New York, at least aside from the Mets and Rangers. In fact, I’m fascinated by it. As an American history teacher, I spend an inordinate amount of my time talking about this city of which my own first-hand experience is limited to the aforementioned evening/morning. It’s just that the New York of my fascination is a place that either no longer exists, never existed at all, or can not be experienced in the confines of a typical tourist visit.
Of all the various permutations of life in New York, the one that remains most intriguing to me is perhaps the most presently-unattainable one, given the astronomical cost of living of today. In the mid-seventies, a smog and crime infested city birthed two of the quintessential American art movements/subcultures: hip-hop and punk. Both were, vitally, what one might describe as “working class” movements – implicit rejections of the financiers and “young upwardly-mobile professionals” that the city would hinge its reputation on during my own childhood in the eighties.
As a teenaged guitarist in the nineties, it was seventies punk – and the mythology surrounding it – that captured my interest: the “Bowery Bums” who took to the stage at CBGB, and ignited a DIY revolution that turned pop music on its head, all while living in something just slightly above squalor. The names were legendary: Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith.
But what’s often forgotten is that it was Television who stood on that stage before any of those groups. It was also Television that most embodied the ethos of the punk life: Talking Heads were art school kids from Rhode Island; Debbie Harry was a model and folk singer; Patti Smith was an accomplished journalist and poet; the Ramones were middle class. In contrast, Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell were high school dropouts, with criminal records, who ran away to New York as teenagers. It’s just that the sound that emanated from the stage – if it was anything like the sound on their records – put Television in a decidedly different class from their peers.
That sound first appeared on disc with the 1975 single, “Little Johnny Jewel” – released on Ork Records – with guitarist Richard Lloyd in, and Hell having departed. Pulling the genre into post-punk – while still in the era of what we would today recognize as proto-punk – “Johnny” is one of the most anachronistic pieces from a decade defined by musical innovation. Its skittering beat, anarchic crescendos, and jazz-inspired guitar work still sound refreshing almost a half-century later.
Television not only aimed to preserve this exploratory element on their full-length debut, Marquee Moon, but they improved upon it in virtually every conceivable manner. Look, if you’re here, chances are that you already know that this is a special record, and none of its luster has faded over the years since its release. In fact, quite the opposite. The further we get from its arrival, the more we can see the ripple effect of Marquee Moon on subsequent generations of rock bands.
And yes, everything here is commendable: Billy Ficca’s drums, which he had to fight against being treated with the cavernous, John Bonham approach that was de rigueur; Fred Smith’s bass, which holds the entire enterprise together; the spirited vocals, led by Verlaine, and supported by Lloyd and Smith; the songwriting, which ranges from fantastic to “literally among the very best songs ever.” All of it is great, and not a single moment is wasted or superfluous.
But let’s cut to the chase. It’s those fucking guitars that keep us coming back, again and again. Verlaine and Lloyd act as co-leads throughout much of Marquee Moon, redefining the role that the electric guitar could play, not only in punk, but rock music in general. Careening, dive bombing, weeping, cutting, and s h i m m e r i n g, the interlocking work of Verlaine and Lloyd remains a thing to behold. They can be dizzyingly hooky (“See No Evil”), sinister (“Friction”), dramatic (“Torn Curtain”), or all of the above (the incomparably majestic title track).
In the end, the band’s New York City contemporaries would get the conventional success that largely eluded Television. They too would earn a rightful claim as massively influential innovators. Television would retain something special too though. Among those groups, they were the one whose name would be whispered, praised, and shouted in a “have you heard these guys?” manner. They still are, and that counts for something.
*Written 1.28.23, to commemorate the passing of Tom Verlaine.