The story of Television’s Marquee Moon

This article was originally published in February 2017 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Marquee Moon. It is being republished today because of Death of Tom Verlaine.

If a band is a product of a particular time and place, it is TV. If ever there was a record owed to the same time and place, this is it Marquee Moon.

The masterpiece of guitar rock, which married the artful technicality with the menace and energy of the new New York punk scene, took rock and roll into arenas that had not yet been named at the time of its release in 1977. Now, you can call it underground, indie, whatever you want. Less the subject of debate is the record’s influence. In eight tracks, Marquee Moon cast a spell on generations of future guitar misfits, many of whom, including Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Built to Spill, would rise to prominence during the guitar rock heyday of the ’90s.

“I’m very proud of that record,” said television guitarist Richard Lloyd, recalling the record 40 years later. “It’s on the top 10 list and the top 50 list and the top 100 list, and I hope it stays on the lists.”

On the face of it, Marquee Moon it seems like an unparalleled job plucked cleanly out of thin air. In many ways, it was and still is, but it couldn’t have come from anywhere other than the band’s base in New York City. From a musical standpoint, New York City in the mid to late 1970s represented a wide open frontier, a limitless playground where new ideas and experimentation were not only allowed, but encouraged. The New York Dolls, Suicide, The Modern Lovers, and The Velvet Underground before them created something distinctly New York style — that is, something smart, cool, and edgy with a healthy dose of street smarts.

Word of what was happening in New York spread enough to persuade Lloyd to move east from Los Angeles in 1973. A high school dropout just shy of graduating to pursue music full time, Lloyd spent some time in Boston before settling west. The scene he heard when he returned was healthy and alive. What it doesn’t have is a place to call home.

“There are very few places to play, and there are no places to play when you’re playing original music,” he said. “This is what we are against. If you’re lucky, you might get an opening slot once every six months at Bottom Line or something. Being a local act playing original music is unheard of. “

One of the few clubs that extended an olive branch to young musicians at the time, however, was Reno Sweeney. There, the seeds for what would become Television were first planted. Lloyd was at a Greenwich Village club one night with future Television manager Terry Ork when he first met Tom Verlaine. He saw in the guitarist a complementary musical piece, someone he could play with in his search for headier, sonic terrain.

“I saw him play, and I knew he had ‘it,'” Lloyd recalled of the momentous encounter that inspired the formation of the band. “He had something, but he lacked something, and what he lacked I had . I’m also missing something. What I’m missing, he’s there. I know that if the two of you are yours, you have a history. I knew that right away.”

Fast-forward a few months, and Verlaine and Lloyd are passing on a guitar with Richard Hell, another wannabe writer/poet/musician going through the city’s musical underbelly. The trio found some common ground, and with the addition of drummer Billy Ficca, Television’s inaugural lineup was formed. Verlaine and Lloyd took up guitar duties, with Hell somewhat reluctantly taking up bass. “He thought playing bass with Tom was like going to the dentist,” Lloyd said.

In late 1973, Television became a full-fledged business for its members, who practiced together for hours every day. The band also found a new base to test its music on a stage. CBGBs, tucked away under a flop house on the Bowery, was, in other words, a crude dive, but it was a dive with a stage. The band arranged a residency at the club, making their live debut in March 1974. Suddenly, the growing scene of musical misfits emerging in the city had a home. Ramones brought punk rock to the door. Talking Heads gives listeners a taste of art-school cool. Blondie has enough of the necessary rock and roll sex appeal, thanks to bombshell frontwoman Debbie Harry.

“In its own way, it’s perfect,” Lloyd said. “We had no idea that all these other bands were looking for something at the same time. All the bands are different, but they are all in the same place supporting each other,” he added. “We made an arrangement where there would only be two bands each night and they would each play two sets because we wanted to play more.”

As Television continued to make a name for themselves, the labels came calling. But the band resisted the temptations that came with the promises of a record contract. While other bands jumped at offers, a practice Lloyd called “riding the limousine to failure,” Television was patient, choosing to wait for the right deal rather than the first one. The band used the same kind of particularity to record demos as to what would happen Marquee Moon. Island Records set the band up to record with Brian Eno, but the band decided against the softer sound that Eno brought to the sessions.

“The demos weren’t right, and we knew it,” Lloyd said. “We know what we want.”

Eventually, Telebisyon was successfully courted by Elektra Records, an artist-friendly label that was home to bands like The Doors and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. With Fred Smith on bass replacing Hell, who would go on to start his own band, the Voidoids, the group went back to work recording its debut. While Lloyd and Verlaine wanted to make the record themselves, Elektra joined the band with master engineer Andy Johns, the late brother of legendary producer and engineer Glyn Johns. “He was one of the best engineers in the world for rock and roll,” Lloyd said.

By the time the band went into A&R Recording to make the record, they had three years worth of non-stop practice and live performances under their belt. That allowed for a relatively quick six-week recording process, two weeks each for recording, overdubs, and mastering. Some tracks are knocked out in one take, though the grade-A musicianship displayed on the record hardly shows it.

“The Doors (debut) record was done in three days,” says Lloyd. “Jazz records are recorded in the time it takes to play them. The thing about spending a year and a half on a record is more often than not, it comes out sounding like too much pasta. The time has come, but before we go into the studio.”

Marquee Moon is pure musical gumbo, a dizzying blend of contrasting aesthetics that slash punk rock grit, shine with jazzy guitar virtuosity, and act as its own muse. It’s smart but strong, technical but accessible. Verlaine and Lloyd make a devastating guitar pair, especially on tracks like album opener “See No Evil”, the sprawling title track, and the more classic sounding “Prove It”.

“One time we walked in, and Andy was asleep on the table,” Lloyd recalled. “All the microphones were set up, so we asked the assistant engineer to run the engine so we could ‘Prove It’. We did the song, went back to the control room, and Andy sighed awake. He was looking around paranoid like, ‘Did I do this? Did I record it?’ We were all shaking our heads like, ‘Yeah, Andy, you recorded it.’ He said, ‘I’m really bad, aren’t I?’ But it’s true.”

Less heralded are the contributions of Ficca, whose drum fills give the record a kinetic energy that flows beneath Lloyd and Verlaine’s guitar heroics, especially on “Marquee Moon” and “Elevation”.

“He was all over the place,” Lloyd says of Ficca’s drumming on the record. “Tom actually went and auditioned other people, but I told him, ‘Listen, all the great guitarists have crazy drums.’ That’s what I mean by it. See John Bonham with Led Zeppelin, Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix, or Ginger Baker with Cream. You have all these perfect time keepers that don’t actually keep time. “

Followed by television Marquee Moon quickly with a straighter voice Adventure before breaking up. The band reunited for the 1992 self-titled release and continues to play today, minus Lloyd, who left the band in 2007. But while his Television days are behind him, the legacy left behind after his band’s magnum opus almost disappeared from him.

“There are some records that are only testaments to a particular time and place and what happened.”

Perfectly said.

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