Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Television’s Marquee Moon at 40: The Story of a Band, City, and Guitar Rock Masterpiece

on February 18, 2017, 12:30am

Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history.

If ever a band was a product of a particular time and place, it’s Television. If ever there was a record indebted to that same time and place, it’s Marquee Moon.

The guitar rock masterpiece, which married artful technicality with the menace and energy of New York’s then-nascent punk scene, took rock and roll into arenas that had not yet been named at the time of its 1977 release. Today, you can call it underground, indie, whatever you want. What’s less subject for debate is the record’s influence. In eight tracks, Marquee Moon cast a spell on generations of future guitar misfits, many of which, 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,” Television guitarist Richard Lloyd says, looking back on the record 40 years later. “It’s been on top 10 lists and top 50 lists and top 100 lists, and I hope it stays on those lists.”

On its face, Marquee Moon sounds like an unparalleled work picked cleanly out of thin air. In many ways, it was and still is, but it arguably couldn’t have originated anywhere other than in the band’s home base of New York City. From a musical standpoint, New York City in the mid to late 1970s represented a wide-open frontier, a boundless play area where new ideas and experimenting were not only allowed, but encouraged. The New York Dolls, Suicide, The Modern Lovers, and The Velvet Underground before them were each creating something distinctly New York in sound and style — that is to say, something intelligent, cool, and edgy with a healthy dose of street smarts.

Word of what was happening in New York had spread far enough to entice Lloyd to move back east from Los Angeles in 1973. Having quit high school just shy of graduating to pursue music full time, Lloyd spent some time in Boston before settling out west. The scene he had heard about was healthy and alive upon his return. What it didn’t have was a place to call home.

“There were very few places to play, and there were no places to play if you played original music,” he says. “This is what we were up against. If you were lucky, you could get an opening slot once every six months at the Bottom Line or something. Being a local act playing original music was just unheard of.”

One of the few clubs extending 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 the Greenwich Village club one night with future Television manager Terry Ork when he first saw Tom Verlaine. He saw in the guitarist a complementary musical piece, someone he could play off of in his search for headier, sonic terrain.

“I saw him play, and I knew he had ‘it,’” Lloyd recalls of the chance encounter that would spur the band’s formation. “He had something, but he was missing something, and what he was missing I had. I was also missing something. What I was missing, he had. I knew if you put the two of us together, you’d have history. I knew that immediately.”

Fast-forward a few months, and Verlaine and Lloyd were passing around a guitar with Richard Hell, another aspiring writer/poet/musician making his way 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 says.

By late 1973, Television had become an all-consuming venture for its members, who practiced together for hours each day. The band also found a new base to try out its music on a stage. CBGBs, tucked away under a flop house in the Bowery, was, to put it nicely, 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 that sprung up in the city had a home. Ramones brought punk rock in through the door. Talking Heads gave listeners a taste of art-school cool. Blondie amply brought the prerequisite rock and roll sex appeal, thanks to bombshell frontwoman Debbie Harry.

“In its own way, it was perfect,” Lloyd says. “We had no idea that all these other bands were looking for something at the same time. All of those bands were different, and yet they were all in the same place supporting each other,” he adds. “We made an arrangement that there would only be two bands per night and that they would each play two sets because we wanted to play more.”

As Television steadily built a name for themselves, labels came calling. But the band resisted the temptations that came with promises of a record contract. While other bands jumped at offers, a practice Lloyd called “riding the limousine to failure,” Television exercised patience, opting to wait for the right deal rather than the first. The band exercised the same sort of particularity in recording the demos for what would become 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 were not right, and we knew it,” Lloyd says. “We knew what we wanted.”

Eventually, Television 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 in place of Hell, who would go on to start his own band, the Voidoids, the group went back to work on recording its debut. While Lloyd and Verlaine wanted to produce the record themselves, Elektra hooked the band up with seasoned engineer Andy Johns, late brother of legendary producer and engineer Glyn Johns. “He was one of the world’s best engineers for rock and roll,” Lloyd says.

By the time the band had holed up at A&R Recording to make the record, they had three years worth of relentless practicing 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 were knocked out in one take, even if the grade-A musicianship showcased on the record hardly reflects it.

“The Doors (debut) record was done in three days,” Lloyd says. “Jazz records were 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’ll come out sounding like overdone pasta. The time did go into it, but it was before we went into the studio.”

Marquee Moon is pure music gumbo, a staggering combination of contrasting aesthetics that slashes with punk rock grit, dazzles with jazzy guitar virtuosity, and moves to its own particular muse. It’s smart but tough, 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 came in, and Andy was asleep at the desk,” Lloyd recalls. “All the mics were set up, so we asked the assistant engineer to turn the machine on so we could do ‘Prove It’. We did the song, came back into the control room, and Andy snorted his way awake. He looked around paranoid like, ‘Did I do this? Did I record this?’ We all shook our heads like, ‘Yeah, Andy, you recorded it.’ He said, ‘I’m fucking great, aren’t I?’ But it was true.”

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

“He’s 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 great guitarists have crazy drummers.’ That was my take on it. Look at John Bonham with Led Zeppelin, Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix, or Ginger Baker with Cream. You had all of these absolutely nutty timekeepers who weren’t really keeping time.”

Television followed up Marquee Moon quickly with the more straight-forward sounding Adventure before breaking up. The band reunited for 1992’s self-titled release and continue to play off and on today, minus Lloyd, who left the band in 2007. But while his Television days are behind him, the legacy left in the wake of his band’s magnum opus is hardly lost on him.

“There are some records that are just testaments to a particular time and place and what was going on.”

Perfectly said.

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