You may think there’s not much to look at on first encounter of Television’s Marquee Moon, but this album files comfortably under “subtle masterpiece.” The group, posed somewhat oddly in a “stacked” formation, is rendered in a heavy yellowed tint, much like other photographs that might have been taken in the 1970s, but their stance doesn’t immediately hint too much about the sound of the record. Vocalist and guitarist Tom Verlaine stands front and center with his hand held up, possibly gripping something, though it’s not exactly clear. It forces you to stop for a second and look a little closer — up to the point where it becomes a strain to see if any glimpse of shadow affords itself behind Verlaine’s claw-like hands.
And that’s when you realize what you’re looking at. Verlaine sure is one ratty looking guy. His face is gaunt and his skin is sallow, and it’s somewhat hard to imagine those jagged bunches of veins and skin wrapped around a guitar without hearing the scrap of bone on metal. The whole image carries all the grotesque high-contrast realism of a Dutch vanitas painting (with a New-York-in-the-70s flourish courtesy of the white-on-black sans-serif). And just like those old paintings, a mixture of loose lines and rigid structure on the album make for a very distinct sound that is easy to miss on the first, second, and even third listen.
“Venus” is one of the earliest examples on record of Television’s precision and skill. This track starts off with thumping and repetitive riffs from all instruments until it all suddenly launches into a crisply executed series of jagged quarter notes — that’s the first hint. On paper, the idea of all members playing only quarter notes translates roughly into a boring and uninspired marching rhythm, but by putting a little variety between said passages (as well as a good amount of Verlaine’s nasal singspiel-ing) turn the track into a pulsing composition. When you’ve had enough of the contrast, the solo that populates the final 30 seconds provides a end that’s both formulaic and satisfying.
Side A of Marquee Moon ends with a sprawling 11-minute epic of a title track, which largely follows the same recipe as “Venus” (simple chugging rhythms and clean solos over idiosyncratic vocals, slowly feeding off each other). After a track with as much presence as “Marquee Moon”, it would seem difficult for Television to start up again with something in the same vein — so they don’t.
“Elevation” has the same initial swagger as “Venus”, but at the first refrain, the band breaks the regularity of the rhythm and launches into a off-center riff before employing a stop-start dynamic to introduce the next verse. This all makes an already angular sound even more uneven. The guitar solo is once again given center stage near the mid-point of the song, but this time Verlaine plays a little looser than before, dipping into the lower register before climbing towards a screeching high point, putting the cherry on top of the band’s most successfully enterprising song.
It might have been hard to look at Verlaine’s hands on the front cover and imagine them gliding over the fretboard, but after more than a few listens, I get it. The band’s sound is vastly dependent on those creepy, bony hands and all the angles they’re capable of creating.
Album: Marquee Moon
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)