Monday 22 May 2017

Music - Television: NYC's art-punk pioneers

Tom Verlaine
Tom Verlaine
John Meagher

John Meagher

Thirty eight years have passed since Television's Marquee Moon was released and it still ranks as one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

I came to it many years after its release, when I was in my early 20s. A rock-obsessed colleague thrust a battered CD copy into my hands and urged me to give it my full attention. He also insisted I become acquainted with another 1970s obsession of his - Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic - but it was Marquee Moon that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go. I return to it time and again and it never gets stale.

I will be listening to it even more than normal over the next fortnight, because the New Yorkers will be in Dublin on Friday, June 12, for an intimate show at the Academy and most of the eight songs on Marquee Moon are likely to feature prominently.

Tom Verlaine, the band's enigmatic frontman, has intimated that the Television are at work on a new album. It's a tantalising thought, but aficionados won't hold their breaths. The last album, Television, was released in 1992 and, in truth, failed to make much of an impact in an landscape turned on its head by grunge and the ascension of REM from college rock gods to the U2 league. It was only their third album and came 14 years after their sophomore effort, Adventure - a fine album in its own right, but one that couldn't match the heights of the illustrious Marquee Moon, which was released just a year before.

I never cease to be taken with the number of musicians I've interviewed over the years who cite that album as a landmark release. They talk of how the guitars paint vivid brush-strokes, of Verlaine's faintly Jagger-esque delivery, of the channelling of the art-rock pioneered by fellow New Yorkers Velvet Underground a decade before. It may have arrived the same year that punk went mainstream in Britain, but it's very much a post-punk release, an avant-garde statement that rock can be both thrilling and cerebral.

English music journalist Will Hodgkinson, author of the entertaining Guitar Man, includes Marquee Moon in a top 10 album list that every guitarist - and lover of the instrument - should own. Despite their punk credentials, Hodgkinson argues that there's a level of musicianship at play on the album that was completely at odds with the brute sonic attack of many of their contemporaries.

"This album has nothing to do with the primitive mentality [punk] championed. Set against an unswerving beat that nails you to the wall, the title track features the electric guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd entangled in a spiky dance, playing off one another and providing a mesmerising, stringent soundtrack to elliptical lyrics that are either totally meaningless or contain the secrets of the universe."

It's as good a description of that marvellous song as I've ever read, and it could be used to describe other tracks on the album, too. Even in this age of downloads and streaming, many artists feel they have to make an album that fills all 74 minutes of a standard CD. Marquee Moon weighs in at just over 45 minutes, but contains more riffs and hooks and ideas and flights of fancy than most bands achieve in a lifetime. And despite each being comparatively long, there's so little that's extraneous - it's hard to think of one song on the album that would be improved by having.

It's very much a New York album, too, alive with the atmosphere of then run-down but hugely atmospheric Lower East Side. Television were the first band to play the soon-to-be iconic CBGBs venue in that part of Manhattan and this album captures the scuzzy, nocturnal energy of that place and time. CBGBs closed its doors some years ago, no longer relevant in a place that had cleaned itself up to such an extent in the past couple of decades that the New York Television recorded in is utterly unrecognisable.

The band formed in 1973 and quickly amassed a feverish following on New York's proto-punk scene. Once signed to Elektra Records in early 1976, they sent about rehearsing incessantly and had honed their sound to such an extent that when it came to recording the album in studio, many of the songs were nailed in a single take.

The striking photograph of the band on the album cover, rendered in a painterly style, is the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most significant fashion photographers of the era and the man responsible for the now iconic shot of Patti Smith that graces the cover of her great debut album, Horses.

As is so often the case, the album sold poorly on initial release, especially in the US. It fared much better in the UK, where it was the subject of a rapturous review by Nick Kent, one of the "hip young gun-slingers" of the then hugely influential NME. Kent's long critique is well worth reading for those music hacks feeling a bit jaded by their trade - Google it - and his words no doubt encouraged many to buy that LP.

"This, Television's first album," he wrote, "is a record most adamantly not fashioned merely for the NY avant-garde rock cognoscenti. It is a record for everyone who boasts a taste for a new exciting music expertly executed, finely in tune, sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics, chord structures centred around a totally invigorating passionate application to the vision of Tom Verlaine."

Verlaine was 26 when the album came out and he would never scale such heights again. One senses that the very album that made his name has long proved to be a millstone.

"The people that have mentioned it to me in the past 20 years or so have been young enough to be my children," he told an Irish journalist on his last visit here in 2013. "But I don't want to really talk about that record any more. I don't know why people have such an interest in it. So much has been mentioned about that album there's probably not much more that can be said."

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