Of all the bands that made CBGB the legend that it is today, Television just doesn’t fit the proverbial bill. Unlike other genre-defining CBGB alums of the mid to late seventies — the punk rock that was the Ramones, the pop rock that was Blondie, or art pop that was Talking Heads — Television was, and still is, a tough band to categorize. With chromatic rock guitars, a tinge of jazz, avant-garde approach to arrangements, a bit of late sixties pop, and sometimes surreal lyrics, Television never approached the level of success of many of their peers. Still, their influence is undeniable.
Founded in late 1973 by Tom Verlaine (vocalist and guitarist) and Richard Hell (vocalist and bassist), with Richard Lloyd (as second guitarist), and Billy Ficca (on drums), they performed their first gig in March, 1974. Soon thereafter, they became regulars at CBGB. Arguably, they were the club’s first “rock” band. By 1975, they had developed a cult following. Richard Hell (he of punk anthem “Blank Generation” fame) left, and Fred Smith, briefly of Blondie, joined.
In early 1977, they released their first album, Marquee Moon. The critics loved it. Bands that came after them (most notably, R.E.M) were heavily influenced by it. And many a list compiled by magazines includes it among the best albums of all time.
In a review in April 1977’s Rolling Stone, critic Ken Tucker — comparing Marquee Moon to the Ramones’ second album and Blondie’s self-titled debut — called it the “most interesting and audacious of [the three], and the most unsettling.” Indeed a bit unsettling, Verlaine’s voice is distinctly angular. The lyrics are oblique. And the interlocking guitar stylings are at once captivating and jarring. But it all works to serve a sound that is unlike any other.
Anyone unaware or not convinced of Tom Verlaine’s gift for lyricism need only look at these scant few lines from “Friction” to appreciate his knack for catchy, cryptic, and sometimes outright crazy lyrics:
My eyes are like telescopes
I see it all backwards: but who wants hope?
If I ever catch that ventriloquist
I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist.
And then there are lines so poetic — like the end of the titular track — that they stick with you long after they’re sung.
How the darkness doubled
Lightning struck itself
I was listening
Listening to the rain
I was hearing
Hearing something else
“They are one in a million,” wrote British music journalist Nick Kent in NME (New Musical Express) [excerpted from the 2003 Rhino re-release of the album]. “The songs are some of the greatest ever. The album is Marquee Moon.”
Television would break up in 1978 after only producing one more album. Although they would reform in 1992 and release an eponymous LP, the band never again attained the level of innovation that is Marquee Moon.