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.
I remember How the darkness doubled I recall 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.
In early 1977, Marc Bolan — enigmatic English singer, songwriter, and charismatic leader of one of glam rock’s seminal bands, T. Rex — was past his prime. The success that came with UK #1 hits like “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” from 1971’s Electric Warrior and “Telegram Sam” from 1972’s The Slider, was largely behind him. Tax problems found him in exile for a while in the early seventies, T. Rex’s lineup of musicians kept changing, and his marriage had fallen apart due to his infidelity. But with a new band and a new tour supported by popular young punks, The Damned, Bolan was making a comeback in 1977. He had gotten a new band together, and, later that year, Granada Television gave him his very own show — a daytime variety hour simply titled Marc.
Marc ran in the late summer / early autumn of 1977, and gave Bolan the opportunity to showcase his music for a new audience. Daytime television was primarily aimed at teens and tweens — an audience for whom glam rock meant little. But new music — punk and new wave — was starting to chart, and Bolan (or his producers) smartly took advantage of mixing up his hits (often oddly lip-synced with guitars rarely even plugged in) with exciting new acts like Generation X, Radio Stars, and The Jam.
Other than Bolan performing “Show Me a Song” to start things off, The Jam were the first band to perform on Marc. Call them punks or mods revivalist, The Jam were a far cry from glam rock — a band born of the early seventies, but unlike anything else from the pop scene of the period. Bolan seemed somewhat uncomfortable, or at least unorganized, as he sat against the stage in a leopard jump suit reading the band’s name from a tiny promotional badge. It is as if the past of pop music was confronting its future in a way only possible in the turbulent nineteen seventies. But, instead of conflict, there was confusion. Bolan seemed lost in front of the camera. Drugs and alcohol were reputedly not to blame (Bolan had kicked his addictions by 1977). No, this confusion seemed more like a man trying to find his place in a music landscape that had changed on him. Immediately after The Jam, out came a cadre of female dancers awkwardly choreographed to Bolan lip-syncing “I Love to Boogie.”
Many believed that Bolan truly embraced the new music. Captain Sensible, guitarist for The Damned, spoke highly of him. But others thought he was an opportunist. “Marc would’ve embraced any movement as long as it reflected well among the gullible,” said Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel. “I say this with no criticism and no malice,” he added. “Marc was a fully paid-up member of the Fantasy Island Club.” (for more on this and more, read this great article by noted music journalist Geoff Barton).
In denial, or simply an opportunist, Bolan was still a full-fledged rock star — in every sense of the word. Bigger than life. Flashy. Always entertaining, and forever “other” — no matter how silly the costumes or the posturing became.
He would inspire countless musicians. Early on it was The New York Dolls and The Ramones. Then came the post-punks: Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus (the latter whose cover of Telegram Sam is arguably better than the original). Later in the nineteen eighties came The Power Station. Their “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” would chart even higher in the US than the original. Oasis‘s guitarist, Noel Gallagher and Joey Santiago of The Pixies both cite Bolan as an influence on their style. Both Morrissey and Nick Cave have covered “Cosmic Dancer.” The list goes on and on.
But the artist whose work is most associated with Bolan is not one who covered him, but a contemporary. A friend. Even a competitor. It was David Bowie.
Faces on the Mt. Rushmore of Glam Rock, Bowie and Bolan met in 1964, when David was still David Jones. Their careers developed in parallel ways throughout the early seventies, and by the time of Bowie’s massive “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, there was conjecture that Bowie’s “Lady Stardust,” was even a tribute to Bolan. After retiring Ziggy, Bowie would abandon glam, and embrace first American R&B, then later, influences like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Bolan, however, remained the quintessential guitar-based glam rock star. It arguable hurt his career— with television’s Marc as his last hurrah.
Fitting then that David Bowie was the last performer on the show. Singing “Heroes,” Bowie seems somewhat cold and distant — both from his past, and from Bolan. Bowie reputedly directed and orchestrated his own performance, not involving Bolan’s input at all. This didn’t sit well with Bolan, whose sole and final interaction with Bowie would be a jam session at the end of the last Marc show — one than ended with a humorous, and almost prophetic fall from the stage. Bowie smiles, and that’s the end of the show (for more details, see Roger Griffin’s day by day Bowie biography).
Curiously, Bowie would go on the following month to record his now famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby. Ever the chameleon, Bowie learned to adapt to changing times; and Bolan, unable to shed the leopard tights and feather boas, was the equivalent of a green peacock — flashy and nearly extinct.
A little over a week after filming the Marc show with Bowie, Bolan would be dead. With his girlfriend Gloria Jones at the wheel, driving the couple home early in the morning of 16 September, Bolan’s purple Mini Cooper slammed into a tree. Bolan died on impact. The final episode of Marc (with Bowie) ran posthumously. The show had ended after only six episodes.
Leaving a definitive mark on rock and roll, Bolan has become a rare thing in pop music: part iconoclast, and part icon. He left behind over a decade’s worth of material. Songs like the infectious “20th Century Boy” continue to get used in all manner of movies and television commercials, and, this year, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of T. Rex).