Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Album: MARQUEE MOON
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Back in November 2011, after revisiting & writing about the complete discographies of six artists (Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Band, Roxy Music, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell), I wrote my first “B-Sides The Point” post on the band Television. The quartet of singer/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca are generally considered part of the late-‘70s CBGB’s punk scene but, as I wrote in that post, “they were more of an art-rock band that pointed to the New Wave movement which was only a couple of years away.” I made comparisons to earlier artists like The Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, contemporaries like Talking Heads, Devo and Tubeway Army (“especially in Verlaine’s nasal, Gary Numan-esque vocal delivery”) and their influence on Violent Femmes. Of course, those comparisons are only points of reference for anyone unfamiliar with this unique band. They began their brief recording career with a classic of that era & one of the best records of 1977, Marquee Moon, an album that deserves its own Forty Year Friday spotlight. Here’s what I had to say about it nearly 6 years ago and, after playing it again for the first time since then, I stand by every word. I hope you agree with this appraisal.
Marquee Moon is one of those rare records that doesn’t include a weak track or even a single wasted note, and should be up there on the list of best debut albums. I should note that Verlaine’s vocals are an acquired taste, so not everyone would love this band, but once you embrace that voice there’s so much to love about this band. The tom tom-driven groove on “See No Evil” owes a debt to Moe Tucker (of The Velvet Underground). The song itself has a youthful energy, a sparse arrangement, and a memorable stop-start chorus. The tempo slows down for “Venus” (not the Shocking Blue/Bananarama song, nor the one Frankie Avalon crooned in the ‘50s), a love song about the strange feelings you get when you meet someone and fall in love (“…like some kind of new drug, my senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves…”). I love the little guitar figure that plays behind the vocals. “Friction” has a great melodic yet angular guitar hook over a loping rhythm, and some great soaring guitar work. If Lou Reed sang in a higher register, this would’ve fit in during his “Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal” era.
The epic, 10+ minutes of “Marquee Moon” really separates them from their punk rock contemporaries. I love the offbeat groove that opens the song, with a hint of reggae influence (although it’s a little more metronomic). It’s got a great climbing guitar pattern at the end of each verse. There’s an extended instrumental section that begins at around 4:30, and I especially enjoyed how Ficca’s drum pattern shifts throughout while keeping a steady rhythm. Things slow down for a minute before returning to the original groove, with the first verse repeated. This song takes the listener on quite a ride. “Elevation” reminds me of a slightly slowed-down version of “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by The Greg Kihn Band, which wouldn’t be released until 1981. It features a tasty Lloyd guitar solo, great syncopation during the chorus, and some nice hi-hat work by Ficca. “Guiding Light” is a pretty ballad with a lilting melody (especially at “All this night running loud”), and a sweet-sounding guitar solo that complements the melody of the song (a la Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet”).
I really love the stop-start rhythm, with stinging lead guitar, in the chorus of “Prove It” (“Prove it…Just The Facts…The Confidential”). Verlaine plays a Neil Young-esque guitar solo, and also sings some very abstract lyrics (“…the smell of water would resume…”; “…you lose your sense of human…”; “…the world is just a feeling you undertook…”). Who cares what it’s about when the music is so good? Album closer “Torn Curtain” begins with a Ficca drum roll on tuned tom toms (climbing & falling, like a tympani). It’s slow and moody, like one of Richard Thompson’s darker songs (with a solo to match that brilliant guitarist). The main hook appears in the chorus vocals on “Tears…Tears…Rolling back the years” (and later, “Years, flowing by like tears”). It’s a powerful end to a phenomenal album. [Note: The 2003 Rhino reissue includes both parts of their earlier single, “Little Johnny Jewel.” It has some cool, dissonant guitar playing, perhaps influenced by Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart, and I love the two 3-note descending guitar figures during the verses. It’s nice to have this addendum, but it isn’t essential to enjoying the original album].