Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: ‘33 1/3: Marquee Moon'

The late-‘70s punk movement gestated for a long time— some may say it began way back in 1963 when The Stones’ recorded Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” as a hyperkinetic rave barely crossing the 90-second mark. Punk slipped through some unexpected variations on its way to becoming one of Rock’s most dogmatic splinters in 1977, when even the wrinkliest journalists knew the formula: two chords, two minutes, some spiky-haired scuzzo from London or NYC screeching about anarchy. Television did not fit that bill at all, yet they sat among the handful of bands that could really be credited with launching punk. They broke in CBGB for Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and all the other bands that would establish the former home of country, blue grass, and blues as ground zero for New York Punk. Tom Verlaine’s snotty yowl wasn’t radically different from Johnny Rotten’s or Stiv Bators’s, but neither The Sex Pistols nor The Dead Boys would have ever played a ten-minute anthem streaked with ecstatic runs of psychedelic guitar, nor would they have composed lyrics as evocative and poetic as Verlaine’s.

Television could be transcendent on stage, but harnessing that fluid magic on vinyl was tricky. After a false start recording demos with Brian Eno, who one might think would be a perfect match with Television’s atmospheric sensibility, they tried again with Andy Johns, best known for his work with Led Zeppelin and The Stones. The collaboration was surprisingly right (at least once Johns stopped miking Billy Ficca’s drumkit to sound like John Bonham's). Ambitious and beautiful, Marquee Moon is a rare jewel. Television crumbled nearly as soon as their debut was released, managing one other record, the so-so Adventure, before going on hiatus for nearly 15 years.

Bryan Waterman accomplishes quite a lot in chronicling Television’s bumpy path toward making Marquee Moon in his new book for the “33 1/3” series. His book serves as a well-researched biography of the band’s earliest days, which means it tells the portion of Television’s story that will most interest fans. Waterman maintains focus on the music, so anyone looking for anecdotes about Richard Lloyd’s days as a prostitute or other tabloid tales should stick with their copies of Please Kill Me. Yet we still get a rich portrait of the band because so much of their history is relevant to how Marquee Moon was created: the friendship between Verlaine and bassist Richard Hell and their bitter break, Verlaine’s relationship with Patti Smith, new bassist Fred Smith’s defecting from Blondie, the history of CBGB and the New York punk and poetry scenes. Waterman details the album’s recording before providing individual analyses of its tracks, doing his best in the face of Verlaine’s tendency toward the cryptic. Compact yet comprehensive, Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon crams a lot of interesting information and insights onto its 211 tiny pages.

Get 33 1/3: Marquee Moon at Amazon.com here.
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