Television go to my head as Marquee Moon rises over Belfast

This week’s post has been retrieved from the ether archives, where it had languished for quite some time. In fact it was first published by Spooky on the 21st of August 2015 at 4:30pm on Spooky Wood’s Echo Location; a blog which had the following as its typically full-blown description:

Welcome, fellow travellers through the sonic lands beyond the citadel of commercial kak and the assembly line[up] of Frankenstein’s [X]factory. These missives are directed to those prepared to accept the sonic challenge of an alternative diorama (or should that be aurarama?); featuring writings and ramblings which take as their reference point all manner of resonant and reverberant noise and silence located in, and influenced by, the specific geographic environment from which they spring.

Almost exactly forty years ago, on the 7th June 1975, NME published a review of a gig in CBGBs New York, penned by the then current wunderkind of rock journalism, Charles Shaar Murray. Entitled “Patti Smith: Down in the scuzz with the heavy cult figures”, CSM gave the reader a little (typically snarling) scene setting:

CBGB is a toilet. An impossibly scuzzy little club buried somewhere in the sections of the Village that the cab-drivers don’t like to drive through. It looks as if the proprietors kick holes in the walls and piss in the corners before they let the customers in: fo’ the atmosphere, you dig…

The long view of CBGBs across Bowery that fabulous summer of ’77. Photo credit David Godlis

He then moved on to a close quarters examination of Smith’s support act: Television, who he described as being “New York’s equivalent to The Feelgoods” – Lee, Wilko et al. Murray went on to note that despite “the obvious cultural differences between Manhattan and Canvey Island,” the similarities were astounding:

[b]oth bands play chopped-down, hard-edged, no-bullshit rock and roll, totally eschewing the preening Mickey-Mouse decadence that poleaxed the previous new wave of NY bands. Television don’t dress up and they don’t even move much.

What impressed him most about the fledgling Television however was not their eschewing of the need for “show”, in all its myriad forms, but rather that they embodied both “the traditional and the revolutionary” – in short they demonstrated “an imaginative return to basics.” 

When the band’s first album, Marquee Moon, was released in 1977 it was the strangeness created by the alchemical amalgamation of the traditional (expected) and the revolutionary (unexpected) which caused shockwaves within the conclaves of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Rumour had it that Verlaine had isolated himself from the influence of other guitarists, locked away in his room, forming a partnership with his guitar on his own terms – and whilst this scenario smacks a little of the Robert Johnson/ crossroads/ devil pact anecdote,  certainly there would appear to be some sonic evidence to support this. But however he arrived at the strange licks and lines, they dripped with mystery and exoticism and combined with the avant-garde jazz influenced riffery of his fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd to create what Garry Mulholland described in his excellent review of post punk/ disco albums Fear of Music as “garage band tone poetry, closely related to Patti Smith’s rock-as-ultimate-freedom music”.1

And so to June 13th 2015; the venue, the Limelight in Belfast – most definitely not a toilet, is crammed with an expectant crowd of predominantly male middle-aged musos – as Mulholland noted he rarely found anyone who was not a “white middle class male musician, journalist, DJ or trainspotter indie rock nerd,” who liked the album or the band.

The Salt Flats – harmonising support act

Local act The Salt Flats, who are as young as Verlaine and the members of Television were in 1975, carry off their support act duties with harmonic aplomb. By the time they complete their short set and leave the stage, there has been a subtle change in the ambience/ atmosphere: from excited expectation to heightened tension – most likely generated by the niggling doubt that it will be impossible for a band forty years from the space and time when they captured their “garage band tone poetry” on the Marquee Moon album to replicate it in the here and now (even with three of the four 1977 band members.)

Lingering fears mount as the band take the stage and begin an extensive round of tuning, which seems to be some sort of nerve-fuelled avoidance tactic, and then seem to stumble into the intro to ‘See No Evil’; a couple of bars in, however, they hit their stride and what follows, track by track, is the most perfect marriage of accuracy of reproduction and improvisation. Verlaine and fellow guitarist Jimmy Rip will continue with the painstaking tuning between each number, but eventually it takes on the feel of performance art or arcane ritual, breaking down the invisible barrier between band and audience –  an illusory wall which is further dismantled by Verlaine’s conversations with the “lighting guy”, eventually reducing the already minimal lighting to a steady blue light – which only serves to enhance the other-worldly feel of the music and lyrics.

For some reason on looking back, I imagine that the album tracks are played in sequence with a slightly longer pause between the final track on side one of the original vinyl (‘Marquee Moon’) and track one of side two – just to strengthen the connection with the past of band, album and audience: however, when I consult the set listing online it does not correspond with my memory! The more I think about it the more I know that my memory (in this one and only instance) is to be trusted. The reason? Well, quite simply the first side of the MM album contains for me the standout tracks on a standout album and when Television got through that sequence of tracks (‘See No Evil’, ‘Venus’, ‘Friction’ and ‘Marquee Moon’) on the night, I was in a conflicted state oscillating between ecstasy and despair – the bliss of experiencing tempered with the realisation that it will soon end (like when your reflexologist begins work on your second foot). 2

 During ‘Friction’ I closed my eyes and my imagination arced back to 1977 and, that temporal link made, it was as if I was eighteen again – experiencing Television live in both their and my heyday. And that’s one of the many super powers which music possesses – instant transportation beyond temporal and spatial limitations and restrictions: the listener’s subjective twilight zone where things are not only as they were but also as they should have been and as they should be now – music is the proximate cause which can set in motion movement towards reality as we want it to be. As listeners, we also make a connection with the imagination which facilitated the creation of the piece and which is realised in the words and music either performed for us in the room we share with the composers/performers or relayed via an electronic device: this stimulates our own imaginative faculties and eventually spawns new original works of a similar or disparate form.

When the band finally leave the stage – having tagged ‘Persia’ and ‘1888 Or So’ onto the end of Marquee Moon by way of an encore – the atmosphere is one of amazement crossed with extreme contentment. We exit as the buzz mounts, our expectations fully sated, senses elevated and then some, into a summer’s evening in Belfast. As we go down a side street and silence spreads, I see Tom Verlaine at the back of the venue having a well-earned smoke – I shout my thanks and he gives me the thumbs up: another connection just as the moon, quite appropriately, rises above the city and the cadillac pulls back into the graveyard.

A 1963 Superior Cadillac Hearse seen at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Philadelphia, PA


1. Although Mulholland does make the error of confusing bass player Fred Smith with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 – we can forgive him this minor blip in a work of perfection, described by Julie Burchill as “the finest book this century”! 
 2.What do you mean you don’t have a reflexologist? GET ONE NOW!

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