Television’s Marquee Moon, now 40 years old and as forward-thinking as ever, is a record that is unassuming in its ability to change a person’s perceptions of rock music. Speaking from personal experience, hearing it for the first time was life-affirming, changing the way I heard music and how I interpreted what music could do. Like The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, Television laid the groundwork for most of the music I would fall in love with afterwards (at least until I learned to adore hip-hop).
Yet, when I think about the music that influenced me the most, they don’t instantly come to mind, mainly because their power was in what they combined as opposed to what they created. Television’s big accomplishment was realizing that prowess didn’t define genre; that you could create dark, hard-hitting punk rock with guitar solos that put most AOR hitmakers to shame. Similar to The Clash, Television saw punk not merely as an attitude but as an eclectic subsection of rock music through which other styles could be combined, interwoven, and transformed. Just as The Clash used punk to reshape reggae (and vise-versa), Television used jazz influence and arena-rock guitar-play to bring the CBGB scene to another, more diverse level. Thus, their influence, major as it was, wasn’t majorly felt in the bare-bones punk rock of the time, but in the post-punk and indie-rock that would come out in later decades.
The problem with this, and a major reason why Television doesn’t register on the level of other ingenious bands, is that interconnectedness doesn’t stand out as easily as the creation of something wholly new. If you’ve heard any strong guitar records, especially from Jimi Hendrix (who guitarist Richard Lloyd knew as a teenager) and certain electric-blues musicians, the band’s solos won’t stand out as particularly new or inventive, and their punk elements were reserved in a way other bands from the early New York and London scenes weren’t. But by combining these elements, they were able to introduce new ways to define a genre of music and even make people question the importance of genre in general, as truly progressive artists should do.
At the same time, the guitar-work of Lloyd and Tom Verlaine is enough to make you wonder why Television’s records are so much stronger and more original than the AOR and progressive rock that had similarly tight musicianship. Ultimately, it comes down to necessity. While they were indeed adventurous and musically complex for an early punk rock group, to the point where original bassist Richard Hell had to be replaced for not keeping up on “Marquee Moon,” they never abandoned the idea that you should stick to what’s necessary. Instead, they simply redefined what was necessary. At 10 minutes long, the title cut doesn’t waste a note, and the same can be said for (at least) the entire first side.
The second side is a bit less sturdy—the perfection of “See No Evil,” “Venus,” “Friction,” and “Marquee Moon” is pretty unlikely to be duplicated, so anything following that sequence would disappoint. Nevertheless, the weakest song on the album, “Guiding Light,” sounds like what would happen if Journey learned how to write songs. The guitar solo on this song is Television at their most prog, sounding like it should be played in a packed arena as a few thousand people put their lighters in the air. But it’s beautiful, and like the rest of the record, it doesn’t overdo anything. Beyond that, the second side features at least one track that manages to live up to the opening four songs: “Prove It,” the best piece of hard-boiled fiction to be released in rock and roll form.
Today, Television remains a revelatory band for any fan (or future fan) of punk and alternative music. As a teenager in the late-2000s, I couldn’t imagine them impacting me any more if I’d actually bought the album upon release. Listening today, it sounds fresh as ever, a record that rewrote the rules while sticking to a familiar script; in current bands like Parquet Courts and Car Seat Headrest, I can hear Television’s influence being rewoven and updated the same way.