The opening riffs of ‘Marquee Moon’ by Television remain some of the most recognisable in the history of rock music. The addictively repetitive guitar leads into a ten-minute art punk masterpiece, complete with Tom Verlaine’s lyrical meditations on life’s hardships.
‘Marquee Moon’ is a sharp-angled odyssey through uncertainty and aimlessness, with Verlaine seemingly at a crossroads in his life. Throughout the song, he finds himself exposed to the ideologies of other people, as he sings, “He said ‘Look here, Junior/Don’t you be so happy/ And for Heaven’s sake/Don’t you be so sad’”, before realising that he no longer wants to feel complacent, “I ain’t waitin’.”
Verlaine uses metaphorical imagery of graveyards, darkness, rain and lightning to evoke feelings of loneliness and struggle, yet, instrumentally, the song is far from bleak. The extended instrumental breaks are moments of pure optimism and determination, reflecting Verlaine’s decision to accept life in all its contradictions and difficulties.
This is indicative of the scene that spawned it. At the time, New York City was a hellhole of hardships following the loss of 500,000 manufacturing jobs in a matter of years. A 1970s-stylised dystopia was taking shape with violence, drugs and danger running rampant. But the kids of the new revolution stood firm, rolled with the punches, and tried to reclaim the youthful spirit of rock. As one-time Television leader Richard Hell once wrote: “Things always change, and New York teaches you that.” That is, essentially, what the song is about.
“I was listening, Listening to the rain,” the lyrics decree, “I was hearing, Hearing something else.” This dichotomy of darkness followed by defiant hope is a symbol of punk in many ways. Society might have been looking dystopian, but there were good times to be had down by the ‘Marquee Moon’. The battling guitars almost symbolise this musically too.
The song remains the band’s greatest work, appearing on their debut album of the same name. Although it was released in 1977, the song took shape many years prior when the band frequently played at New York’s iconic underground venue CBGBs. Alongside Patti Smith, the band had a residency at the bar, with the two becoming significant figures in the development of punk.
Through the years, the band played the song in various iterations, eventually extending it into a ten-minute piece which moves between slow, melodic segments and faster yet intricate moments. Talking to Melody Maker in 1977, Verlaine said: “‘Marquee Moon’ was written about three years ago, and actually, it had 20 verses to it. It’s a song I used to do on acoustic guitar.”
The first available demo of ‘Marquee Moon’ was recorded by Television’s manager Terry Ork in 1974. However, the band were dissatisfied and went on to record another demo, this time with Brian Eno and Richard Williams from Island Records, which Television also disliked and subsequently scrapped. For an article published by The Guardian, Williams explained that he was “keen to find something new – something that wasn’t wearing denim or glitter, neither prog nor glam. Something that felt different, that felt like a possible future. Television looked as though they could be it.”
Yet, Verlaine couldn’t get ‘Marquee Moon’ quite right, with Williams recalling, “Very few people at [Island Records] showed a positive response to the demos.”
However, Verlaine knew that there was major potential in his epic song, eventually finding success when he and engineer Andy Johns took charge of production. The song was recorded during sessions at New York’s A&R Recording, with ‘Marquee Moon’ completed in one take. Drummer Billy Ficca wasn’t even aware that he was recording what would become the final take, but Verlaine insisted they’d captured what he had set out to achieve.
Upon its release, the song found great success in the UK, which was much more receptive to punk than the US. However, ‘Marquee Moon’ cannot simply be classified as punk – it transcends the genre with its otherworldy solos, standing in contrast to the short, quick-paced, in-your-face-ness of early punk.
Instead, ‘Marquee Moon’ paved the way for the emerging post-punk genre, with Verlaine incorporating vast influences into the song’s composition. He once said: “I would play until something happened. That comes from jazz, or even The Doors, or the Five Live Yardbirds album — that kinda rave-up dynamics.”
According to guitarist Richard Lloyd, the song is “really quite structured”. Detailing further, he told Songfacts, “It’s like a mini-symphony. Towards the end of the song, Tom gets a long solo, and he would often meander through parts of it, but we had it structured.”
Lloyd continued: “I do the song on my own as well, and it’s really quite structured: There’s a part that’s loud, and there’s a part that’s soft, and there’s a build-up, then there’s a climb – there’s actually three sets of climbs – then there’s what we call the ‘birdies’, and then another section and then the verse comes back in.”
Adding: “So it was pretty well structured after that period of time of aching to look for proper parts for it. And there’s a great deal of syncopation going on in it with the drums coming in sounding backwards and my part that trills off the one. It’s not easy to learn.”