Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Hell and high water: Television, New York punk pioneers

Iconic New York proto-punk band;s debut was released in 77, containing the acclaimed track, Marquee Moon

While many believe that the iconoclastic punk music started in London in late 1976, like many revolutions in sound, the revolt had begun earlier in a different place.

New York in the mid 70s had attracted the attention of the Sex Pistol’s manager, Malcolm McLaren as he headed out to manage the then decaying city’s trashiest band, the New York Dolls, giving him ideas he would take across the Atlantic and call his own.

The New York scene that was based around the legendary dive bar, CBGB, out of which came bands like Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Joan Jett and Talking Heads.

But before even these, there was Television, a group formed by Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine and their music, edgy yet melodic, abrasive yet tuneful was more like the birth of independent music than mere punk.

By the mid 70s they had rebuffed several major labels, including making a recording for Island records, produced by Brian Eno, but this too was rejected as Verlaine didn’t like Eno’s efforts, saying, "He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance. We're oriented towards really strong guitar music ... sort of expressionistic."

Patti Smith got them another label and her boyfriend produced a session, but Verlaine still wanted his hands on the dials. Hell left and Fred Smith of Blondie took over the bass.

Eventually in the hot summer of 1976, Verlaine was offered the chance to produce, and got former Rolling Stones producer Andy Johns to assist. In preparation, the band rehearsed the album all day, every day, rejecting most of their creations over the last three years.

The album was almost entirely recorded live in the studio, in one take, including the title track, which some of the band thought was a rehearsal not a recording. No frills were added to the production, leaving a minimal, authentic feel.

In February 1977 it was released.

Verlaine later said, “As peculiar as it sounds, I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought ‘Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I’d realise the title track is ten minutes long, with two guitar solos.”

It was something very different. Jason Heller of The A.V. Club described it as an "elegantly jagged art-punk opus" which it is, and the guitar work between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd made the record one of the most striking and innovative in rock music.

The cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, Lloyd too the photo to a copy shop and got the copyist to play with the colours while reproducing, which the band preferred to the original photo. The copy went on the cover, the photo on Smith’s wall.

Many reviews were highly positive; often slightly bewildered as it was something strange and new.

Many may not have heard of it, but if your tastes ever reach beyond the mainstream, your favourite guitarist has almost certainly been influenced by this album and its mesmerising title track.

Try it. From its doubled not beginning and another guitar riff floats around till the bass, then drums come in and finally, the strained, plaintive flowing vocal starts, “I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself,” and you’re off on a remarkable track from the most influential album you may never have heard of.

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