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9th February 2023

Lightning struck itself: Tom Verlaine, Television, and Marquee Moon

Reflecting upon the illustrious life and legacy of Television founder Tom Verlaine after his passing on January 28
Lightning struck itself: Tom Verlaine, Television, and Marquee Moon
Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Television are not underrated, but they are underestimated. The announcement of Tom Verlaine’s death on the January 28 saw a huge outpouring of tributes and memories from music fans and musicians alike, and I was struck by the uniformity of it all. It would be apt to draw the conclusion, from this, that a huge part of the post-punk genre owes itself to the shimmering, timeless sound of Verlaine’s guitar playing.

The punk movement in New York of the 1970s is well-covered. There are many outstanding tributes that historicise Tom Verlaine’s significance beautifully. Alexis Petridis in The Guardian called Verlaine “aloof, introspective and a hugely gifted and original musician”; maybe not the characteristics one would associate with the genesis of punk.

Television, in its early days, operated on the axis of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s synergy and bassist Richard Hell’s (later of Richard Hell and the Voidoids) more explicit and graphic punk attitude. The relationship between Verlaine and Hell soon broke down before Television released their first single.

Their debut album, Marquee Moon, was a commercial failure in the US, but saw success in the UK, fuelled by rock critics. It signified the beginning of post-punk, with the titular track throwing down the gauntlet.

‘Marquee Moon’ is the most outstanding piece of music, outside of considering its impact and its legacy. It’s a total unicorn of a track. The glistening guitar lines of the introduction lay on a bed of peacefulness. Verlaine’s urgent and haunting lyrics obtusely add to this; they acknowledge and don’t shy away from emotion, but never dwell. They express, to me, that sometimes things aren’t going to be okay, but it’s never the end. It transcends a moment; a lot of music finds its beauty in snapshotting moments in time, but ‘Marquee Moon’ exists outside of time itself.

Every time you think that the track couldn’t get sweeter in it’s early stages, it resets, and Verlaine comes at you with another idea, another sense of understanding. In an interview, he suggested that the original version had 20 verses. Lloyd’s solo is expressive, intense, and searching. It’s trying to recall a happy memory of the past, whilst also being content in the present. It’s a fiercely intellectual track, that breaks the ten minute barrier without feeling lengthy, and accomplishes the wisdom of a lifetime.

Tom Verlaine’s musing of “I was listening, listening to the rain / I was hearing, hearing something else” perhaps unintentionally became a manifesto for ‘Marquee Moon’ and Television’s legacy. The band split after two albums, yet reformed several times in the last 30 years. They played Manchester a handful of times in the 21st century.

The list of bands that cite their influence range far and wide, and the alternative bands that don’t cite their influence are either lying or don’t know it. Fingerprints can be heard all over the NME-dictated indie of the 1980s (Marquee Moon received a two page spotlight at its release), and that music influenced the indie music of the 1990s.

R.E.M.’s off-kilter delivery, the Pixies’ erudite ferocity, and Pavement’s jagged and wonky style all owe a part of themselves to Television. More recently, even Black Country, New Road’s marrying of nostalgic and soaring beauty with oftentimes gruelling distress uses the same technique as ‘Marquee Moon’. They were all ‘listening to the rain’, and all interpreted it differently to create brilliant music. Figures ranging from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai led tributes:

Tom Verlaine’s passing has caused the music world to re-evaluate Television’s legacy. I hope that they pick up some new fans. But, there’s no doubt that the band’s legacy was always cemented and the annuls of history won’t forget Television’s impact. That’s all conversations for the future, however. For now, my thoughts are with the friends and family of Verlaine, and may he rest in peace. Television truly embraced life; thank you.

R.I.P. Tom Verlaine (1949-2023)

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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