On Feb. 8, 1977, Television, one of the most revered bands on the New York punk rock scene, finally made the jump from live act to a band with a studio album under their belt. And to no one’s particular surprise, the album met with almost instant acclaim and is still considered one of the most important LPs in rock history.
Produced by Andy Johns and guitarist/lead vocalist Tom Verlaine, Marquee Moon came into existence at New York’s A&R Recording, where it was recorded in September 1976. It was a long time coming, however, as the band was already getting interest from labels as far back as the end of 1974. Indeed, they’d had talks with Island Records which reached such a point as to result in the band recording demos with Brian Eno for “Friction,” “Prove It,” “Venus,” and the song that would eventually become their debut album’s title track, “Marquee Moon.”
Regrettably, Eno’s production didn’t work for the band. “He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance,” Verlaine told Barney Hoskyns in an interview with Uncut. “We’re oriented towards really strong guitar music...sort of expressionistic.”
Another notable change took place before the band finally got around to releasing their debut album: founding bassist Richard Hell left the lineup, replaced by Fred Smith, who meshed well with Television’s other guitarist, Richard Lloyd. As a result of doing a residency at CBGB with Patti Smith, the band secured an opportunity to record some demos for Arista Records, and while the results were better than what they’d laid down with Eno, Verlaine wanted to be able to produce Television’s debut album himself, and that wasn’t going to be an option with Arista.
Thankfully, Verlaine was able to get what he wanted from Elektra Records, albeit with one caveat: he was going to have to agree to be assisted by a recording engineer of some note. Fortunately, Verlaine was able to find someone he wanted who also met with Elektra’s standards: the aforementioned Andy Johns, best known - at least to Verlaine - for his work on The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup. Johns worked well with the band, although there were a few occasions, such as on the title track, where the band surprised him by deciding to only do one take of a song.
When Marquee Moon finally hit record store shelves with its Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo...well, let’s just say that its commercial success did not in any way, shape or form match its critical acclaim. Indeed, it failed to even so much as crack the Billboard 200, likely because it wasn’t exactly what one might describe as radio-friendly in the disco-crazed America of ’77. On the other hand, the LP did crack the top 30 in both the U.K. and - of all places - Sweden.
Lastly, the title track of Marquee Moon remains the best-known tune on the album, so much so that it was covered by The Kronos Quartet for 1990's Rubáiyát, the Elektra Records 40th anniversary tribute album. If you’ve never heard it, give it a listen. It’s pretty damned amazing... Almost as amazing as the original version, in fact.
Not quite. But almost