Running 9:58, this is Television's magnum opus, renown for the inventive interplay between guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. It's the title track to their 1977 debut album, but the song was years in the making. It started as an acoustic ballad Verlaine put together; the band started playing it in 1974 when they were regulars at the club CBGB in New York City (Television was the first to emerge from that club, which later provided a home base for Blondie, the Ramones and the Talking Heads). They honed the song through live performance and diligent rehearsal, so when they recorded the album in 1976, they had perfected it. The entire album was recorded and mixed in just three weeks.
When the Marquee Moon album was released in February 1977, the title track was clearly the standout, but not something that could garner radio play in America. It was also a tough sell because the band wasn't known outside of New York, and it didn't adhere to a particular genre: "pop" doesn't do justice to the song's complexity, and it's far from "punk." The album never made the charts in the US, but was later hailed as a classic in a number of surveys.
The UK was more welcoming: The single charted at #30 and the band made the cover of New Musical Express. Critical acclaim for Television was most robust in Britain.
The lyric, written by Tom Verlaine, is rather opaque. He said that he worked on it long and hard, but refused to explain it, passing off the words as "just atmosphere." Said Verlaine: "You don't have to say what you mean to get across."
In a Songfacts interview with Richard Lloyd
, he said of this song: "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.
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. 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."
Early performances of this song usually lasted about five minutes, but it got longer as the years went by. After the song was released, the live renditions would typically surpass the 10-minute running time, sometimes stretching for 20 minutes.
Like a story, the song builds to a climax and then returns to the start like returning to normal life after an ordeal, with the opening line section ("I remember how the darkness doubled...") reprised at the end.
Jack - Belfast, Northern Ireland
The single release was split into two parts because one side of a 45 could not contain the entire song. Part I runs 3:13, Part II is 6:45.
Gary Mulholland writes in This is Uncool The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco
that he's never been, "entirely sure what a marquee moon was, or what exactly, the song was about." He adds: "But, considering the stuff in the third verse about entering graveyards in Cadillacs, I've always figured it's about rock 'n' roll's relationship with dem nasty drugs and the art of choosing life over death."
A few months after the album was released, Television opened for Peter Gabriel on the American leg of his first solo tour. They made another album in 1978, but broke up three months later, returning in 1991 with one last album.
According to Richard Lloyd, there are plenty of overdubs on this song, but no effects on the guitars, which were plugged directly into the amps.
Tom Verlaine's voice was processed a bit on this song, with some echo and delay to give it a more robotic feel.