The emaciated cover art for Marquee Moon – shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, with the four members of the band looking gaunt and underfed – belies the wealth of depth within. The album itself is a magnificent, guitar-fuelled miasma, marrying the economy of punk with the virtuoso technical prowess of prog, sounding every bit as dirty and beautiful as a smoke-wreathed New York backalley. Bit much? Possibly, but that’s only because Marquee Moon is one of the most perfectly-constructed albums of the 70s, if not of all time.
Much of that brilliance comes from lead guitarist/lyricist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, who, next to Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel, might well be the most underrated guitarist in popular music. Coupled with the similarly capable Richard Lloyd, the two make an astonishing and even courteous team, trading solos between tracks and layering guitar tracks over each other. Verlaine’s lyrics are cryptic without being indulgent, with subjects as diverse as the burgeoning New York scene from which the band hailed; adolescent yearning and French poetry (not a coincidence, with Tom borrowing French poet Paul Verlaine’s surname for his artistic pseudonym). His vocals are snarling but lined with vulnerability, backed by the clipped howls of his bandmates on choruses and call-responses.
Take ‘Friction’, an initially innuendo-laden treatise on adolescent shagging that devolves into squeezing a ventriloquist’s head in a fist. Don’t ask, but it’s a bristling, fierce little number that features a juddering, descending solo that sparks off the backing vocals, gleefully yelling “friction”, as Verlaine pauses, ever so subtly, on the first syllable of “diction”. This third track comes at the end of a trio of hook-heavy, chorus-riffing barnstormers, the edges rough and ready. ‘See No Evil’, the opening track, is much the same as ‘Friction’, buoyed by an enthusiastic refrain and a scrappy intro that bounds into a hammered, dual-guitar central riff. This opener is perhaps the punkiest track on the album – even if the lyrics make no sense – and it’s a jittering salvo stuffed with nervous energy.
‘Venus (de Milo)’ is a more tender piece, the theme of which is more succinctly communicated on ‘Guiding Light’, a lovely song that features some lovely piano tickling that’s really quite lovely all over. Lovely. Richard Lloyd takes his finest guitar solo on the track, as piano chords usher him in to a striking crescendo of high, yearning notes and slow, ascending scales. It’s the closest thing to a love song on an album that’s otherwise filled with puckish fighting spirit. ‘Prove It’ is half confrontational, half glib, with Verlaine delivering snappy one-liners inbetween some screeching guitar and a locked-in bassline from Fred Smith. Smith and drummer Billy Ficca are like glue throughout the album, providing the perfect groundwork for the axe duo to interplay.
This is no more evident than the centrepiece – the ten-minute long masterpiece, ‘Marquee Moon’. The title track is as perfectly formed as a song of this length can be, never cowtowing to proggy indulgences, constantly re-capitulating upon itself, adding bits and pieces. Slowly, surely, it unveils genius. Smith’s bass work is phenomenal here, playing both over and under the loopy swirl of the guitars, while Ficca keeps a rocksteady beat throughout. And, oh, those guitars. Lloyd and Verlaine trade solos like the world’s about to end, and if the foreboding talk of “graveyards” and moody Cadillacs are anything to go by, it might well be ending. In live performances, the band could stretch the jam to 15 minutes and even longer, complementing Verlaine’s improvisatory style over Lloyd’s placid calm. Even more extraordinary is, like most tracks on the record, the fact that it was recorded in one take.
But that’s all part of Marquee Moon‘s appeal. It seems transcendent, poised at the perfect time in the perfect place, influencing bands as wide-ranging as The Strokes, Joy Division, U2 and Radiohead. It’s quicksilver – lightning in a bottle – and, as far as guitar albums go, it’s at the pinnacle. A masterclass from top to bottom.