Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.

David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”

David Bowie Hunk Dory album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1971 LP “Hunky Dory” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This was Bowie’s fourth album and my second for this “To My Ear” project after “Ziggy Stardust” about a month ago. I’m doing it backwards, I suppose. “Hunky Dory” came out about 7 months before “Ziggy Stardust” and a line of artist progress runs between the them. Sometimes, I feel this album shows Bowie as an actor seeking a role, which he later finds in Ziggy Stardust.

The album opens with “Changes” which immediately hits me with the same sense of theatrical found on “Ziggy Stardust.” I love this about both albums: they as much about music as they are performance. The peculiar first verse hints at the idea of Bowie as the actor in search of something.   In the first verse, the performer reflects and almost confesses. “So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse how the others must see the faker.”

Musically, I love the dynamic difference between the verses and choruses of “Changes”. Bowie sings the verses gently over a quiet accompaniment of piano, bass guitar, and strings with no percussion. It’s theatrical with the lights down low. Then drums march along during the chorus which has more of a 50s rock n roll feel with a bit of boogie-woogie.

Life On Mars” is the best track on the album. The chord progression originated from a french song, “Comme d’habitude” which was also rewritten with English lyrics as “My Way” by Paul Anka. As much as I like the Sinatra song, especially the Sid Vicious cover, I believe “Life in Mars” is a superior song.

The lyrics tell the story of “the girl with the mousy hair” who is to meet her friend at the movies to escape her unhappy mundane life at home. However, her friend doesn’t show up and “the film is a saddening bore”. What isn’t much different than her own dull life is something she’s already seen in countless other movies. The titular line “Is there life on Mars?” is a cry for something more than Earth has to offer. Bowie performs the song over cinematic accompaniment that opens with beautifully played piano, that dances like a snow-globe ballerina. I love that the song begins with a single note that rings for a full second. Strings play majestically with the first chorus. It’s overall a beautiful song that demonstrates fully the principal of elevating the mundane.

One of my other favorite tracks is “The Bewlay Brothers” because of it’s sense of memory, love, and loss. The fairly basic accompaniment mostly consists of piano, acoustic guitars, and watery electric guitar. The lyrics begin with the word “and” relaying the story in third-person perspective, “And so the story goes they wore the clothes; They said the things to make it seem improbable: Whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Then with later verses, Bowie switches to first-person perspective. It does not seem that the characters change, only the perspective.

The endearing song feels like it tells the overall story of two brothers lives together. Lines of the song share emotionally-charged snapshots of moments in their lives.  The general feeling is that those times are in the past and they cannot return. The repeated final line calls out to leave current circumstances and live like they used to: “Just for the day, Please come away.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels