Those Other Jams: Television – Marquee Moon: The Intersection of Punk, Art, and Jam Rock

Television, First Avenue NYC 1977

Television, First Avenue NYC 1977

I was turned on to Television in my record shop clerk days by my full-time co-worker and part-time music mentor, Tom S. The band was engaged in a comeback and when their new CD came through, Tom put it in my hands.

“You need to hear this band.” I looked at it. Rykodisc, boring black & white cover, nothing made it stand out. Besides, I was knee deep in my Jazz and Grateful Dead roots studies.

I asked, “Why?”

“This is their new thing which is okay but after you listen to this you’ve got to find their other stuff because it’s basically punk rock with guitar solos. You’d like it.”

“I thought punk rockers hated bands with guitar solos,” I said.

“Listen,” he said.

I took it home and, sure enough, he was right. At a time when I could hardly be drawn to anything with distortion that wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or a shockingly aggressive version of Grateful Dead’s space jamming, I found myself drawn to a punk band. This opened my eyes to the overlapping genres of punk/art punk/garage rock and so much more. Television connected the dots and “Marquee Moon”, though not my favorite Television song¹, it’s definitely the one that changed me.

In 1977, the Grateful Dead played one of their most renowned shows in Ithaca, New York. In New York City, punk rock had broken and was oozing like a blister on the face of rock music. The art crowd had pushed their way into the scene as they always do and groups like The Talking Heads and Patty Smith were leading the way. Television, founded by Tom Verlaine and school chum, Richard Hell, had been around for a couple of years. Hell, it seems, cleaved more closely to certain punk aesthetics including that not mastering one’s instrument and, in ’75, left to form his own group. He was replaced on bass by Fred Smith and from there, things got serious.

In February 1977, “Marquee Moon” came out as a double sided 7″ (it’s far too long for only one side) as well as the title track for the group’s debut album where it clocked in at an unheard-of-for-punk-rock ten minutes. Over several years of on-stage development and a previous studio effort² in the song grew in complexity to become a series of killer riffs and extended solos. Richard Lloyd takes the first solo and Verlaine takes the second with Lloyd’s distinct and creative rhythm playing serving as a dynamic foil along the way.

But the song didn’t peak with the album release. Later live versions (Television was, sadly, not as well documented as a Deadhead would like) include the 14+ minute version found on the album “The Blow Up” which stretches the song to new limits and reveals what Lester Bangs meant when he compared Verlaine’s playing to that of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina.³ In some of the longer versions, the band slows and shifts gears for new and varied ideas to emerge from the solos. This is where the true listening is happening. The band stays together as the soloist draws in new ideas changing the face of the song and then, with a cue from drummer Billy Ficca, they swing back into the ascendant closing groove.

Here collide the raw nerves of punk, the desire to experiment with the form and nature of that genre, and the exploratory drive of without-a-net jamming. It was this that hooked me. Twenty years later, Television remains a favorite.
¹: “Elevation” and “The Dream’s Dream” battle for that title.

²: On the Brian Eno produced demo from 1974, the song clocked in around 7 minutes.

³: See Lester Bangs’ “Free Jazz Punk Rock“.

Those Other Jams: The Byrds – Eight Miles High

The Byrds - (Untitled)

The Byrds – (Untitled)

I thought I knew The Byrds: folk-pop darlings, covered Dylan, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, drugs references in pop songs, Gram Parsons, country rock, reunion in the Seventies… But I was wrong. I had missed a critical piece of the puzzle until a good friend showed me the light.

A few years back, as I sat at my friend’s house, sipping a beer and enjoying the warm fireplace, he got up to change the record. His record collection easily surpasses my own and he often tries to stump me with his selections. This time, however, he did not expect to keep me guessing.

“You’ll probably get this one pretty quick but I should tell you that I’m breaking protocol and starting with side two,” he informed me. Listening to albums is serious business and there are rules. This move violated a key regulation but, it’s his house, and his rule to break. “I just love this side so much,” he continued, “I can’t wait.” He dropped the needle and sat down.

A brisk fade-in revealed a band going at it hard. Uptempo drums drove a blend of jangling and crunchy rock guitars with a rapid yet fluid bass line. I should have spotted the song immediately from the early telltale riffs from McGuinn but a conversation about record playing rules diverted my attention just enough that I did not. Instead, I found myself puzzling over Clarence White’s guitar solo and the subsequent bass jam from Skip Battin. I commented on the quality jamming but I could not come up with the band. My friend laughed, surprised that I didn’t know the album.

I don’t have every record. It’s not possible. But I do pride myself on having a selection of excellent jamming from all over the musical spectrum. Not knowing, much less owning, this record began to gnaw at me as I sat, listening and drinking in that pale yellow wingback chair. And then, nearly twelve minutes into the side, McGuinn jumps back in with an unmistakable riff and Rickenbacker tone.

“The Byrds? This is “Eight Miles High”? What album is this?” I asked, getting up to check out the cover.

“(Untitled),” he responded. (He did not pronounce the parentheses but I include them for accuracy.)

I was blown away by this revelation. The Byrds could jam? They took a cool song and expanded it into a tour de force, A ripping jam that veered well enough away from its source to lose a listener but steered directly back into the groove in time to fit the song neatly on an album side. I was sold and I studied the cover, adding it to my mental record-shopping wantlist.

A new love was born.

JamBand Music – A Difficult Label

Jamband music is often pegged as self-indulgent, drug addled, guitar noodling but that’s not entirely fair.

It’s true that among the bands embraced by Jamband fandom, drugs do crop up both on stage and off. And guitar noodling, seemingly aimless streams of notes in search of purchase, certainly does happen. But to call the jams ‘aimless’ is a disservice to the players. A band like Phish doesn’t simply launch into jams unprepared.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Phish could arguably have been one of the more well-rehearsed bands on the road. And it wasn’t just songs being worked over in the rehearsal space; they developed exercises to train themselves to listen better and to improvise as a unit. These extended practices carried over to the stage and, come the mid-90’s, Phish began transforming 5 minute songs into half-hour explorations. By the late 90’s, entire sets might be devoted to seamless jams between only a handful of songs.

Casual listeners seem to become fatigued by this sort of jamming, preferring to be entertained by a new song every few minutes. One cannot argue matters of taste. (One can but it’s a rather tedious and pointless exercise that can really kill a dinner party.) But the fact that Phish can also play a set of short songs, as can The Grateful Dead, cannot overcome the bias has, unfortunately, been installed. Those groups ‘jam onstage’ therefore they lose some perceived value to a broad segment of potential audience.

And so, this past weekend, as I enjoyed a relaxing moment of coffee and a record, I realized that it should be noted that most bands jam and many do it onstage. Why should a select few carry a stigma when a broad cross-section of musical groups take to the stage or even the studio and stretch their songs to the limits?

Herein, I shall begin compiling examples of these performances in a list that I’ll call: Those Other Jams.