I’ve enjoyed reading Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon (2011), his account of Television’s 1977 debut album, but it doesn’t have the qualities of the best in the 33 1/3 series. Waterman’s prose is sharp and to the point, and his scepticism about the band’s creation myth absolutely necessary in relation to an era and a musical movement where the modernist tropes of a break with the past were being recycled. What I’m not so sure about it is the amount of detail he goes into in relation to the early 70s New York music scene, and the networks that Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell worked their way into. His knowledge of the different sub-scenes is admirable, as is his tracking of venues, musical styles and fashion statements, and he presents this information with admirable clarity, never allowing the detail to obscure the basic narrative of the band’s emergence. But for all those virtues, I felt frustrated, waiting for a discussion of the music itself to come along. It takes until p.156 (in a book with pp.211 of text) for the band to enter the studio to record Marquee Moon, and the track-by-track analysis doesn’t begin until p.163. What we get is insightful, but only rarely do Waterman’s insights into the music and lyrics themselves seem to justify the detailed contextualisation that has come in the first five chapters. What I wanted more of were moments like the one where Waterman finds a trace of New-York-Dolls-style campiness in the chorus to ‘See No Evil’, or when in relation to ‘Venus’ he notes the New York trend of name-dropping one’s contemporaries. Although Waterman is alive to the ways the music and lyrics might reference other musicians and other genres, the range of reference he finds in Marquee Moon suggests that the New-York-focused contexualization might have been too narrow: it’s not all the Dolls and the Velvets and Patti Smith; instead there are references to the Robert Johnson, The Yardbirds, and Richard Thompson.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I’ve greatly enjoyed finding out about CBGBs and the New York scene in the early and the mid 1970s; if Waterman were to write another 33 1/3 book I would — depending on the subject — be interested to read it; but the book is a reminder of the gulf that separates contextual knowledge and formal analysis, and the difficulty of making the two connect.