These bands achieved their initial notoriety while playing in the same place (an esophagus of a bar called CBGB, in lower Manhattan) and have been lumped together with other habitués of this joint as purveyors of “punk rock.” In their self-consciousness and liberal open-mindedness, these bands are as punky as Fonzie: that is, not at all.
Blondie is a quintet which juggles genres of fast rock, from a thick, Spector-ish vision of street crime called “X Offender” to a thick, Who-like vision of womanhood called “Rip Her to Shreds.” Blondie is for the most part a playful exploration of Sixties pop interlarded with trendy nihilism. Everything is sung by Deborah Harry, possessor of a bombshell zombie’s voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song. It’s an interesting combination and forces all the songs on Blondie to work on at least two levels: as peppy but rough pop, and as distanced, artless avant-rock. The group’s original material has no trouble yielding to this malleability of meaning since the songs are so broad in theme — the plots of “Kung Fu Girls,” “Rip Her to Shreds” and “The Attack of the Giant Ants” are exactly what their titles suggest: the aural equivalents of tabloid newspapers. Absolutely anything, from joke to political manifesto to hoax, can be ascribed to them. Two things save Blondie’s music from a lack of focus and sincerity. One is producer Richard Gottehrer’s adroit echoing of decade-old pop songs, replete with hooks and innocent melodrama. The other is Deborah Harry’s utter aplomb and involvement throughout: even when she’s portraying a character consummately obnoxious and spaced-out, there is a wink of awareness that is comforting and amusing yet never condescending.
The Ramones’ second album contains 14 songs, all around two minutes long. So did their first. They have lost none of their intensity, and if to “leave home” implies a certain broadening of experience, its main evidence on the new record is an occasional use of harmony and the boys’ discovery of carbona (“Carbona Not Glue”), a substitute for airplane glue in getting high.
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The Ramones are as direct and witty as before. They’ve also lost just a pinch of their studied rawness: whether this is a sign of maturity or sellout is a matter for debate. The Ramones make rousing music and damn good jokes, but they’re in a bind: the hard rock of this group is so pure it may be perceived as a freak novelty by an awful lot of people.
Marquee Moon, Television’s debut album, is the most interesting and audacious of this triad, and the most unsettling. Leader Tom Verlaine wrote all the songs, coproduced with Andy Johns, plays lead guitar in a harrowingly mesmerizing stream-of-nightmare style and sings all his verses like an intelligent chicken being strangled: clearly, he dominates this quartet. Television is his vehicle for the portrayal of an arid, despairing sensibility, musically rendered by loud, stark repetitive guitar riffs that build in every one of Marquee Moon‘s eight songs to nearly out-of-control climaxes. The songs often concern concepts or inanimate objects — “Friction,” “Elevation,” “Venus” (de Milo, that is) — and when pressed Verlaine even opts for the mechanical over the natural: in the title song, he doesn’t think that a movie marquee glows like the moon; he feels that the moon resonates with the same evocative force as a movie marquee.
When one can make out the lyrics, they often prove to be only non sequiturs, or phrases that fit metrically but express little, or puffy aphorisms or chants. (The chorus of “Prove It” repeats, to a delightful sprung-reggae beat: “Prove it/Just the facts/The confidential” a few times.)
All this could serve to distance or repel us, and taken with Verlaine’s guitar solos, which flirt with an improvisational formlessness, could easily bore. But he structures his compositions around these spooky, spare riffs, and they stick to the back of your skull. On Marquee Moon, Verlaine becomes all that much better for a new commercial impulse that gives his music its catchy, if slashing, hook.
Television treks across the same cluttered, hostile terrain as bands like the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, but the times may be on the side of Verlaine: we have been prepared for Television’s harsh subway sound by a grudging, after-the-fact-of-their-careers acceptance of those older bands.
At their best, these three bands do indeed have things in common: a lack of pretension plus an abundance of vigor and adventurousness that have obviously been stoked by popular manifestations of print, film and TV: comic books, detective stories, science fiction, westerns and their attendant stock figures — hoods, dicks, cowboys, aliens: heroes, super and anti. Rock has always traded on a certain amount of this spirit — the naming of a band is just as stirring to its members as the sewing of his first cape is to a fresh superhero — but these three bands use this popular art in a way very few rock & rollers have done — with consistency and accuracy. (The Kiss boys read comics and even dress like them, but their secret identities are those of four businessmen dedicated to taking as few risks as possible.) The Dolls did a bangup job on a song like “Bad Detective” but they never approached the sinister precision Tom Verlaine achieves to wrap up the scenario of “Torn Curtain”; “Prove It” is a paean to a never elucidated “case” Detective Tom has “been workin’ on so long.” Blondie owes its moniker no less to its peroxide-soaked lead singer than to the marriage partner of Dagwood Bumstead. But in the wisecracking snipes of Deborah Harry, the band knows damn well it has found an image closer to that of a feminist Marvel Comic for the ears. The brutality and willful cruelty of the Ramones’ music can find its direct antecedent in the films of Samuel Fuller; Joey Ramone writhing out “Commando” is the real soundtrack for Fuller’s yahoo, prowar nose-thumber, Steel Helmet.
The lyrics of these bands are rather beside the point — they are drowned out by the instruments and secondary to the gradations of angst projected by all three lead singers’ technically poor voices. But the best of the few lyrics one can decipher have a pulpy richness — certainly not conventional rock sentiments or even examples of “good writing.” Verlaine yowls: “I remember/How the darkness doubled/I recall/Lightning struck itself.” Is this profound imagery, or just a particularly ripe balloon of dialogue from a Silver Surfer comic book? I would tend toward the latter opinion, even as I am convinced that the song, “Marquee Moon,” is a small masterpiece, and the album a medium-sized one.