See No Evil
Elektra Records K52046 (UK), 7E-1098 (US) 1977
Tom Verlaine: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards
Richard Lloyd: Guitar, vocals
Fred Smith: Bass, vocals
Billy Ficca: Drums
(Solos on "See No Evil", "Elevation", "Guiding Light": Richard Lloyd
Solos on "Venus", "Friction", "Prove It", "Torn Curtain": Tom Verlaine.
"Marquee Moon": Richard after second chorus, Tom after third)
Forty five minutes and thirteen seconds of genius.
I know, I know, there's a work of genius hailed in just about every record company press release, but it's a term easily thrown at this week's New Thing and very rarely as justified as it is here. This is music which is at once strangely-familiar and completely alien. It's beautiful, graceful, powerful, fractured, smart and driven, and it's a massive rush from start to finish.
A look at the front cover gives you no idea at all what lies in store: what looks like three rock musicians and a geek with a thousand-yard stare. But this is Tom Verlaine, and he's looking into the future. This is Tom Verlaine and soon you will realise that just about all of the guitar players that you've ever heard were, somehow, missing the point. He and Richard Lloyd will mark this album for all time as one of the great electric guitar records.
Forget all those bands where, halfway through yet another second-rate rock'n'roll plod, the rhythm section will keep time while the guitar player acts out some masturbatory fretboard fantasy. There is nothing in this album which doesn't seem to belong. Wherever the guitars and vocals go, the whole thing is held together by Billy Ficca's wonderful drums and Fred Smith's elegant, almost-understated bass lines. Just as the really great guitar players know when to play nothing, the great drummers know when to hold back and when to be there.
The album rushes into 'See No Evil': "What I want/I want now/and it's a whole lot more/than 'anyhow'". Straight away you realise what a great band this is. It sounds tight and controlled and threatening to go crazy at any moment. But it doesn't: the whole thing is crazy in any case. The guitars sound wonderful but...strange. They don't seem to be going where you expect them to. Because, of course, they aren't. But they are going where they're supposed to - you just haven't looked at things in this way before.
Although individual solos are credited to Verlaine or Lloyd on the sleeve, these are not the usual guitar solos. They don't wander off and leave the songs behind, they're part of the structure. (Think about it and you realise how rare this is. Peter Green can do it. Richard Thompson. Hendrix, of course. The 'Lick My Decals off'-era Magic Band. Others, but it's not a long list). The song is over almost before you know it, with voices and guitars insisting, "Pull down the future with the one you love" The lyrics are printed on the inner sleeve but it always seemed better to get them gradually as you listened to it. For months I walked around singing to myself, "I want to fly/fly a Phantom", having misheard the word 'fountain' and presuming that a Phantom was some kind of American fighter jet and, well, who wouldn't want to fly one, right? Made sense to me, anyway
'Venus' is all tension and spiralling guitars and wonderful clattering drums. And 'Friction' is ....but, no, a track-by-track account doesn't serve any real purpose. It's like chopping up a painting and looking at each piece in isolation. You see the details but you need to see how they all relate to each other. But, some details: the bending guitar scrape after the line "My eyes are like telescopes" and the soaring guitar lines before the last verse in 'Friction'; the stuttering hi-hat that leads into Richard Lloyd's perfectly-precise solo in 'See No Evil'; the contrast between the careful drums and the chiming guitars in 'Venus'; "...between my bones and skin/there stood another person who was a little surpised/to be face to face with a world so alive"; the steady build of 'Marquee Moon' over those two-note guitar figures; the unexpected timing of the chord in the line, "Elevation... Don't go to my head" in 'Elevation'; oh, too many to mention.
Listening to 'Marquee Moon' is like hearing music that you feel you must have heard before but you know you haven't. The songs are not obviously about anything but the way Verlaine sings them in that strange, passionate voice suggests experiences which you might have shared. And maybe you have, but you never articulated them like this. When you eventually make out the lyrics they often suggest other words which aren't in the song. Or maybe they are. It reminds you of what music can do and then does it. It contains no unfulfilled promises and not a single wasted note. The tension and interplay between Verlaine's approach and Lloyd's more traditional style is dazzling and the guitar playing is fierce, melodic, brittle, liquid and wonderful. Its... "too 'too too' to put a finger on"
In 1977 it was daring and magical, and it still is.