Robert Forster: Venus by Television is the most perfect song of all time

The former Go-Betweens frontman recounts how, as a teenager, he fell under the spell of Television’s album Marquee Moon

  • In this new Guardian Australia series, musicians share their favourite songs, what makes them perfect and how they shaped their lives

How could the perfect song be anything else?

I was 19 years old, living in suburban Brisbane, writing my first half-decent songs, when Television released their debut album, Marquee Moon. I had been following the band for two years through the music press, buying their first single, Little Johnny Jewel. Expectations were high, but nothing prepared me for the splendour and clout of the group’s debut album, released in February 1977.

It combined every great flourish of cool 60s rock – extraordinary guitar work with out-of-this-world lyrics, adding the crunch of late-70s rock production and a quality to the songwriting that many mythic 60s bands just didn’t reach. Pacing my bedroom in excitement, sitting down at intervals to absorb the music’s overwhelming beauty, I knew I could never write songs as textured and intricate as the band’s singer-songwriter Tom Verlaine, who also happened to be a virtuoso guitarist. But I was inspired. I’d try harder with my songwriting. One song in particular offered me a way forward.

The song on the record that got the most attention in the music press and fan community was the album’s title track. A 10-minute opus that climbed through many musical stages, a brilliant guitar solo included, to splinter in a rain shower of guitar notes – a kind of punk rock Stairway to Heaven. The seven other songs on the album rotated in its orbit. Blistering jagged-wired rock numbers. Swooning, tender-hearted ballads. And there was Venus. Track two, side one.

It got me on first listen and stayed my favourite track through the countless times I played the album. It was a pop song, while still containing all the fire and poetic lyricism of the band’s other numbers. It was a great rock song and a great pop song combined. Perfect, I thought. A song could be highly melodic and still challenge. Rivers of melody could be flowing and the lyric wasMy senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves”. I adored the druggy drift of that, although I didn’t take drugs at the time. Even better was: “Richie said, ‘Hey man, let’s dress up like cops, think of what we could do.’

Black and white shot of the band on stage with Verlaine singing
Television play CBGB in New York in 1975: (L-R) Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca and Richard Lloyd. By the time Marquee Moon came out, Hell had left the band. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

“Richie” was Richard Hell, Verlaine’s former Television bandmate and best friend in New York at the start of the 70s, when he wrote Venus. Besides the humour in the lyric, I liked the fact that Verlaine placed a real person into the song. Not picking up some “cool”-sounding name from rock history. You knew Hell had really said that to Verlaine. Real life inserted into poetry, poetry inserted into real life.

I’d take that into my songwriting, too.

Robert Forster

The GuardianTramp

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