A Different Kettle of ATV

WHEN I FIRST mooted that I’d be interested in scribbling out a feature on Alternative TV, the thinking man’s all-purpose unpunkgroup, the band’s hustler and Man From The Record Company, the usually cheerful Nick Jones, was aghast and dismayed.

“You’re totally the wrong person to do it,” he spluttered, “You only like yucky pop music and besides” – this with a knowing look – “You’ll only write a big thing all about Alex”. Alex being Alex Fergusson, rock musician of note, but more importantly an ex-member of ATV who many insist was the force in the band (in print, too, much to the group’s chagrin).

Now, I actually wouldn’t have mentioned him in my opening paragraph were it not for this slightly paranoid declaration, but what can I say? He’s by no means the most important element in the ATV story, though played a part in their development.

More of him later (only a little), and a balanced overview; I come neither to bury nor to praise ATV, just to have a gander at their programming.

FULHAM IS A grey and lifeless on a Sunday afternoon. Mark Perry, hairy-chested and a teensy bit overweight, leads me into his front room, gets a cup of tea and bungs on an Elvis Costello album. The room is strewn with assorted musical instruments, some of them weird hybrids, none of which Mark can ‘play’, in a technical sense. There’s sport on the silent TV set.

In the gloom Perry looks a lot older than when I first met him, when I was pre-Sounds and he was Mark P., the self-styled fanzine magnate and auteur of Sniffin Glue. Way back when, Mark jumped ship and formed his own band (just like everyone else was doing), called it Alternative TV (a name which is at once sardonic and accurate), and put out a flexi-disc with the final edition of SG, ‘Love Lie Limp’ – intended as art-rock, because of the inadequacy of most of the players came out as cod-reggae topped with a pop guitar solo and a Perry lyric of scathing honesty.

Gigs were of variable quality, though interesting enough to make them one of the few UK outfits to really merit that over-bandied ‘latterday Velvet Underground’ tag. They were real promising, especially if you looked hard.

The first proper single, ‘How Much Longer’, garnered putdowns for being just another tenth-rate Clash rip-off, but in reality (banal though the tune was) the words denigrated punk fashion attitudinising as much as they did other strata of society: “How Much Longer Will People wear/Nazi Armbands/And dye their hair?” The Lurkers it wasn’t.

IT’S A LONG way from that to the forthcoming Alternative TV album, Vibing Up To Senile Man, Part One, a record which has more in common with Stockenhausen, Zappa circa Lumpy Gravy and The Fugs than it does with 2.38 blasts of failed pop music, though the progression seems logical when you remember early ATV torture epics like the relentless tearing of ‘Still Life’.

To clue the listener in, ATV’s premier album The Image Has Cracked was a cluster of odds and ends jostling for attention, pop songs like ‘Action Time Vision’ nestling rather uneasily beside indulgent drivel like the solo guitar piece ‘Red’, an unsuccessful attempt at chronicling the group’s changes, musically and personnel-wise. Reviews were kind of… varied. Perry admits that the album was a mistake:

“I think we all got a bit mixed up. What we really should’ve done was make an album of that group. I think it was wrong that we had like pop stuff on one side and very wimpish attempts at something strange on the other … I think we did go about it in completely the wrong way.”

MARK ACCOUNTS for the lameness of some of the record’s rock content by putting it down to the way in which it was recorded: two solid weeks in a studio. The new album was done at Pathway in periods of a day or two with long gaps in between, and it shows.

The current ATV sound from the Simon & Garfunkel of New Musick (Dennis Burns, who won’t do interviews, and Mark, being the only remaining members of ATV) is dense, refreshing… but it isn’t rock’n’roll.

The eight tracks include such pieces as ‘Release The Natives’, which is heavy reminiscent of the Bonzo Dog Band’s ‘We Are Normal’ sub-aquatic extraneous blips and a persistent crackle that sounds like a navvy frying ham and eggs, and ‘Serpentine Gallery’, the yrics of which (“I Henry Moore-d it”) reduced the duo and percussive assistant Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle to giggling fits during the sessions, possibly because of the technique of verbal ping-pong employed where by each of them ‘sang’ one word at a time.

My favourites are ‘Facing Up To The Facts’, a spacey, almost-ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a nuclear-age Dean Martin album, and the lengthy ‘Smile In The Day’, which was written just before it was recorded. It starts like someone listening to a Chieftains cassette while standing next to a lathe, and moves through several sections of treated violin, cocktail-ECM jazz, Schoenberg vocals and all, before ending with a deflating burst of engineer Wally doing a James Brown rave-up on the title of the album. The track was evidently inspired by a dream of Mark’s about Delius, the composer who became so wracked by syphilis in his later years that he relied on young musician Eric Fenby to be his amanuensis, writing down his music for him.

“The Kid in the song visits Delius, and Delius gives him some music, and the police come to the house and this kid has to run off with the music… but there’s gonna be a Part 2 of it in the next album.” Hmmm… yeah.

Mark explained some of the lyrics on other parts of the record, too, but to be. honest I doubt if I would’ve guessed that ‘Good Missionary’ was about relying on leaders to say everything for you if he hadn’t told me, because the words seem fairly oblique and surrealistic, about phone boxes on the M1, if you get the idea. Even if the intro to ‘Graves Of Dulucks Green’ reminded me somehow of ‘White Room’ by Cream(!), most of the content will sound fresh to a young rock audience, if not to avant-garde diehards.

The group tried some gigs recently with rock strummer Mick Linehan, but it didn’t work out. Of the numerous sackings from ATV, however, none have been so significant as those of guitarist/tunesmith Fergusson, and subsequently drummer Chris Bennett. I wondered if Mark realised that many saw these choppings as unfair? A lot of people I know still have a fixed idea of Perry-as-megalomaniac…

“Me and Dennis have obviously talked about this, and I’ve come to a decision with him that if either of us doesn’t like what we’re doing we can break it up. And anybody who works with us from now on is not a member of ATV, and that,” he emphasises, “is final.”

Hey there… wasn’t long-standing percussionist Bennett kind of, uh, upset at getting the heave?

“Yes, I think he was… but I don’t think we’d have been able to progress so quickly with him in the band, because I think he had a leaning towards synthesisers and that, which we’ve got a hatred of.”

Okay, but if Dennis and Perry split, who keeps the name?

“We’re dropping it. The next gigs we play won’t be as ATV, it’ll be Mark Perry and Dennis Burns. On the album after this we’ll phase out the name, I don’t think it’s necessary anymore.”

Mark says rock’n’roll is “disgusting”, that it “keeps people down”, that people in it “change, and become really strange”. Some might say that it has changed him, but more importantly his view begs the question: How goes it with Deptford Fun City Records, (the group’s label), and the boss thereof, small waxings empire maestro Miles Axe Copeland (the man with the money, or not, as the case may be)?

“Our relationship with Miles has been a bit shaky. He wants us to gig… he booked a complete tour of the USA for us, 25 to 30 dates, and we changed our mind about it… he was very put out.”

MARK CONCEDES that Miles “Wants commercial singles”, which brings me to Mr Fergusson, and his ability to write snappy toons. Now, how come there’s this worry that I’m gonna base the whole of this article around a guy who left the band aeons ago? “We do have a slight suspicion, because my opinion about Alex is, fair enough, he’s pretty good, he writes nice songs, but he hasn’t done anything since he left ATV.”

The way I see it, while Fergusson hasn’t exactly lived up to my own assertion (in Sounds predictions for 1978) that he’d “sell records” this year, he has worked as musical director on Fred & Judy Vermorel’s upcoming flick Millions Like Us, co-authored the last Chelsea single (a minor hit), had songs on The Image Has Cracked and ATV’s joint (with Here & Now) cheapo live LP, recorded tracks in Los Angeles for Freeway label, been instrumental in Illegal Records acquiring the rights to the new Kim Fowley album, and so on. Hardly a period of inactivity.

But the real reason for people continuing to name-drop him is not simply music-biz nepotism; of the three post-Fergusson ATV singles, two bear his name as co-composer. The latest of these, ‘Life’, was issued a few weeks ago, and is actually a demo made for EMI while he was still in the band (his picture’s on the front cover as well).

Fergusson can be a temperamental and enormously trying person, of course (Perry: “He actually took me lead out once, in Edinburgh. I turned round after this great guitar solo and found that no one heard a thing … It used to be very hard to travel with him … It got to the point where I couldn’t even talk to him”), but his moniker will inevitably pop up in connection with ATV so long as they continue to issue material with his name on it. Obviously. And it’s not my fault, I just cover the waterfront and tell the news.

ALTHOUGH ATV have had some tentative approaches from major labels, it looks like they’ll be on DFC, “As long as we sell records, and as long as Miles has other bands that make nice, commercial things… we could be sort’ve like, the credibility end.”

That’s a very truthful statement, and it also indicates (to me, at least) how totally mainstream ‘punk’ has become when it’s regarded as nice and safe and saleable. I mean, at the onslaught of the new wave, a band like the current ATV would’ve been poo-pooed as a bunch of old hippies. Cure Here & Now segment.

Mark Perry seems more… relaxed these days (he isn’t even upset by the jibes at his sexuality in Tony Parons and Julie Burchill’s Boy Looked At Johnny rock obituary tome). ATV toured awhile back with hippie band Here & Now in a series of free gigs, something which would’ve seemed unimaginable in their early days.

But whither ATV as the music gets more ‘difficult’?

Mark: “If I played what the people want I’d literally be playing boogie-woogie Status Quo… They only want that because they don’t know any better”. Mark wants music akin to kids playing in a music room, he says.

Perry says of his Here & Now experience, which has gained him such fame that a hippy recently came up to him and asked for his autograph: “It’s given us a new audience who are nice, who sit down and listen to music, which I think is what me and Dennis need at the moment. ‘Cause they’re gonna get a bit pissed off if they wanna dance.”


© Sandy RobertsonSounds, 9 December 1978

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