Alternative TV: The World At Once…Dateline: Stonehenge

I FOUND myself re-reading Colin Wilsons’ prodigal slice of philosophical mythmaking The Outsider the other week. During the time I spent submerging myself gleefully into its limpleg-inducing lines of pessimism and its corrupting details of challenge, two things happened in the space of a few days that intensified, in an indulgent and totally irrelevant way, my curiosity in Wilson’s outlines and establishment of this figure, The Outsider.

Alternative TV’s debut album, The Image Has Cracked, was released, and I had a conversation with the centre of Alternative TV Mark Perry.

In a very shallow way it was amusing to attribute occasional lines and passages from The Outsider to Mark Perry, and the peculiar accuracy of this little game in fact went just a little further than mere coincidence or tweeness, and supplied a few definite details of the Perry Character And Myth.

“He is an Outsider because he stands for truth.”

“The Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality.”

“The Outsider is not sure who he is.”

“The Outsider is not a freak, but is only more sensitive than the ‘sanguine and healthy-minded’ type of man.”

“The Outsider’s problem is the problem of freedom.”

“The visionary is inevitably an Outsider”.

And, perhaps the most ridiculous and far-reaching but ultimately and paradoxically the most crucial.

“The Outsider is primarily a critic, and if a critic feels deeply enough about what he is criticising, he becomes a prophet.”

1976: MARK PERRY was an ordinary boring, bored blank-bank clerk who in some vague way wanted to escape the routine life he knew: a routine life which, as with many young people, revolved around the escapism of rock’n’roll, depended on concerts, albums, rock papers for the majority of its bite. A dull, dead end, non-fruitious existence that for ninety-nine per cent of the time remains the same.

Blank-bank clerk Mark Perry’s ambitions to form a rock group, to worm his way into the music scene, were probably no deeper than any other similar young person’s fuzzy desires.

Out of nothing…rather, out of a brief few weeks charge of intense youthful expression, a rock’n’roll stage called ‘punk’, groups like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Clash, Damned, out of a review of necessity by Nick Kent about The Ramones…something fired the vagueness deep within Mark Perry.

Loosely mimicking the calculated banalities, brutality, monochrome simplicity, and spontaneity of what Perry identified as punk – an era in which he felt anyone, however talentless or dull, could actually do something – Perry produced the cheap, aggressive, inspired Sniffin’ Glue magazine.

The utterly anonymous blank-bank clerk became Mark P, editor of Sniffin’ Glue, man of blunt mystique and influence, friend of the noveau-stars, integral part of the punk movement, Spokesman For Punk to curious, repelled, amused onlookers.

Out of nothing…A Star!

“I enjoyed those days! I worked in a bank, and all of a sudden I was in the music scene! I’m not embarrassed by Sniffin’ Glue, ‘course not. I still find what I did satisfying. I look back on it and just see it as me growing up. There’s nothing wrong with growing up.

“But Sniffin’ Glue was never essential. It spurred people on, but no way was it essential. People tried to make it essential. It got really stupid. One issue would’ve been enough, really, to give some inspiration – but it got ridiculous. Soon people started collecting them and everything, paying high prices for the early copies…it bent around on what we were originally trying to do.”

Perry will admit now that Sniffin’ Glue was really just a way for him to get into the music business. He was always more a frustrated musician than a frustrated journalist.

“I always wanted to be in a band”, he reflects, using a classically cliched sentence with no shame. By March 1977, when Sniffin’ Glue reached number 8 and was part of the new Establishment with its circulation well into five figures. (A remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards), Mark P inevitably, and with some relief, found his way into a group.

“When it came to a choice between Sniffin’ Glue or having a band, well, that’s really when I though that Sniffin’ Glue was dead. Once the band was there, there was no way I could give up the band for Glue, it was like the other way round.”

Soon after March 1977 the magazine stuttered to its death, actually quite a significant end to an era in more ways than one, leaving in its wake a hundred or more earnest and approximate imitators (fun for a month).

Mark P formed Alternative TV, reverted back to Mark Perry in a different form of anonymity, and played a harder game.

He didn’t, for instance, use the name Mark P, use his group to play obvious flatly-stylised punk music, reap immediate acclaim, perpetuate a false stardom. His awareness had grown a lot during the Sniffin’ Glue campaign. With Alternative TV he knew early on that he was aiming for something precious: he went out of his way to be honest, something that in a raw condition people are notoriously loathe to accept.

He determined to experiment, he was concerned with Alternative TV as an open vehicle for self-expression, he attacked a multitude of targets vigorously and impusively, he totally denied any importance to often making quite important mistakes, just put it all down to experience.

Above all, as with most sensitive people – and over the last year Perry systematically has become an extremely sensitive person, at least creatively – he has been idealistic, outwardly and inwardly discovering, aiming for that elusive freedom and purity, regardless of the hopelessness it obviously induces.

If he had matured noticeably during the days of Sniffin’ Glue, then his growth with ATV has been startling.

But there’s obviously still a long way to go.

Even so…”Because of the punk thing with Glue, everyone expected me to be a punk hero, and to die a punk. But I find that ridiculous, because I think every human being is naturally contradictory, naturally hypocritical…so you change. You’ve got to give room for change in a person. I don’t feel associated with the punk thing now. Its face to the nation is someone with a safety-pin up his nose beating a Ted. That’s nothing to do with me. Punks let me down; no way is it the other way.”

EVEN IN the earliest days, Perry was determined that his group should not utilise the by-then mandatory punk rules and regulations, but re-introduce those early ideas of punk – constant change and re-valution.

“I’d started thinking about what I really like in music, started looking back to Can and the Mothers, things like that, listening to new things. Things by Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire. And I began to think that I should do some new things, try something different, although in fact we were very normal in those early days, just trying things out with tapes.”

Alternative TV’s first line-up was Mark Perry (vocals), Alex Ferguson (guitar), Mickey Smith (bass) and John Towe (drums). This line-up lasted just one gig: Smith was replaced by Tyrone Thomas.

This is the group that recorded the sublime ‘Love Lies Limp’, a single given free as a flexi-disc in the tenth issue of Sniffin’ Glue: it was originally recorded for EMI, who finally declined to sign the band, deciding, believe it or not, that ATV were too political!

Towe left in August: Dennis Bennet was introduced on drums. The Perry, Ferguson, Bennet and Thomas line-up recorded ‘How Much Longer’/’You Bastard’, an acceptable piece of orthodox clench-rock. This was their Clash-era, despite Perry’s actual intentions.’

The reason for the (almost) conventional ATV of that time was essentially Alex Ferguson. He was always very much into the harmonies, structures and sounds of straightforward pop/rock – which is all very well, but Perry was quickly dismayed at the confines the inclusion of Ferguson meant.

“I knew that the pop thing wasn’t for us. For a start the way the band was playing was too comfortable. I just couldn’t take it. Alex wanted to be on Top Of The Pops, and I certainly didn’t! I couldn’t take all these kids expecting us to live up to this basic image of ‘How Much Longer’.”

Ferguson left. Typically, Perry took a lot of stick for the Ferguson departure. Many concluded that Ferguson was the creative force in ATV: some absolute genius.

Whatever, his departure certainly saw the most radical changes – a massive leap closer to the ideals Perry originally had in mind. The majority of ATV’s healthy development has been since October when Ferguson left.

“Oh, Christ, yeah…like he used to hate me playing guitar, ‘cos I was learning as I was playing, and he used to hate it. Pulled me plug out once in Edinburgh. Once he left we just went crazy and got totally obscure. We did a Wayne County tour of this country, a tour of France with John Cale, and we were totally obscure, a real trash band like early Television.”

After the immediate joyous overkill, the group settled down. Tyrone Thomas was apparently thrown out for getting too drunk: Chris Bennet came in on bass. Perry, Bennet and Burns recorded ‘Life After Life’, their third single, and the album, augmented by a couple of session musicians. The most recent recruit is guitarist Mick Linehan.

Previously, Perry has commented that he finds this type of constantly fluctuating personnel creatively beneficial – things don’t get obvious or static. It’s an unusual view, and one he’s beginning to modify.

“I used to think it was totally necessary, but maybe it was just what was wrong with us. When we have a unit of four, after a few gigs, I tend to get a little bored. But, funny enough after saying that, this new liner-up with the new guitarist is really working well. Maybe it’s just who we’ve had in the past. Yeah, I might change my opinion of that fluctuating line-up situation.”

THERE’S A calm authority, and occasionally some wily word of wisdom, that seems a little strange and incongruous coming from Perry.

Seated at the other side of a wooden table, taking occasional swigs of lager, relating and ruminating confidently, he looks more like a cheeky schoolboy telling tales than an articulate artist with interesting and at times invigorating theories.

He’s a small guy with soft features, and shoulders round almost as if in defence – a most unlikely looking performer. But yeah, that’s all down to pre-concieved notions, one of the rigid concepts Perry’s determined to break down.

We talked at the offices of Faulty Products, from where such labels as Deptford Fun City, Illegal, and Step Forward operate. Incidentally, the independent company that Perry established in collaboration with Miles Copeland, who ran MCA Records (gold records for Wishbone Ash dotted the office we talked in) has given the charts Squeeze and Sham 69.

It’s easy to observe that in everything that Perry has entered he has been a success: sort of a journalist a&r man of a kind, and now a definite musician.

Yet, apart from those speedy Sniffin’ Glue days, he has drawn minimal praise. During ATV’s existence, Perry has been faced with continual problems and hassles relating to reputation, intentions and ignorance, enforced equally by his own apparent arrogance and the suspicion of others. He is a very honest and blunt person, open to continual misinterpretation.

The two most dominant recent experiences in Alternative TV’s career indicate the extent of Perry’s honesty; the way honesty can work two ways, turn into an arrogance, and how its reputation turns out all twisted and rotting.

The recent Roundhouse gig, for instance: A great bill – Buzzcocks, Alternative TV and Penetration. But an argument over billing ruined the concert.

ATV were contracted to go on second, but Penetration disputed this and demanded to go on second themselves. Eventually, the arrangement turned out as contracted, but unfortunately Penetration, understandably a little peeved, dropped a little one-liner on stage about Perry’s stubborness.

When ATV arrived they were greeted with booing and lots of liquid. They had to leave the stage. Reports of the occasion imply Perry had been a sod, insisting on going on second – but he maintains that second was how the group was contracted, second is how they played. That’s honesty, but it back-fired on him.

“Plus, we needed that 80 quid, and I reckoned that if we went on first, we might not have got it.”

The reason ATV so desperately needed their fee was because they were about to embark on a tour, with Here&Now, playing a series of dates up and down the country for free.

Again, this Perry decision has been distorted: people have begun to place ATV in the contrived psychedelia revival bag, or insensitively brand them as a bunch of latent hippies, or mistakenly knock them for playing purely for students.

Perry reacts: “The reason why we’re doing this free tour with Here&Now is that they are the only people in the country who are doing their gigs for free, which is the best thing you can possibly do for people.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Free gigs for people! Like in Bristol, we played this open air gig for a load of young kids, and it was really good. Yet people still find room for complaint.

“There may be some sort of album coming out from this tour, with ATV and Here&Now having a side each.”

(Here&Now are like a rawer version of Gong).

ATV have done more conventional dates than this odd series with Here&Now: like the Cale and County dates. Even so, in their 15-months existence they’ve yet to pass the 50 gig mark.

That’s not many gigs: but the experience is full. So how does Perry see his own and the band’s growth during the last year – from a confusion about what the group was doing in terms of minimal ideas through to a confusion about what the group is doing now in terms of too many ideas, too many possible healthy directions.

“I don’t think there’s been much of a growth…just that we’ve had the guts to do what we’ve done. Everything I did when I started was so unsure. Yeah, our personalities have definitely improved. We’ve been able to say things and put things on record that we were previously a bit unsure about.

“I’ve always been positive about music, but even right up to the album we were thinking, let’s not do that, let’s do the easy thing…whereas with the album we just said, sod it let’s do an 11-minute track, let’s put four tracks on side two, let’s not just do a load of songs.

“Personally, I feel ATV are keeping the punk ideals alive more than anyone.”

The abstracts of, like, freedom, discovery, motion?
“Sure. To me that’s what punk is about. Experimentation; certainly not following sheep or anything like that.”

But punk, using it as a more metaphysical term, got bogged down within a month or two in respect of any real experimentation or change, although an under-current of groups have carried on those loose early ideals and have been totally ignored. There are still groups who perpetuate the abstracts of punk as a radical movement.

“They’re still the ones who don’t play the obvious gigs, or who haven’t signed to the worst-looking labels. Siouxsie And The Banshees have signed to Polydor – I’m a bit disturbed about that. If bands can do it for themselves, it’s best for everyone concerned. I love bands to do things for themselves. It always seems to come out best, even if it is a bit dodgy, the sound or summat…it’s still better than a big American-based company putting a record out. For me, I like to buy records put out by people as opposed to machines.”

IS PERRY in some way disappointed with the laziness of the punk heirarchy: their willingness to be manipulated, or lose aims?

“I say I’m disappointed with them, but I’ve got good records by them and when it comes down to it, that’s always important. As long as you’re inspired by it and are doing something yourself, you’re carrying on, you’re creating.

“As long as there’s that continual turnover of bands then that’s OK. I don’t need bands like Clash anymore, though. They’re just good rock bands. Once you realise that, that’s when you forge ahead. That’s the trouble with a lot of kids; they don’t realise that. They still think that they’re gonna win wars with those bands.”

Deviating a little…looking down from above to some extent: Magazine, Buzzcocks, Wire possibly with Soft Boys soon, chip away at the rock routine with irony but are quite content to use its functions with minimal adaptation, specifically in terms of promotion, presentation and, image.

Their content may be different, disturbing whatever, but the actual means of communication is ultimately staid and regular.

Then there are those working actively outside the recognized business, and it can’t be coincidental that these are the most vital ‘rock’ groups: I’m thinking of The Fall, Throbbing Gristle, and The Prefects. There’s the usual argument of changing from within, but this will never work with definite revolutionary force, and of course there’s the frustration of wanting desperately to reach more people with their act.

Buzzcocks have to some extent dented the walls, but it’s hardly noticeable. Siouxsie and the Banshees are full of hope. But once you accept a position within these traditions no matter how radical the music, it’s impossible to avoid dilution and repression: the rock business is hopelessly false.

Perry with ATV was obviously lucky to have his own organised label to operate from (although people knocked him for that!). Furthermore, he’s always been concerned with constant change in performance, and with playing the unusual venues. He has avoided the excessive trappings of rock music, although he readily admits that these trapping are full of temptation.

“We’d fall into it and say, ‘yes please’ I’ve trusted loads of bands. Every band that has signed up, I’ve trusted. But they’re human, they get their money, their 50 quid a week, they get comfortable. They fall for it, and I think I would too. So I try very hard to keep away from it. I admit I’d fall for it.”

ATV have consciously skirted the perils, sometimes going well out of their way to avoid temptations. This is one of the reasons they’ve developed so strongly. They have to work hard for attention: attention won’t come to them.

But, again paradoxically, because they’re working hard, and thinking, they discover new forms and ideas, and their music gets a little difficult.

“The thing is, people have really got to listen to us. They just can’t come along and have a good time. They’ve got to listen hard. That’s a thing that could be wrong with us. Our songs are not self-explanatory, they take a lot of listening, a lot of understanding. If people look at our songs on the surface, they’re not very good. You’ve got to go deeper.”

Rock audiences are of course the bane of all forward thinking rock musicians: their laziness and acceptance, their reluctance to meet anything half-way, their wariness of anything new without a softening image. It’s astounding that rock music ever manages to progress at all! Perry gets very animated about the subject of audiences on a number of occasions during the conversation.

“I think audiences have got to grow up like I’ve grown up – from being an arrogant punk to being a bit thoughtful about music and the effect it has on people.

“The trouble with audiences is that they love to be audiences. Spectators love to be spectators; you can’t try to make them anything else. But it’s not their fault, it’s the way they’ve been brought up, to be an audience to a performer.

“That’s why I tend to preach, because as I’m the spectacle for that evening I realise that maybe something goes in…and they all go, ‘yeah Mark, wow…’ but next day they’ll probably forget it all.

“It’s usually me in the heat of the moment going over the top and getting very excited. I do get very excited on stage. When I get into those improvised lyrics…I’ll think next day, oh, wow, that was a bit over the top. ATV are very excitable on stage, we tend to say things. Later we think, Oh shit? Why did we say that!”

ATV ARE not as obviously radical and revolutionary as say Throbbing Gristle or the plastic-jerky Devo. Occasionally their music will extend into a sort of overwhelming, chaotic heavy metal, very sharp and hard, in a way ordinary. This is because they still rely to certain extent on riffs to form a basis: passages can still develop sparse or minimal, expand or change, but they’re always centred around a riff.

The one definite aspect of any ATV performance is ‘improvisation’. There is plenty of improvisation both musically and lyrically, and at its peak this has to be the purest and best means of achieving fire, emotion, atmosphere.

ATV don’t abuse this potential. Perry and ATV tend to play with sounds and structures within their limited technical ability and the limitations of the instruments they use, with the resulting style, straight rock or reggae or whatever, being almost accidental.

Perry’s concern with music is creating a mood, getting across a feeling.

“The way we work is from the words downwards – the sounds come to enhance them. When I say I want our music to get better, I mean to put across an idea more subtly, more discreetly. The best music, I think, is a discreet type of music. At the moment we’re a bit noisy, a bit clattery, crash bang, feedback and that. I want to be a bit…not slick…I want to learn what sounds do to people.

“Like Eno…I admire him very much. Very discreet, very sparse. It’s something I would like ATV to get into. We have tried to ourselves occasionally, but we couldn’t sustain it for more than three minutes!”

EVERYTHING PERRY has experienced in the last 15 months materialised in some way on their debut album, The Image Has Cracked: their audience, the development of the group, their maturing, their distinct possibilities.

Perry had channelled any natural thoughts on how the record would turn out; no mere collection of songs. What he’s made with the record is a chronological documentary of ATV: it is the end of a specific phase in ATV’s life, and hints at a solidifying of intentions.

Side one has music Perry wrote with Ferguson, from the mostly satisfactory middle months of 1977 – conventional, rounded songs such as ‘Action Time Vision’.

Side two starts off with a couple of disdainful, ironical gestures of annoyance and hurt – observations from their tour of France – and finishes with two tracks that reflect ATV’s present state and initiative, ‘Red’ and ‘Splitting In 2’, which are significantly the most provocative and evocative pieces on the record.

‘Red’, not surprisingly considering it is pure Perry, is Perry’s favourite part of the album. It is a short section of solo improvised electronic guitar constructed tenderly and inquisitively out of blocks of chords and silence. It is a hesitant, almost shy contribution to the prospects of confronting definitions: a whispered start to what could be ultimately Perry’s major exploration.

“‘Red’ is a snatch of what I’m really interested in…music getting across a feeling. If listeners want to get something out of it the same as an Eno album, they could put it on again and again, just play that track. ‘Red’ could be any length.”

The most curious piece on the record is the opening 11 minutes, a halting, hard-to-listen-to opener that bravely establishes ATV’s problems of communication, necessity, roles.

The piece is ‘Alternatives’, the majority of which is a live recording of a performance at the 100 Club earlier this year where Perry foolhardily handed over the stage to the audience for some sort of debate, self-expression.

The result is a shambles. The audience end up fighting amongst themselves.

“Well, yeah…putting that first long piece on at the start is to try people out.

“Can people sit down and listen to it? We could have just put out a collection of songs like Magazine or Generation X and said, here you are, here’s your answer.

“We didn’t want to do that. We’re mixed up, we’re not going to hide that. Like, I’m embarrassed by the ‘Alternatives’ track but it had to go on the album.”

AFTER WE’D talked, Perry prepared to journey with his group to the Stonehenge Free Festival – trying something out. Some of the group were reluctant, but they still went. Perry grinned at the prospect. “We’ll set up as soon as we get there.”

The enthusiasm…Perry from bored blank-bank clerk to ‘Red’: to ‘Splittin’ In Two’: to The Image Has Cracked. He’s still unsure, still confused, still fighting, but in a more intense, dangerous way. We’re back to that game I was indulging at the beginning.

“Every Outsider tragedy we have studied is the tragedy of self-expression.”

“He would like to know how to express himself, because that is the means by which he can get to know himself and his unknown possibilities.”

Don’t pin your hopes here?

© Paul MorleyNew Musical Express, 29 June 1978

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