Perfect Sound Forever

Splitting In 2:
Alternative TV

Mark Perry

by Richard Mason (February 2001)

"Punk was cutting out the question 'Can I do this?'" Linder of Ludus

Nowadays, when a group so polished and slick as to sound almost like aural treacle as the British outfit called Radiohead can get away with releasing a song entitled "Anyone Can Play Guitar," itís hard to imagine the outrage caused in the mid-late '70's by Patti Smith when she dared to strap an electric guitar to her person and proceed to show her almost total lack of technical proficiency on the instrument. Not content with inflicting her ineptitude on people who payed good money to see her in concert, she even played it on her records! For many, it proved a point. Ideas above her station, arrogant, pretentious - a woman! - take your pick. How times changed after punk broke! You could get up on stage, plug in, thrash away to your heartís content and no-one cared if you couldnít play to save your life (whatever that means). Or did they?

The penultimate track on side two of The Image Has Cracked: The First LP by Alternative TV is called "Red" and is a solo performance by Mark Perry on electric guitar. Few would claim it represents one of punk rock's outstanding moments. Fewer still could hum it. But Perryís guitar playing at the time attracted as much negative, er, feedback from the hip journalists and scene makers as Patti Smith's had from the old guard of critics and musicians a couple of years back.

And the parallels donít end there. For werenít they both in actual fact imposters, intruders... wordsmiths? Didn't they know their place was back at home behind their typewriter? The nerve of these people! But whereas Patti Smith was eventually able to overcome these prejudices to a significant extent, admittedly as much by acceptance by her peers as much as anything - after all, anyone who Bruce 'The Boss' Springsteen deigns to collaborate with canít be a total waste of space, surely! Mark Perry had to endure the 'donít give up the day job' attitude thoughout his career as the leader of one of the groups at the vanguard of the second wave of punk, in terms of attitude if not success. Whether it was lurching head first into 'free rock,' writing songs about impotence, handing over the mike to confrontational audience members or playing free tours with hippies, Perry never shirked from what at times seemed to verge on a policy of commercial autodestruction. To him, the idea of having a coherent group, policy or record was entirely secondary to what punk rock was really all about; self-expression, honesty and no compromise.

Not that ATV didnít make some superb records. From the lazy cod-skank of their appropriately floppy flexi debut "Love Lies Limp," initially issued free with Sniffin' Glue #12 and a short sharp shock to the macho sensiblities that still plagued rock and pop music (and still do), they carved their own niche both musically and lyrically. The first hard vinyl release didnít so much throw down the gauntlet to punkís fashion police in its lyrics as slap them hard in the face with it; "How Much Longer" despaired of those caught in straight-jackets of their own design, making a mockery of the media view of punk rock as a tribal concept. The next single was not so much an anthem as a manifesto set to music; sure, there were the archetypal punk guitar chords, but the lyrics hinted at a real striving for something and a reaction against trendy negativity:

"Chords and notes donít mean a thing
Listen to the rhythm, listen to us sing
Weíre in action and the 4 minds crack
In A-T-V..."
"Action Time Vision"  was virtually the last ATV release that embraced any degree of conventionality. By now Alex Fergusson, guitarist and songwriter along with Perry, had left and as long as the group attempted anything near a 'rock' sound again they would be reliant on outside help from labelmates like Jools Holland from Squeeze, who plastered barrelhouse piano all over segments of the first LP. By this time, the lyrical mood was changing; the defiant polemic of the early singles was replaced by a more vulnerable, personal subject matter in such songs as "Nasty Little Lonely" and "Splitting in 2." Like those other great misfits of the punk era, the Subway Sect, ATV seemed more interested in weakness and dissipation, both in themselves and in others, than strength and fortitude.

By the time the second LP emerged in late 1978, all pretence at a 'rock' sound, or indeed any real song structure at all, had been unceremoniously jettisoned. I remember hearing early versions of pieces that later appeared on Vibing Up The Senile Man on radio sessions earlier that year. Only The Residents provoked a similar reaction; is this music at all? Huge spaces, or, more accurately, gaping holes in the sparse, almost delicate instrumental sound over which Perryís imploring and somehow ultimately endearing voice yelped out his distinctive lyrics, now more reminiscent of modern poetry than song words; all these factors produced material which alienated significant sections of the group's following. Truth was, Perry always had faith in his own tastes and had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about leaving his audience behind. The opening track of the first LP had consisted of edits of live performances where the audience were given the stage to air their feelings, just as Frank Zappa, a hero of Perry's and constantly cited as a point of reference, had done more than ten years ago, but, like Zappa, Perry was not prepared to kowtow to his fanbase if it went against his personal grain.

ATV played their last gig under that name in March 1979, metamorphosed into The Good Missionaries and eventually fizzled out. They reformed in the early '80's and again in this very decade, but the initial impetus, as with many others, was lost forever.  But, even now, listening to the first few records by this vital group you can still get a real thrill, but the impact of ATV was somehow deeper; their attitude, their way of doing things, their very raison d'etre was the very stuff of what some folk (this person included) would consider the true punk spirit; something that transcended product, yet still stood out as the product's single most enlightening and vibrant facet. If ever there was a band that stood for what punk should have been about, surely it was Alternative TV. Then again, as Lenny Bruce famously said (and Mark Perry would undoubtedly concur), 'What should be is a fucking lie.'

Also see our Mark Perry interview
and Richard's touching farewell to PSF

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER