The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Punk? I was 13 in 1977. I had been raised by my late father on a diet of Ornette, Mingus, Stockhausen and Ayler, plus any operatives which he felt were valid because they used jazzers - King Crimson, Soft Machine/Wyatt, Ayers, Drake, Martyn, Caravan even! - so thought that ramalamadolequeue was a cliche even before it had been concocted. It was sweaty R&B, monochromatic in its monotony. "I ain't going to school no more." Yes, tell me something I don't already know, or tell me something I do know but in a new and interesting way. To my prepubescent mind Moroder's From Here To Eternity and Coleman's Dancing In Your Head were galaxies ahead of the mob, not to mention Bowie's Low (so I won't). Or indeed the first Company Week at the ICA with the two forced double acts within a quartet of Bailey, Parker, Coxhill and Beresford. Not Rotten, though. The Pistols' music might have consisted of old Queen B-sides, but that delivery - somewhere between muezzin wailing and Harold Steptoe - was in itself as radical a gesture to me as Dylan's rasp must have been to the generation before me. The Buzzcocks, too - something distinct was brewing in "Spiral Scratch." "Complete Control" by the Clash, definitely - until you realise that it's Lee Perry who's making them interesting.

So I was waiting for some genuinely new approach, some confirmation that there were people out there who aesthetically corresponded with me. Yes, Suicide knocked me sideways when I heard that first album of theirs, and Pere Ubu stretched me upways (standing at the counter of Impulse Records in Hamilton, slack-jawed in awe while listening to "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"). But they were Americans and therefore at a distance. I needed more direct "community" (so could understand why indie kids a decade later would flock to the shelter of C86 rather than be bombarded by obscure 12-inchers from Chicago or Detroit, even though the latter were quite clearly the future - that maternal body again). Something from here.

Enter Alternative TV. I had clocked their first couple of singles without really taking them in (apart from the "you all don't know nuffin'" loop at the end of "How Much Longer?") but read the ecstatic review of their first album The Image Has Cracked in Sounds (by John Gill?).

The sleeve itself was scarcely in line with Wot The Kids Want. A series of pictures to accompany and overflow the song titles (Aphex Twin?) including one with Mark Perry stretched out on his living room floor, blissfully surrounded by an artfully assembled collection of his favourite records. Forever Changes? We're Only In It For The Money? KOOL AND THE GANG? In 1978 this must have been, no WAS, heresy. History to be reassembled as you see fit? We want VER TROOF. We want SHAM 69.

The very beginning of the first track, "Alternatives," never mind the track itself, immediately suggests that what you, the punks, have asserted now has to be turned over. Question yourself every second. The construct of a "record" is itself dissected. A synthesiser intro which could easily have come from Tarkus (with Eno-type oscillator squeals) played by Jools Holland. Then a quick segue into a live performance at the 100 Club. Set against an endlessly repeating "You Really Got Me"-style riff which ticks along patiently with occasional momentary eruptions like giant question marks (cf. Isaac Hayes "Phoenix"), Perry pleads, cajoles people into coming on stage to occupy his "soapbox" and say whatever they like. The audience is largely reluctant, content with burping and screeching in the pit. Eventually someone does come on stage and attempts to deliver some political commentary, though even he does not really know what he wants to say ("the truth, right? You're all influenced by the Prime Minister - FUCKING LISSENNN!!"). When he gets to response to his undefined anger, he sneers "OK then, what's your favourite television programme?" Sudden vigorous assent from audience. "See, all I get from you people is fucking Coronation Street!" A couple of punters try to dance on stage but Perry orders them off. The next orator says that the lead singer in his band was killed in France a couple of weeks ago and they are looking for a new singer "so if you wanna audition, leave your name at the door? - wot, you wanna, well FUCKING leave yer name then!" Who would want to join? Then, inevitably: "RIGHT YOU CUNT" and we hear a scuffle. Perry explodes, on the verge of tears and in total rage and abjection as he stares at the hollow, black heart of "democracy": "For once in your life you get a chance to say something, and what do you do? Fight? That's all you can fucking do. I LOVE all you people but I HATE you when you act like stupid idiots - because THAT'S WHEN THEY GRIND YOU DOWN!"

Sudden cut to a naggingly familiar voice talking about a cinema showing hitherto unseen films. "Here, battles can be fought, arguments settled, differences confronted. This is also a place where any number of movements can develop..."

"...EVEN ROCK AND ROLL!" Sudden cutback to Perry, this time sounding muffled and echoed. He rants about the fact that punk bands getting on TV has not signified the revolution. "...but it's not [great] is it? All you're getting is diluted shit." The music suddenly reverts back to its previous level (PiL did the same trick in the studio 18 months later with "Memories") with Alex Fergusson's guitar commenting in the background. Someone in the audience says, "you know all the problems, have you got any answers?" "No," he says ashen-faced, "I don't have any fucking answers." He orders the riff to be terminated. "CHAOS TO END!" and after a quick harmolodic burst the music slows down to inertia and rest.

This is the most astonishing and brazen start to a "rock" album ever. We are now ten minutes into The Image Has Cracked and the average listener must have been completely baffled by this time. No "songs" as such, nothing to pogo to, nothing that they can really hang on to. A succession of images, expressions and emotions has thrown at us and it is up to us to refract them. Indeed, you are being questioned for even buying or listening to this record. What did you expect? What can you, the consumer, do for us? This is something awfully and terribly near to the "truth."

Next, as if to hastily reassure the listener, we get the single "Action Time Vision" which already sounds out of date in May 1978 and only serves to disconcert us more.

And then a Frank Zappa cover! "Why Don't You Do Me Right?" (off Absolutely Free). What the hell is he playing at? Certainly Zappa also indulged in getting members of the audience on stage to speak their mind, but unlike cynical old Frank, Perry does not actively despise them. He wants them to do better, thinks that they are capable of better than this. But the Zappa track cannot hide its dusty, crusty boogie down dreariness. It's FZ having a go at his "woman" again (musically, not even in the same astral belt as Kool Keith). "I just wanted a life!" At the end Perry says that he wants his "woman" to serve him breakfast in bed, to wake him up in the early afternoon, and then cries over and over "I just want somewhere to LIVE!" thereby subverting the original's line of attack and turning it back upon the singer's own essential despondency.

"Good Times" is another standard thrashabout (the irony of the title a moonbuggy's ride away from the level of irony which Chic deployed on their similarly named song) and by now you are wondering whether they can actually live up to what they preached on "Alternatives." Some of this is very bog standard stuff.

But then, back to the 100 Club. "An old favourite," mutters Perry as the band go into "Still Life." A slow, stealthy, churning rhythm develops over Perry's deliberately rudimentary guitar minimalism (if you listen, he is merely picking the notes and thrashing with his right hand only, not even bothering to find a chord). This builds up steam, and then the guitar line dissolves into echo and suddenly reverbs into the technicolour studio arsequakery of the song's second part. Perry debunks jobs, marriage, life even, as though he is delivering a warning just before immolating himself ("I'm too much of a jerk!"). The new wave equivalent of "Paranoid." The song finally breaks banks, a Moog wandering from low to high frequency and guitars now becoming atonal, drums hammering and confounding before dropping down into an abrupt but unmistakeable abyss. Steve Albini surely must have been listening. In 1978 this was radical beyond description.

On to side two "Viva La Rock And Roll" which starts with Mr Holland's patented (even then) boogie woogie piano magic. This is rapidly subsumed into a club-footed trudge in which Perry muses about Paris and Jim Morrison. The odd chorale which breaks out at the fadeout, accompanied by Holland's returning, but now stately, piano, queerly anticipates More Specials by two years. Finally, the piano is left on its own with its block chords and air of resignation.

"Nasty Little Lonely" practically oozes grunge. Perry could either be talking about lost love or necrophilia here; it's difficult to decipher. Guitars wriggle restlessly, like wingless moths waiting to be extinguished.

Then a brief echo-laden guitar solo by Perry, "Red," which is elemental but unhurried, with a subtle motivic nod to King Crimson, and which also invented the Durutti Column.

This bridges into the final track "Splitting In Two" where Perry confronts the conflict facing him - "I don't know where I stand with you." Stay with "punk" or follow your own idea of "punk"? The music bursts its corsets for an intoxicating freeform wigout which more or less invents Sonic Youth (perhaps, at their EVOL/Sister/Daydream Nation peak, the true successors of this particular branch of ATV's work).

This was unparalleled and unequalled in 1978, except perhaps by the first side of the first PiL album and the Slits' Peel sessions. Postpunk was about to take Perry's point.

And where did he go after that? And is it conceivable that Danny Baker, now condemned to five-minute soundbites between news and traffic reports, browning his tongue to Ann Widdecombe and Christine Hamilton, hiding the pain, was actually once a crucial part of this? Who got the better deal? Vibing Up The Senile Man, the second ATV album (more or less Perry on his own) - I don't know; one applauds it, one WANTS to like it, from the cover (eerily similar to that of Keith Tippett's landmark Ovary Lodge album on Ogun Records, which was out at about the same time) but apart from the touching piano-stroked ballad "Facing Up To The Facts" (an audible influence on the Swans' quieter work, e.g. "In My Garden," Skin in general) it doesn't quite work. He is grasping with ideas for which he just doesn't have the tools (again, PiL outflanked him on this score with their radical bassless rhythms on 1981's Flowers of Romance). He is still around but the goalposts stay nailed in. Alex Fergusson went on to cohabit briefly with Psychic TV and was crucial to the success of their first album Force The Hand Of Chance, one of the greatest records ever made, but then likewise disappointed himself out of the landscape. They confronted, you see. They were not ironic, and if they were knowing they knew enough to keep it quiet.

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