Alternative TV: Viva La Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete Deptford Fun City Recordings 1977-1980
There are experimental acts that can't touch Mark Perry's otherworldliness, punk bands that can't capture his pop fury, and we're all the better for it.
"Although I was totally committed to the DIY ethic of punk, the band were very excited about going into the EMI studsios. God knows what I would have done if they'd have actually offered us a deal! In the end, they thought we were 'too political' plus the swearing didn't help!" -- Mark Perry (as told to Steve Rippon in the liner notes for Viva La Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete Deptford Fun City Recordings 1977-1980)
The Flaming Lips will be remembered for a lot of things, but perhaps nothing more prominent than the title of their 1998 odds-n-sods compilation A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording...By Amateurs, because that very phrase could be used to describe a very select group of artists, although few would ever embody that term as much as Alternative TV.
The brainchild of Mark Perry, Alternative TV wouldn't even exist were it not for the Deptford-born Perry's love of music. In 1973, he sent in a letter to the long-defunct Disc Magazine extolling the virtues of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (going as far as to calling them "the eighth wonder of the world!") before seeing the Ramones live changed his world. In fact, he got so riled up by the punk stalwarts' performance that he formed his own DIY magazine called Sniffin' Glue, which was a barely-legible document that reeked of enthusiasm and excitement, starting a small fanbase of its own, one that Perry was able to use for including his first-ever single as Alternative TV, the surprisingly-poppy reggae tune "Love Lies Limp".
Indeed, 1978's The Image Has Cracked, while technically a "punk" album, had far too many eccentricities to fall under that simple label, and its opening track, the failed attempt at live audience participation called "Alternatives", opens up the entirety of Viva La Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete Deptford Fun City Recordings 1977-1980, a box-set that rounds up the first four albums from Perry and his ever-rotating cast of characters. His presence could be felt in many forms, from Alternative TV to the more broadly-titled Good Missionaries to his first-ever solo set under his own name, but the sloppy, held-together-with-tape recordings prove powerfully intriguing. A lot of it isn't great. Some of it is fantastic. Yet that enthusiasm and excitement that reverberates through every recording is what ultimately what drives it forward.
Opening both Cracked and the box set itself is "Alternatives", an aptly-titled sudio/live hybrid wherein the band rides a simple groove as Perry soap-boxes into the microphone and tries to get audience members to come on stage and do similar (it doesn't work). It's a deliberate move to try and upset expectations of the listener, because immediately after, the group launches into a series of pop-punk nuggets like "Action Time Vision" and the six-string strut of "Why Don't You Do Me Right?", which simultaneously feel like they are both products of the U.K. punk scene ("Anarchy in the U.K." came out two years prior and forever altered the landscape, let's not forget) and hastily-put-together amalgams of their influences. The group still finds nice angles and textures to play with, like how "Still-Life" is a much moodier counterpoint to the group's other upbeat assaults and "Nasty Little Lonely" is a slow, moody guitar number that feels as far removed from "punk" as possible, but overall the group feels like they are having genuine fun crafting songs, experimenting in the studio with song styles and still creating a record that is satisfying as a whole.
Yet Perry's vision, it turned out, was unrepentantly singular, and Alternative TV featured a perpetual revolving door of guitarists and songwriting partners, which, in may ways, explains the sheer "WTF" assault that is 1979's Vibing Up the Senile Man (Part One). Guitars have evaporated completely, resulting in a found-sound collage of noises and minor-key fuckery that paints the perfect picture in your mind of what someone is making when you hear they're making "experimental music." "Poor Association" features piano tinkles mesh with the all-important slide-flute, "The Good Missionary" is an almost-story song with a throbbing bassline, ambient noise, and Perry unleashing a somewhat rambling narrative with the occasional backwards-voice effect thrown in for good measure. "Graves of Deluxe Green" brings guitars back, but only for broad, fuzzed-out textural work, and if the shift of aesthetic between this and Cracked is jarring, just imagine how his fans reacted to it when it first came out. Oh sure, the band still did a Peel session, where they do a remarkable job of recreating the studio recordings but nonetheless throw in a version of "Nasty Little Lonely" as a bone to their audience.
Of course, for creating such deliberately uncommercial music, funds were needed, and so a tour opening for the Pop Group resulted in the band's latest iteration, rebrandishing themselves as Good Missionaries as a way to shake off their punk fans as they continued in their ethereal, bizarre direction. The latest lineup was a bit tighter, and the Good Missionaries put out a live album called Fire From Heaven which painted the band in a much greater light, their performances feeling more considered and deliberate than the scattershot id that was the Vibing recording. Some lines still arch eyebrows just like they always did ("When masturbation means something deep!" is screamed on the ol' tochstone "Another Coke") but new recordings like "Bugger the Cat" hint at what this lineup could've truly done with proper studio support.
No matter though: Perry was sick of touring and the whole scene, eventually retreating to make his own solo set, Snaffy Turns, in 1980. Initially conceived as a more commercial record than anything he's done since Vibing, he sort of lives up to that goal, as the almost-jazzy title track and the guitar-and-keyboard oddball that is "You Know" adhere to somewhat-conventional structures, but the oboe-driven "The Object is to Love" shows that that ever-strange side of Perry's personality will never be fully quelled, even as the spoken-word sax-and-bass viber "Inside" feels like an otherworldly amalgam of the score to Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Velvet Underground's "The Gift". Snaffy almost feels like a revistation of every turns and style Perry had accomoplished up to this point, which makes it as entertaining as it does frustrating.
Yet even with some (okay, most) songs going off the rails, the enthusiasm and excitement of someone letting their freak flag fly so deliberately and distinctly is worth celebrating in and of itself. Even with Viva La Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete Deptford Fun City Recordings 1977-1980's niche appeal, one still can't be delighted by its existence, as there are experimental acts out there today that can't touch Perry's otherworldliness, punk bands that can't capture his pure pop fury, and a whole bunch of fans that just can't believe it even exists -- and we're all the better for it.