»Do not adjust your mind there is a fault in reality«
- 1980's British subvertisement
In the classic film 'It's A Wonderful Life', main character George Bailey is blessed with the politics of decency bravely fending off chief town-capitalist Potter without so much a glimpse toward the dead thoughts of Marx or Bakunin. He simply gets on with things his own way, placing common decency above reward or punishment. If you want a modern day equivalent, look no further than ATV's Mark Perry.
Think Mark Perry and you think about punk and his part away from its downfall. The Deptford rebel with a handful of causes, an open heart, an adrenaline-fuelled magazine and an interesting band, that took it all too far when it walked away from guitar.
You think of 1977 and all the careers it started, (thank you, boss) but also of the idealism that crept in its shadow before being bought by the establishment.
Not Mark Perry. He flew over the cuckoo's nest with his principles (if not, perhaps, his bank balance) intact. An example: at one point in his career, under the watchful guidance of Miles Copeland, Mark was asked to demo his next record ('Strange Kicks') -something he had decided was against his principles. Rather than betray them, he broke up the band, forgoing up a lucrative deal with A&M and an American tour.
This is the man who started the legendary Sniffin' Glue (first punk fanzine), announced the Clash had sold out by singing to CBS and then destroyed his magazine, therein throwing away another lucrative career, rather than compromise with adverts and the like. More than almost anybody in the first wave of punk, Mark Perry used the freedom it afforded to test the limits of possibility. Experiments included a free tour with hippie stalwarts Here And Now, taking in Stonehenge Festival and resulting in the shared album 'What You See Is What You Are.' Musically, his (ad)ventures have ranged from the sublime to the pointedly mistaken. He asked more of self, more of others, more of art. An admirable but godforsaken pilgrimage.
But Mark Perry is, like George Bailey, not driven by anything overtly political so much as a sense of right and wrong. Devoid of dogma, devoid of stagnancy bit like punk once was, really. He loves his independence because it works.
At the age of 40, Mark Perry looks back on all of this without a hint of regret. We talk in Mark's North London flat a beautifully kept place that belies its co-operative status. His affable nature is evident throughout our time together over tea and Guinness, a breath of fresh air in an industry full of dudes full of shit. But that's no reason to buy his records, of course. That reason, and the reason we're here, is because he's just released his best album since 1978' debut 'The Image Has Cracked.' It's called 'Apollo' and it's a serious return to form. It's the sound of one man screaming/crying/laughing/shouting, unhindered by constraints. This is the man who was happier to work as a clerk for London's Lewisham Council than compromising points of independence long gone from 'indie' music.
But most of all, it's the sound of reflection. Though Perry insists his songs could be applicable to any 'powder-puff revolution', it's clear he's got punk on his mind. So have I, particularly the hitherto-baffling decision to play the 'punk festivals', where old British punk bands (usually the worst) are wheeled out for nostalgia events. At the risk of sounding elitist, what was it like? Wasn't it all a little embarrassing? Mark's earnest reply makes me feel like a snob: 'Absolutely brilliant. When we done ATV before that early 90's we were playing all new material and no one was turning up. There was about 20 or 30 people at some of the gigs. But at these festivals, we were playing to something like 2,000 again really good for your ego. There's an audience again thank God for that!'
'If there's anything I'm embarrassed about, I don't do it. You can't really get me out of bed to do anything I don't wanna do..... I convinced myself I could do it in the right way not just the punk stuff but the later stuff that was a lot stranger. Some gigs we'd start with 'Release The Natives' (which is a seven-minute slow number), and we were able to do that. When we did that in 1978, there was all these skinheads wanted to kill us for doing it! It's alright, but you've got to move on I had two years of that."
Mark cites the old rock n roll roadshows of the 70's where he'd see Chuck Berry on the bill and think "silly old sod, why doesn't he give up? I mean, he was
probably only about thirty of something!" he chuckles.
Then we're off. 'Apollo' may indeed be brilliant, but punk is what we really want to talk about. And Mark is a pretty convincing raconteur. 'The reasons people got into punk are still there the motivation to get up there and give it some. When you're 19 or 20 you think you're only gonna have that feeling for a while. If someone had told me I was still gonna be doing it when I was 40. I would've thought, 'oh, I'll be a sad git then! You see Mick Jagger doing it and so on. And it's not until you're 40, you think 'I've still got this burning desire to get up there and hammer out 'Action Time & Vision' or whatever...'
The irony is that Perry's vision was never constrained by punk styles. He's consistently used all sorts of musical influences ('Apollo' spans the world and the decades in musical influence). 'That was the problem- punk came along and all of a sudden it was like Year Zero a lot of 'The Image Has Cracked' uses ideas I'd heard from Frank Zappa, Can, even Eno. But at the time it served a purpose...if you're gonna do anything, you might as well do it right. Cause a bit of a stink. Once you've cleared your space, then you get on with it.' Mark's on a roll now. Although he's more open than just about anybody I've interviewed, you sense he's most at home dissecting the olde saeftie-pinned beast:
'One of the disappointments I've got with punk is that it still sounded like Thin Lizzy I felt punk's natural progression would have been away from that rock format. I think that's what held it back although it loud and radical and brash people like CBS still understood it because we were using the language of rock music. I would have like it to have been taken a lot further. The only band that did was Throbbing Gristle.'
So CBS and ATV have led deliberately separate existences. Not that Mark is at-all bothered, 'I've never had any ambitions to have a career as a journalist or a musician I've never been afraid to go out there and get a normal job like millions of other people are doing. People who think the world owes them a living because they play in some dopey punk band that's just bollocks.'
'I think I've made certain choices with my career. I've been very erratic about the way I've worked and I've sometimes made major decisions which have affected my pocket.' Mind you: 'At Lewisham Council, I was making a lot more money than I would in a band. I'd have to be selling a lot of records, doing four or five gigs every week I'd be all over the place. At least with the council, you go in nine-to-five and you get the evenings to yourself to spend the money.'
'Apollo' seems to almost revel in its naiveté regarding programming if you compare it to, say, a techno record. The surprising thing is how refreshing this makes it sound. Mark says 'I like that slightly flawed idea in music...a lot of the old records I listen to, like Rolling Stones records, you can hear Charlie Watts miss the odd snare-hit, but you know they've gone for the feel of the track.'
Mark's cohort from the Sniffin' Glue days has taken a very different path in his career. These days Danny Baker is a media star in the UK, highly successful in television and famous for hanging around with controversial British soccer star Paul Gascoigne. You can't help but wonder whether Mark ever reflects on their relative positions. But then, he doesn't classify 'success' in that way:
'My old mate Danny did an advert for Daz. They're a major corporation! Give us a break! They're destroying the fucking world why are we working for them? I'm not a particularly political person I wouldn't go and tie myself to a tree, but certain things like the Clash signed to CBS that's CBS for chrissakes, you didn't need to do that. It angers me. I've got certain principles that I'll stick to. And that has really been my downfall career-wise, it's held me up' Mark says, with maybe the merest hint of confusion.
But only the merest. When he says 'Danny's done what he wanted', it's said with an emotion nearer forgiveness than envy. Though the two still get on, and will be meeting up soon to discuss a forthcoming Sniffin' Glue anthology, Mark continues to draw firm lines: 'They did 'This Is Your Life' on Danny Baker.' (Its a British TV show where a star is surprised, taken to a studio, and greeted by lots of old friends from his/her past). 'They phoned me up and said they wanted me on it. They wanted me to say 'hello, remember me? how about working on my fanzine?' and then I was gonna walk out. I said 'I can't do that! They were so shocked 'no-one refuses to come on telly!' I told my mum and she said 'Oh, you should have gone on!' Even people I respect didn't understand. I don't live by those rules.'
Mark doesn't sound off as angrily as his words might suggest; his mood is more incredulous as though peoples' behaviour defies belief. And his attitude to his music reflects this fiercely independent and strong-willed approach to his life.
It must be a lovely feeling, to go into the studio and express yourself without thought towards any figures in the shadows sitting in financial judgement. In these dumbed-down times, it may seem unnecessarily highbrow to harp on about the potential purity of art, but on 'Apollo' the sense of freedom is a breath of fresh air. ATV have been playing live (with Tyrone from the old line-up and the drummer from Christian Death!) from January '99, mixing tracks from the new album with golden-oldie crowd-pleasers. It's an inciting, inviting return to punk's more creative and imaginative days.
....'What I do now is I do my own thing'. The Potters of this world don't stand chance with Mark Perry. A George Bailey for our times. It's wonderful punk life.
© George Berger, 1999