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Alex Fergusson - A secret history and Secret Recordings 1976-1992

Alex Fergusson Secret Recordings 1976 - 1992 cover It's about time someone documented the varied pursuits of Scottish musician and songwriter Alex Fergusson. Even before Vinyl On Demand curated the beautiful boxset Secret Recordings 1976-1992 it was obvious Alex Fergusson had an impressive history. Producer of early singles from Orange Juice and others associated with the feted Scottish Postcard Records label; co-writer of Dorothy's 'I Confess' single, a pop gem recorded with Max, and an oddity on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records label, writer of many of the punk classics of Alternative TV's including 'Action Time Vision' and 'Love Lies Limp' and while the focus may have been on Genesis P-Orridge it was Alex who created the music for Psychic TV's finest pop moments such as 'White Nights', 'Baby's Gone Away', the near pop hit 'Godstar' and many others. And then there was an early synth pop single and sporadic guest appearances on albums from Chris and Cosey and Coil. He may have preferred to stay in the shadows, his best songwriting written in partnership with others but Secret Recordings 1976-1992 digs deep into his archive revealing his wide and varied influence and impact, along with a selection of his own solo works from a Scottish musician who really deserves to be much better known and recognised for his contribution to a number of influential groups.

The Nobodies
Speaking to Alan Licht for The Wire's Invisible Jukebox Genesis P-Orridge said "Alex Fergusson and Sandy Robertson had originally had a band which they called the Nobodies in Glasgow, and the Nobodies played only one song which was 'European Son' and they would play that for as long as they could, about an hour, and that was the entire set."

I've no idea if that is true as I'm not sure The Nobodies ever performed live but there is a Velvet Underground influence on the four tracks of these recordings from The Nobodies. Alex and Sandy shared a flat in Renfrew, the next town up from where I grew up, and Alex played his first gig in Paisley at the Rockfield Hotel just along the road from my primary school, and as much as I longed to hear them I never thought I'd get the chance. Sandy Robertson even told Nocturnal Revelries: "I'm sure any bedroom tapes of the Nobodies have been erased. Missing episodes of Mystery & Imagination are a tragedy for posterity, missing tapes of me caterwauling are a blessing".

He's wrong though and thanks to Vinyl On Demand, here they are taken from a very lo-fi cassette recording. Before The Nobodies Alex was in the Bold Bucks who recorded a single - 5 copies only - and sent a tape to Stiff Records. After seeing the The Clash in London he realised how behind the times they were and so The Nobodies were formed. The four tracks range from the raw spirited strum of 'Teenage Fun', to the sparser guitar chords and almost spoken wordy feel of 'It's Over' with Sandy Roberston's American styled vocal yelps and wails aping Patti Smith all backed by by Alex's harmonies. More direct is 'Wank Wank' capturing their more transgressive impulses delivered in a more riffy style, while 'Rock & Roll (Sleeping Stars)' displays Alex's distinctive guitar style with customary VU backing vocals which he would finesse later to greater effect in the Psychic TV songs 'Baby's Gone Away' and 'Stolen Kisses'. The Nobodies listed their influences as Kim Fowley, Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and when the duo were interviewed by Skid Kid for Tony D's seminal punk fanzine Ripped and Torn they considered them "the most initiative of the newly sprouting Scottish Punk bands and if anyone is 'gonna make' it from Scotland it'll be these two". And they did, Sandy Robertson went on to publish a Patti Smith fanzine, edit music weekly Sounds and write books on Aleister Crowley, Jim Steinman and Meatloaf.

Cash Pussies
In London, Alex would become involved with Fred and Judy Vermorel, authors of the first biography of the Sex Pistols, becoming part of their short-lived Sex Pistols cash-in project the Cash Pussies who released just one single. That single is included here but before that though sometime in 1978 the Vermorel's approached Throbbing Gristle to be involved in a film they were making called Millions Like Us. Throbbing Gristle were to be The Concrete People. The project faltered as Throbbing Gristle pulled out - or perhaps were dropped following an altercation at their benefit show for the London Film Makers Co-op when Fred Vermorel lobbed a chair that hit Sandy Robertson. Either way the project stalled and Alex who was commissioned to be part of the summery pop band Susan and Her Feelings also pulled out. After a stint in America, Alex reconvened with the Vermorels as part of the Cash Pussies, a cynical manufactured group of "insolent parasites". Along with members of the punk group Security Risk, they performed just two shows including a memorial show for the recently deceased Nancy Spungen, on the same night The Clash headlined a benefit show to raise funds for Sid Vicious, languishing in a New York jail cell accused of murdering his girlfriend in a drug stupor in the Chelsea Hotel.

Secret Recordings 1976-1992 features tracks from both of these Fred and Judy Vermorel projects which also include early appearances from Alan Gruner, Ray Weston, who along with Alex would later turn up as part of Alternative TV on their much maligned but superb commercial album Strange Kicks. Almost aping Malcolm McLaren his fellow art student friend for gross exploitation, Fred Vermorel's the Cash Pussies sole single, '99% Is Shit', was released on Sex Pistols producer Dave Goodman's label shortly after the death of Sid Vicious. Model Diana Rich (who appears on the single's back cover) was brought in and credited as being vocalist but the main vocal is actually by Judy Vermorel with Alex on backing vocals. It featured excerpts of public baiting interviews from the now dead Pistols bassist with lyrics about Sid's demise, the commercialism of the music industry over Pistols riffs and a lyrical nod to 'Belsen was a Gas'. An alternate version also features here. 'Cash Flow' is less interesting with Clash-esque rock mannerisms and bunched female vocals closer to what the Shop Assistants would do later. Whatever, it's punky power pop laid the groundwork for the earlier recorded tracks with Susan and Her Feelings for the aborted Millions Like Us film. There's more Clash styled guitars on the sexual come-on of 'Sexy Susan' and 'Sexy Steven' both cut from the same cloth, with vocals spoken and sung by Alex on the first and flitting between Alex and Sarah Osborne over the punky riffs and piano passages on 'Sexy Susan'. The best moments from Susan and Her Feelings are 'Mona Lisa' and 'Sundown'. A trumpet blows a Bowie melody as it swings into 'Mona Lisa' veering from piano chords with sweet female vocals - "Pop star, pin-up boys, I love that teenage rock'n'roll noise" - to chanted voices from Alex, closer to the poppier music Alex composed for Alternative TV's Strange Kicks. 'Sundown', meanwhile' is more folk based with Judy's vocals draped over organ swells and synthetic strings and it's no wonder Alex returned to this decades later with alternate lyrics sung by Rose McDowall on his solo album The Essence. The final track 'Leave Jesus On The Cross' is a reggae based number but this is a wonderful insight into those projects, in a period when Alex would end up being commissioned by Southern Music as their in-house songwriter.

Alternative TV - The Industrial Sessions 1977
Alternative TV with Genesis P-Orridge documents an early sessions recorded at the Death Factory, Hackney in April 1977 following Mark Perry's suggestion to use Throbbing Gristle's Martello Street base to rehearse. Alternative TV had formed just months earlier, after Mark Perry, the founder of the UK's first punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, met Alex Fergusson at the Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill and began writing songs together. Genesis who plays drums and bass on some tracks here was originally slated to be the Alternative TV drummer. It's a rough recording - Genesis tapes everything, Perry told Search and Destroy - and with the false starts, multiple takes and in between chatter also involving Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter it's more of an audio document of those early rehearsals. What's most notable from these recordings, originally released on CD by Overground Records, is how prolific they were. Some of the tracks such as 'Love Lies Limp', 'Life', and 'Alternatives To NATO' were written in the Death Factory and although presented here in rough form would be recorded by Alternative TV - Perry considers 'Life' as one of the finest songs he and Fergusson wrote and would have made a better debut single, while others such as 'Guardian, Times and Observer', 'Never Saw The Blitzkrieg', 'East Acton Action' which featured in early sets would soon be discarded as the writing partnership between Mark Perry and Alex Fergusson quickly matured in that short period before they split for the first time. Alex Fergusson was gone by the time the debut Alternative TV album, The Image Has Cracked appeared though some of his songs composed with Mark Perry would feature on what is arguably the first post-punk album. Perry and Fergusson would reconvene a few years later with the smoother power pop and new wave influenced Strange Kicks album but these recordings are where Alternative TV began, before they played and live and before Throbbing Gristle had released Second Annual Report.

Psychic TV - Pagan Day II
The origins of Psychic TV started after Alex Fergusson started badgering Genesis about writing music together. Gen in a post Throbbing Gristle funk was reticent. Eventually Gen passed to Alex a scribbled note stuck to the water heater on Beck Road. That note written to Paula would become 'Just Drifting'. Peter Christopherson and others would join soon after. Alex would become Gen's key musical collaborator providing guitar, keyboards and piano to the CBS financed Some Bizzare albums Force The Hand of Chance and Dreams Less Sweet, the chart touching psychedelic power chords of 'Godstar' through to the ill-fated Allegory and Self. The recordings here owe more to the quickly recorded Pagan Day but Pagan Day II offers much more. Gen is largely absent here, his contribution reduced to mere suggestions intercut between tracks. Pagan Day II provides an insight into their songwriting process, with Alex providing well rounded demos of songs which would become 'Cadaques', 'We Kiss', 'I Like You' with Alex often providing alternate lyrics or guide vocals. The early version of 'Just Like Arcadia' with Alex on vocals is especially good and is quite revealing in how complete these sketches were. Alex sung 'Cold Steel' ('The Orchids') on Pagan Day and 'Le Weekend', an alternate reading of 'We Kiss', would have sat nicely alongside those. So too would have 'Yes, I Like You', a lovely acoustic ballad where Alex with alternate lyrics of a romantic liaison touches on the sunshine melodies of the Velvet Underground found within many of those Psychic TV pop gems - and so beloved by those other Alex Fergusson associated Scottish groups, Orange Juice and Strawberry Switchblade. Perhaps surprising is 'Paloma', a sweet love song delivered so effortlessly amidst a classic song structure. It's pretty great and now thankfully not lost. Elsewhere, the chiming guitar picks of 'Fancy' recall the flamenco styled acoustic section of 'Terminus', while the emulations and synths flurries of 'St Pauli 84' are more akin to the electronics of Psychic TV's Hyperdelic era. Disillusioned by the whole business, Alex would leave Psychic TV in 1986. He remained in contact with Genesis and returned in 1999 for a one-off performance with Psychic TV at their Time's Up event at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Pagan Day II is a great addition to the Psychic TV discography with sufficient material to support Gen's view that Alex was Psychic TV's "resident songwriting genius".

Ambership - Warm
During his Psychic TV years Alex worked on Ambership, a secret project formed with Peter McGregor, who were courted by a number of labels including Rough Trade, ZTT and Barclay Records. Not much is known about Peter McGregor, but he was another Scottish associate of Postcard Records and The Jolt. An androgynous figure who featured on the cover of Kris Kirk and Ed Heath's sociological study Men In Frocks who was described as having "a penchant for wearing clothes made from rubber, PVC and other materials not normally associated with clothing."

Peter McGregor Ambership Men in Frocks cover Much of Warm, culled from the multitude of songs the wrote together, is rooted in an eighties electro sound with production representative of that era. The poppy guitar electro of the title track has vocals pitched somewhere between Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice and Lawrence of Felt, while the sophisticated pop and deepset croon of 'Guilt Baby Groove' belies a darker strain, with lyrics about leather bars and whisky jars. Elsewhere tracks such as 'Helpless Now', 'Natural High' glisten with rousing glam guitars with 'Hey Angeline' throbbing to additional electro boogie, 'Chromedome' is naturally drenched in fuzz and the electro rock'n'roll of 'Sleeping With The Devil' which would fit nicely on a Silicon Teens album. 'Another Lazy Sunday' is another eighties production pitching deep drawled spoken voice over smooth exotic tones and syncopated symphonics. Alex supplies wiry guitar over the pulsing beats and light flourishes of synths on 'Blue Sultan' but on the rest Peter McGregor's commanding deep voice over music that is much more sophisticated. 'She Was On My Mind' and 'Sleepless Nights' slip into a smooth eighties pop groove with the latter's soul infused vocals, complete with female backing vocals, so beloved of the time. 'She Was On My Mind' pulses to a sound more akin to latter period Orange Juice circa 'Rip It Up'. Elsewhere, McGregor lays down wry observations on the electro ballad 'Drug Culture' with Warm closing on the synth riffy 'Honeymoon'. Warm is perhaps the most surprising album within the boxset and it's a pity Ambership never amounted to anything as it's a highly polished collection topped by McGregor's deep voice and decadent lyrics showcasing Alex's pop writing in a style rather unlike anything else he has put his name to, with well crafted electro pop songs that really deserves to be better heard.

Alex Fergusson - Selected Material 1980-1992
By 1980 Alex had strayed from his earlier punk releases into electronic experimentation. That year saw the release of his sole single the infectious 'Stay With Me Tonight', a prescient piece of early synth-pop recorded with Alan Gruner (Cash Pussies, later Alternative TV, and who would go on to work with Bonnie Tyler), and produced by Larry Least, the Mickie Most inspired pseudonym of Mute Records' Daniel Miller. Also released that year was 'I Confess', Alex's much revered and better known collaboration with Max, the former drummer of Rema-Rema, attributed to the fictitious 19 year old Dorothy. Over a great arrangement it features a list of Max's loves and interests that now seems like a time capsule of pop culture from the late seventies rhyming musique concrète with Subway Sect, Beatle boots and well cut suits, TV theme tunes like Bonanza with The Girl From Uncle, April Dancer. A little pop gem and genuine oddity in the Industrial Records catalogue. Its flipside, also included here, was 'Softness', a synthy disco number with the seductive breathy voice of Max which could easily fool the less discerning listener as being something from Chris and Cosey.

Much of Alex's miscellaneous unreleased work appears on the second side including 'Dance' an interesting lo-fi song recorded with Chris Carter, following Alex's departure from Alternative TV, who adds wailing effects and parping synths to the scratchy riffs and skreech. 'Eros' appears to flesh out a Psychic TV sound mixing the chiming piano of 'The Orchids' with drum beats and the rhythmic tension of 'Terminus' with added synths and piano scales to create something darkly melodic and cinematic. Elsewhere, there's the joyous sprightly synths and rhythms of the instrumental 'Le Kilt' and the bubbling dark electro rhythms of 'Restless' catching Alex on vocals in a rare sinister mode.

The majority of Selected Material 1980-1992 is taken from his solo albums but with the inclusion of tracks from his Trisol and Eis & Licht releases I'd argue that year range must extend to 2006 when, The Castle, his last solo album was released.
The baroque and charming 'Sophie French' with chiming piano and harmonica flourishes about a sultry seductress taken from his 1992 debut 'White Label' album, a 500 edition privately pressed album - which interestingly was also included in the 99 special edition boxes. It would be almost another 10 years before another album appeared and The Essence along with The Castle released some 5 years later saw a return to more intimate songs based around guitar with violin and oboe accompaniment where Alex provides observations, ruminations and fantasies. His ability to craft a great song and melody remained. 'The Essence of You' with its brittle voice captures an intimacy, while 'Tomorrow' a sorrowful ballad strewn with oboe and violin saw him reunite with Rose McDowall and her haunting bittersweet tones. Around this point I caught Alex at The Final Solstice, a night organised and featuring Rose McDowall's Sorrow where he played a solo set culminating in a version of Psychic TV's 'White Nights'. But it is amidst the ringing layers of strum of 'I'm Obsessed' where Alex hits his stride. This is amongst my favourite Alex Fergusson songs, which also features in an earlier electronic form here as the pulsing 'Lifesize (Obsessed)' almost aping parts of TG's 'United' at points. From his later album and last recording The Castle there is 'Bar Noir' a drawling story over pluck and strum about an old haunt, an alternate take on 'Dark Angel' surging to psych guitars and booming distorted bass, and 'Hope' which returns to Lou Reed-esque guitars and Velvet Underground harmonies with Alex asking "Are you a boy, or are you a vixen?". His solo albums may have floated under the radar but they're worth picking up to hear what Alex did after leaving Psychic TV, and this album gives a great overview of his varied solo work.

Based on archive recordings Secret Recordings 1976-1992 provides a wonderful insight into the work of Alex Fergusson but his influence runs deeper. After some of those associated with Postcard Records caught Alternative TV at Paisley's Silver Thread Hotel plans were hatched to approach Alex to produce some of the Postcard groups resulting in Alex producing both Orange Juice's 'Blue Boy'/'Lovesick' single and the Go-Betweens 'I Need Two Heads/Stop Before You Say It'. In 1982 Alex would perform guitar and piano on Strawberry Switchblade's first John Peel radio session. Alex would be Gen's key musical collaborator in Psychic TV, but he would also work with the other strands emanating from the post Throbbing Gristle break-up appearing on the debut albums from both Chris and Cosey and Coil. On Chris and Cosey's Heartbeat he sung and played guitar on 'Useless Information' while on Coil's Scatology he would supply guitar to the Gavin Friday sung 'Tenderness Of Wolves'. It's clear then, even if it has never been fully acknowledged, that Alex Fergusson is the thread that runs through punk, (Scottish) post-punk and onto experimental and industrial music. Vinyl On Demand's Secret Recordings 1976-1992 is to be commended as it marks the first step in reappraising the influence and music of Alex Fergusson. It's a beautiful box set with 5 albums, a t-shirt and a 32 page booklet with an introduction from Sandy Robertson, commentary from Alex Fergusson and many rare photographs. It might, perhaps, take a more widely available cut down and revised edition to fully appreciate the impact and influence of the work of Alex Fergusson but Secret Recordings 1976-1992 available from Vinyl On Demand comes highly recommended with a selection of his work which more than captures the essence of this Scottish musician.

Included here is a youtube playlist featuring a selection of Alex Fergusson songs, appearances and production featuring songs written for Alternative TV, Cash Pussies and Psychic TV, the Postcard Record productions for Orange Juice and The Go-Betweens, songwriting for The Tuniks, Dorothy, and appearances with Strawberry Switchblade, Chris and Cosey, Coil and Zos Kia. Plus a selection of songs from his solo albums, Perverse Ballads, The Essence and The Castle.

References and links
Tony Drayton - Ripped and Torn: 1976 - 79 The Loudest Punk Fanzine in the UK, Ecstatic Peace Library
Douglas MacIntyre and Grant McPhee - Hungry Beat: The Scottish Independent Pop Underground Movement (1977-1984), White Rabbit
Punk77 on the Cash Pussies
Search & Destroy #3, V. Vale, interview with Mark Perry
Richard Johnson - Lost In Room: Mark Perry, Alternative TV and Related, 1977 - 1981
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge - Thee Psychick Bible, Feral House
Genesis P-Orridge - Nonbinary, A Memoir, Abrams Press
Dorothy Max Prior - 69 Exhibition Road: Twelve True-Life Tales from the Fag End of Punk, Porn & Performance, Strange Attractor Press

Distributors with stock of Alex Fergusson solo albums
Nuit et Brouillard - The Essence
Skullline - The Castle