Band, Interrupted – The Only Ones
First published April 2007
Of all the reformations seen in 2007 surely the most unexpected and the most welcome has been the return of The Only Ones, namely Peter Perrett (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), John Perry (lead guitar), Alan Mair (bass) and Mike Kellie (drums). Newcomers should start with the bands first two LPs (‘The Only Ones’ from 1978 and ‘Even Serpents Shine’ from 1979, both CBS/Sony), selectively sample Album Three (1980’s ‘Baby’s Got a Gun’) and read cover-to-cover Nina Antonias highly entertaining and reasonably accurate account of the band. Sitting comfortably ? Now we’ll begin…
On a crisp spring evening John Perry is in fine form over a vegetable biryani out towards the Western extremity of the Piccadilly Line as I ask him the all-important question: Why Now? “Well, Easter is generally a good time for a resurrection…” Was it the increased visibility that came from Vodaphone using the Only Ones greatest miss ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ in their current TV ad ? “For the band, not at all. As late as February this year there was no intention of reforming but then Alan felt like playing All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead and he and I talked and it was clear that we could have talked forever with Peter so we went down to the Perrett house with an attractive gig and an attractive sum of money attached and we put that on the table and that did the trick. Peter was willing to play festivals but I suspect his experience with The One (Peter’s band after the Only Ones) may have scared him about playing to half-filled rooms, but then Peter wouldn’t appreciate that The One and The Only Ones are a different proposition – as far as he’s concerned its just Peter Perrett and some musicians. Playing wasn’t a matter of indifference to me, but I didn’t much care if we reformed or not – its been in the air so long and hasn’t happened so many times. After that the whole thing happened in about seven days. No management – good agency, good accountant, good lawyer and Alan and I do logistics. “
A very frail and seemingly drug-ravaged Peter Perrett was last seen onstage at 93 Feet East in Brick Lane when he guested with Love Minus Zero, the band fronted by his two sons Jamie and Peter Junior. Perry paints a different picture. “Our rehearsals are going great. There was all this stuff after the 93 Feet East gig that Peter had to sit down after three numbers… At our very first rehearsal Peter sang thirty songs straight off, some of them twice, and was standing for five-and-half hours, no trouble at all. “ Of more concern is the health of drummer Mike Kellie. “Kellie went into hospital in December 2005 and they fucked it up – I remember speaking to him on the phone and he sounded like Death but now he seems fine.”
“ The first rehearsal was just the three of us – Peter, Alan and me – because I wanted to feel time between the three musicians which once you’ve got the drummer in you can’t do in the same way. The thing that became apparent is what a fabulous rhythm guitar player Peter is – playing absolutely steady in time, even when he’s singing in counter-rhythm. Kellie too has a lovely steady time. You take your time from the drummer but phrase around the singer. And Alan plays far from traditional bass lines. I’d never realised ‘til now quite how those components slotted together – you don’t analyse things while they’re happening, especially when they’re working well. We don’t sound any different. As soon as Kellie arrived it sounded like we’d had 25 days off, not 25 years. But if you took away any one member it wouldn’t work.”
So what songs can we expect to hear on their short UK tour in June?. “The material we’re going to play chooses itself, same as it always did. Songs have lives. There would be songs that we would love playing and then we’d get bored of them and they’d vanish for nine months and then re-appear, revived. The majority of stuff that we play we’ll play at All Tomorrow’s Parties will be well-known Only Ones songs but there’s plenty more gigs coming along. And the situation is changing from day to day. Literally. I wouldn’t like to guess where we’ll be by June.It’s a democracy of sorts. If anyone has any really strong objection to a particular song then that acts as a veto. “
“Robyn Hitchcock has a maxim that revivals should come with built in expiry dates. Whether this is a revival, I don’t know – maybe we are just picking up where we left off. We won’t go on forever just doing old songs – that definitely has a built in expiry date, we won’t let it get tired. The first time round everyone all left the band at the same time. If we had been with Island – one of Chris Blackwell personal signings – instead of at CBS there might have been someone there with the wisdom to say ‘just take two years off’. Warners wanted us but the money they were offering wouldn’t have paid the CBS debt. And everyone was fed up with everyone else anyway. “
John served his musical apprenticeship in the West Country. “I was 15 when I did my first professional gigs in Bristol in 1967, playing with much older blokes who’d been influenced by the likes of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. I first saw Cream in 1966 when they still liked each other. This was at the Bristol Locarno – one week it would be the Who, next week it would be the Small Faces, next it would be Hendrix. By 1968 my band had the regular support slot at Bath Pavilion. Promoter Fred Bannister phoned at lunchtime and said “Want to do a support tonight?” but wouldn’t say who it was, so we think OK its the Who doing a secret tryout gig, but when we get there there’s a poster saying The New Yardbirds and then in tiny writing underneath Led Zeppelin – their third gig and they were rubbish.”
So who influenced your playing ? “At the time of the Only Ones I was hugely into lead guitar – Mick Taylor, Hendrix, Jeff Beck – whereas now I am far more fascinated by Brian Jones era Rolling Stones where its two guitars locking. Jeff Beck takes such chances – you can count on him to be odd. I’ve seen him deliberately start a solo in an impossibly awkward place just to see how he would get out of it. The Cream comeback gig was great – good to watch Clapton sweat, the other two really made him work. Baker with his bad back gone had to sit up very straight and play more simply – he seemed an even more fantastic drummer without all the triplets twiddly-dum twiddly-dum. Jack’s singing was marvellous. Actually at rehearsals this week Kellie has been playing on a stripped down kit– just bass drum, snare and hi-hat becuase that’s all we could find – and the difference is really interesting. Changes the whole dynamic.”
After the initial demise of the Only Ones in March 1980 John formed his own band, Decline and Fall. “When a big thing like the Only Ones finishes you think ‘fuck that’ and put a band together with people from your home town – Nick who was my drummer in my Bristol band The Ratbites From Hell, our bass player had been in a band called Carmen. It was a three piece, I was looking for a singer or singer/guitarist, I was looking for a manager – I was having to write the songs, manage, do the singing – none of which I particularly wanted to do. The fact that it lasted a year was very good going, we did a couple of dozen gigs including Glastonbury but I was losing interest in it.”
In addition to his guitar prowess John has a growing reputation as an author who can put ‘classic’ albums into some sort of historical perspective. “The three books I’ve done – on the Stones (‘Exiles on Main Street’), the Who (‘Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy’) and Hendrix (‘Electric Ladyland’) – have all done very nicely financially. I’m speaking to people in Spain and Italy at the moment about editions there and I must make a trip to New York. It was luck writing about three albums that have stayed current. My publisher, Schirmer, were really leaning on me to do Who’s Next which the Americans view as THE classic Who album whereas the only bit of the Who I’m interested in is the singles pre-Tommy. After Tommy they became a great band of a completely different sort. “
“The Only Ones supported the Who at their lowest period (America, June 1979). It was a backward move for us because by then we could fill 1500 seaters on our own – it was a disaster from start to finish. Peter was indifferent but the other three of us were all huge Who fans. Members of the Who got the impression we were being stand-offish whereas we were probably just being respectful. This was the Kenny Jones era and nobody can play drums for the Who except Keith Moon, it’s just not possible – although Kellie thinks that current Who drummer Zak Starkey is doing a good job.” How about another book ? “There is a collection of Only Ones road stories – scurrilous and very funny and at some point I might get that together. We were in Manchester for my birthday in 1978 or ‘79 and BP Fallon (legendary on-road procurer and vibemeister) was on the road with us. I got back to my hotel after the gig and opened the door turned on the light and BANG! …there were twenty women in there. I thought ‘good’ but just the same I went into the bathroom just for a second to gather myself – and there were four more in the shower! After Decline and Fall I went off to Greece and took a typewriter to write some of this down and I’ve still got the typescript so at some point I shall assemble it. Disasters are always much funnier than successes.”
Have you ever thought about becoming a producer ? “I don’t have the patience or diplomacy for production. I like paying live, although The Only Ones were absolutely deafening on stage – we started with all the amps on full. When I look back now on the Only Ones stuff it was Alan that did the production. I would go in and just jam down three or four lead guitar parts and say ‘they’re all great’. It was Alan who was sufficiently mature to say ‘if we layer that bit on top of that…” and he was doing this from the first LP onwards but he was only credited with the second album. We made sure when we signed the contract with CBS that they only owned the masters we delivered ie the twelve songs that went onto each album. Even if they were paying for the studio time all the other songs were never their property so there isn’t a great deal left in the CBS vaults. ‘My Way Of Giving’ and ‘Momma You’ve Been On My Mind’ are in there (from the never-completed Only Ones covers album). Alan saw the masters from the third album the other day and there is another song of his (in addition to ‘My Way Out of Here’), and one of mine too. I do remember very distinctly that the situation was deteriorating, Peter wasn’t coming up with enough great new songs but he still wanted the credits to be Perrett, Perrett, Perrett. I mounted a campaign to get other material onto the album, I probably thought that it was diplomatically more sensible to push for the inclusion of Alan’s song so I couldn’t be accused of self-interest. That album is the sound of Peter losing interest in writing. but with one or two good tracks – ‘Lucinda’ (but as arranged on the Peel Sessions LP), ‘Why Don’t You Kill Yourself ?’, ‘The Big Sleep’.”
How about a visual record of the Only Ones in all their 70’s pomp and glory ? “ There is a live tape from the Minneapolis Longhorn gigs shot on Super 8 that has just shown up via Peter Jesperson (ex-Replacements manager) and it’s stunning – the most exciting Only Ones footage I’ve ever seen. Second US tour, November 1979. I’ve had the soundboards for ages. We are currently looking into getting the whole thing converted properly and released on DVD. And the video ‘Faster Than Lightning’ should be out on DVD soon.” What won’t be getting an official release is a much bootlegged video of a gig at Dingwalls from December 1980 where John is expressionless throughout. “Apparently Rachmaninov was the same, sitting at the piano, and he was the most passionate of composers…but Dingwalls was different, that’s active loathing. We’d already split up, that gig was to pay some debt. It was a wretched night.
Relationships with the record company are much improved. “Sony are being most co-operative now, even though we’re not currently signed to them. Alan sailed into there with such commitment, so buzzing and on the ball that they were phoning the Big Boys upstairs and saying ‘I think you’d better come down’. The poster for the tour has a small ad for the latest Sony Only Ones compilation and they’ve given us a useful chunk of tour support. Maybe we can sell Vodaphone the other corner! I think I’m right in saying that Sony have just agreed to the three original Only Ones albums being remastered. I’d chose Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound in New York, the same guy who as a 19 year old whiz-kid mastered ‘Even Serpents Shine’. I worked with Ted last year and he is just SO accomplished – but apparently there are practical reasons for working in the UK. Alan says the first two LPs are mastered low (quiet) but they still sound great to me “
So how does it feel to be working again with Peter ? “We last played together onstage in 1990 – I’d done some recording for the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters management were very keen to manage Peter and me – some band they knew were doing a gig in a club in Oxford Street and this band knew ‘Planet’ so Peter and I got up with them. I then stopped playing with Peter and resumed being friends with him.” How about the narcotic reputation that dogged the Only Ones first time around ?” I knew Peter before he took any drugs of a serious nature and he wasn’t much different, its not like he’s been transformed by them.”.
“People say it’s impossible to put our music in a pigeon hole and that seems bizarre to me because listening to it now it just sounds like timeless rock’n’roll. Could have been 1966, could have been 1996. Alan and I both had the thing when we first started the Only Ones where our friends said to us “Great band, great songs but can’t you get rid of that fucking singer?” But I listen to our stuff now and even the voice doesn’t sound unusual.”
POSTSCRIPT – UNPUBLICISED WARM UP GIG, SUNDAY 15Th APRIL
The Inn On The Green off Portobello Road resembles a trustafarian youth club, a suitably incongruous setting for the first live performance by the Only Ones since 1981. Taking to the stage characteristically late – due apparently to difficulties rousting Perrett – the quartet delivered sturdy versions of From Here To Eternity, Miles From Nowhere, The Whole of The Law and (of course) Another Girl, Another Planet to an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers and regulars. A broken bass string gave Perrett the chance for a solo version of a new song that might have been called Is That How Much You Care ?, to the seeming bemusement of the rest of the band. Teasingly Alan launched into the opening riff of The Beast, but closing time intervened. The rhythm section rocked and rolled, Perretts guitar and vocals were highly effective and Perry played liquid lead guitar whilst apparently thinking about the cricket scores. By the time they get to the Shepherds Bush Empire in June spontaneous combustion must be a real possibility.