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December 13, 2006

The Only Ones at Christmas: Richard D. North on his favourite of all time, now deployed by Vodafone

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North explains how Vodafone has given him the best Christmas present, ever.

I've already had the best Christmas present possible. My all time favourite band, The Only Ones, are featuring in Vodafone's current TV ad. For reasons which I will eventually fathom, the firm is using a cover version of the outfit's most famous song, Another Girl, Another Planet (done by Bell X1). But that's much better than nothing, and besides, for several weeks they used the original.

AG, AP was recorded in 1978, the second year of the band's three year, three album recording career. It didn't chart. It's a song which surfaces in little movies (for example, Me Without You, 2002) and on the favourites list of various old-timers, but that won't quite capture the excitement and quality which the group represented. There was a spell when they did Sunday night gigs at the Lyceum in Covent Garden. They were gatherings of a devoted crowd which felt very superior to the rest of the world. This was band with a distinctive sound, but great range.

I had intense pleasure from Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Ramones, and Cheap Trick. Of that generation of bands, I'd say that Hot Tuna (ex-Jefferson Airplane) were the ones which rocked my world most. It may be fairer to compare The Only Ones with the English bands of the day. I was too old, at 30 plus, to want to grot along with The Sex Pistols, The Jam or the Stranglers, though The Clash briefly caught me up. I liked Squeeze and XTC quite a bit, and Dire Straits (too commercial) rather less, but they seemed a little too cheerful to really hit the spot.

A little later, and coming on the scene at the same time as The Only Ones, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen were, on the other hand, a little too obviously whimsical - a bit deliberate in their romanticism. Elvis Costello was too arty. Down in Shepherd's Bush, week after week we knew that Meal Ticket and Racing Cars and Clover (an anglophile American band featuring Huey Lewis) all had great songs and a crowd-pleasing male exuberance, and musicality in depth. In those early days of The Police, with Roxanne especially, we were clearly in the presence of something very special. And I all but worshipped Bob Marley and still do.

Against and amongst this crowd, The Only Ones seemed deeply and richly poetic, musical and theatrical. There was a take-it-or-leave toughness to them. They were noir. The closest to them was Jackie Leven's Doll By Doll, an outfit which was more funereal, but had the merit of being intensely serious and musical. The Only Ones made music to slit your wrists to, except that you'd be singing along until your were hoarse, swaying and dancing, mesmerised and energised. When John Perry let loose one of his guitar solos, you felt you might expire: they were soaring, but very sharp, almost withdrawn and reserved, as though they were intent on harm. They were like machine gun fire, a tocsin.

And then you'd see his impassive, rather podgy face, which seemed more likely to hide malice than charm. And Peter Perrett, singing the songs he'd written, was a wiry waif. He was knowing, arch, and - if I recall - no dancer. He didn't show you a good time. There was none of the tartiness of a Mick Jagger, though the general physique was pretty alike. (It turns out, by the way, that John Perry is the man who speaks about the band and how it worked, no least in its dealings with CBS, its label.)

This was rock 'n' roll for the age which had heard punk and knew that things couldn't be the same again. Can't we risk saying that modern rock music is wonderful because it is still rampaging in the terrain which has Cliff and Shadows in one corner and Johnny Rotten in the other? Robbie Williams is as good as he is because he is so comfortable taking his chances in the middle there.

In the case of The Only Ones, we hear song after song about wasted, soul-weary young men howling at the moon at the hopelessness of their love, and sometimes of their loved-ones. But Perrett - like Robbie - was a mean bastard and one of his best songs says:

Why don't you kill yourself?
You ain't no use to no-one else
It is taken that when his most famous song says,
Space travel's in my blood
But long journeys wear me out
we are in drug territory. Doubtless, we are. But I am the man who couldn't find anyone to sell him drugs at Glastonbury and I listened to Perrett and thought he was talking about being overwhelmed by the chaos of his emotions. I am happy to go on listening with a deliberate innocence.

I agree with Robert Sandall's assessment of the band as giving us the most:

emotionally technicoloured and confessedly detailed documents ever to get a thorough going-over from two guitars, bass and drums.
That was in sleeve notes for a 1992 compilation CD called The Only Ones: The Immortal Story, and its 21 songs are about all you need to know of the band's output. (There is a new two-CD compilation which delivers even more of their small output.)

It's a pity there isn't a live CD, but we do have the next best thing. In 2002, Hux records released a double CD, 28-track compilation of everything the band did for the John Peel show and other BBC sessions. This has two or three versions of some of the band's favourites, and there is supposed on some of them to be an urgency and simplicity not found in the full-on studio versions. I am too cloth-earthed to pick up these nuances, but love owning the discs anyway.

Since The Only Ones never had a hit, and yet were admired in the right circles, it is inevitable that they should be called a cult band. They were certainly a band famous for being beyond dissolute. Peter Perrett was and is some sort of recluse and there is talk of his not needing to earn money through music. It used to be said that he was a professional poker player. His story seems to be half Syd Barrett, half Keith Richards, until one remembers that he was still making lovely music in 2002 (he didn't peak as dramatically as Syd) and was always a singer-song writer (so his creativity was grander than Keith's).

One might expect that a band this loved would also be imitated or at least be found inspirational. You might suppose that there was something Only Ones in the intensity of The Smiths, Blur, Pulp, The Verve, and so on. If there was, no-one's saying. I doubt the band much figures in Pete Frame's genealogies of rock - though bassist Alan Mair and drummer Mike Kellie were, Sandall tells us,

60's veterans of Brit-hippy bands like Spooky Tooth.
I mentioned that Perrett has gone on producing material. His song Woke Up Sticky (yes, it's as you think it might be) is the star of his 10-song 1996 CD. It's fine stuff, and in the Only Ones vein, but not staggering. I may have to accept that The Only Ones were entirely sui generis.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence. In January 2007 the Social Affairs Unit will be publishing his Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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I am thrilled to hear from Rod Liddle's piece in the Sunday Times Culture section (20 May, 2007) that The Only Ones are gigging again, and that there's a BBC session in the bag too.

That follows on from my belated awareness that there's a very good book on the band, The One and Only: Peter Perrett.

Posted by: Richard D North at May 21, 2007 04:32 PM

You probably already know that they're playing at London's Shepherds Bush Empire on June 9th.

Ever wanted to be on a live album? Get a ticket for this show. I can say no more ;-)

Posted by: LX3 Live Recording at May 25, 2007 02:18 PM
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