The Songwriting Genius of Peter Perrett: Part One: Writers, musicians & fans choose examples from The Only Ones back catalogue
… the Songwriting Genius of Peter Perrett … part one.
With his first ever solo album, ‘How the West Was Won’ due for release on Domino Recordings at the end of June, long-time Perrett fan, Ged Babey, rounds up fellow writers, musicians & fans to discuss the Greatness and Perfection of the Only Ones singer’s finest work… taking one song each as an example.
Will the song which everyone knows, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, make the list?
I am lucky enough to have heard the forthcoming Peter Perrett album and I’m not ashamed to say I cried. It is probably his finest work; the culmination of 50 years songwriting and a beautiful, sad, darkly witty and painfully honest, semi-autobiographical work from an artist I’ve followed for 40 years.
Even if you’ve only ever heard ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, then there is still the distinct possibility that it will be one of your albums of the year.
Whilst we eagerly await its release I thought I’d ask the great and the good, fellow fans who happen to be Louder Than War writers and songwriters & musicians to tell me why they regard Perrett as a songwriting genius and to wax lyrical about a chosen example from his body of work.
One of his contemporaries Pauline Murray, who famously sang with Peter on a cover version of ‘Fools’ on Baby’s Got A Gun said.
I love all the Only Ones songs so would be hard pressed to pick a favourite. I saw him last week by the way and he is on good form and looking great!
With over eighty recorded songs, if you include the Only Ones three CBS albums, ‘Remains’, the two Englands Glory retrospectives and the ‘Woke Up Sticky’ album with the One, there is plenty to choose from.
So here goes: The Songwriting Genius of the One and Only Peter Perrett. (Part One).
Ian Moss on ‘You’ve Got To Pay’.
I suppose the greatness that is found within a song is a very personal thing: the way it captures something for the listener; the way it resonates within them until it becomes lodged between the memory and the soul. It is something that can be turned to for comfort or affirmation, because within the song is a seed that has grown in the listener; now it inhabits the DNA, it speaks eloquently simple truths that inform the way we live our lives. One such song that does this for me is Peter Perrett’s understated classic, ‘You’ve Got To Pay’ from the second and best Only Ones album, ‘Even Serpents Shine’.
It’s a slender song musically, left spare instrumentally. An almost flamenco guitar motif carries the melody over a taut rhythm, and on top of this is Perrett’s vocal, as lugubrious and cynical as ever. Recounting the decision to uncomplicate life by choosing between lovers, he deadpans his way through the highs and lows, through the pains and pleasures with a painterly eye for detail and a poet’s gift for cascading rhyming couplets, concluding at each intersection that for love “you’ve got to pay”. In my reading of the song, ‘love’ becomes a metaphor for anything important to us that is becoming poisonous: the key is to rid ourselves of the venom, to reach and act upon a decision. I have turned on the jukebox within my head many times and played this song to myself as I’ve sought the courage to resolve problems. It is an emotionally raw song, stripped of self-pity; inelegant, but still somehow beautiful, and I am pleased to carry it with me as I travel this road.
Ian Moss is singer/lyricist with Salfords’ the Hamsters, Kill Pretty and currently Four Candles. He also co-runs German Shepherd Records. He says ‘ I saw the Only Ones many times. They were, to me, everything a band should be.’
Russ Bestley on ‘Language Problem’
When the Only Ones first came to public and critical acclaim, Peter Perrett was often compared with Lou Reed, largely due to his laconic, semi-spoken baritone style, along with the band’s flair for literate and intelligent songwriting and composition. It’s a fair comparison – early Only Ones demos, later collected together by French label Closer and released on the Remains compilation in 1984, do bear some musical similarities to the Velvet Underground and Transformer-era Reed. I’d love to hear an Only Ones cover of What Goes On or Candy Says… but that’s another story.
However, the comparison with Reed wasn’t as immediate to the man himself – while Perrett expressed an admiration for Reed’s work, Bob Dylan was his hero, the one he was trying to emulate. This isn’t so much evident in musical aesthetics or the timbre of Perrett’s voice as it is in his lyrics and delivery. Another comparison that could be legitimately placed on the table, though it wasn’t put forward at the time by the singer or his acolytes, would be Ray Davies – in the songwriter’s employment of a self-deprecating form of wit, for there is something quintessentially English in Perrett’s songwriting that wouldn’t be out of place in the Kinks’ fabled Village Green Preservation Society.
Anyone who has read Nina Antonia’s classic Perrett biography, The One & Only, will have some understanding of the complexity of his backstory. From financing the band’s equipment through drug dealing, to backroom connections with the movers and shakers of the 1970s UK music industry at The Speakeasy (where a large mound of Class A pretty much guaranteed an audience with journalists, managers and A&R men), to Perrett’s own battles with hard drugs (alongside Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious, Phil Lynott and others), affairs and multiple relationships, it’s a story to match the most hedonistic of rock ’n’ rollers.
When asked to choose one Perrett song to write about, I encountered a familiar problem for many lifelong fans of the singer-songwriter’s impressive back catalogue, from the ultra-rare England’s Glory sessions of 1973 to the 1976 demos featuring Glenn Tilbrook on guitar, the Only Ones back catalogue, collaborations with Johnny Thunders, or Perrett’s short-lived revival with The One in the mid-1990s. The obvious choice would probably have been Watch You Drown, from the Remains album – since my own band was named after the song back in the mid-1980s – but I settled on Language Problem, a song that appeared on the Only Ones’ eponymous debut album, but was first heard on a John Peel session recorded a month before the album release, on 5th April 1978.
Language Problem perfectly combines both of Perrett’s life-long obsessions – women and drugs – in an ironic, chaotic and accelerated rush of a song. This is where the Peel session format comes into its own – songs were recorded in the BBC Maida Vale studio with house engineers (in this case Malcolm Brown), and were usually thrown down in a couple of takes with minimal overdubs. Language Problem is the fourth song of the session. I don’t know if it was the last song recorded, but it does sound that way – from the full-on energy of the band to Perrett’s hoarse voice and slightly off-key intonation.
But beyond the frantic delivery and adrenaline rush, it’s the lyrics that really drive this song home. With typical Perrett rhyming couplets, the song opens with the lines; “My parents told me that love don’t exist just for pleasure/So I guess I’ll throw in some pain for good measure”, moving on to the cutting sarcasm of “You’ll be possessed and I can’t be the possessor/I love my mother but I wouldn’t want to have sex with her”. That line is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is clever, worthy of Ian Dury at his comic best (or Devoto, or Shelley come to that). The song moves on to the age-old theme of love and desire; “I’ve been outside this world and I’ve seen all kind of girls/But I wish that I could talk to you” – the first line extending a theme from the classic single Another Girl Another Planet – and the desire for communication, “Ever since I heard the way ya talk, I wanted you…”.
There’s a frantic guitar solo by John Perry, before the song comes back down to earth with a bang; “Taking drugs is one thing we got in common/It helps to overcome the language problem… the problem…”. That last line is delivered with a mixture of frustration and desperation, before we come to the ultimate punchline; “Feels the same in any language/And we both know how it can itch/And we really enjoy the damage.” It’s an irresistible mix of self-deprecation, humour, provocation and honesty, a rare thing in rock music where sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll are too often swamped in misty-eyed romanticism or the pretence of exotic ‘coolness’. Perrett’s vision is grubbier, more sordid and a hell of a lot funnier.
Russ Bestley 2017 (c)
Russ is singer/songwriter/guitarist with Watch You Drown as well as an author and academic..
Rich Levene on ‘Creature Of Doom’
Of course, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ was the first ONLY ONES song I heard. Christmas 1980 at the age of 15, I got a Hitachi stereo radio cassette to supplement my Fidelity record player & went into overdrive taping John Peel’s ‘Festive 50’ of his listeners’ all-time favourite records, on his late night BBC Radio 1 shows. There amongst the more familiar to me classics (‘PISTOLS, JOY DIVISION, CLASH etc) at number 28 was the aforementioned ‘Another Girl…’. I’d not heard anything like it before & it soon became a favourite on the tapes I played to death, as my pocket money didn’t stretch to buying too many actual records.
In terms of picking up records on a limited budget what helped in the early ‘80s was that cheap punk records would turn up in the cut out bins of Woolworths in my hometown of Eastleigh. For either 49p or 99p I snagged copies of the debut LPs by THE SAINTS & THE VIBRATORS and cassettes of the sole albums by LONDON & THE CORTINAS. The relevance of this to this piece is that sometime in early 1981 for an equally bargain price I also snapped up the ‘Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival’ double LP. Released in 1978 & resplendent in a gatefold sleeve, its live recordings documented a 3 week festival at the famous old London pub venue at the tail end of 1977. Featuring the punk /new wave of THE STRANGLERS; 999, SUBURBAN STUDS & XTC; the reggae of STEEL PULSE; the pub rock of WILKO JOHNSON BAND, THE PIRATES & TYLA GANG and bottom of the bill were the pre-fame DIRE STRAITS! Best of all though were my first introduction to X-RAY SPEX via an electrifyingly exciting version of ‘Let’s Submerge’ & stuck in the middle of Side 3 THE ONLY ONES’ ‘Creature Of Doom’.
As it would be 2 or 3 more years before I managed to get THE ONLY ONES’ 3 studio ’proper’ albums, I played that live version of ‘Creature…’ so much. In particular, Peter Perrett’s “I know something that you don’t know” world-weary vocal line & John Perry’s guitar solo towards the end of the song knocked me out. They clearly had the punk energy I was used to but combined it with older 60s/early ’70s elements (VELVETS/DYLAN) I didn’t really know at that time. When I did finally hear the rest of the ONLY ONES’ brilliant output the picture became clearer.
THE ONLY ONES remain a favourite in our household & both my partner Geraldine & I play their great records often. Like other people who have contributed to this article, we were lucky enough to see THE ONLY ONES at the Brook in Southampton during January 2009. Peter Perrett may have looked frail and at death’s door but his playing and singing was impeccable, in line with the rest of the band. Sadly drummer Mike Kellie’s recent passing means we’ll never get the chance to see the original line-up again.
Prior to the Southampton gig, a friend of mine said he wasn’t going as THE ONLY ONES “only had one song” – no prizes for guessing which one. Obviously said friend is wrong. THE ONLY ONES have tonnes of wonderful songs but for me ‘Creature Of Doom’ is still their finest.
Rich Levene is a part of the STE Co-operative, a occasional DJ, Fanzine writer & legendary figure in DIY punk/SCHC & Indiepop circles. He always writes band names in CAPITALS.
Greg Gilbert on discovering Peter Perrett.
One of the people I asked for a contribution to this piece was Greg Gilbert the singer/songwriter with indie-dreampop-disco band Delays. Sadly he was too unwell to give me a full reply as he is having chemotherapy, but this is bizarrely how he discovered Peter Perrett and the Only Ones. (This is copied, with his blessing from a Facebook chat with myself.)
Greg (commenting on the new Perrett single) Lush, so glad he’s still about. I remember playing a gig at The Joiners with Corky, hair styled unwittingly like early Perrett and a gent shouting ‘Peter Perrett!’ at me. Didn’t know who he was at the time, but I have a feeling it was you shouting his name Ged? I might be wrong.
Ged God how embarrassing… it’s quite likely it WAS me, exactly the sort of thing I do, to this day, but I don’t have any recollection…
Greg Well, I’m grateful if it was you as I went straight out and discovered The Only Ones who have brought a great deal of inspiration and joy over the years :)
Ged Oh, well in that case it was definitely me! Have always been an obsessive Perrett fan. I CAN remember nearly getting beaten up by a band who did a substandard cover of Another Girl. It was my duty to tell them to desist.
Greg Ged, Keep up the good fight, no one shall defile ‘Another Girl”.
Thinking about it later, I do remember the occasion, probably twenty-something years ago. Not only did Greg have the hair, but also the eyeliner and fur-coat I seem to remember, a look copped from Nicky Wire from Manic Street Preachers perhaps, but because of his slight frame, a real resemblance to Peter. But for my offhand comment to have an impact…. on a lovely bloke and cool artist, I’m kinda proud.
Part Two of The Songwriting Genius of Peter Perrett will appear in a week or so… if you want to contribute, Facebook me. x
Pre-order ‘How The West Was Won’ from here.
Photo – Perrett onstage at the Brook, Southampton in 2009 by Oliver Gray
All words, except where specified, Ged Babey Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this piece.