Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Only Ones - The Only Ones

The Only Ones

Released 1978 on CBS
Reviewed by Shiffi Le Soy, 30/10/2009ce

1. "The Whole of the Law" – 2:38
2. "Another Girl, Another Planet" – 3:02
3. "Breaking Down" – 4:52
4. "City of Fun" – 3:32
5. "The Beast" – 5:47
6. "Creature of Doom" – 2:35
7. "It's the Truth" – 2:07
8. "Language Problem" – 2:28
9. "No Peace for the Wicked" – 2:51
10. "The Immortal Story" – 3:57

2008 Re-Mastered Version

11. "Lovers Of Today" - 3:12
12. "Peter And The Pets" - 3:04
13. "As My Wife Says" - 1:53

When The Only Ones emerged in 1978 with one of the great debut LPs in British rock - and a name which showed they had cojones in spades - stardom seemed a foregone conclusion.

Great songs, superb musicianship, a brilliant live act uniformly adored by the music press. What could possibly go wrong?

But only three years later it was all over. Mired in drug addiction and with a lead singer bizarrely on the run from an attempted murder rap on their final US tour, The Only Ones imploded.

I was a rabid fan from the very start, buying every release and following their live act around the UK. One highlight was the legendary Leeds Futurama festival, where they shared a star-studded bill with Joy Division, The Fall, Public Image Ltd and other post-punk luminaries. The Only Ones were supposed to come on before Hawkwind that night, but they got held up on the way to the gig and ended up topping the bill.

Though they were lumped in with the new wave vanguard, the band were too musically literate - not to mention long in the tooth - to be punks. Rather they were sophisticated guitar rockers whose sound embraced all flavors of 50s and 60s rock.

In Peter Perrett they possessed a gifted, idiosyncratic songwriter who seemed destined to become a leading figure in British rock. An obsessive Dylan devotee with an alluringly androgynous fashion sense, Perrett sang in a narcotic drawl which perfectly matched his tales of tragic dissociation.

In John Perry they boasted one of the great unsung guitar heroes. A portly, axe genius who wore an expression of semi-stoned indifference, Perry was a guitarist's guitarist, effortlessly unleashing one awesome lick after another on his trademark white Stratocaster.

Drummer Mike Kellie and bassist Alan Mair were 60s renegades who had seen it all with progressive rockers Spooky Tooth (Kellie) and “The Scottish Beatles” The Beatstalkers (Mair). Kellie was a commanding and musical drummer, Mair a solid and inventive bassist. He was also, as it happened, no slouch behind a mixing desk.

So how could a band so obviously steeped in talent fail to attain the success which seemed their birthright?

It was partly because they elected to sign with corporate monsters CBS, Perrett reportedly being keen to share a label with his idol Bob Dylan. But The Only Ones were far too wayward to accommodate the demands of a major. Their constant stylistic variation, anti-image, aloof stage persona and Perrett's unusually fey vocal style didn't exactly make them obvious chart toppers. Tragically they spurned the advances of Island Records, whose maverick style would have suited them better.

And then there was the dope.

Three-quarters of the band were unapologetic drug fiends whose interviews were loaded with references to smack and marijuana. And their eponymous debut stands as one of the great substance-driven albums in rock, packed with drug-inspired ballads of elegantly-wasted dissolution.

It kicks off with the aching love song 'The Whole of the Law'. Taking its title from dark magus Aleister Crowley's foreboding dictum “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law,” the opener sets the tone for the album's romantic fatalism. With superbly restrained guitar flourishes from Perry, it's a stunning beginning and a worthy curtain-raiser to...

"The hit single that never was.”
Perrett's stupendous 'Another Girl Another Planet' - the band's most celebrated creation - seems to equate love with addiction until you realize the “girl” is actually heroin itself: “Space travel's in my blood/There ain't nothing I can do about it.” The parting line, “Another planet is holding you down” suggests escape is futile.

The greatness of 'Another Girl' demanded nothing less than superlative musicianship, and as usual the band rise to the occasion, especially John Perry, whose legendary guitar solo is only one of his many impressive moments on this record.

If an obbligato should be part and parcel of a song, emerging organically from its spiritual center, Perry's effort is a case in point as he comments on the lyric's general sense of elevation and transcendence. Admirably tasteful and accomplished, it's a jaw-dropping effort.

Throughout 'The Only Ones', love is always on the verge of collapse, threatened by dissolution, addiction, departure. The protagonist of 'Breaking Down' describes mental anguish and the hand of fate closing in: “People keep away from me/Guess there's something wrong with me/I can't do you no good/I always thought I could.”

The song's jazzy break illustrates how The Only Ones were musically miles ahead of their punky peers. Here as on every other song, Mike Kellie's drums are fluid and articulate, his tom-toms characteristically punctuating the stereo spectrum in effective style.

After that the carousing 'City of Fun' celebrates city madness with “people drowning in a sea of life,” from which there's “only one way out.” And what might that be? A haze of narcotic escapism? Perry's frantic guitar adds to the general sense of life on the edge.

'Creature of Doom' begins with a comparative feeling of optimism: “I know something that you don't know/It's our destiny /You and me could conquer the world.” But with its talk of epitaphs and final straws there's always the feeling that romantic debilitation is around the corner, redeemable only through some kind of unholy fixation.

So it is that 'It's the Truth' describes the stunted communication between a pair of heroin-addicted lovers. “Something's been going wrong/I'm all fixed up and I don't know what's going on/I gotta talk to you...," but then “It's the last time I'm ever going to.” Again the romanticism of the junkie aesthete: maybe I never appreciated you and we're both fucked-up, but this whole stupid thing means everything to me.

'Language Problem' contains some of Perrett's most twisted 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.” If there's a moral lesson, it's that drugs lead to a debilitating codependency: “Taking drugs is one thing we got in common/It helps to overcome the language problem/And we really enjoy the damage.” Having said that, in typical Perret style there's always a healthy dose of black humor in evidence.

If I have a favorite track on 'The Only Ones' it just might be 'No Peace for the Wicked'. With its sense of weary isolation and its self-mocking lyric, after all these years it remains one of my personal theme songs.

I don't know how Perrett manages to fit lines like “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas/Why can't I be like I always wanted to be, carefree?” into a pop song, but he does so in a way that would make Syd Barrett proud. The track features a heartbreaking guitar solo from Perry before Perrett confides: “I'm in love with extreme mental torture,” a declaration of lovelorn masochism which will appeal to beautiful losers the world over.

With its opening declaration: “I used to dream of this/I'd lay awake at night imagining this," the album's closing track, 'The Immortal Story' deals with the scary prospect of finally possessing the object of one's affections: “When dreams become reality, that's living death can't you see?“ In its recognition that the best laid plans sometimes go awry, the song unconsciously foreshadows the demise of The Only Ones' quest for fame and glory. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Scandalously ignored by the record-buying pubic - it only reached number 56 in the UK album charts - after 30 odd years this bona fide classic remains one of my favorite LPs. That's probably because I can still detect echoes of my past - my aspirations, friendships and romantic tragedies - in each exquisite moment. It takes me back to a time when each musical experience mattered and seemed loaded with meaning and discovery.

Fans and admirers have long lamented the fact that a band blessed with an abundance of musical and songwriting talent never achieved the success that seemed theirs for the taking. But it's clear now that the seeds of The Only Ones' artistic collapse were evident in their earliest recordings. The band's downfall serves as a cautionary reminder to those who would confuse druggy excess with artistic expression.

For one brief moment, The Only Ones' debut shone brightly and gave us 35 minutes of perfect, twisted pop. Describing the search for love and meaning in a nether world of narcotic romanticism, it's an album of intelligence, wit and emotional honesty which also happens to rock like a mutha.

And thirty years later it continues to shine on, a timeless jewel which only improves with age. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a fucking masterpiece. And you know there's a million frustrated rockers who would give their right arm to leave behind a legacy like that, me included.

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