New Al­bums

How The West Was Won

UNCUT - - Contents - By Alas­tair McKay

In­clud­ing: Peter Per­rett, Bro­ken So­cial Scene, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, Shabazz Palaces, John Murry

Only Ones front­man rises from the dead.

In a ca­reer that has been bril­liant and spo­radic, heroic and thwarted, Peter Per­rett has often sung about death. Even in his most ex­u­ber­ant, up mo­ments, as on the al­most hit sin­gle “An­other Girl, An­other Planet”, he reg­is­tered a note of ex­is­ten­tial am­biva­lence, singing: “I al­ways flirt with death/I

look ill, but I don’t care about it.” His love songs were nar­cotic, so there was al­ways a sus­pi­cion that the lover he was ad­dress­ing, this in­tox­i­cat­ing amorata, was heroin or crack, be­cause for a time he was an en­thu­si­as­tic user of both drugs, and even sub­sidised the early ca­reer of his band by work­ing as a dealer.

Add to that the er­ratic na­ture of Per­rett’s ca­reer since the split of The Only Ones in 1982 – an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated solo al­bum (Woke Up Sticky, as The One) in 1996, and a cou­ple of brief Only Ones re­vivals – and you’d be for­given for sur­mis­ing that the old vam­pire’s tal­ent for ironic grave­stone po­etry had at last found its pur­pose. And then, ahead of this al­bum, came the sin­gle, “How The West Was Won”, a song which man­aged to be both tra­di­tional and star­tlingly con­tem­po­rary. Tra­di­tional, be­cause the lyric seems to be freighted in on a “Sweet Jane” riff, though Per­rett is at pains to point out that Lou’s song has an ex­tra chord (“It would be a mi­nor sixth, wouldn’t it?”), and is

de­liv­ered with more of a coun­try lilt, while “How The West…” is rocky. And con­tem­po­rary be­cause, well, though the record­ing pre­dates the full hellish flow­er­ing of the Don­ald Trump stu­pid­ity cult, it sounds very much like the sound of a man shout­ing at ca­ble news and find­ing him­self in­fu­ri­ated with the inani­ties of celebrity cul­ture. It is also re­fresh­ingly funny: it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that, for all his rep­u­ta­tion as blood­less doom­sayer, Per­rett does en­joy a joke. So,

yes, there’s a blunt cri­tique of US im­pe­ri­al­ism (“Won, at the point of a gun/Like they’ve al­ways done”), be­fore

the nar­ra­tor con­fesses: “Just like ev­ery­body else, I’m in love with Kim Kar­dashian/She’s taken over from J-Lo as my num­ber one/Even though I know she’s just a bum/In an­other timeline, I would’ve stared at her all day long/

With­out ever want­ing to see her from the front.” It’s like noam Chom­sky do­ing bum puns to a Lou Reed tune. And who knew that could be so ap­peal­ing?

The ti­tle track, of course, isn’t typ­i­cal. But it does show that, at 65, Per­rett is back, in de­cent shape, and fully en­gaged with the world. To any­one who has YouTubed The Only Ones’ 2008 come­back per­for­mance from

Later… With Jools Hol­land, with Per­rett look­ing in­sect thin and sound­ing vo­cally skele­tal, it’s a re­lief to hear that he has re-learned how to sing; a not in­con­sid­er­able thing given the lung prob­lems he has en­dured.

Mu­si­cally, too, things are

dif­fer­ent. This isn’t an Only Ones re­vival. The pe­cu­liar chem­istry of that band’s mu­sic was a prod­uct of time and place. They were non-punks who pros­pered al­most in spite of their pro­fi­ciency. The group’s drum­mer Mike Kel­lie had played with Spooky Tooth. Bass player Alan Mair had en­joyed lo­cal fame with the (al­most) Scot­tish Bea­tles, The Beat­stalk­ers. Gui­tarist John Perry was a mem­ber of Rat­bites From Hell, a party band from the fringes of Glas­ton­bury. And Per­rett, though the same age as Joe Strum­mer, seemed to come from a gen­er­a­tion that linked di­rectly with what be­came viewed, later, as the roots of punk. He was one of the few who had no­ticed and en­joyed The Vel­vet Underground the first time around, de­vour­ing their de­but al­bum when he was 15. But when he was 13, some­thing more im­por­tant hap­pened. He heard Bob Dy­lan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”. It changed his life. He be­gan to un­der­stand some­thing about the way lyrics could be primed to det­o­nate. He sensed the power of sound.

Viewed from this dis­tance, it’s clear that The Only Ones had very lit­tle to do with punk, and ev­ery­thing to do with that lit­er­ate strand of late ’60s rock’n’roll. That strain of rock clas­si­cism means their records have en­dured, even though Per­rett now con­fesses to pre­fer­ring the eight-track record­ings they did for John Peel over the band’s three LPs, as the pure power of the songs is more ev­i­dent in a stripped-down for­mat. That seems to be the tem­plate here. Yes, there are spec­tral har­monies, and – the Per­rett thing – vo­cals that kalei­do­scope be­tween lan­guor and sub­mis­sion, but the tunes are largely kept in check, so­los ra­tioned. True, “Liv­ing In My Head” ex­plodes into a spec­tral jam, but the cen­tral in­stru­ment is Per­rett’s voice.

The LP, though not ex­actly a con­cept piece, is de­lib­er­ately or­gan­ised, track­ing an emo­tional jour­ney from the self-mock­ing rage of the ti­tle track to some­thing that sounds sus­pi­ciously like ro­man­tic con­tent­ment. There’s a tear­jerk­ing fi­nale on “Take Me Home” in

which Per­rett fi­nally sub­mits: “I wish I could die in a hail of bul­lets some­times,” he croaks, “but all I can do is sing and play,

on the front­line.” The co­her­ence of the sound is due to the fact that Per­rett’s band (Strange­fruit in an­other guise) is pretty much a fam­ily af­fair, with Per­rett’s sons Peter Jr and Jamie on bass and gui­tar, and his “sort of sur­ro­gate daugh­ter” Jenny Maxwell on elec­tric vi­ola and back­ing vo­cals. Jake Wood­ward plays drums.

The ma­te­rial is largely new, and re­flects the singer’s grow­ing op­ti­mism as he adapts to a drug-free, healthy life­style. Most of the writ­ing took place af­ter Per­rett played a hand­ful of shows in the sum­mer of 2015 and be­came reac­quainted with his gui­tar. Writ­ing “An Epic Story” con­vinced him he still had songs in him, but the broader mood – which per­vades all the ma­te­rial – is of a man grow­ing used to the un­usual sen­sa­tion that he has a life worth liv­ing. The lovely “Troika” is a trib­ute to a life­long ro­mance, and it man­ages to achieve emo­tional grace while flirt­ing with the struc­ture of a Phil Spec­tor teen bal­lad. Clearly, given Per­rett’s past, the

pos­i­tiv­ity wears dark clothes, so there is a heavy dose of gal­lows hu­mour. On the half-spo­ken “Some­thing In My Brain” he com­pares him­self to a lab rat, given the choice be­tween food and crack. “Well,

the rat he starved to death,” he croons, leav­ing a cou­ple of pre-punch­line beats, “but I didn’t die/At least not yet/I’m still just about ca­pa­ble.”

Old habits be­ing what they are, Per­rett can’t re­sist the temp­ta­tion to write in a way that con­flates chem­i­cal crav­ing with ro­man­tic de­pen­dency. There’s more than a hint of the Vel­vets’ “Heroin” on the al­bum’s high­point, “C Voyeurger”, Per­rett’s gen­tle, vul­ner­a­ble trib­ute to Zena, his wife and part­ner of 48 years. The words were writ­ten in 2004, when Zena was di­ag­nosed with a se­ri­ous ill­ness. The tune swings slowly, thaw­ing from numb­ness into lit­tle spi­rals of en­ergy. It ebbs and flows, as Per­rett coaxes him­self out of lethargy and into the dawn­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that he has some­thing worth keep­ing, some­thing to lose. It’s about crav­ing; and here, in this mo­ment, the usual am­bi­gu­i­ties are re­versed. Love, af­ter all, is the drug.

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