How The West Was Won
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.