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Who would finish a book that opens thus: “The rest of the world looked to the stars on that sultry July night in 1969, wrapped in the euphoria of science fiction becoming fact as Neil Armstrong bobbed about on the moon’s pitted surface in an ungainly rumba?” Well, I did, with enthusiasmif not without some literary discomfort. Because that characteristically overwrought sentence begins Nina Antonia’s description of how Peter Perrett lost his virginity, which in turn starts the tale of the Only Ones, a great lost band that was first swept along and then swept away by British punk.
Antonia’s chronicle is called The One and Only: Peter PerrettHomme Fatale, and it’s quite a story despite the overheated prose. The bookavailable from London’s pop-music bookstore Helter Skeltertells the story of a rocker who got the chronology wrong: First he became a junkie, and then he became a recording artist.
Unsurprisingly, the recording career didn’t last longthree albums in the U.K. and two in the U.S., where the quartet’s first two records, The Only Ones and Even Serpents Shine, were pared into one, Special View. The group’s career was over by 1981, although Perrett made a low-profile 1994 comeback with a band called the One.
As Antonia tells the story, Perrett evolved quickly from the sheltered 17-year-old who ran away with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Zena Kakoulli, as Neil Armstrong…well, you remember. Forced into marriage by Kakoulli’s tradition-minded Greek-immigrant parents, the kids were supported mostly by their elders until Perrett found a better way of subsidizing his musical ambitions: He became a drug dealer.
Perrett’s first band, England’s Glory, didn’t attract much attention, but the aspiring rock-poet was making lots of connections. He became friendly with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, in part because the latter was impressed with Kakoulli’s S&M-inspired designs. (According to Antonia, it was hard to get seamstresses to make such garments in buttoned-up mid-’70s Britain, so when Westwood started designing similar clothing, she turned to Kakoulli’s production team: her mother and her middle-aged friends.) The McLaren link led to friendship with the worst influence in punk, Johnny Thunders; Perrett played on the ex-New York Doll’s first and best solo album, So Alone, and accompanied him onstage from time to time. Perrett also had ties to another fledgling not-quite-punk band, Squeeze; singer-songwriter Glenn Tilbrook lived for a time in the Perretts’ South London home, and bassist Harry Kakoulli was Zena’s brother.
Perrett was 25 in 1977, when the Only Ones released their first single, “Lovers of Today”/”Peter and the Pets,” and the band’s rhythm section was even older. (Drummer Mike Kellie had been in Spooky Tooth, not exactly a sterling punk credential.) Although such songs as “Language Problem” and “City of Fun” are punky enough, the Only Ones were quickly classified as “New Wave” because their music had melodies, varied arrangements, polysyllabic lyrics, and guitar solos.
If, by the ideology of Britpunk the musicians were ancient, they wouldn’t have been out of their demographic at CBGB, where the Only Ones in some ways belonged. Their music is indebted to the smarter side of glam-rock, notably David Bowie and Roxy Music, but “Peter and the Pets” shows Perrett’s devotion to Lou Reed (also demonstrated by the England’s Glory demos released in Britain in 1989), and “Lovers of Today” is so in love with the modern world that it could be a Modern Lovers tune. Like Television and the Patti Smith Group, the Only Ones were more interested in recapturing the spirit of mid-’60s rock than in annihilating its early-’70s descendants. (Antonia reports that Perrett ultimately did have a bonding experience with TV guitarist Richard Lloyd, who suffered a heroin overdose at the Perrett homestead.)
The One and Only portrays Perrettaffectionatelyas a spoiled brat, opiated slug, and suburban decadent who maintained simultaneous sexual relationships with several women. (One of them even lived in the house with Perrett and Kakoulli, who sometimes moved out for a timewhile continuing to manage her husband’s band.) So there’s no reason to buy Antonia’s account that Perrett’s career was doomed by a U.S.-tour encounter with an Atlanta stripper, groupie, and armed robbermemorialized by the title of the final Only Ones album, Baby’s Got a Gunwho introduced the singer to shooting smack. Before that, he’d only smoked heroin, the singer claims, and the intensity of the injected-heroin experience derailed him. Maybe, but the American slut who destroyed a great British musician is a figure of Anglocentric rock myth as much as history. And before Perrett ever visited the United States, “Lovers of Today” admitted that “I don’t have the energy/You could say things get pretty tranquil with me.”
The one thing that stirred Perrett from the narcotic haze documented by songs like “The Beast””There’s an epidemic/If you don’t believe me/You oughta take a look at the eyes of your friends”was love. Granted, the sexual politics of the singer’s personal life are less than edifying, and such breakup songs as “Oh Lucinda (Love Becomes a Habit)” are not exactly empathetic. Yet Perrett is entirely convincing when he sings that passion is “The Whole of the Law” or that romance has transported himnotably in “Another Girl, Another Planet,” the band’s not especially typical best-known song. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of the Only Ones’ songs without the sexual dynamic represented by their female backing vocals, usually by Koulla Kakoulli, Perrett’s teenage sister-in-law. Baby’s Got a Gun even features a duet by Perrett and Penetration’s Pauline Murray, a punk version of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Remarkably, Special View is listed as being in print in the U.S., as are the band’s Peel sessions and Remains, an unessential outtakes collection; the original albums are available as imports. The first is the best, but all three of them are more entertaining than The One and Onlyand much more skillful than Antonia’s writing. Mark Jenkins
Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.