Rock journalist Nina Antonia said it best. “If there was only one song in the universe and it was Another Girl, Another Planet, I would still have all I ever wanted,” she wrote. Though not a hit at the time, the song, released in 1978 by London group the Only Ones, is now a celebrated classic: a muted guitar intro swiftly blooming into a headlong rush, set to lyrics that make little effort to conceal singer Peter Perrett’s narcotic love affair.
“You get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating / You always play to win, but I don’t need rehabilitating,” Perrett sang. And for decades, Perrett was a man beyond rehabilitation: in a variation of the famous Charlie Watts story about Keith Richards telling the Rolling Stones drummer he had a problem, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders – one of rock’s most notorious junkies – once paid Perrett a visit to lambast him for wasting his talent.
Thunders died in 1991; Perrett, miraculously, is still alive. After three albums with the Only Ones, who recorded some of the most elegantly wasted rock music ever made between 1976 and 1981, he disappeared into an abyss of addictions: first heroin, then crack. There was a brief reappearance in the mid-1990s, followed by another decade’s silence before a brief Only Ones reunion. “That was my avatar there on stage, it wasn’t really me,” he says.
And now, in what is surely this year’s most unexpected and best resurrection, Perrett has returned, aged 65 and looking about 85, despite a still-impressive mop of rock-star hair. His first solo album How The West Was Won shows his sleepy Sarf London voice and droll humour preserved intact, its title track sardonically declaring his love for Kim Kardashian: “She’s taken over from J-Lo as my number one / Even though I know she’s just a bum.”
The album was made with his sons Jamie and Peter Perrett jnr on guitar and bass respectively. Previously, they’d played for a short time in Babyshambles with Pete Doherty, Perrett’s modern wastrel equivalent. “It was my family who drew me back into music,” Perrett says. “They rehearse upstairs from where I live. I’d hear them rehearsing and they’d come down and say ‘Why don’t you come up and play, Dad?’ “
Perrett hadn’t picked up a guitar in years. “I got refocused and disciplined,” he says. “My life had changed, and I started living a more orderly existence.” Songs poured forth: 40 of them from the summer of 2015, pared down to 10 for just his fifth album in 39 years. “I’ve always believed in quality rather than quantity,” he deadpans, but awareness that his time may be limited means he’s already working on a follow-up.
The Only Ones had reformed in 2007, after Another Girl, Another Planet was used in a British ad campaign. Originally, the song had charted for one solitary week – at number 44, in New Zealand, three years after its release. “Maybe it’s because it’s got a 32-bar intro, with a great big long guitar solo before the vocals come in,” Perrett muses, when asked why, or how, his most beloved song flopped. Or maybe it was the subject matter.
Regardless, it will long outlive its maker. “I’d much rather have a song which people still listen to 40 years later and respect and do covers of, rather than have something which is a big hit and is then forgotten,” he says. “[With] Another Girl, Another Planet you can’t really tell when it was recorded, because I think it’s timeless. I think everything we did was timeless.”
But recruiting the band again wasn’t an option. Drummer Mike Kellie, who died earlier this year, was seriously ill and an earlier foray back into the studio hadn’t gone well. The band gigged for a couple of years before things fell apart again. “I was there in body but not in mind. My mind was back in my room with my various paraphernalia, that I wanted to return to as soon as possible.”
Perrett was also aware of the danger of tarnishing the band’s legacy. He says the sessions the band recorded were “a pale representation of what we were”. In hindsight, he says, “nothing new was going to come out of it because I wasn’t in a state to be productive, or even want to be productive. It always felt slightly nostalgic, and if I’m going to do music I want to do it because I’ve got something new to say.”
Clean at last, with the support of his sons and drummer Jake Woodward, Perrett had a young, fresh band imprinted with his own musical DNA. Nostalgia was replaced with an urge to start anew. “If I’m not feeling my emotions to the fullest extent then I haven’t got that driving force to be in that state. Before, my mind was very distracted and my emotions were numb, and to me that’s not the way to produce your best work,” he says.
Years of abuse have taken a toll on Perrett’s body. “My lungs aren’t that great, but they manage to sing,” he says. “I had to learn how to sing again; it’s like a harmonium where the bellows are a bit squeaky. So I had to find a way of singing where they sounded great again. The one drawback is we’ve got to start gigging soon, and I won’t be able to jump around the stage. I have to conserve my energy to concentrate on singing.”
I ask what has pulled him through. “What’s got me though is basically love,” Perrett says. He’s not joking. His wife of 47 years, Xena, has stood by him throughout. “I’ve shared all my experiences with my soul mate. That’s why I had to have four love songs on the album.” (Although one of them, Troika, might be better described as a paean to a triumvirate: “You must admit there’s strength in numbers,” he sings).
In the album’s most telling and triumphant song, Something In My Brain, Perrett describes an experiment with a rat. “He could choose food / Or he could choose crack / Well the rat, he starved to death / But I didn’t die, at least not yet / I’m still just about capable / Of one last defiant breath.” It finishes with a raised fist, or maybe it’s a middle finger: “Now rock & roll is back in me – oh yeah!”
But as he also sings in An Epic Story, it’s too late for repentance of sins. Perrett insists he wouldn’t do anything differently. “It’s sort of embarrassing how many times you have to do something before you learn your lesson, but I can’t really regret it, it’s just me,” he says. “You know, I’m a flawed person, I’m an imperfect human being … The advice I’d give to young people is don’t do what I did, but I wouldn’t change any of my decisions.
“It’s not constructive to think about mistakes that you’ve made and how things might have been different. To have the pleasure of making an album that was the perfect album I could make, for that time, makes me celebrate the past. Even though I can be honest about certain aspects of it, to me it’s still a celebration of survival. You know, lots of my friends aren’t here.”
First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 2 September 2017