As a scintillating ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ ends the encore amid rapturous applause at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, a euphoric crowd reflects on a knockout set. What could top that? But this is the gig that keeps on giving. A second encore offers a new, unrecorded song; the brilliant ’60s-sounding Phil Spector-ish bubblegum rock of ‘Troika’ from this year’s album ‘How The West Was Won’; and three timeless tracks by legendary post-punk band The Only Ones.
For most of the past few decades, fans of The Only Ones would wonder what had happened to their frontman, Peter Perrett. Stories about his drug-fuelled London life emerged every so often, suggesting that he was close to death. He had disappeared from the music scene, leaving behind a legacy of classy songs sprinkled over three albums released in 1978-80. He briefly re-emerged as The One in 1994-96, with the underrated ‘Woke Up Sticky’, and The Only Ones had a comeback about 10 years ago, playing a few gigs. But he really is back now, with a debut solo album at the age of 65, and his songwriting is as beguiling and witty as ever.
The new tour showcases the warmly received ‘How The West Was Won’, featuring all 10 tracks, plus some old favourites as well as new songs that didn’t make it on to the album but are good enough to cry out for a follow-up. ‘War Plan Red’ is an overtly political punk song to start the first encore; and Perrett bravely begins the second encore with a number so new that no-one’s sure what it’s called, bells and synths building into a bass and guitar workout, drum blasts, keyboards and violin.
Perrett’s new band is basically his sons’ group Strangefruit, varying from a classic four (two guitars, bass, drums) to a six-piece depending on the song. He stands in spotlights for most of the set, the rest of the band in relative shadow around him. It’s a literal visualisation of a line from ‘Woke Up Sticky’ — “they put the light on me”. He is gaunt and diminutive, with a shock of dark hair and sunglasses above prominent cheekbones.
Perrett is a man reborn, resuscitated and rejuvenated by playing with his sons and their partners. James Perrett on lead guitar has an uncanny genetic affinity for the sparkling solos and cascading style of his father’s songwriting. Peter Perrett Jnr on bass and drummer Jake Wodward provide a strong backbone, with crucial ornamentation on keyboards, vocals, electric violin and lap steel guitar from Jenny Maxwell, and electric piano from Lauren Moon.
Maxwell and Moon leave the four boys to perform the night’s first of six Only Ones songs, ‘The Big Sleep’ from ‘Baby’s Got A Gun’ (1980), which slowly grinds then slyly speeds up. Moon returns on piano for ‘Woke Up Sticky’, while the guitars of father and son Perrett are like fencing foils, punctuated by Woodward’s drumming. “More speed, less haste, I repeat myself til I’m blue in the face, I came down in a meteoric shower. the speed of sound turns decades into hours,” Perrett sings in couplets, “Woke up sticky, must have been dreaming of you.”
He marries English lyrical humour to an edgy East Coast sound reminiscent of Television/Tom Verlaine and The New York Dolls, with wordplay like a young Bob Dylan. Perrett’s sardonic half-melodic drawl has always been reminiscent of Lou Reed, who was 10 years older. Perrett’s compositions often sound as if they’re from Reed’s narcotic-filled New York — a daringly slow ‘C Voyeurger’ recalls the Nico years.
Maxwell’s violin adds a louche Velvet Underground feel to the new album’s ‘Living In My Head’ and an orchestral swagger to ‘Take Me Home’, which as the album’s final track is a fine way to close the first hour. Perrett smiles broadly as drums roll and guitars chime, singing darkly but funnily: “I wish I could die in a hail bullets sometime, but all I can do is sing and play on the front line.”
The two 20-minute encores push Perrett towards the venue’s early curfew. “I don’t want everyone hustled out of the venue with undue haste,” he says, “I want to get the timing right.” His timing is spot on right through the evening, his drug-ravaged lungs miraculously holding out on every song. “But I didn’t die, at least not yet, I’m still just about capable of one last defiant breath,” he sings on ‘Something In My Brain’, “Rock ’n’ roll is back in me.” This “allegorical tale” — about choosing life or crap, music or drugs — cutely comes just before the heroin-fuelled, three-minute, pop-punk perfection of ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’.
Perrett ends the gig alone on stage with his guitar singing ‘It’s The Truth’ from the eponymous debut album by The Only Ones, a fitting end to a concert that’s all about celebrating his incredible skills as a songwriter. He has burst back in the same way that Iggy Pop at 68 got a new lust for life with last year’s ‘Post Pop Depression’.
Peter Perrett’s setlist at the Electric ballroom (with album attribution)
01 ‘Sweet Endeavour’ (‘How The West Was One’)
02 ‘Hard to Say No’ (‘How The West Was One’)
03 ‘An Epic Story’ (‘How The West Was One’)
04 ‘The Big Sleep’ (The Only Ones, ‘Baby’s Got A Gun’)
05 ‘Woke Up Sticky’ (The One)
06 ‘Baby Don’t Talk’ (The One)
08 ‘Living In My Head’ (‘How The West Was One’)
09 ‘Flaming Torch’ (The Only Ones, ‘Even Serpents Shine’)
10 ‘How the West Was Won’ (‘How The West Was One’)
11 ‘Man of Extremes’ (‘How The West Was One’)
12 ‘Love’s Inferno’
13 ‘Take Me Home’ (‘How The West Was One’)
14 ‘War Plan Red’
15 ‘C Voyeurger’ (‘How The West Was One’)
16 ‘Something in My Brain’ (‘How The West Was One’)
17 ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ (‘The Only Ones’)
18 New song
19 ‘Troika’ (‘How The West Was One’)
20 ‘No Solution’ (The Only Ones, ‘Even Serpents Shine’)
21 ‘The Whole of the Law’ (‘The Only Ones’)
22 ‘It’s The Truth’ (‘The Only Ones’, Peter Perrett solo with guitar)