Peter Perrett: Get Back Up

The Only Ones’ Peter Perrett emerges from the London underground

It’s an unusual claim to fame. But at 65, artsy English bohemian Peter Perrett proudly notes that he’s never held down a serious straight job.

“Well, once I did—I was a messenger boy, on foot in London—but I got sacked after three hours,” he chuckles impishly.

The early-’70s experience taught him a valuable financial lesson. He was paid seven shillings an hour for a sum total of 21, but after deducting bus fare and insurance expenses, it cost him nearly two shillings to punch the corporate clock that day.

“So that put me off proper jobs really early in life,” he says. “And luckily, I’ve managed to survive without ever having to do one.”

Therein lies the colorful tale that’s made Perrett one of the last true rock stars, an authentic, idiosyncratic misanthrope who stared deep into the abyss and occasionally tumbled into it. Through three brilliant late-’70s/early-’80s albums with his ex-outfit the Only Ones and now a decadence-celebrating new solo record, How The West Was Won (Domino), Perrett has lived to tell his own harrowing story. For employment, he started dealing hashish, then cocaine, in the London drug underworld. By 1975, he’d gotten hooked on heroin, then crack. After he and his wife of 48 years both contracted debilitating cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he finally got clean in 2008. He gave up smoking joints and cigarettes in 2011. Gradually, his health returned.

Thanks to a UK Vodafone commercial featuring an early Only Ones hit “Another Girl, Another Planet,” the group attempted a comeback in 2007. But Perrett weighed roughly 90 pounds and was so scrawny he could barely sing a note. That’s why his inimitable conversational rasp (think Templeton the rat from Charlotte’s Web if he were Cockney and could croon) is mixed loud on West.

“I worked hard to get my voice back in shape, and I really wanted to showcase it,” says Perrett. “Because the one thing that differentiates certain artists is when their personality really comes across in their songs.”

Perrett’s other key attribute is his self-deprecating gallows wit. It’s there in sardonic spades on West. The opening title track is a subtly sneering putdown of mindless American pop culture, with “Sweet Jane”-ish vibrato guitar played by Perrett’s son, Jamie (with his other son, Peter Jr., on serpentine bass). Against this gently gothic backdrop, he murmurs odes to his missus (“Sweet Endeavour,” “Man Of Extremes”) and employs a famous lab test as a metaphor for his own carnality on “Something In My Brain”: “Just like the experiment with the 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.”

“Once I started exercising and doing all the things I should have done throughout my life, I started playing guitar and writing songs again,” says Perrett, who already has a much darker disc ready to record. “And then I rediscovered the passion that I had for music again. So now I’ve actually got things to live for, and it’s a great feeling.”

Tom Lanham