The Only Ones, Special View (1979)

[14 June 2007]

By Julia Yepes

Pete Doherty doesn’t scare me. He may be a junkie, but he has always seemed nimble, able to bounce back. But Peter Perrett of the Only Ones, with his slowed down Cockney croon telegraphing the seedy glitter of late 1970s excess and serious drug addiction—he scares me. His disheveled (but pretty) look made him seem a weary, debauched rocker beyond hope of reformation. As music critic Steve Sutherland put it, Perrett always looked as though he had “just crawled out of bed and couldn’t wait to get back in.” Never one to count on for a marathon, Peter Perrett projects the qualities he sings about: innocence and decadence, indulgence and romance, naivety mixed with corruption. But the main subject of his songs is dissolution. The Only Ones’ undoing was there in toto from the start. They were gone from the beginning.

“Something’s been going wrong / I’m all mixed-up and I don’t know what’s going on,” Perrett sings on “It’s the Truth” sounding like his stamina is shot. Again and again, he sings of impending collapse, breakdown and withdrawal. His songs often build to and then underscore the breaking point. In “It’s the Truth”, Perrett begins by singing how much he’s “gotta talk to you” but then his thoughts get swept away. A melodic bridge, two-part harmonies, and guitar solos build and swirl to a crescendo, and at its peak he croons, “My memory is fading away / I don’t remember what I came here to say.” Perrett realizes finally that his sincerity doesn’t count since his dissipated mind cancels it out.

Indeed, the excess and decadence of the Only Ones’ owes something to the tradition of Baudelaire. After all, Baudelaire wrote about the exhaustion that comes with disillusionment, the dwindling of confidence after waiting too long, the suspicion that one has exhausted his inner resources. What Baudelaire got right, according to Huysmans’s insolently decadent narrator in Against Nature, was attributing dissatisfaction not to “the misfortunes of unrequited love or the jealousies engendered by adulterous love”, but to “those deeper, deadlier, longer-lasting wounds that are inflicted by satiety, disillusion, and contempt upon souls tortured by the present, disgusted by the past, [and] terrified and dismayed by the future.” This is exactly what the Only Ones get right, too. The word decadence literally means a “decline or loss of excellence”. While much of rock ‘n’ roll pins unhappiness on love-gone-wrong,  the Only Ones points to the loss of vigor that comes with disillusionment as the real destroyer of goals and ideals.

In his poem “The Enemy” Baudelaire writes of this spiritual malaise:

My youth was nothing but a lowering storm
Occasionally lanced by sudden suns;
Torrential rains have done their work so well
That no fruit ripens in my garden now.

Already the autumn of ideas has come,
And I must dig and rake and dig again
If I am to reclaim the flooded soil
Collapsing into the size of graves.

I dream of new flowers, but who can tell
If this eroded swamp of mine affords,
The mystic nourishment on which they thrive…

Time consumes existence pain by pain,
And the hidden enemy that gnaws our heart
Feeds on the blood we lose, and flourishes!

The Only Ones - Another Girl Another Planet

The enemy, in this case, is doubt, because it leads to inertia. Once one has hesitated to believe, one is always on enemy territory because disenchantment feeds on doubt. Any disappointment or failure only confirms to a person how disillusioned he is. Baudelaire’s extended metaphor of one’s mind as a barren garden or an eroded swamp is apt. Baudelaire dismisses his youth as only “a lowering storm”, but at least a storm has concentrated energies. A storm seems more promising than an eroded swamp or a barren garden.

But in the Only Ones’ music, the enemy does indeed flourish. Doubt leads to distraction:

I find it hard to concentrate
Distraction comes from within
If I fake it, it doesn’t mean I don’t care
I can feel the hands of fate closing in
And I know it’s time for me to go somewhere
(“Breaking Down”)

In fact, Perrett is so delicate and zonked that to touch him, he says, “would disturb the calm”. He continues, “Physical effort often causes mental harm / I don’t have the energy / You could say things get pretty tranquil with me” (“Lovers of Today”). In the Only Ones’ songs, just as in Baudelaire’s poem, time is a weakening force. Perrett continually sings of not having the “strength” or the “energy” to follow through. In the chorus of “Lovers of Today” Perrett proclaims, “We ain’t got feelings / We got nothing to say / We’re lovers of today.” Since disillusionment feeds on disappointment, doubt can quickly spiral into total demoralization. For Perrett, this distracted state is symptomatic of his generation.

In “The Enemy” Baudelaire acknowledges spiritual doubt can stem from a dismal environment; the “new flowers” he yearns for thrive on “mystic nourishment” that he doubts he will find in his city. Similarly, Perrett refers to his urban landscape as “cold”, not conducive to spirituality. On “The Beast” he sings about a prowling “modern vampire” responsible for an epidemic. Like the enemy who “feeds on the blood we lose”, this vampire works against one’s true desires. To be decadent—clever, exotic, superficial—is to live in defiance of nature, which requires the artificial, unnatural environment of the city.

In this artificial environment, where the Only Ones’ songs are consistently set, love has become perverse. This perversion stems in part from a too-total defiance, a contrariness that is no longer merely oppositional but purely disadvantageous. Perrett captures this defiance on “Language Problem”: “My parents told me love don’t exist just for pleasure / So I guess I’ll throw in some pain for good measure.” When Perrett sings of love he seems particularly exhausted. It is not, he says, that he doesn’t care. (“If those fools could only know what this thing means to me!” he declares.) Love may be the only redemptive force, but when a certain level of disenchantment has set in, it’s already too late. In the atmosphere of total Dionysian excess his songs evoke, Perrett sings of poison and decay and calls love “destruction disguised.” When he sings, “I can’t take it anymore!” you believe him.

So what’s at the heart of The Only Ones? As hung-up and dissolute as he is, Perrett still glimpses a lot through his bleary, mascara-ed eye. For me, his lyrics to “City of Fun” sum up what he sees and feels. He sees “good people drowning in a city of life” and “poor people dying in a city of love”. He offers: “If you ever come through my town/I got a place for you to lie down.” But it is in the overriding, insistent chorus that he underscores the disparity between what he sees and what he can offer. He sings: “Hey, hey, can’t you see what you’re doing to me?” Here his distinct voice is at its most expressive: as he warbles, not quite in tune, his voice betrays sorrow and emotion. All he can offer is his warmth, friendliness, and hospitality. His chorus “Hey, hey, can’t you see what you’re doing to me?” is a last plead to the cold, impersonal city. Life in the city is going by a little to fast for him to deal with, but in this song he is able to articulate the overwhelming plight that is not particular to a rock star, but that is the plight of anyone alive today.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-only-ones-special-view-1979/