Peter Perrett is in an upbeat mood. One of rock’s great survivors recently returned from a short trip to Japan with his reformed band The Only Ones.
As well as performing tracks from the three classic albums that The Only Ones made between 1978 and 1980, at the height of new wave, the band also aired some new songs.
The 62-year-old singer is looking forward to some Yorkshire hospitality when he plays a rare solo gig at Hebden Bridge Trades Club in January. He was attracted to the idea that the club had hosted the godmother of punk Patti Smith; the fact that it was founded by trades unionists appealed even more. “I’m as Communist as you can get,” he says.
The Only Ones got back together in 2007 – more than two and a half decades after they’d split up amid a haze of drug-taking and disharmony.
Perrett recalls being “taken by surprise” when guitarist John Perry, drummer Mike Kellie and bassist Alan Mair came to his south London home to broach the idea of a reunion. “I was still on drugs. For the first year back together I was not that healthy,” he says. Years of abusing heroin and crack cocaine had taken their toll, inhibiting his ability to sing. “You can play guitar even if you are half dead – which John does very well – if you’re singing you need a lot of lung power.”
Hence the band took their time while Perrett got himself clean and stopped smoking. “I have not smoked a cigarette for three-and-a-half years just to get myself in better shape so I can actually sing better,” he says.
While some music critics remain baffled that The Only Ones weren’t more successful in the late 70s Perrett takes issue with the idea that this led to their downfall.
“When we broke up we were at the height of our careers,” he says. “We used to sell 30,000 albums for the first six months for very album. It was not a lack of success that broke us up; we stopped getting on with each other. When people do get success sometimes it can be harder than a lack of success, egos get inflated and there’s lots of conflict.”
The most serious damage to the band’s unity seems to have been done on a “particularly fraught” American tour in 1980, where they played a handful of dates with The Who. “I was wanted by the police for attempted murder [when he was caught up in a drive-by shooting] – they extradited me from New York to California. John’s girlfriend was in prison. Everything that could go wrong did.”
An experimental drugs user until that point, Perrett blames his subsequent addiction on the trauma of the band’s break-up. “Drugs only got in the way, they were never more important than music,” he reflects. “It was only when music was out of my life that they became a help for the lack of music.”
The Only Ones’ story was always packed with incident. In the mid-70s Perrett and his wife Xena became friends of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. He remembers being invited to see the new band that McLaren was managing – the Sex Pistols. “The first few gigs were when it was at its best – when everbody hated them, then it was really fun.”
The Only Ones “connected” to punk and its desire to sweep away the musical old guard but, being a few years older than its main protagonists, they were “not going to bow to peer pressure to spike our hair up”. Besides, Perrett says, their songs had guitar breaks “and that was the antithesis of what punk stood for”.
Nonetheless such was The Only Ones’ stock in 1976, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards expressed an interest in producing their first record after hearing a demo tape.
Perrett remembers Richards turning up at the studio where they were recording. “He stood in the control room. For about three minutes nothing happened. The engineer was looking at him wide-eyed, with his mouth open – he was so taken aback.”
He showed up again at Basing Street studios. “The song he loved was called Prisoners – he asked me to teach him the chords,” Perrett remembers. But the singer’s indifference – “I was not very giving, I did not act excited, I thought I was so great I could produce it myself” – and Richards’ subsequent drug bust in Toronto scuppered the union.
“Some songs I’ve written are about drugs – The Beast, Trouble in the World – but they’re anti-drugs,” he says. “Another Girl is an ‘up’ song, it’s a song that glorifies existence rather than drugs. I’ve never done anything like that at all.
“It trivialises my songs if people think they’re all about drugs,” he adds. “They’ve been part of my life, I’ve written about them, I can be more succinct than most people, I think they’re the best education if you want songs about drugs, but I have other things to write about. If I had no life at all other than taking drugs I would be a pretty sad person now.”
By the time Perrett plays in Yorkshire he hopes to have recorded several tracks for a new Only Ones record.
He has “about 23 songs” he’d like to record but has settled on rehearsing “10 or 12”. “I’m not going to be ambitious and do them all in one go,” he says. “I’ll do them in batches of four or five songs.”
He intends to air a few at Hebden Bridge. “It’s fun playing songs to young people who have never heard them before,” he says.
“I would not just be doing old ones, it would be like cabaret. If I did not have new songs I would probably not be doing this any more.”
• Peter Perrett plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on January 29, 8pm, £15. http://thetradesclub.com/events/peter-perrett