The feeling first came maybe 20 years ago during the post-Smiths slump when bands lacked lustre. Why wouldn’t they want to do it? What was stopping them?
They weren’t even my favourite act but the question became, why, when they were all alive, – albeit only just perhaps – did they not do it when every ratty, rickety rocker was? And most of them were far less talented.
For me this is the great existential band. A songwriter, Perrett, who is needy and nihilistic who cuts straight to the chase with arresting opening lines “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas?” He should have been a journo.
Not only that they recorded the best single ever. Which was largely ignored at the time. Been covered since though I can’t see why people try to emulate this – despite Paul Westerberg doing a reasonable acoustic version in London a coupla years back. At least that’s a sign of good taste
This band have unfinished business perhaps more than any other. As a sixth former I’d seen them only on the tour to promote the third album Baby’s Got A Gun, at a quarter-full Top Rank in Cardiff in 1981. Despite being a favourite band the gig was barely memorable. Support band Wasted Youth, all in black, stayed in the memory longer – not because they were better but because a pal later played sax in the group.
Anyway, cut to the scene: Nottingham Rescue Rooms. About 250 people in the club – the average age well over 40. The gig was switched from Rock City. Beyonce and plodding clunkers INXS were also in town. But had they recorded the best single ever?
Support band Hellset were a 20something trio of bass, drums and keyboards – the piano-pummmelling leader boasting an enormous and likeable self-belief as he thrashed out some proggy stuff. The second song was introduced as: “About whores and wankers in union on wagon.” Still trying to work that one out. Back in the early 80s they might have ended up being canned off for being hippie-esque and they weren’t my cup of tea but they were warm, engaging and well-received.
Come 9.30pm they were only two questions – do ex-punks still pogo in their 40s? And do The Only Ones still have the sacred fire?
On they came:
Alan Mair – the group godfather perhaps – the man apparently most responsible for the long-awaited reunion. Kept a fairly low profile.
Mike Kellie – a man who seems to epitomise the word ‘loom’. He seemed huge in the 70s, especially in a nation of shortarses like Wales. He’s still huge. Or rather he ‘looms’ large even in these days.
John Perry – dark-shirted, milky complexion topped with a natty trilby (must get one). Due to regular gigging seemed the most comfortable musician on stage. Played as if in his own world and with pillbox slits for eyes. The driving force of the music this evening.
Perrett – sporting sunglasses. Slightly stooped, shockingly thin, even though you were aware this would be the case. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a front man/vocalist so meek. Singing and playing guitar looked a real effort. He exuded a lamb-like, girlish innocence and frequently used his left hand to scratch a healthy mop of brown hair in apparent puzzlement.
The set list:
Lovers of Today
Miles from Nowhere
From Here to Eternity
Why Don’t You Kill Yourself?
Dreamt She Could Fly
It’s the Truth
Whole of the Law
No Peace for the Wicked
Another Girl, Another Planet
Me and My Shadow
Don’t want to analyse each song separately as that would have got in the way of enjoying the whole night. But there was no fluff here, not much said between songs. I got suckered by: “This is a new one.” It took several seconds to realised they were playing AGAP. Perrett’s voice isn’t the strongest, but it never cracked and he mastered some of the trickier phrasings.
His bleak lyricism slowly came to the fore and by the end of the gig his skeletal appearance had been forgotten. For the encore, off came the sunglasses and he no longer seemed to be hiding from us – there was even time for a couple of shy smiles. He seemed a man of 55 going on 17. Ordeal finally over, he allowed himself to enjoy it.
The Only Ones are not a great live band as a spectacle but they are very good and the songs speak for themselves – some of the subtlety and delicacy’s lost live. But this was an intimate, compelling and necessary reunion. Not just for them – for us too. And to my unmusicianly ear, more or less note perfect.
By the end you got a strong sense of what the first two albums provide – that you’d been spoken to personally. And for the last half hour the intensity and the context of a ‘dream come true’ made you feel that the performance had been for your rapture alone and that 249 audience members has somehow melted away.
It was a privilege to spend four hours on a train to get there and four hours coming home.
* Originally published in 2007