THE ONLY ONES
A decent late-70s power pop band with a little bit of punk in ’em (mostly due to leader Peter Perrett’s lazy vocal style). Perrett is by the far most interesting element of a band that otherwise sounds like an above-average group of normal pub rockers. Their debut is well stocked with excellent material and it’s a must-hear for new wave/punk era rock fans. Unfortunately, the rest of their brief career is a major letdown.
The Only Ones *
Even Serpents Shine
Baby’s Got a Gun
THE ONLY ONES (1978)
A extremely solid and muscular rock debut. The band never topped it – I don’t think they even came close. Nearly every track on here rocks with a powerful pop hook, and the album drips with a wonderfully decadent and sleazy late-70s atmosphere. This album contains the band’s one big hit – “Another Girl, Another Planet” – which is just a slamming piece of power pop heaven. Great verse hook, great chorus hook, great energy. The big sticking point for most people regarding this band is sure to be vocalist and songwriter Peter Perrett – his nasal Lou Reed-by-way-of-Howard Devoto-by-way-of-Tom Verlaine delivery doesn’t quite scream “poppy” or “friendly.” It sometimes sounds like the guy is just speak-singing everything or that he could give two shits about the songs. I guess that what’s led this band to be labeled a “punk” group, though their writing is far more in line with power pop and straight up rock and roll than anything genuinely punk. So many bands have been called “punk” at this point that I don’t know if the term means anything more than “rock music played with energy and grit in the late 70s.” How could a punk record include both a saxophone solo AND an extended wurly solo? Other big highlights here include the catchy as hell (and awesomely titled) “Creature of Doom,” and the positively Television-ish “Breaking Down.” But really, the whole thing is super consistent and brief enough that even the lesser moments fly by without hindering the whole. Side 1 ends with “The Beast,” a 6 minute jammier song driven by a simple grooving guitar riff. The song builds it’s intensity with skill, allowing the group to stretch out and solo. Of all the tunes, that one makes it the most obvious that these guys were no mere amateur punkers. I’d recommend this album to any fan of 70s rock, as long as they can get into ugly but charismatic vocal stylings (so all you anti-Dylan people might want to get some Joe Jackson records instead of this one).
EVEN SERPENTS SHINE (1979)
Some people think of this as the band’s peak, but to my ears it’s a pretty obvious quality drop from the debut. There are only a couple tracks that register to me as more than totally perfunctory. This has the same basic atmosphere and sound as the debut (though a bit more polished and direct), but the hooks just aren’t present most of the time. And there aren’t enough new moves to push this out above the debut in any major way – it’s just a lesser version, plain and simple. There are two really great tracks, and they come at tail-end of the record. “Miles From Nowhere” has the drive and hooks to make the grade – it’s another Television-like track with some beautiful guitar parts and solid vocal melodies. Album closer “Instrumental” (which actually contains some vocals) makes great use of a memorable guitar melody, and it’s languid psych-punk vibe sounds like a big influence on later indie stalwarts like Pavement and Sonic Youth. It’s also got a killer ending – the band cuts out and we’re left with acoustic guitar and Perrett singing “Hey Babe, You’re Just Instrumental.” Both the arrangement and the meaning of the title are changed on a dime, and it’s a striking way to end a record. Unfortunately, not ONE of these other tunes hits me the way the closers do. None of them are bad, and the album goes through the motions quite well. But none of them come close to the hooky power of “Another Girl, Another Planet,” or the wit of “The Whole Of The Law,” or the burning pathos of “Breaking Down.” They’re just OK little power pop numbers. “No Solution” has the most interesting vocal melody, though the song never really takes off. Tunes like “In Betweens'” and “Out There In The Night” and “Programme” and “Someone Who Cares” just float by me, nice to hear while playing, but lacking guts and memorability. The opening “From Here To Eternity” was obviously meant as the album’s big statement song (it’s got the album title embedded in the lyric), but that melody and chord progression is far too generic for me, and the song really begs for some sort of chorus or B section. “Flaming Torch” is a decent enough pub rocker – but it would have been way better with a more interested sounding singer! I could picture Graham Parker ripping that tune to shreds – but Perrett just sounds too stand-offish to make such a poppy melody read. I was expecting to love this album based on my appreciation for the debut and the reputation this one has for being even better. But it’s NOT better. And I can’t imagine I’ll be spending much more time with this record after writing these reviews.
BABY’S GOT A GUN (1980)
This is really not much of a drop-off from the previous record. But since it moves even further away from the greatness of the debut, and into more boring and straight power pop waters, the grade drops another half step. I guess Joy Division producer Martin Hannett was supposed to produce this, but due to substance abuse “issues” he was only able to put together one track with the band. Considering stories I’ve heard about Peter Perrett’s own heroin addiction, I can’t imagine the band was in the highest spirits or feeling tightly focused during the making of their final record. Even though Hannett couldn’t see the record through, it’s still worthwhile comparing it to Magazine’s “The Correct Use Of Soap” (another Hannett production). Like that record, this one retains many of the original sonic elements that made the band famous, but adds a weird dose of chirpy poppiness. It’s as if the band were going for a slightly more commercial sound, but with singers like Devoto and Perrett, I can certainly understand why THAT didn’t really pan out. Oddly, this record sounds simultaneously poppier and DARKER than the other two. There are brighter tracks like “The Happy Pilgrim” and “My Way Out Of Here” and “Trouble In The World” that basically just sound like any old late-70s punk-infused rock group. Then there are lengthier and less hookier songs like the evil Bo Diddley jam “Me & My Shadow” or the particularly depressed sounding and almost gothy “The Big Sleep.” Like the previous record, this one keeps up a decent atmosphere and the band sounds competent throughout. But there are no standout moments, or exemplary songs – it’s a nice little listen but adds up to nothing for me. “Strange Mouth” is the only tune that really sticks out for me – it rocks, and has some OK hooks, and therefore peaks above mediocrity in a track-list of mostly mid-tempo dullness. “Why Don’t You Kill Yourself?” has some welcomely nasty lyrics, but the song itself is rote and forgettable. There’s also an awful cover of a Johnny Duncan country song called “Fools,” which has Peter singing a suet with Pauline Murray from Penetration. It sounds a bit tongue in cheek, but I don’t think it was intended to be a complete joke – it was even released as this album’s single! It’s quite bad. And the album is quite mediocre. Stick with the debut.
It says something about a band when their ragtaggy outtakes collection sounds BETTER than two out of three of their studio records! I’m not really sure what it says – but it’s probably something to do with capturing lightning in a bottle. In other words, the period of time that produced these guys’ stellar debut also produced a lot of the material on here. And that was obviously the peak of the band’s power, so even the discards sounded awesome. I’m not really sure when the brunt of these tracks were recorded, but as far as I understand they pre-date the debut and certainly came before the disappointing 2nd and 3rd albums. Whatever the case, there are some GREAT songs on here, and if you cleaned up the sound and did a bit of editing and then told me this was the actual follow-up to the debut, I would be much more pleased than I am with “Even Serpents Shine.” There are a couple total winners – “Watch You Drown” and “Counterfeit Woman” both utilize the same catchy vocal melodies and heavenly guitar parts that make the debut so wonderful. The former has one of the best choruses the band ever produced (love that Clav part and the “start all over again” hook). The latter sounds a bit like a “Europe ’72” Grateful Dead track – it’s just dripping with feeling and intricate but intimate guitar/piano interplay. “Flowers Die” is a passionate piece of rock melancholy in the “Breaking Down” vein. There’s a surprisingly pretty and worthwhile version of “Silent Night!” Pretty much every song here has something to offer. This isn’t a proper album, and there’s very little flow (not the mention the poor recording quality of most of the tracks). But I still think this is your best bet after the debut. It’s just full of confident material, and seems to issue from a band working at the peak of their powers.