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Peter Perrett
How The West Was Won Tariq Goddard , July 12th, 2017 16:59

shadowy figure against white background I first heard Peter Perrett sing with The Only Ones late at night, long after he had released the records that first made a case for his genius, and many years before this new one. The setting was Nicky Campbell’s tactical deployment of 'Another Girl, Another Planet' in the middle of an interview with David Icke at a time, hard as it is to now imagine, when this unholy union of egotists was broadcast on Radio 1 as an exclusive meeting of minds. Between Icke claiming (quite convincingly, if taken on his own delusional terms) that he was Jesus, and that Campbell was the reincarnation of Jim Morrison, I underwent an epiphany that was only partly musical, the clownish talk in the studio leaving me unprepared for the actual transcendence provided by the music. Asides from the soaring hooks that I found spiritually reassuring, the record sounded like it was being sung by a ghost who was in a hurry to impart its life experience before fading quickly away. With my teens and the feelings the spectre sang of still ahead of me, I tingled with the anticipation of having something else to look forward to.

The same thing happens to me listening to this new record, except the tingles are now ones of arrival, which I confess is a massive relief, as I had not expected to listen to anything new by Peter Perrett, or for it to be this good. Possessing a voice that can switch from hopeful to hopelessness in the same line, Perrett seemed destined to blaze briefly and very brightly, an artist who like Syd Barrett or Shane MacGowan was owned, taken possession of, and then discarded by his muse. And as the impersonation of romantic underachievement, all he could then do was watch forlornly as others who knew how to direct, take in hand and make a proper day job out of their genius cleaned up in his place. Barring a blink-and-you’d-miss-it release in 1996, watching Perrett front The Only Ones during their brief reformation 10 years ago did nothing to suggest that he was spending his years out of the limelight constructing masterpieces for eventual un-concealment; at six stone and with a voice that could barely register (albeit in front of an admittedly very impressive band), it was a wonder he had the will to go through with it at all.

This album, then, is a gleeful surprise, and though it is debatable whether it would make the same sense for a listener coming to Perrett cold, for those who already know what to look for it is as gently persuasive as it is shyly moving (and this from the man who penned the lyric to 'Why Don’t You Kill Yourself'!). Though it is hard to imagine how a voice that at its peak sounded preternaturally elderly, and frequently defeated, would hold up when it had actually aged, Perrett sings like an older man who is still, at some essential level, young and in the process of being formed. Given his history of addictions, he understandably emotes like someone keeping something in reserve for himself, cackling and chuckling like an ageing Artful Dodger (“I’m still just about capable of / one last defiant breath”), while pacing himself carefully and not pushing his range. This scaled back less-is-more approach, perfected in the late period of the late Leonard Cohen, is helped enormously by Perrett’s lyrical self-deprecation and cheek, which binds and glosses over those occasionally creaky moments inherent in making rock music in your mid-sixties.

The easygoing vocal pace is reflected in the musical accompaniment. Whereas The Only Ones were a storming powerhouse, this band, led by Perrett’s sons Peter Jr and Jamie, cannot and do not try to compete with the legendary John Perry, whose sheer guitar attack was the perfect foil to Perrett’s lyrical unravelling. The current group mean to be friendly and helpful, gathering around their father to frame his voice; they lack his former band’s desolate abrasion, and choose to be charming instead.

Despite the single 'How The West Was Won' being an obvious star of the album, an equal part affectionate and damning indictment of America’s founding myths and current unreality, most of these songs are ruminative exercises in thinking aloud and remembering. As with Lou Reed in 'Who Am I', or Dylan in 'What Good Am I', Perrett critically reviews his life, and on a love song to his wife, 'C Voyeurger', and the closer, 'Take Me Home', surpasses even his former band’s legacy.

Coming from a generation who never had it so good, but still made life as hard for themselves as possible, and who in that absence of a foe, chose to become their own worst enemies (“Even your parents ran away from home to escape you”), Perrett returns to his childhood in the middle of the last century. Contrasting the rationing and martial self-sacrifice of the then-recent past with his own life of baby-booming waste, Perrett imagines a glorious and meaningful death he was already born too late for, “the key to the future taken out of my hands”, in which a noble end the Hermann Göring Division could have afforded him is replaced by the living end that is sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, “I wish I could die in a hail of bullets sometimes, but all I can do is sing and play on the frontline.” As the song progresses it becomes obvious that the home he sings of is a memory that no longer physically exists, full of friends and family that are no longer alive, in a country so changed that it could just as well never have been. This is 'home' as a near-mystical feeling of origination and return, that only death will bring one back to. The deadpan nobility of Perrett’s past vocal performances is resurrected, in his acceptance that self-destruction, and what it forces one to acknowledge and observe when shared in music, requires an ambivalent heroism of its own. Refining this poetry of self-sabotage is Perrett’s enduring achievement, and the authentic generational property of all those wasters who disappeared under the radar, who he so generously memorialises.

Tariq Goddard's sixth novel, Nature and Necessity, is out 20 July from Repeater Books

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