Perfect Sound Forever


Only Ones: JP and Mike Kellie, 1979

John Perry interview
by John Wisniewski
(April 2020)

Even if you don't think so, you know of Brit guitarist John Perry. In the mid-70's, he co-founded the punk band The Only Ones which produced the classic raver "Another Girl, Another Planet." He also worked with a huge roster of artists ranging from proto-punk Johnny Thunders to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to indie rock heart-throb Evan Dando to alt-country deity Alejandro Escovedo. He's even found time to pen a few books, including an excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. In this interview John speaks about his influences, the emergence of punk rock and the history (and reformation) of The Only Ones.

PSF: Any favorite bands when you were young?

JP: I have favourite records more than bands. Some obvious exceptions, like anyone my age who grew up while the Stones, Hendrix, Who, et al were churning out fabulous singles every 6 weeks, and still playing local dance halls where you could watch them up close. I dunno... Sam Cooke, Louvin Brothers. Thomas Tallis. Bob Dylan. Love. Where do you stop?

PSF: What bands were you in before The Only Ones?

JP: I barely remember their names. My earliest bands (from 1967) changed name after each show - we'd never have been rebooked otherwise. When I started, there were still dozens of beat groups working 5 nights a week, mostly playing dances. The last days before mobile discos took over. Good way to learn about timing and tempo. By 68/69, the Blues boom was going strong and there was work supporting Blues & Blues/Rock bands. Some of them were great; Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac were glorious but an awful lot (of other bands) were lumpen. As Sonny Boy Williamson said "them English boys wanna play the Blues real bad... and they do." One night in late '68 when Jeff Beck cancelled at short notice, Peter Grant sent down his other band. No time to print a poster, just a chalked sign reading TONIGHT: THE NEW YARDBIRDS and, in tiny letters below "Led Zeppelin.'

After the first big festivals ('69-'71), the scene changed. From the early 70's, I had a floating lineup called The Rats. Played round Europe. Most of its members went on to bigger bands - Alan Platt to Champion Jack Dupree then Wilko Johnson, Huw Gower to The Records & David Johansen, Roy Sundholm did three solo albums for Ensign Record. I'd spent five or six years messing round in the West Country - a nice life but a backwater as far as record companies were concerned. Hard to get signed. Then, within 9 months of moving to London, I'd met Perrett and signed to a major label.

PSF: You were at Glastonbury Fayre concert. What was that like?

JP: I played Glastonbury several times but 1971 - the first with the pyramid stage - was the most memorable and the most fun. About 12,000 people instead of the 200,000 plus these days... In '71, people 10 miles up the road didn't know anything was happening. Room to move, room to wander around. You knew half the people there...

And the bands played so well! Some pretty ordinary bands played way above themselves that weekend -- and the best artists just killed it. If there wasn't film of Terry Reid and of Traffic, I'd suspect myself of excessive nostalgia over 50 years. Luckily, the two best sets do survive on film, proving it's not just rose-tinted hindsight. Terry Reid (with David Lindley on lap steel, Alan White on drums) as good I ever saw him. And I swear Traffic, closing the last night, never played better. Search out "Gimme Some Loving 1971" on YouTube. I saw Traffic as a trio, a quartet, but never better than the big band that night, with Jim Gordon on drums and Winwood in excelsis.

PSF: You also worked with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. What was that like?

JP: I met Hunter in '72 or '73, well before the Only Ones. Remarkable man. Also a very private man. Lived for a while at my house in Somerset. Wrote "Touch of Grey" (the Dead's only hit single) there. My band (Rats) recorded an album with him in 1974, at Mayfair Studios in London (same studio in which - of all people - Gary Glitter made his records) unreleased, as far as I know. His first full band recording on 16 track - it may have been a trial run for the solo albums that followed. I always felt he was happier as a solo performer, just him and a guitar. Like John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed - who he loved - he wasn't fussy about time-keeping. If he felt like playing 12 and half bars, that's what he played. He let the lyric dictate performance more than formal arrangements.

I saw him at home in Marin County early in 2019 -- which turned out to be just a few months before he died. We played for an hour or two and I gather from Maureen [his wife], it was probably the last occasion on which he played with anyone. Over the decades there are a lot more stories, a couple of funny Dylan yarns... but now is not the moment.

PSF: How did The Only Ones form?

JP: I met Peter in late '75 and started making demos. We rehearsed thru 1976 and (drummer Mike) Kellie then (bassist) Alan Mair appeared. Started playing live shows in Jan '77 and signed at the end of the year. In retrospect, we should have turned down CBS and gone with Chris Blackwell who offered to sign us personally to Island - a status only enjoyed by Winwood, Marley and a few others. To us, CBS meant Dylan; in fact, CBS UK was just the London office of a major US corporation... who couldn't pay the electricity bill without first asking the parent company in NYC. A very straight label, unsuited to a band like ourselves.

PSF: What did you think of the punk rockers, like The Sex Pistols, when they First came around?

JP: Well, the Pistols were head & shoulders above any of the other English bands. The Clash have become so revered it's easy to overlook the fact that the (Matlock era) Pistols were in a different league. SO much better live. Also much funnier. And of course, both those bands were in thrall to the Heartbreakers. They copied every move made by Nolan and especially Thunders. And I liked the X-Ray Spex singles; they were something genuinely original. Scenes are often most fun in their early days - on the rising curve. All over London, you could feel something changing throughout 1976. 1977 was the breakout year but '76 much more interesting.

PSF: What were some of your fondest memories of the Only Ones when the band was originally together?

JP: Fond? The Only Ones?!?

Can't speak for Peter but everyone else was relieved when it split up. Great bands aren't always that much fun to be in.

Second US tour (Autumn 1979) was probably the band at its peak. Extant film and tape of Minnesota confirms it. Or do I mean Minneapolis? Whichever. A newly released live album, from the previous night in Chicago, corroborates it. The band was tight as a pistol. Just for a bit, it looked like things might go right. A sure sign of trouble ahead.

The final US tour (supporting the Who in San Diego and LA; and shows of our own in LA and the East Coast) was a trail of disasters. The disorganisation and disunity were bound to catch up with us. Peter fled California with a warrant for attempted murder... or assault with a deadly weapon. I forget exactly, I wasn't there. The incident was in SF and I was down in LA in a separate bust with the County Sheriff.

Johnny Thunders sesson: JP, Stiv Bators, Dave Tregenna, Patti Palladin, Mike Monroe
Jungle Records promo, Que Sera Sera sessions

PSF: You acted as musical director for Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin, on the album Copycats (1988). What was that experience like?

JP: Very cool. Very easy for a JT album. They'd started work with a band with Glen (Matlock) on bass and various guitarists but the tracks weren't happening. I was in Spain; when I got back, they'd been in there for a fortnight and didn't have a single usable take. We scrapped it & started from scratch with Gil Scott Heron's rhythm section; Bob Andrews (The Rumour) on piano - & it was easy. John didn't play guitar, he just wanted to be Dion - which is cool with me. Best singer ever came out of the Bronx. God bless Dion di Mucci...

PSF: I particularly enjoyed your Electric Ladyland book (2004).

JP: Thank you.

PSF: Since you've written it, have you come up any additional insights about the album?

JP: No.

I have had some lovely letters from musicians I respect saying how much they enjoyed the book. They all picked up the subtext -- how music strikes you when you're 15 and your whole being is wide open. Seeing Hendrix play live, in that brief moment before anybody knew who he was, made an impression. That vision informs the whole book.

JP: "the Hendrix flyer is Bristol Locarno Feb 9th 1967 - where I first saw Hendrix. Entry 6/3 = about 35 cents."

PSF: What was it like working with Alejandro Escovedo and Evan Dando?

JP: Evan is fun. Hard to tell what the fuck he's on about sometimes but Camp St. (Fort Apache) studio in Cambridge Mass. was a joy. The album (Varshons, 2009) flew together. Brilliant engineer from Georgia. Check out the track "Laying Up With Linda" which, like the original "Planet" session, was a first take. It would have been the perfect place to do a reformed Only Ones record, so of course we didn't (in any case, Peter may not have been admitted to the US).

Austin Texas, Paramount, Jan 5, 2019- opening night THE CROSSING tour

Alejandro is a natural. Like playing with someone you've known all your life.

And the Italian band he works with, Don Antonio, are out of sight. Lovely guys, speak hardly any English which is an advantage. Fabulous ensemble players. Fit like an old pair of well-made shoes. They're a big band but they leave space -- a space I fitted into without having to think.

We did a show in Austin TX (2019) with most of the guests who play on the record (The Crossing, 2018). Myself, Wayne Kramer, James Williamson. Here's this collection of old fiends, sitting round dressing rooms sedately drinking Earl Grey with honey and lemon. Nobody even smoking. Think about it - Only Ones, MC5, Stooges &c. You know the score. This is not how that story is supposed to end. Wayne has his Jail Guitar Doors charity, James his IT consultancy, I keep busy...

PSF: What led to the Only Ones reunion (2007)? How was that different than before?

JP: Well, the money was split evenly. The concert receipts.

"Planet" had just been used in a big European TV ad campaign. Alan Mair saw the moment was right and got the ball rolling. He did a lot of work and did it very smartly. Good footwork. He and I felt like playing and so did Kellie. Peter says he only did it 'cos he "felt sorry" for the rest of us. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Frankly my dear...

It doesn't much matter anyway; the size of the crowds proved the timing was good. Even the broadsheet national press showed some interest. The similarities were greater than the differences. In both cases, 5 years was enough.

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER