Peter Perrett has only ever had two jobs: Rock star and drug lord.
He once had a snort-off with Keith Richards. He lived with his wife, his girlfriend and his unofficial valet while bankrolling his band, The Only Ones, by dealing high-quality hashish and later, pure Bolivian sniff.
Having penned one of the greatest rock-pop anthems ever and survived the life of the louche in Forest Hill, he’s entitled to feel he’s South London royalty. But he would walk unnoticed among us, a slight man in his 60s, who hit more highs than a yodeller in tight pants.
You don’t need to have been around in 1978 to know Another Girl, Another Planet. With numerous re-releases, appearances on compilations and film soundtracks, a Vodafone ad campaign and covers by Blink 182 and Babyshambles, the Only Ones have been rediscovered more times than the chip butty.
Their first single, Lovers of Today, might have been self-released amid the explosive bloom of punk but there was nothing DIY about it. These boys could play, the song was artful, decadent even, and, according to John Cooper Clarke, sung with ‘A voice that aches like the yearning snarl of a jaded child’.
They never quite fitted in with punk, which had a surprising number of rules for a movement about anarchy. The Only Ones were unforgivably old (in their late twenties) and their guitarist was blatantly balding. They just didn’t look the part. Perrett did look like a rock star though, either from the past or the future, it was hard to tell which.
While the critics gushed over the eponymous debut album, it failed to sell in serious numbers. And it was only after reading Nina Antonia’s superb biography The One and Only: Peter Perrett – Homme Fatale that I found out he had income from other sources.
Peter was born in Camberwell and grew up in Forest Hill. Expelled from two schools for fucking about, he ran away at 16 with his then girlfriend, now wife of 50 years, Xenoulla Kakoulli (Zena), from Catford. If that suggests a life of domestic bliss, don’t be fooled. Peter was quite the naughty boy. ‘I’ve treated Zena terribly,’ he told Antonia in his incredibly honest biography, ‘But I was a child then.’
An apprenticeship of slogging your band round pubs in hope of attracting the attention of someone in the industry was not for Peter. His first band, England’s Glory, were named after the matches he used to light his spliffs with. Hash sales paid for rehearsal rooms, studio time and the pressing of an album to take to record companies.
One observer remarked: ‘Peter’s consumption was ridiculous. I’d worked with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff and they didn’t smoke as much dope as he did. I don’t know how Peter functioned half the time.’
But function, he did. The band shared corridors with David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop at Underhill Studios in Greenwich and, instead of sending demos to add to record labels’ cassette mountains, they had vinyl. They hired Anerley Town Hall to play their first gig to an invited audience of about 300.
Though the band faded, Peter had announced himself to the industry, while Zena was making a noise in fashion, making clothes for Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn and designing fetishwear with Vivienne Westwood.
Peter and Zena moved to Blackheath, sharing a house with Glenn Tilbrook, soon to be of Squeeze, and Christian Pope, a roadie who became a kind of butler to Peter. He also moved Lucinda in, one of his girlfriends. ‘I suppose the main attraction was that she loved drugs as much as me,’ he said.
Despite getting busted, the drugs business flourished and would involve deliveries of 60kg of hash at a time. Now a connoisseur, he liked to keep a selection at hand for personal use: Columbian grass, Nepalese Temple Balls, Afghani and Lebanese hash. Then he met some ‘importers’ who introduced him to pure cocaine. He found the stuff quite moreish, struck a deal and, even at £14 a gram made a massive profit.
Peter gradually put together the Only Ones and moved back to Forest Hill with Zena. The band recorded in Tooting and started gigging constantly. Lovers of Today quickly sold out and had to be hastily re-pressed. It brought them radio play, a John Peel session and a queue of record companies eager for their signatures. Keith Richards wanted to produce them, and, while their meetings were most notable for competitive coke snorting, at least something got done.
It’s easy to say with hindsight, but maybe a ten-album deal with CBS wasn’t what they needed then, when their contemporaries were working with sympathetic indie labels. Everyone loved Another Girl, Another Planet and the music press raved about their album but neither made a ripple in the charts. Something wasn’t right.
But the music and the drugs continued to flow. Zena’s sister Koulla moved in with the Perretts. ‘One thing you’ve got to learn before you move in here,’ Peter told her, ‘is to skin up.’ Like any good landlord should.
The more blunt the attempts at chart success became, the further away it seemed. Even the 12” blue vinyl release of probably the greatest song ever about a missing cat couldn’t propel them into the Top 40.
By their third album, Baby’s Got A Gun, the writing was on the wall. It got a lukewarm reception and more disappointing sales. They were a great live band who were just never going to break through. They were heading towards a split, while Peter’s heroin use was becoming more than a hobby.
They caught a break when asked to tour America with The Who, but got kicked off after a few dates, allegedly, because Roger Daltrey didn’t take to them on a personal level – surely a badge of honour given the shade of gammon he turned out to be.
The trip became a disaster and included a drugs bust, a mugging, a near-miss shooting and finally, a parking incident. A car park attendant got stroppy with Peter and ordered him to move his car. He responded by running the cunt over.
“He grabbed me by the collar. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s big guys who prey on little guys like me.”
It was probably best that they headed back to Blighty, avoiding charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, for a final triumphant gig at the Lyceum.
After the band split, Peter retreated to the crumbling, gothic house in Forest Hill’s Manor Mount, becoming a druggie recluse for the next 10 years. He re-emerged with a new band and album then disappeared again, battling heroin and crack addiction.
He lost his great friend, Johnny Thunders, it is assumed, to drugs, and had an ill-fated association with Pete Doherty. He was particularly unimpressed with the company he kept.
Peter told The Guardian: ‘In my day, being a drug dealer was a respectable fuckin’ profession. Nowadays, it’s something you really feel ashamed to be associated with, the way most junkies behave.’
Incredibly, given health and acrimony issues the Only Ones reformed and toured in 2007 before another retreat from the stage.
Peter popped up again to produce well-received solo albums in 2017 (How The West Was Won) and 2019 (Humanworld), displaying the same sure songwriting touch and a voice unwithered by age and the smoking of hard drugs. An unlikely survivor, he embarked on a successful European tour, backed up by a five-piece band that included his two sons, Jamie and Peter Jr.
All Music described Another Girl, Another Planet as ‘Arguably the greatest rock single ever recorded’ (though rock journalism is arguably the most hyperbolic medium ever recorded). Regardless, it was a cracker and is not the only one in their canon. The Only Ones influence dwarfs their brief reign, largely because of the songwriting of one South London rebel who has always done whatever the fuck he wanted, including losing decades to drugs.
Peter now lives in North London. His first mistake.
A version of this article was published by Sabotage Times in December, 2013.