Alexis Petridis on the reunion of the band the Only Ones

Is this the most drug-addled band in history? As 1970s hellraisers the Only Ones reform, Alexis Petridis unravels a tale of smuggling, drive-by shootings - and great music

In the back room of his nondescript terraced house in south London, Peter Perrett squints at a computer monitor. He gestures helplessly to his son, Peter Jr, a former member of Babyshambles and these days bassist in a band called Love Minus Zero alongside his brother, Jamie. "I don't have a clue how to work this," protests his father, weakly. His speaking voice sounds surprisingly like the voice you hear singing on records by his former band the Only Ones. A nasal south London drawl, it was perfect for doing petulance or spite or flippant indifference, which was just as well, given the Only Ones' penchant for songs called things like Why Don't You Kill Yourself? and No Peace for the Wicked. "I always flirt with death, I'll get killed but I don't care about it," sneered Perrett, on their most famous track, Another Girl Another Planet, heralded by website All Music Guide as "arguably the greatest rock single ever recorded", and recently adopted by Vodafone to advertise its pay-as-you-talk packages, an unlikely fate for a song assumed to be about heroin.

Today, his voice isn't doing petulance or flippant indifference, but bewildered middle-aged dad. Peter Jr comes to the rescue, and the screen bursts into life, showing grainy super-8 footage of the Only Ones in their prime, playing live in America in 1980. A startling shock of rock-star hair aside, it is almost impossible to equate the figure onscreen with the figure in the room this afternoon.

The guy strutting across the stage in Minneapolis is bare-chested and implausibly handsome. The guy peering at the computer in Norwood looks like he's been painted by Edvard Munch. For Perrett, who turns 55 on Sunday, the intervening 27 years have been largely consumed by addiction, first to heroin, then to crack, and while it seems to have had no effect on his conversation - he's funny, quick-witted and disarmingly frank - he is, by his own admission, "in a bad way, physically".

"When they first broached the subject of an Only Ones reunion, I said even if I wanted to do it, it's a physical impossibility," he sighs. "I'd done a couple of appearances with the kids and I had to go off after every two songs to get some oxygen in my lungs."

And yet the Only Ones reunion is happening, prompted, says bassist Alan Mair, by a wave of interest in the band. The Only Ones were never exactly overburdened by commercial success - their biggest album, 1980's Baby's Got a Gun, scraped to number 37 - but their influence has far outstripped their meagre record sales. In recent years, their songs have been covered by everyone from Blink 182 to Belle and Sebastian and the Libertines, while Another Girl, Another Planet has inspired a US film. Another factor, Perrett insists, are the "various confrontations with mortality": drummer Mike Kellie has suffered a serious illness, while Perrett's wife, Zena, has an incurable lung disease.

Despite Perrett's reservations, rehearsals have apparently been going swimmingly. "It sounds remarkable," says Mair, and the MP3s posted on guitarist John Perry's MySpace site seem to bear him out. The quartet sound pretty much as they did at their peak: a mass of wiry, intricate guitar lines and vocals oozing hauteur. "I'm surprised," chuckles Perrett, "because I can actually stand up at the end of a song now."

Perrett is not alone in being surprised by the Only Ones' reunion. Even a music press positively spoilt for legendary bands reforming in the last few years has been caught off guard by the news the band are back, first to play the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, then to embark on a tour.

"This is an improbable reunion," gasped one heritage rock magazine, describing the band's return as "one of the most unlikely events in recent rock history". The shock is partly fuelled by the level of intra-band acrimony that accompanied their demise in 1981 ("you've probably read a lot of 'over my dead body' quotes," muses Mair), but mostly to do with Perrett's reputation as one of rock's great recluses. After the band split, he vanished from public view. Sequestered in a crumbling gothic house in Forest Hill that he fortified against police raids, Perrett took and dealt heroin.

At one stage, a friend, horrified to discover the state the singer was in, urged him to get his act together. This wouldn't be surprising were it not for the fact that the friend was the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, perhaps rock's most infamous and unrepentant junkie. "I fully intended to carry on with music, but I was determined not to do anything until I conquered my drug habit," he says. "Looking back on it now, that was probably a mistake, because it was like a chicken and egg situation. I didn't listen to music or have anything to do with music. In my head I was going to beat the drug problem. But if you don't beat the drug problem, you're just denying yourself something that was a major part of your life. Playing music would probably help you beat it."

Periodic attempts to rouse him from his torpor failed. In the early 90s, he briefly cleaned up and formed a band called The One, but that foundered after a solitary album: "I began dabbling in crack again. Smack was the thing I was scared of. I didn't realise crack was a million times worse than smack." More recently, there was a collaboration with Pete Doherty that seems to have ended badly. Mention of his name sets Perrett off on a heartfelt rant about declining standards of morality among drug addicts. "Junkies nowadays are really disgusting," he huffs, genuinely outraged. "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."

Drugs are a topic almost impossible to avoid when talking about the Only Ones. Plenty of rock bands have taken drugs, but the Only Ones' story is utterly bound up with them. Initially, the band were partly funded by Perrett's dealing: he was first spurred to commit their music to tape when he thought he was going to prison after his hash-selling operation was busted in 1976. Their songs came replete with narcotic references. One book on the band claims John Perry's guitar sound was altered dramatically by his decision to hollow out the instrument to smuggle drugs through customs while on tour. And drugs eventually brought about their demise, during a disastrous US tour during which, Perrett says, "lots of stupid things happened".

For once, his frankness slips into charming understatement: the "stupid things" involved Perrett contracting hepatitis, getting caught up in a drive-by shooting and deliberately running over a car park attendant and fleeing the country shortly before a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

"Because I loved the music so much, I put up with the drugs for a long time," says Mair, who remained the solitary rock of sobriety in the band. "But towards the end of that tour, it became evident that everybody was taking the same drugs except me, and I just thought, that's enough. My future was in the hands of people who had lost the plot."

None of the stories of debauchery would count for much had the music the Only Ones made not been remarkable, but it was. Although flawed, their three albums all boast dazzling, transcendent moments. Whether Another Girl Another Planet really is the greatest rock single ever is a matter of some debate, but its failure to become an enormous worldwide hit is an enduring mystery. Mair claims radio stations refused to play it, fearful of the song's drug references, while Perrett blames their former record company. They should, he says, have signed to one of the other labels that courted them after their debut single Lovers of Today, although you do wonder a bit at the logic behind his other favourites: he praises bosses of two other record companies because they were willing to take drugs with him. One over-indulged so much in Perrett's company that he passed out. "That's good," he nods, "because you've seen the head of the company at his most vulnerable. It's not like he's some distant figure in a limousine."

But there's also the sense that the Only Ones never really fitted in with the punk era. For one thing, they were skilled musicians, for another, Perrett aside, the members were older than your average punk, a cardinal sin during punk's scorched earth policy. Perry was balding, Kellie had been the drummer in bluesy prog rock band Spooky Tooth. Mair was 29 when the band formed in 1976. He had already quit the Beatstalkers, a 60s band who inspired Beatlemania-ish scenes in Scotland on the grounds that he was too old to be in a rock band, and turned his attentions to fashion instead (a pre-fame Freddie Mercury was among the employees on his Kensington Market stall). He feels the band's peculiarities may account for their music's longevity. "It's sort of timeless, which is why I think the records are still accessible."

Now, there is talk of a new album: it's admittedly tentative, but even a few months ago, it would have been unthinkable. Even Perrett, perhaps understandably not one of life's optimists, seems more sanguine than you might expect about the future. "It's a step into the total unknown for me, but it's fun. If it was just me, it would be stupid to even talk about what's going to happen tomorrow." He looks at Mair and smiles. "But because you're around, I'll get there, won't I?"

· The Only Ones play All Tomorrow's Parties, Minehead Butlins, on April 27. Their tour begins on June 1 at Manchester Academy 2


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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