Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The Only Ones

You can say a lot of things about The Only Ones, but you can’t accuse them of not being original. Too psychedelic for the punk scene, they were at the forefront of New Wave in the late 70s with their anthem ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, but their star burnt out in the white heat of touring and heroin addiction.

Singer and lyricist Peter Perrett, drummer Mike Kellie, guitarist John Perry and bassist Alan Mair went their separate ways in 1982, but this year sees the four back together for a short UK tour and a slot at the Nick Cave curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. Mair has been the driving force behind the current reunion, but he tells me that it was actually another long awaited reunion that proved the catalyst for getting The Only Ones back together. “A few years ago my first band The Beatstalkers’ singles were finally released as an anthology, and to mark the occasion we got back together for a gig at the Barrowland. Playing with them really got me thinking about how much I loved playing bass and how that’s really what I do best. Sony wanted to put a ‘Best of The Only Ones’ out, and I helped with the liner notes. After that I spoke to each of the other guys individually. Kellie said he’d do it, and John said he would but warned me that people had tried before and that I didn’t have much hope. Then I went to speak to Peter, and at first he was reluctant. He went out of the room for a bit, and after a while he came in and said, “Are you sure people want us back together?” I just laughed, and said “You need to get out more, Peter!”

Sony said they’d put up some money for us to get some rehearsal time if we were offered a gig and by the second day of playing together we sounded like The Only Ones again. When ATP got in contact it really happened. We’ve got a healthy musical appreciation for each other this time round, and Peter’s not a little spoilt boy any more. All the rumours about him collapsing are fallacies; he’s rehearsing four or five hours a day now.”

I get a clear impression that Mair is delighted to be back making music after the long hiatus. It should be no surprise, as he has been a rock star, on and off, since he was a teenager. “The Beatstalkers were kind of my school band, but the press called us Scotland’s first real pop stars. We dominated the Scottish pop scene at the time, but we didn’t get that much press attention until the riot in George Square in Glasgow. A few bands had put on open air concerts there, but they were quite serene affairs. We’d built up such a following during our touring that when we played thousands of fans turned up. The police were totally unprepared - I think there were two policemen there. The stage started to collapse and we had to abandon the show after a couple of songs. After that we were front page news in Scotland. Newspapers were asking “Who are The Beatstalkers?” so the major labels started to get interested and we moved to London. We got a residency at The Marquee Club, and I became mates with David Bowie, who at the time was a struggling songwriter and wrote three track for us.”

It was not to be for The Beatstalkers, however, and when they split Mair took an unusual career step – he became a clothes designer. “It began when The Beatstalkers were touring Germany and we ended up staying at this whorehouse. We didn’t realise what it was at first, but it was a lot of fun! The owner was a very trendy woman and she had this amazing pair of unusually cut leather trousers. You couldn’t get clothes like that anywhere, especially not in Scotland, so I made my own pair – it was Rock ’n’ Roll with a sewing machine! When the band split up, I started up my own business from my old manager Ken Pitt’s office. I thought Ken just wanted me there to answer the phones, little did I know that he fancied me! He looked like Clark Kent, I was so na├»ve I had no inkling he could be gay.” Pitt famously also managed Mair’s friend David Bowie. “Yeah, I became really good friends with David at this point, and he wrote ‘Little Bombadier’ for my son, Frankie, who always used to be with me around the office.”

Meanwhile, business was thriving. “A friend suggested that I get a stall at Kensington Market, and I did and it became very successful. There was a great atmosphere there, it was like the fashion side of the music industry. I met Freddie [Mercury] and Roger [Taylor] who ran a stall opposite, and as I became more successful I got Freddie to watch my stall, and then employed him when their stall had to close. Despite being hopeful that they’d be successful, Freddie was very self-effacing. That was one of the nice things about him. A lot of young songwriters are too eager to say that they’re great. I saw them play at their first gig at the Kensington Estate management halls. At the weekend we all used hang out at the Greyhound pub, which was a great haunt, everyone from Santana to Hurricane Higgins used to hang out there. This was back when Queen were still called Smile, and they were just…okay. I didn’t like to tell Freddie, but I wasn’t sure about them. Then I was driving to work one day and on the radio they played this fantastic single called ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’. When I got to the stall I told Freddie, “You won’t be working here much longer, you’ve got a hit single.”

Living in London, Mair was never far from the music scene. “London was an incredible place to be, I really pushed to move here when I was in The Beatstalkers. The music scene here meant that you could see amazing bands every night, like Hendrix or the Stones. The first gig I saw in London was The Who at the Marquee, and it was the most brilliant and mental night I’d ever seen, but to my astonishment they were smashing up their kit and I was just thinking, ‘No!! Our instruments were so precious to us! Over a period of time I lost touch with the music scene for a bit while I was working at the market, but one night a few of the guys from the market said they were going to go and see this guy called David Bowie. I was like, ‘How do you know who David Bowie is?’ I hadn’t seen him in about a year at this point. I went down to the show with them and talked my way backstage. I was walking along and heard David singing so I walked into his dressing room and there was Ziggy Stardust! I was just like ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ All my mates were shocked that I knew him, because by this point he’d become big. His show that night was inspiring. It was like ‘Fuckin’ Hell, a star is born!”

“Punk was fantastic, it got rid of all those super groups who were terrible. But I still remember the punks thinking we were hippies and the hippies thinking we were punks. If we were to fit into any definition then I suppose it would be New Wave, but really I think we were around at the wrong time. I think we’d have fitted in in the early 90s, when bands like Radiohead and the Stone Roses were coming through. We were never mentioned in the 80s, when people were playing ironing boards and weird stuff like that. It all changed from the nineties.”

“The best times for me were making the first record. The first single was ‘Lovers of Today’. The record companies weren’t interested so we put it out ourselves and it was record of the week everywhere. Then the labels got interested and we went into the studio, I remember when Peter wrote ‘Planet’, which is still such an exceptional song. Also, headlining The Roundhouse and playing festivals in places like Holland were fantastic.”

“For me, we split up because there were too many drug addicts in the band, but we were still having an amazing time musically. The last album was harder to make, and I almost quit after that, but then we got the chance to tour the States with The Who, and I thought, ‘A goodbye present!’ It was fabulous fun, but there were too many females giving the other guys drugs, to get that power over them. It seemed like everyone was on hard drugs, even the road crew.”

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