In the annals of rock & roll, sitting neatly between all the one-hit wonders and equally long roll call of has-beens, is a select bunch of never-weres; those much-hyped, critically acclaimed acts that, against all odds and for a variety of reasons, only ever achieved cult status in place of the success that initially appeared to be theirs for the taking. Moby Grape was a prime example, Big Star was another, and right up there with them were the Only Ones, a band of power-pop new-wavers whose non-hit single 'Another Girl, Another Planet' would influence subsequent generations long after their own demise.
In essence, the song is a wonderfully cohesive amalgamation of seemingly disparate forces: the energy and exuberance of John Perry's soaring guitar solos and the powerful rhythm section of Alan Mair's bass and Mike Kellie's drums, underpinning composer Pete Perrett's whiny, languid vocals and doom and gloom lyrics about drugs, death and confrontational love — "I always flirt with death, I look ill, but I don't care about it. I can face your threats, stand up straight and tall and shout about it... Space travel's in my blood, and there ain't nothing I can do about it."
Released as a single from the Only Ones' impressive, eponymous 1978 debut album, 'Another Girl, Another Planet' disappeared without trace and quickly dragged the group's unrealised fortunes with it. Yet, in the wake of covers by Greg Kihn, the Replacements, the Lightning Seeds, the Mighty Lemon Drops, Blink 182 and Babyshambles, not to mention an 83 ranking in Q magazine's list of the '100 Greatest Guitar Tracks' and being placed at 18 in John Peel's millennium-edition 'All-Time Festive 50', the track has finally earned its creators some much-deserved recognition, courtesy of their recording being used in a 2006 Vodafone commercial.
"Most people think we're a brand-new band, and the outpouring of affection really has taken all of us by surprise," says bass player/producer Alan Mair.
Although Mair never requested a production credit for the first album and didn't get one, there's a consensus among all involved that he did fulfill that role.
"From the start, I really took care of most of the aspects of recording," he says, "whether it was dealing with Peter's vocals, deciding on guitar parts or getting extra musicians to play things. And when I got credited on the second record, that was for doing the same work as I did on 'Planet' and the first album."
Hailing from Glasgow, in his teens Alan Mair started a band named the Beatstalkers while still at school, and this became Scotland's biggest pop sensation of the mid-to-late '60s. Then, in August 1976, following a spell away from the business, he joined the Only Ones, having been won over partly by the other band members' passion for their own music, and also by their demo recordings of three Perrett-penned tracks, one of which, 'Out There in the Night', was a love song about his cat.
"When I listened to that number I really heard the nuances and tone of Peter's voice, as well as the lyrical content, and I thought, 'Wow, this is bloody great songwriting,'" Mair now recalls. The six-month search for a bass player on the part of Perrett, Perry and Kellie was finally over.
"At the start everyone was very optimistic and there was a lot of real heartfelt camaraderie," Mair continues. "We felt that what we were doing was quite special, and although people weren't jumping to sign us, after we recorded 'Lovers of Today' at Basing Street and put it out on our own label it was acclaimed as 'Record of the Week' in most of the music press. Listening to it now I can tell why it took people by surprise, it was very different, very innovative.
"After rehearsing every day for six months, we went out and played our first gig at the Greyhound pub in Fulham, and you could just tell that people thought something special was going to happen. Almost immediately there was a buzz, with the key writers for the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds all giving us amazing write-ups, and when we headlined the Roundhouse in Camden Town, supported by Eddie and the Hotrods, a lot of people definitely got it. We were so innovative, so different. It was like we were going to conquer the world."
The 'Lovers of Today' single sold about 28,000 copies through independent distribution, and soon there was a bidding war between the major record companies to secure a long-term deal. While the likes of Peter Perrett were attracted to the magic orange CBS label whose roster included Bob Dylan, Island's Chris Blackwell flew to Doncaster to beg the band members to sign with him. In the end, CBS won out, but not before the Only Ones had begun recording tracks in Kent, at the Escape Studio facility of John Burns.
A Birmingham native, Burns had landed a job as a tape-op at London's Morgan Studios in 1968, thanks to the efforts of former college classmate Andy Johns, who was then the chief engineer there. Morgan handled all of Island's recordings, and it was there that Burns had cut his musical teeth assisting on sessions with Humble Pie, Jethro Tull, Blodwyn Pig, Ten Years After, Donovan, King Crimson and Spooky Tooth, whose drummer was one Mike Kellie.
Burns' first full engineering assignment was to record an Italian version of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', and by 1971 he'd signed a freelance deal with Island Records to work at London's Basing Street (now Sarm West) Studios, while also taking care of other projects. Thereafter, he'd co-produced three albums with Genesis: Live, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway — prior to acquiring Escape in 1975 and, during his two-year tenure, recording Junior Marvin, Motorhead, Eric Clapton/Ginger Baker and the Only Ones.
"Johnnie had been recommended to us as a really good guy, a great guy and very switched-on," Mair explains, "and since we wanted to record outside of London, Escape seemed a logical place to go. At that point, we were paying for the sessions ourselves, and in September 1977 we recorded 'Oh No', 'The Whole of the Law', 'Special View', 'Breaking Down' and 'Another Girl, Another Planet'."
'Oh No' and 'Special View (AKA Telescopic Love)' would make their way onto later albums, but in the meantime Mair first heard 'Planet' when Perrett played it on guitar during pre-Escape rehearsals at Manno's Studios on the King's Road, and he was "just blown away".
"It was more or less complete, with maybe one or two lines of lyrics to fill in, and it also didn't have the long intro," Mair recalls. "That was created by the band. The basic format of the song was all there — the chords, verses and chorus — and, as with all of Peter's material, we worked through it until everything fitted. There are actually some demo recordings of 'Planet', done at Manno's, and when we got to Escape we didn't think, 'Right, let's get the tape ready, let's roll.' We would just play until we felt comfortable, and then, without telling the other guys in the band that we were about to record, I would nod at John to kind of say, 'We're going to play for serious now.'
"John's a master at that. I mean, there's nothing worse than doing a song and then turning to the engineer and saying, 'Did you get that?' only to find out it's gone. I'm a great believer in magic happening occasionally. On the first day it was kind of obvious that we were just talking and playing little bits of the song, but after that I gave John the nod, and when Peter started I spontaneously came in with the bass on the offbeat. I don't know where that inspiration came from, because on all of the rehearsal tapes I was playing on the downbeat. In this case, however, I came in on the offbeat and I thought, 'Yeah.' I kind of nodded at Kellie to make sure he wasn't just watching us without intending to come in on drums, thinking that we were running through it without doing a full take. So Kellie came in and then John came in, and more or less that whole introductory guitar part was done straight off. The entire song went beautifully after that, and it crystallised into a much more powerful version than we'd played before."
Looking out from the control room, Johnnie Burns could just about see Mike Kellie's Ludwig drum kit on the left side and a grand piano was to the right, while directly in front of him were Alan Mair's Fender Precision bass, going through an Ampeg SVT amp; John Perry's Fender Strat, plugged into a Custom amp; and Peter Perrett's Telecaster, going through a Marshall.
"In terms of the drums, I had different mic techniques," Burns explains. "If, for instance, it was a good-sounding kit and a good drummer, which Kellie was, I'd only use four mics; an AKG D12, D20 or D25 on the bass drum, an AKG 224 on the snare, and Neumann U87s on the floor toms and top kit. Generally, I also put a live mic up on a boom, right above everything, but invariably I wouldn't use it. I mean, say you just laid down drums, bass and guitar, if you put the live mic up the band would go, 'Wow, what a sound!' But then, when all the other layers were added, including keyboards, percussion and vocals, you tended not to need it. What it did was add atmosphere so that the session would kick off with a feeling of 'Bloody hell, what a sound!' and get everyone motivated. Occasionally I've used the live mic on records, but generally I'd get rid of it in the mix because of all the spill from the guitars and so forth.
"I had so many 87s, I could have miked everything. It depended on the drummer. If he said, 'Can't I have a mic on there?' and I wasn't producing, I might go, 'Oh, OK then.' Again, I could always lose it in the mix. And although it wasn't necessary with Mike Kellie, sometimes I'd have to dampen the snare with a cigarette packet and a piece of masking tape. It depended on the band; if it was largely acoustic then I might do that to attain a less harsh sound. Occasionally, with bad drummers we'd have to put some tape on the bottom skin and on the top skin, or even have to tune the kit for them, and after a couple of hours of doing that and trying to get a good sound it would be a case of, 'I can't hear anything any more. Let's go down the pub.'
"Sometimes, I'd use an AKG 451 with an 87 when recording acoustic guitar. The combination of those two produced an absolutely brilliant sound. On 'Another Planet', the bass was recorded with a mic and DI — I probably used an AKG D20 — while for the guitars I used Neumann 87s or U67s. I love Neumanns, so one of those would have been a couple of feet away from the cabinet and then there'd be a Shure or an AKG right against the speaker. Working 16-track, I'd have gone with a blend of the two or decided on one or the other. It was great that you had to make decisions... I also used a Shure to record Pete's guide vocals."
Although Burns' philosophy is that every recording's a potential master unless it can be improved upon, at this stage the Only Ones simply thought they'd made a great demo of 'Another Girl, Another Planet' and departed Escape with a cassette copy of this and the two other tracks committed to tape. After all, once the CBS deal was signed in December 1977, they would have the money to pay for a bigger, better-equipped 24-track facility that, they assumed, would enable them to make a bigger, better-sounding record. What they apparently didn't consider were the non-technological aspects that are also intrinsic to the creative process. And so it was that, the following April, sessions commenced at Basing Street with engineer Robert Ash, who'd previously recorded 'Lovers of Today', sitting behind a Helios Type 69 console.
"We continued recording 'Planet' and did several different versions, in between working on other songs," Alan Mair says. "At the end of the day, we probably had three takes to work with, but I remember sitting there, thinking, 'These just don't feel right.' I told the guys in the band, 'This isn't as good as the demo. We haven't captured that magic.' It didn't jump out of the speakers in the same way. There was no spark. When I brought the cassette in and played it, everyone agreed. We'd hit that point, and I believe you only achieve that magic once."
"It's all about atmosphere," Johnnie Burns asserts. "We did fart around and have some fun. If you're recording, it shouldn't be too damned serious, and the Only Ones were a pleasure to work with. The whole thing was simple; two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. Bang-bang. It was easy, and so you could muck around with effects and have a bit of a laugh."
Indeed, one effect that the Only Ones didn't know how to recreate, along with the aforementioned magic, was some juddering feedback on the drums at the start of the track. "I was always doing things like that," says Burns, who subsequently left the business for about 20 years, before returning to the studio with Bristol-based rock outfit JEBO, in 2004. "I fed the drums back on themselves, routing the toms' signal from the playback head onto the sync head. Obviously, I didn't put it through the headphones, because otherwise Mike would have said, 'What the hell's going on?', but when the guys heard it in the control room they all thought it was great. It just happened to be on that take, and I probably put it on a separate track just in case it ended up being the actual master and this might screw it up. You see, nothing's a demo to me. I don't do demos."
The Only Ones quickly came to appreciate this mindset. After they'd listened to the cassette, Alan Mair decided they would have to get hold of the 16-track, transfer it to 24-track and then see if they could develop things from there. Not that this turned out to be straightforward either.
"We sent the roadies to pick up the 16-track tape and bring it back to Basing Street, but it wouldn't play on the machine they had there and everything sounded muffled," Mair recalls. "Obviously, the heads were aligned differently to those on Johnnie's machine, and no matter how much we fiddled about we couldn't get it to sound right. In a moment of desperation I told the roadies, 'You're gonna have to go back to Escape and pick up the 16-track machine.' They went, 'Oh, fucking hell, Alan', and I said, 'No, look, this is really important.' So off they went, back down to Johnnie, and Johnnie was like, 'You're not bloody taking my machine away! What, on the back of your van? Sod off, you must be joking!'"
They weren't, but Burns knew what he was talking about; not only was the machine expensive, but its head alignment would be thrown out of whack anyway, following a bumpy ride from Kent to London. Mair continues the story:
"He called me and said, 'Alan, all I need to do is a tone tape for you. Trust me, it'll be OK.' I said, 'C'mon, Johnnie, let them take the machine,' but he insisted: 'I'll put some tones onto a tape and then the engineers can realign the machine in Basing Street.'"
Which is what happened.
"It felt like an eternity," Mair now remarks, "but when they put the 16-track on, there in all its glory was 'Planet', pounding out of the speakers, and it was like heaven. It just sounded fantastic. A complete performance with no splices; pure rock & roll, from the first note to the last. And then, when we did the transfer to 24-track, that gave us eight tracks to make some additions. First off, Peter did the proper vocal, because we knew what he'd done was just a guide and, since he hadn't been spot-on the mic all the time, it needed improving. Then John added a second guitar, a harmony guitar over the intro, and there's also a Hammond organ part that doesn't always jump out at everyone, played by Peter. Other than that, there were a couple of double-tracked vocal parts on the chorus, and at that point we decided, OK, we've got the master, now let's start mixing.
"The live room was about 35 feet long by 16 feet wide," Johnnie Burns recalls. "It was an old Kent barn, and we had problems with the soundproofing. One end of the room had a very high ceiling, and that was used for the drums, while the rest was about eight foot high. With the royalties I'd earned from Genesis I bought all this equipment second-hand from Steve Marriot and various other places, because I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted quality.
"The control room was large, roughly 17 by 17 feet, and I was quite happy with 16-track. You could do a lot on it. Sometimes 24-track was necessary, but you could get by with 16. In fact, I remember when we went from eight to 16, some people were saying 'You only need 12'. Four tracks of drums was plenty in my book, and when it was eight-track we had three tracks of drums. The kit would be in stereo with the bass drum separate.
Here's a brief run-down of the equipment at Escape:
16-track Studer A80 tape machine and remote control.
Helios custom 32-channel console; based on a 24-channel desk linked with an extra eight-channel desk bought from Basing Street Studios when they upgraded their editing suite, with eight groups and 16 monitor channels. The Helios was previously owned by Johnnie Burns' old friend, Steve Marriot.
Two Urei 1176 FET compressors; Roland echo delay; Revox A77, useful for tape effects/delays; various other de-essers/compressors.
Tannoy Red monitors in Lockwood cabinets, hanging from ceiling on rails, powered by a 700W Crown Amplifier; Auratone monitors on desk.
Studer B62 two-track mastering machine; Studer C37 two-track recorder (ex-BBC).
About 30 microphones, including eight Neumann U87s ("For electric guitar, vocals and overheads"), two valve Neumann U67s, AKG 451 ("Good for acoustic guitar and hi-hat, very directional"), AKG 224E ("Good for snare"), AKG D12, AKG D20 and AKG D25 ("All good for toms, bass drum and bass guitar"), some Neumann pencil mics (bass) and several Shures.
"I was very hands-on, so Robert Ash and I set up a mix session, the whole band was there, and I said, 'Because of the way it was recorded, I just can't get any separation between the bass drum and snare. That means I can't get the bass drum totally on its own to compress it and do what I want, I can't get the snare drum on its own, and so I'm really handicapped in terms of getting the drums to sound powerful enough.' Kellie, to my astonishment, just said, 'Oh, I'll put another kit on top of it.' I said, 'You can do that?' and he said, 'Yeah'. I said, 'What, matching the drum breaks, the tempo and all the tiny variations?' He said, 'Sure'. I said, 'But can you even remember every break that you played?' We were talking about a recording that had been made about six months earlier. He said, 'Yeah, no problem', and so I said, 'OK then, let's go for it.'
"We were only at Basing Street for two weeks, working on that first album, and everything was set up for the recording of the other tracks, and so Kellie sat down at his kit and off he went, and within a few seconds we were all looking at each other like, 'Bloody hell!' It was spot-on. Then about three-quarters of the way through, there was a little click of his sticks and he kind of lost his feel. Our hearts just sank. We all went, 'Oh, no! Kellie, that was perfect...' and he just went, 'It's okay, I'll do it again.' I was looking at him like, 'I can't believe this,' but then he did a second take and it was absolutely bloody perfect; his own kit on top of his kit, not the tiniest bit of phasing, nothing. I said, 'Kellie, that's blown me away. What you've just done is absolutely phenomenal.' And that's how rock-solid Mike Kellie is.
"When you listen to 'Another Planet', you're actually hearing two kits. Not only was the ambience of the first kit an integral part of the sound, but to get the feel there was obviously no way he could just play the bass drum and the snare. With the two kits on separate tracks, the new kit was at the front insofar as the snare and the bass drum, while the crash cymbals and other bits and pieces were at an equal volume, but we certainly didn't pull the other kit back or submerge its ambience, as there was natural overspill from the bass and guitars recorded at Escape. If we'd have taken the first kit out we'd have lost part of the dynamics. What's more, that kit also had the backwards reverb at the start. The point was, I now had a very clear bass drum and a very clear snare drum to do a really good mix. When I think about what Kellie did, it still sends chills up my spine. That's what saved the track, because if we hadn't added the second kit I don't think it could have been released."
As it turned out, 'Another Girl, Another Planet' did the see the light of day very quickly, before fading into the dark, along with the album that bore the group's name.
"It was a spectacular song, captured for eternity, but it just couldn't get airplay," Mair remarks. "It didn't take much to figure out it was about drugs, but stations like Capital Radio were supposed to be innovative and different, and what about songs like 'Golden Brown'? That just shocked me. In my mind, there was no question: we were in line for a number one record, and had it been playlisted like everything else then I think it would have achieved that. At the time, our live following was growing and we never ever sat down and went, 'Oh, God, it's terrible that 'Planet' isn't a hit,' but I think deep down we were all really shocked."
An equally credible second album, Even Serpents Shine, was released in 1979, but thereafter — despite Mair's own sobriety — drugs, despondency and disputes consumed the band during the recording of their third and final studio effort, the Colin Thurston-produced Baby's Got A Gun, and by the end of 1981 it was all over.
"For us, it was very much a case of the wrong place at the wrong time," Mair says. "Bands with drug connections were bad news, and I'm sure that's how CBS saw it. And musically we also had no connection to what was going on; hippies didn't know if we were punks, and punks didn't know if we were hippies, so we were out on a limb. Throughout the '80s, hardly anyone mentioned the band to me, but then, during the early '90s, when guitar bands like Radiohead, House of Love, Inspiral Carpets and the Stone Roses were coming in, there was clearly a change of climate. So if you could actually take the '80s out of the way, the Only Ones might have survived."
Fast-forward to 2006, when Mair was once again playing bass in the studio and on the road with the re-formed Beatstalkers. The Vodafone ad was out there and everyone kept asking him about the Only Ones. Thus the seed was planted in his mind that maybe this was also the time to ask Peter, John and Mike about getting back together. This became a reality when a concert promoter came forward with a solid offer, backed by tour support from Sony Records. Their reunion gig took place at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead on April 27th, 2007; other shows have been lined up, the back catalogue has been remastered, and a new album is now being considered.
"Those first two Only Ones albums are timeless and organic," Alan Mair says "and that's why I think 'Planet' has caught on with young people. It doesn't have gimmicks, it just has a great sound. In fact, when I originally mixed it, I started with Pete's guitar quite low, and then it gradually got louder along with the bass, so there was quite an impact when the rest of the band came in, with John playing the solo. Back then, I never realised the intro, with the bass and that backwards reverb on the drums, would be regarded as such an important part of the song, so for the remastering I raised Peter's initial guitar by about 8dB. It comes in much, much louder, more at the level of the rest of the song, and then the bass comes in louder as well. When the albums were transferred to CD during the 1990s, they were mastered at a really low level, so the whole song is now louder and it just feels right."
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