Friday, December 27, 2013

Only Ones -- "The Beast" (1978)

Out in the streets
The modern vampire prowls
He's been spreading disease

Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám contains these famous lines:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The same could be said of my humble second-generation iPod "Shuffle."  When it exercises its unfathomable logic to choose a song to play for me, neither my "Piety nor [my] Wit" (I don't have much of the former, and have much less of the latter than my vanity would have me believe) can cancel that song from my mind -- nor can all my tears (I do have more of those than you might think) wash out a word of its lyrics.

But there is one difference between Omar Khayyám's "Moving Finger" and my iPod.  Having played a song, my iPod does not necessarily move on.  If you hit the correct button, it will take you back to the beginning of that song -- over and over and over again . . . as many times as you wish.

When "The Beast" was served up to me by my iPod on one of my recent daily walks, I didn't move on at all.  In fact, I listened to it again and again -- eight or so times in a row.  If my walk hadn't ended when it did, I'm sure I would have kept listening.

My sentient iPod
This happens to me every so often.  When it does, I know what I need to do -- which is to get that bad boy up on 2 or 3 lines immediately.  Once I have done that, my "moving fingers" (I use two of them when I type) can move on -- more importantly, so can my little obsessive-compulsive brain.  

(Who am I kidding?  I don't really believe it's little at all.)

"The Beast" begins with a two-measure guitar figure, which is repeated eight times.  Lead singer Peter Perrett sort of comes out of nowhere to deliver the first verse:

Run from the beast
There's danger in his eyes
He's been looking for you
For a long time
You might think this is funny
But I'm not laughing

I'm not laughing either, and neither will you be laughing -- especially after you hear the second verse:

Out in the streets
The modern vampire prowls
He's been spreading disease
All around
There's an epidemic
If you don't believe me
You ought to take a look at the eyes of your friends

The image of the "modern vampire" prowling the streets and spreading disease is bad enough.  But what's most threatening is what you can see in the eyes of your friends.  If the epidemic is visible in the eyes of your friends, it's way too close to you for comfort.

The Only Ones (circa 1978)
The real problem is that the disease is not just dangerous but also seductive -- its victims open the door and invite the beast to come inside for a nice cuppa:

When someone tempts you, you can't refuse
It's getting colder and you know you got nothing to lose
You need it

Perrett then repeats the first verse (with a small variation), beseeching his audience once again to "run from the beast."  But his heart isn't really in it -- he knows that many will fail to heed his warnings:

You can lead a horse to water
But you can't make him drink

There's really nothing more to say, and the final line of the song -- which stands alone -- is a cry of despair uttered by a modern-day Cassandra whose prophecy is being ignored:

There's no cure!

That line is followed by an instrumental outro that features a searing guitar solo that always leaves me feeling a little drained, but nonetheless eager to go back to the beginning and the whole thing one more time.

Let's listen to the "The Beast" before discussing what it all means:

After hearing "The Beast" a couple of times, I jumped to the conclusion that it was about AIDS.  

That was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I lived in San Francisco from November 1980 until March 1982.  The city had a large population of gay males, and many of them were about as "out" as "out" could be in those days.  (There were many lesbians in San Francisco then as well, but as a group they were much less vocal and flamboyant about their sexuality.)

The bus I took to my office traversed Polk Gulch, which had been the city's most visibly gay neighborhood for a number of years.  (The neighborhood gets its name from Polk Street, which was jokingly referred to as "Poke Street" in those days.)  I remember riding past packed gay bars on my way home from work, and I particularly remember one local fetishwear store: Hard On Leather.

There was plenty of promiscuity in San Francisco in 1980 -- not only among gay males, of course, although they got most of the attention.  

But attitudes began to change shortly thereafter.  The reason for that, obviously, was AIDS -- acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

In April 1980, the first recognized case of AIDS in the United States was reported to the Center for Disease Control.  The victim was a young gay man.

Shortly after I arrived in San Francisco later that year, gay males began to die from AIDS. 

At first, the numbers were quite small.  In 1981, 121 Americans died from the disease.  In 1982, there were 618 deaths from AIDS.

AIDS awareness marchers in San Francisco (1983)
But in 1986, the death toll was 24,559 -- which rose to 156,413 in 1991 and 410,800 in 1998.  In 2004, 529,113 Americans died from AIDS.

I subsequently found out that "The Beast" was released in 1978.  So it could not have been about AIDS.  In fact, Peter Parrett was singing about drugs.

The band recorded three albums in as many years, but broke up a few months after touring the U.S. with the Who in 1980.  The primary reason for the band's demise?  Frontman Perrett's heroin addiction had a lot to do with it.  (Perrett later became a crack addict.)

From the British newspaper, The Guardian:

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. . . . 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 [Only Ones bassist Alan] 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."
The band reformed in 2006, which surprised many given the level of acrimony among the group's members when they broke up.  I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.  

Here's "The Beast" again:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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