Distortion of Wassily Kandinsky, In the Black Square, 1923

Art & Audience

What does the disjuncture between artistic success and commercial failure tell us about the nature of art and audiences, about the artist in the marketplace?

You can listen to the tracks in full with a registered Spotify account, which comes for free.

I

Released in 1979, the Only Ones’ Even Serpents Shine is a breath-takingly beautiful album. Yet commercially, by the standards of the music business, it went nowhere. What does this disjuncture between artistic success and commercial failure tell us about the nature of art and audiences, about the artist in the marketplace?

I lived in London in the late 1970s. I saw Annie Lennox fronting a band called The Tourists in the basement of a pub, I saw the Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Police, among many others, when they were up and coming. But the concerts that most blew me away were the ones by the Only Ones. The songs were magnificent, each one a jewel finely-faceted yet cut with nonchalance. Peter Perrett delivered vocals that welled up from some deep subterranean source, dark and slow like molasses, yet somehow luminous. The voice was the stamp of the band’s identity, the consecration of it sound, the affirmation that each song was drawn from the same source.

And thus the Only One’s music fulfilled the first condition of art: that however much it may draw on tradition, it must bring forth an authentic individuality; that however accomplished the craftsmanship, it must testify to something singular and thereby have something to say. The Only Ones’ artistic vision, supremely realized in Even Serpents Shine, was a clear, coherent one.

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart would rise from that pub basement to attain the stratosphere of commercial success as the Eurythmics, just as the Police would progress from hole-in-the-wall clubs to global stadiums. The Psychedelic Furs and Siouxsie and the Banshees, for their part, would go on to make a series of uncompromising albums and achieve more than a modicum of commercial success. All these bands, each in their own way, were excellent. They allied vision and charisma, musical inventiveness and marketing savvy, to draw in a big enough audience to qualify as having ‘made it’ in the music world.

When the eighties began I was back in Toronto, where in a walk-up club called the Edge I saw the Only Ones again. The songs were as brilliant, the performance as excellent, as when I’d seen the band in London—yet the audience wasn’t much bigger than a handful of people. After a final album delivered as the group was falling apart, they disbanded.

II

Creativity has been described as a ‘magic synthesis’, a strange brew that brings forth something new. Could commercial success also be a function of a magic synthesis, a potion whose perfume attracts an audience to an artist’s work? I’d say so. In rock ‘n roll, what ingredients might go into such a potion? And what might be the top, heart and base notes of its perfume?

How about timing (top notes), individuality (heart notes) and talent (base notes)? How about appetite for risk, willingness to sacrifice, and unshakeable self-belief? And personality, attitude and style? Or luck, persistence and hard work? Brew them all up! Now, as most rock artists work in bands, let’s throw group chemistry into the mix. And, while the importance of the record company and its A&R man/woman may be on the decline, the artist still needs the right people on his/her team: producer and engineer on the creative and technical side, manager for business and career vision, and various partners for different aspects of promotion.

The Only Ones had the heart notes and the base notes, the individuality and talent of our opening trio of ingredients, but what about timing, the top note? Many commentators say the band was out of sync with its times: Britain in dire recession threw up punks who spat out spleen at the classic ethos of rock. If most punk bands were but a flash in the pan, they nevertheless succeeded in blasting open a ‘sea of possibility’, one in which many groups would find their own voice and come to constitute the ‘new wave’. In this environment, the Only Ones came across as faithful to rock’s classic ethos, and therefore as outsiders: their songs, while utterly individual, had more in common with those of the Who, the Stones and the Kinks than with those of their new wave peers or the punks. Was it being out of time, then, that sealed the band’s commercial fate? If so, what does that say about audiences? Just how strong is the herd instinct and the trimmings that mark tribal identity? Are there historical moments when cultural literacy becomes a handicap, when the urge to consume novelty overrides the genuinely new? The Only Ones were poets in whom their predecessors ‘asserted their immortality most vigorously’ (to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase from ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’). Yet that was not, the timing argument goes, what the market wanted: The top note, the immediate effect of the perfume—musical sophistication, emotional depth, the fire and ice of love and sex— was a scent that did not please.

And what about the second trio of ingredients in our brew—appetite for risk (top note), willingness to sacrifice (heart note), unshakeable self-belief (base note)—how do the Only Ones score on these? The base note, the dry down, the long term effect of the perfume, was very strong: Peter Perrett had absolute self-belief, just as John Perry, Alan Mair and Mike Kellie never doubted the value of their difference. Strong, too, were the other notes here: the risk of individuality was fully assumed, as was the sacrifice of throwing pearls at swine on small-time tours. If risk, sacrifice and self-belief were enough, the Only Ones would have made it. Of course, just like individuality and talent, they are never enough.

As regards personality, attitude and style, Peter Perrett had them in abundance; the rest of the band were content to let their music-making speak for them. And luck, persistence and hard work? The Only Ones could have worked smarter, not harder, no doubt. They could have made their own luck, but didn’t. As for persistence, one only need listen to ‘My Way Out of Here’, from the last album, to understand they could no longer go on.

How significant was group chemistry, then, in the Only Ones failure to break through? Peter Perrett was a heroin addict but never descended to junkiedom; John Perry was a user too, but managed to avoid, in his own way, the ravages of dependence. Alain Mair and Mike Kellie turned their back on drugs. But more important than this division was that between songwriter and musicians. Peter Perrett wrote the songs; the band, working them through, arranged them. Yet the songwriting royalties went to Perrett alone. Consider, in contrast, the example of the Doors or U2. They were/are each four individuals who, despite the pre-eminence of Jim Morrison/Bono-Edge, forged themselves into one seamless artistic unit—and their accounts reflected that. Had Peter Perrett not monopolized the royalties, might the Only Ones have been able to give the commercial tide more time to turn?

And the last ingredients of our brew? The record label: At CBS, the Only Ones had no-one who understood what the band was about or watched out for their interests. Producer/Engineer: The band didn’t need anyone to give them a sound or translate their ideas: they could do that themselves. Manager: Zena Kakoulli was an excellent manager, but as Perrett’s wife she inevitably lacked both the distance (for less spur-of-the-moment decision-making) and the resources (to take a longer-term view of ‘career-building’) than an outside manager might have had. Promotion: Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland dyed their hair blonde; Annie Lennox was endlessly creative in cultivating her androgynous look. Siouxsie out-punked the punks and launched Gothic style; the Psychedelic Furs wore black. Trivial, perhaps, but could it be that a look may suffice to get the commercial ball rolling? Promotion comes in multifarious forms—look, interviews, advertising—and there CBS and the band could have been more enterprising.

III

The Only Ones, then, were a heady perfume, a blend of champagne cognac and smouldering coals, eros, death and belladonna. Through a glass darkly their music saw the godhead, and instead of bowing down, defied it. And yet they never found an audience to make them commercially viable. The late seventies were not spiritual times; the Only Ones were a shaman, and so a band out of time.

And yet, when it comes to art and audience, I can’t help feeling that no one single ingredient could account for commercial failure. The magic synthesis that makes art and audience find each other—who could ever pin down the genie that presides over it? Is it, in the end, a genie as mysterious as that ‘mystery in a bottle’ we call perfume? At any rate,  however elusive the scent of ‘success’, artistically the scent of the Only Ones has a very long dry down: Almost forty years on, the music is as fresh and vital, as moving and shamanic, as ever.

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2017 | All rights reserved

Share onShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn