Hazel asked me in podcast 3 (the punk one) to name two pieces of punk writing that had had an impact on me as I first began to buy and read the music papers, so naturally I plumped for two pieces that ran somewhat before that (meaning, I suppose, that though I wasn’t thinking of this as I named them, that the impact was as large as it was despite being indirect). One was Tony Parsons’ ‘Thinking Man’s Yobs’ NME cover story on The Clash from March 1977, a key marker in punk’s evolution: from here on, the music mattered because it was political, the voice of unschooled dole-queue youth — or at least you had to push back hard if you wanted to read it another way) [Footnote 1]. The second is from nine months early, same paper, June 1976: Mick Farren’s polemic ‘The Titanic Sails at Dawn’.
Parsons is well known today, of course, if increasingly regrettable — and The Clash piece doesn’t currently seem to be on the internet (even under subscription lock-and-key at Rock’s Backpages). The ‘Titanic’ piece is at RBP, and The Guardian (link above) and elsewhere, and I’ll talk about it in a minute. The cognoscenti (= the very extremely old) know Farren’s name perhaps, but he’s fallen out of the rockwrite pantheon — to the extent that the path his life took seems a little unexpected, given what we think we know about rock and its aftermaths. So here’s a quick resumé.
Born in 1943 in Cheltenham, he moved to London in 1963 to study at St Martin’s College. He formed The Social Deviants (later just The Deviants) in 1967, as the voice of the Ladbroke Grove underground scene — their activities as much (anti)social as (anti)musical — and recorded the LP Ptooff! that same year, a strikingly unapologetic white-boy blooze-lout whatchumacallit statement. Its producer Steve Sparks once called it the “worst record in the history of man”; certainly it was the start to a long (if sometimes intermittent) recording career which continued till the year of Farren's death.
And he wrote and he organised and he made mischief. Wrote: 23 novels (genre=Hawkwindish SF mostly), plus 11 other books and lots of poetry. Organised: 1970’s Phun City festival (no fences, no entry fee, hells angel security; for line-up see footnote). The chief (and possibly the only) activist for the UK wing of the White Panthers (possibly as a result also briefly questioned after the first Angry Brigade bombings). Mischief: bringing a chaotic lawless absurdist free-speech overthrow-everything energy to the underground paper IT — the original Thinking Man’s Yob goosing that magazine’s somewhat posh and nerdy and nervous boys towards trying something a bit more exciting, sometimes. He would also shepherd its comix offshoot, Nasty Tales, through a UK obscenity trial to a historically important not-guilty verdict. (This in 1973, the year he began writing for NME, a rock paper largely read by teenagers…)
By the 80s, when his idea of the underground was already distant and dispersed, he would flee to the US and Hollywood, of all places — where legend says he made a fortune scriptwriting, before losing it all and returning to the UK to live out his last few years. He died of a heart attack on 27 July, 2013, aged 69, while singing on-stage with the Deviants (as the band played ‘Cocaine and Gunpowder’). More than any other event his death catalysed this project — because I realised the people I needed most to talk to weren’t all going to be around forever.
And also because, at a heightened moment in among all this, he had had a fling with a much younger Julie Burchill — he was 34, she was half that — which ended in tears (for him) when Burchill’s lusty future husband Mr T. Parsons spotted kink-derived bruises on her arms and bloodied Farren’s nose there in the NME office . Farren quit the paper, quit punk, and shortly quit the country .
So that’s the before-and-after of ‘The Titanic Sails at Dawn’, which warns that the ideals of the late 60s, at least as ferried on the vast expensive well-accoutred engine of the entertainment industry, were not safe! Because said engine is about to hit an iceberg! Said iceberg being (apparently) the exasperated NME readership — well, like dinosaurs, the Titanic is rarely a metaphor that bears up under examination.
Most of all, despite its rep as the rabble-shout that sparked the revolution, its tone is a long strange way away from the kinds of rescue-wreckage mission-invasions he had visited on IT (or the Isle of Wight festival). Earnest and melancholy, it's a summary of a confusion: how did we get to where we are (and where actually are we)? How did a “vibrant, vital music” made in “small, sweaty clubs” become The Stones at Earls’ Court (May 76), The Who in Charlton Football Ground (ditto), Bowie at Wembley Pool (June) — not to mention Rod and Mick schmoozing with the Royals and Bowie seemingly flirting with fascism? Farren does worry at this last (his good friend and NME colleague Charles Shaar Murray was close to Bowie) — but judging by the shape of the piece, it’s the encroachment of these glitzy showbiz layers that actually alarms him. Bowie, he notes sardonically, is at least thinking ahead: and the ritzy white spectre stalking rock is Liz Taylor-shaped. Via the upper moneyed layers of the rock aristocracy, Princess Margaret has somehow simply absorbed his beloved anarcho-scruff people's movement.
Let's dig into the argument a bit.
Quote 1: “From the blues onwards, the essential core of the music has been the rough side of humanity. It's a core of rebellion, sexuality, assertion and even violence. All the things that have always been unacceptable to a ruling establishment. Once that vigorous, horny-handed core is extracted from rock and roll, you're left with little more than muzak.” This was the most basic rock and roll ideology: the idea that sex and dance and music-noise can shake the wall of the citadel, and cause princes to tremble. Just two years later, younger writers (as goaded by pranksters like McLaren) were no longer at all so sure. The call to untrammelled sexual freedom was often — at a minimum — problematic, and couldn’t the noise be turned into a distraction, a palliative even? Yes, the Las Vegas lounge crowd might wrinkle their nostrils, but did those who actually ran things care either way?
Quote 2: “One major lesson can be learned from the 60s (…) is that the best, most healthy kind of rock and roll is produced by and for the same generation” (my itals). Again, a tale rock very routinely comforted itself with: that only within the solidarity of a narrow age-range can the best attitudes flourish. Except for Farren, it's stopped being a comfort. It probably wasn't entirely evident to him at the time, but this op ed declaration is him quietly stepping away from of the ship’s bridge. Enabling his own immolation by handing control of the ship's wheel to the, erm, wellm the iceberg (this metaphor is so bad!)
And thus everything will have to be remade anew, and by youngsters, to be good again. Bcz nothing says “smash the system” like planned obsolescence, right? Youth über alles was arguably the worst mind-habit of the counterculture – which of course punk happily swiped (because when you’re 20 who doesn’t want to here that you can’t be wrong about anything).
Last quote : “[I]t is time for the 70s generation to start producing their own ideas, and ease out the old farts who are still pushing tired ideas left over from the 60s. The time seems to be right for original thinking and new inventive concepts, not only in the music but in the way that it is staged and promoted.” I mean, yes, he’s absolutely opening a space for something, and something that he’s just announced the old farts can’t possibly deliver, and yes, a change took place. But original thinking and new inventive concepts — what does it say that that this now reads like every push a tech start-up makes when it’s about to “disrupt” an industry? (What if buses, but not paying the driver?)
Punk, Greil Marcus once wrote, broke rock in half. Right or wrong (and fascinating and difficult and in retrospect strange and even alarming), rock culture was widely still assumed in some sense *undivided* up to this moment: certainly by Marcus, certainly by Farren. Hence perhaps its apparent ability to (and will to) swallow up in its unfolding variety even its cultural and political opposites — an ability Farren was now declaring his absolute doubts about (the swallowing would go the other way). Which meant this was not a mind-set that could actually heal the world: since — apparently — it had entirely to cleave itself in twain with every new generation. You can blame this conundrum on Boomerthink if you like – Boomers is largely who it came from – but that only turns its overthrow into its reinstatement. The price the successor generation paid, for being enabled and enthused by this abdication, was to be utterly locked into this same insurmountable doubt. With time itself your chief enemy, and ruin cemented into all your schemes…
He was sane and sanguine about it all to the last, I think. Certainly he was posting on his blog until a few days before he died – it's here, and it never stopped being him (and Elvis and Marilyn and… ). And unlike pretty much everyone else in his milieu in 1977, he never cut his hair.
1: I seem to be moving backwards here, but the previous post is among other things a map of the forms the pushback took — not least because it takes the form of a map.
2: This is how the tale runs in the early versions of the kinderbunkerlied anyway. Latterly Burchill very much rescinded Farren’s moral doom, reaffirming her own teenage agency and fascination with him — perhaps as an eyecatching way to underline how unexciting and uninteresting her first marriage had turned out to be.
3: In the end he returned to the UK and to punk. Here’s some of Black Vinyl Dress, released in 2013, its bluesier stretches as out of time as trad jazz had been in the mid-60s, when he first arrived in the Underground Press to tell them all to get with it.
4: Phun City line-up = MC5, The Pretty Things, Kevin Ayers, Edgar Broughton Band, Mungo Jerry, Mighty Baby, Pink Fairies (who stripped on stage), and of course Steve Peregrin Took (sometime of Tyrannosarus Rex) and his band Shagrat. Attendees included a young Billy Idol and a young Mick Jones. The circle is not broken… (except it would be, and was).