Jun 18

from iceberg to titanic, and from titanic to iceberg, and from iceberg to titanic again…

Hidden Landscapes21 comments • 1,063 views

… but already it was impossible to say which was which (or sometimes you get what you pray for — and it isn’t really quite what you wanted: the MICK FARREN story)

[This post originally went up at my PATREON: subscribers get to read posts and hear podcasts early — and help offset costs and time and help me do more of this kind of thing. Please share widely and encourage participation!]

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 YobsNME 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 [2]. Farren quit the paper, quit punk, and shortly quit the country [3].

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 hear 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 eye-catching 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).

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  1. 1
    Phil on 27 Jun 2018 #

    Stray thought 1: Peel is very snarky about Mick Farren in Days in the Life, although it’s one of those times when the mockery mainly succeeds in raising doubts about the mocker. He did play Farren’s (awful) records, though. “BELA LUGOSI! Didn’t know what the HELL was going on!” (NB poss. ref. Plan Nine from Outer Space)

    ST2: the first time I used, ahem, bought the NME, which would have been in 1977, I remember being very confused (and rather bored) by a full-page article by Ray Lowry, which I think was advocating that we raise the Titanic(???). I remember they got letters, basically saying “just get on with it and sink the bloody Titanic and shut up about it”, or WTTE. Unless it was the other way round (raise/sink). I guess the whole thing was a response to Farren; I had no idea at the time (like a good pamphleteers, Lowry didn’t deign to identify what or who he was replying to). The main effect it had on me was to push me towards Sounds.

    That’s how I remember it now, anyway; I’d forgotten all about it for 40 (ye Gods) years, so the details may be all wrong.

    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?)

    Bad example. No biscuit. If I may…

    Ever since Milan’s Communist-Socialist government proposed a fare rise for the city’s bus and underground services a constant direct action campaign has been waged against the public transport authorities . . . The campaign, which has attracted support from autonomia groups, Circoli Giovanili (Youth Circles), the Indians and also the highly opportunistic Leninist groups Lotta Continua and MLS, has been organised by the recently formed Lega Libertaria (Libertarian League).

    A tube occupation one Saturday in October went like this . . . On arrival one comrade walked through the ticket barrier, to be stopped by the ticket controller. Several others appeared to give support to the first, and this exchange took place: ‘This is a demonstration against the proposed fare increases. It is not a violent demonstration so please stay calm.’ ‘All right, but I must go and report it.’ ‘Look! we said a peaceful demonstration, but not a pacifist one, so just make yourself comfortable and stay put.’ By now other comrades had succeeded in blocking all the ticket machines with bits of metal, plastic and generous helpings of glue. Others were giving out leaflets and others inviting people through the barriers for free.

    While the Lega Libertaria recognise many other areas of struggle that need to be fought and won, Milan’s anarchists and libertarians are determined to make these liberatory actions a daily feature of the city’s life until everyone rides for free. (‘Enne’, Zero (‘anarchist/anarca-feminist monthly’), 1977)

  2. 2
    mark sinker on 27 Jun 2018 #

    The Lowry piece was some while later, I think — it was confusedly arguing that punk or post-punk had ended up in a bad place, and aimed as much as anything at Paul Morley. It was pretty terrible. I kept a copy of it for years bcz I kept everything, but I think got rid when a cat decided (correctly) to pee on it.

    (Ian Penman wrote a response piece, pointing out among other things that “raise the Titanic” was a weirdly terrible slogan. I might actually still have this bcz I am nuts.)

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 28 Jun 2018 #

    There was a (fairly) immediate response to Farren’s piece by Max Bell which IIRC attempted to offer an alternative narrative where passengers could jump ship onto nimbler more up to date vessels such as Little Feat or Steely Dan. It wasn’t a great metaphor was it?

  4. 4
    mark sinker on 28 Jun 2018 #

    ooh i must track that down!

    (ps i hunted through my chaotic archive last night and did not locate the lowry or the penman pieces — if i still have them at all they are moved to some forgotten “project to be completed” folder, which then wasn’t completed lol. my *guess* for the date is late 1979/early 1980, when lowry ‘s cachet was high after the clash london calling sleeve and he’d started writing a little as well as cartooning. i couldn’t find mention on the internet: farren’s is the piece with ripples still)

  5. 5
    Phil on 28 Jun 2018 #

    Hang on, I just edited this…

    Weren’t Cheap Trick going to save rock and roll at one point?

    [thinks, to be fair, he can remember at least one thing by Cheap Trick]
    [ah, no, it was the Kursaal Flyers]
    [not that one either, that was Sniff ‘n’ the Tears]
    [and that was Dire Straits, I mean obviously]
    [blimey, there was a lot of low-wattage after-dinner rock and roll around just after punk]
    [I mean, these actually were the kind of people who put creases in their old Levis…]

  6. 6
    mark sinker on 28 Jun 2018 #

    cheap trick are great! but they’re a much (MUCH) bigger deal in the US, where i don’t think this dynamic played out at all in the same way

  7. 7
    Tommy Mack on 30 Jun 2018 #

    #5: According to my unlikely Facebook friend David Knopfler, Dire Straits supported Talking Heads on their first UK tour and the critics had them pegged as a sort of British Television which you can kind of see.

    Dire Straits jamming with Talking Heads (!): https://www.mk-guitar.com/2012/10/07/talking-heads-live-in-1978-encores-with-mark-knopfler-and-john-illsley/

  8. 8
    mark sinker on 30 Jun 2018 #

    [following exchange re farren reposted from a recent-ish coltrane thread — click to see the entire discussion, which stems from my historical distinterest in the MC5]

    KOGANBOT (22 JUN 2018): Just dug into my files to not find Mick Farren’s early to mid ’70s Voice piece in which he identifies the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” as the prototypical or quintessential close-your-fist-and-immerse-yourself-in-the-roiling-metal song for the slow-boogieing metal kids, except none of the vocabulary I’ve just given you is his other than “the,” “who,” “behind,” “blue,” and “eyes.” The term “power ballad” wasn’t yet current. Good and accurate of him to associate the Who with an audience less respectable than the band’s rep.

    MARK SINKER (22 JUN 2018): farren’s 60s crew were many of them the pilled-up london-periphery mods* who’d loved the who’s early wild guitar-smashing shows — he wasn’t quite this himself, but he was deep buddies with them and knew how to speak with and for and to them and (sometimes, after a fashion, briefly) to organise them
    *and there’s been a reasonably convincing argument in these pages that the foax who liked rockshows at that time (64-65ish) were never actual-real mods, but its chief exponent, andypandy, sadly no longer posts

    KOGANBOT (22 JUN 2018): But (or and) I took Farren to be saying that the audience latching onto and immersing into the punch-it-out sadness of “Behind Blue Eyes” wasn’t the post-mod flower children or glam boys or protopunks but more the Uriah Heep / Deep Purple scruffy tough-boy teens. (Again, I doubt Farren specifically said this or mentioned those bands: this is filtered through my own vocab and refs since I can’t find the piece. I’m sure I would have saved it, but that doesn’t mean it’s survived various transitions since.)

    KOGANBOT (23 JUN 2018): (I would like to get what Farren said right: Maybe I remember the essence. Maybe I improved it in memory. Maybe I took the guts out of it. Maybe all three. But knowing the exact words, what he actually says, can make a difference. At least, may hold some surprises. Would the piece be in RBP? I’m not even sure I have the right decade for it. Do you have access behind the paywall? Not going to comment on your Farren piece till it goes up on Freaky Trigger. Except that I don’t consider myself “very extremely old,” or just extremely old. Or even, merely, old. But I am slow enough that it might take me weeks or months or years to actually comment on it. I never know. In the meantime, though, I’m going to the Pillars Of Punk thread and post a relevant quote that you unintentionally changed the meaning of, somewhat, when you paraphrased it in the Farren piece.)

    MARK SINKER (23 JUN 2018): [checks in the RBP farren archive: doesn’t seem to be there] i googled around in case this village voice piece was up somewhere illicitly on the internet, or referenced: this mentions and briefly summarises a VV/Farren piece from 1982, mainly noting his point that much larger venues had significantly changed the who’s nature — i think an opinion routinely found as early as reviews of “live at leeds” in 1970? anyway, without being able to read this mid-70s piece it’s hard to know exactly what’s being described, but yes, farren was always a small-sweaty-venues man, and was well acquainted with the earliest waves of who fans, from when they were smashing up their equipment in tiny london clubs. i called them mods bcz that’s part of who mythology, as much as anything (for example the plot of “quadrophenia”), but it raises the issue who and what exactly mods were, and when! they changed a lot between 1962-82, and i think always came in a variety of forms. i’m inclined to say they were also always london-based (or london-periphery): and included proto-hippies, proto-glamkids, proto-skinheads, as well as a fair share of savvy london lads who had a sharp eye for the business end of the counterculture

    (some of this division comes from drugs of choice, be it uppers or acid or weed or downers or junk or coke or whatever: jon savage’s “1966: the year the decade exploded” is good on the shifts brought about as new waves of different drugs become popular…) (i get the impression that the preferred farren thing wd be uppers and dope and booze but i haven’t been taking notes)

    meanwhile the ppl you’re describing, the heep-heads, would not at all have been considered mods or thought of themselves as mods, or (as often as not) come from london: and were not especially apparent in the who’s pre-stadium audience, because they had not yet emerged en masse. where did the denim-clad longhair armies who made up uk rock’s audience from 1970-79ish come from? when did this look begin to prevail?

    anyway the point i was making was that farren (given his antecedents) would not have associated the who with respectability at any stage, even if the nature of their audience changed — if only bcz he liked the who and disliked respectablity!

    is this respectability something projected onto them by american writers? (dave marsh for example?) or is it an outgrowth of the operatic ambitions of tommy and so on?

    [reposted exchange ends]

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 1 Jul 2018 #

    #7 I was at the gig linked here – one of the best I’ve been to. Dire Straits a competent pub rock band that appealed to my Deadhead tendencies – Talking Heads gloriously urgent and danceable

  10. 10
    Tommy Mack on 1 Jul 2018 #

    Mark @ 8 – “is this respectability something projected onto them by american writers?” My inference from the crit I’ve read is that mid-60s Who are seen as respectable or cool at any rate (pop art and pop, violence and sharp clothes (Fashion and indie music seem to revive Mod in some form or other once or twice per decade)), late 60s thru 70s Who less so (a hard-sell mix of operatic ambitions and blokey dad-rock)

  11. 11
    Ed on 1 Jul 2018 #

    “Where did the denim-clad longhair armies who made up uk rock’s audience from 1970-79ish come from? when did this look begin to prevail?”

    Speaker as a former footsoldier in that army, I can tell you it came from the obvious places: Zeppelin, Purple, Sabbath were the holy trinity, and fans took sartorial cues from them. Immediately pre-New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the biggest bands were Motorhead, AC/DC and Whitesnake, and they also dictated the aesthetic: denim and leather, and the kind of self-conscious anti-style that re-appeared with grunge at the end of the 1980s.

    Insofar as that look had ancestors, they were the Hells Angels and the mods’ arch-enemies, the rockers. I remember going to a gig by Saxon, one of the leading lights of NWOBHM, in about 1981, where we encouraged to stand on our chairs and shout: “We hate the mods!” Saxon’s great anthem was ‘Denim and Leather’, a mythology of “when the dam began to burst” for the NWOBHM. “Denim, and leather, brought us all together”:


    All this made The Who a real puzzler for our crowd. Especially on ‘Who’s Next’, they made music that we loved. But apparently for some mysterious reason they were icons for the hated mods. It was a riddle that we never really managed to figure out.

  12. 12
    Ed on 2 Jul 2018 #

    *Speaking* as a former footsoldier in that army… gah

  13. 13
    Tommy Mack on 2 Jul 2018 #

    “But apparently for some mysterious reason they were icons for the hated mods.” – my dad was a mod in the mid 60s (Sheffield not London though.) He recently remarked that with hindsight, The Who were ridiculous plastic mods but at the time, he and his mates thought them the epitome of mod cool. (Of course, yer original London modernists would have derided a provincial Who-loving scooter boy like my dad)

    “All this made The Who a real puzzler for our crowd.” – conversely, every bit of crit I’ve ever read about Woodstock-era Who is ‘what must their mod fans have thought of this hairy, noisy bunch’ but perhaps some of their mod fan base had moved with the band. Indeed, by the time my dad got to art college, his hair was down to his chest and he was into Zep, Atomic Rooster, Free and indeed, The Who’s 70s rock incarnation.

  14. 14
    mark sinker on 2 Jul 2018 #

    a conclusion of earlier comments-thread discussions on this site — with the redoubtable and much-missed andypandy — was that there was a solid core faction of london mod that had no time at all for any of the white-brit imitations of black american music, and disdained all live local music as a consequence. so “the who (and their fans) = never real mods” is a claim you will routinely encounter, and of course in a sense it’s one of pete townshend’s central topics (are you really what you say you are; am i really what i think i am). penny reel’s great memoir of early 60s mod — the young mod’s forgotten story, nme 1979 — makes it very clear how much of it was about competitive performance, and who “owns” who, to deploy the very handy internet term very anachronistically

  15. 15
    Ed on 3 Jul 2018 #

    So, roughly speaking, Mod : The Who :: Hip-Hop : New Kids on the Block?

    Maybe later, Mod : The Who :: Hip-Hop : Linkin Park?

  16. 16
    Ed on 4 Jul 2018 #

    In a bit of sad synchronicity, I just read David Stubbs’ tribute to Roy Carr on Facebook, where he mentions that the NME’s phones were – allegedly- tapped in the 70s because MI5 or whoever were worried about Mick Farren’s radical affiliations.

  17. 17
    mark sinker on 4 Jul 2018 #

    Ed, do you have a link to that? I’ve half-completed my own tribute — I’ll put it up here when I have — but I’d like to point people to other memories as well.

  18. 19
    mark sinker on 4 Jul 2018 #

    ah i think it’s friends only, that explains why i couldn’t find it — thank you anyway

    (i have v belatedly friend-requested, it’s not as if we aren’t)

  19. 20
    koganbot on 19 Jul 2018 #

    Mark, this’ll be a long-winded response to your questions about the Who’s respectability, but the short version goes: People like you and me and Mick Farren and those who write for Freaky Trigger and The Singles Jukebox and those who back in the day were writing for the rock press/music press help create respectability, we’re a kind of Musical Marginal Intelligentsia that punch way beyond our weight in moving the broader intelligentsia in our direction. And overall in society the intelligentsia punch way beyond their weight in their impact on “respectable opinion.” Furthermore, as far back as 1966 (or so), people like Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan and John Lennon are part of the intelligentsia too.

    But even so, the Who are special in that, from 1966 to, let’s say, 1980, no matter which of the various differing areas or nodes or nexuses or social groupings of vaguely rock-related fandom and attention and commentary you’re in, whether intelligentsia or anti-intelligentsia, punk or metal or soft rock, you and the grouping likely respect the Who, whether or not you love them. If it’s a weighted election the Who don’t get more 1st place votes than a lot of others but they win with a lot of 3rd and 4th place votes from all over.

    I’m wondering how “Titanic”-era Farren viewed his own social role. He may hate respectability but he’s also trying to get people to respect the contemporary music world less and defiance more, which of course changes what respectability is — though I’d also say that going way back to the birth of romanticism in 1740-whatever, or 1530, or [I don’t know], respectable opinion, on and off, doesn’t altogether respect respectability. In any event “respectable” is a disrespected appellation these days and not just among the intelligentsia, but “respect” isn’t so disrespected.

  20. 21
    Tommy Mack on 20 Jul 2018 #

    A thing I learned from YouTube: Pete Townshend got much better at smashing guitars over the years. In the 60s heyday, it’s like whack, whack, drop it where as some of the pension-era bouts are truly spectacular.

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