I last saw Mick Farren at the Sonic Rock Solstice in June of this year. On the same bill were Nik Turner and Arthur Brown, venerable old turns of similar septuagenarian (or thereabouts) vintage as Mick. Nik showed his stamina by attempting to play with as many different acts as he could while the supremely fit Arthur shook and gyrated in a way that would put someone half his age to shame. Ferried around in a wheelchair Farren could barely walk from edge to centre stage. Overweight and asthmatic he was clearly not in good physical shape but trooper as he was and perched on his seat he regaled the crowd with selections from the Deviants back catalogue and his own solo work. I was meant to interview him that night and caught up with him an hour or so after he came off stage. Mick was typically friendly but somehow a bit unfocussed and disorientated. “Give me a half an hour, man, I need to account to the rest of the band and then I need a drink” he pleaded dragging dangerously on a king size cigarette. “I also need some food - I’ve only had two donuts to eat in the last 48 hours". "Better make that an hour”. I suggested, part out of what was genuinely a sense of care and partly because I wanted to see a couple of the headline acts, that it might be a better idea if I emailed him the questions and he could deal with them at his leisure. Hell if anyone could make a postal interview flow as if we were talking face to face over a pint then it would be one of the best and most entertaining writers it has ever been my pleasure to have been acquainted with. Why, I could even pop down to Brighton to see him “Oh, you’d be very welcome! Who did you say you were doing this for again?”. “Terrascope, Mick, used to be Ptolemaic Terrascope back in the days of ink and paper”. “Know it well” he replied. “Phil McMullen is still Editor” I ventured, to which came the ebullient reply “Oh Phil! How is Phil? He and I had some great times”. At which one can only assume there was one helluva story to tell there. However we never got that interview. Mick was working his way through what he called the Holy Mother of God of all interviews – it was a bit long I’ll grant you – when he met his end.
That Mick Farren, who died of a heart attack on Saturday, 27th July, went out on his shield whilst on stage and fronting his band the Deviants at the Borderline Club, London, was, somehow, so typical of the man. You could never in your wildest dreams imagine Chairman Mick passing away peacefully in his sleep following a long illness at some Bide A Wee rest home at which he’d barely existed for the past so many years.
That Mick should even have lived to within groping distance of his biblical three-score-and-ten was in itself a miracle. The methedrine madness of the late 1960s, followed by the booze fuelled 70s and beyond as Farren courted excess in a way that was classic rock-and-roll star and gonzo journalist rolled up in one fat spliff was never going to get him his telegram from whichever son or daughter of the House of Windsor would happen to be in harness at the time. Like he’d have wanted that as he might a bullet in the head.
But enough already. Michael Anthony Farren was born on 1st September 1943 in the spa town of Cheltenham although the family relocated to near Worthing on the Sussex coast when he was young (an act he was to repay by staging the notorious Phun City Festival – one of the first (accidental) free festivals in the UK there in 1970). By then Farren had carved out a reputation as an outspoken and uncompromising figure in the burgeoning UK underground – exhibiting an often brash personality which found considerable outlet in his Chandleresque prose and bellicose music in the form of the (Social) Deviants whom he fronted and with whom he recorded three albums before being jettisoned during a shambolic tour of the US and Canada in 1969. Heavily influenced by The Fugs and the Mothers of Invention - their debut “Ptoof” was notable for its musical collages and shock-value imagery – the Deviants were the antithesis of whatever it was going on in Pepperland at the time. US impresario Joe Boyd who booked bands at UFO and was an early champion of Pink Floyd and Incredible String Band detested them so much that despite Farren’s connections to the club they only ever got to play one 5.00 a.m. set, which was usually given to the act most likely to drive the residual rump of the UFOs hard core audience onto the street and allow the put-upon staff to shut up shop for the night. Of course the Deviants are now justifiably labelled regarded as proto-punk, years ahead of their time in terms of attitude and not afraid to stick it to the soft underbelly of what remained of Swinging London and of emerging hippiedom.
However rock and roll performing was almost a diversion for Mick Farren in the 1960s and whilst he was a charismatic enough front man, by his own admission he owed his vocal style more to Wild Man Fischer than Robert Plant. Indeed when I interviewed Edgar Broughton (who, ironically in light of what you are about to read, was sharing the bill with Mick the night he died) the subject of Mick Farren came up in response to a question about the extent to which the late 60s spirit of cordiality and communality extended to the bands
“It’s quite interesting, Mick Farren in a particular piece he wrote described one of the Hyde Park concerts that they (the Deviants) played and he said they were trying to work out how they could get one over on us, or words to that effect, because although it was all peace and love, bands were still competitive and wanted to be the best on the day. Bless him though he said we had this thing called “Our Demons Out” and there was nothing to be done about it. In actual fact what he forgot to say was that they were shit, they really were. I don’t think Mick Farren’s been near anything half-decent in his life, musically speaking, I mean he’s a journalist - he should have been a journalist all the time because he can’t sing to save his life.”
No, where Mick really excelled was his social commentary, a taste for direct action and his ability to get under the skin of the establishment and occasionally his contemporaries on “the scene” (Jonathan Green’s “Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971 is a good reference point here). Whether on the front-line at Grosvenor Square (though not a “street-fighting man” per se, Mick like his old adversary Edgar Broughton was unafraid to put himself in situations of close and adversarial proximity to Her Majesty’s finest) or invading the Frost Show with Felix Dennis, Jerry Rubin and the like Mick seemed to be everywhere. Mostly, though, Farren was involved with International Times, the first and possibly foremost bona fide underground newspaper in the UK of which he later became editor and under whose stewardship became a byword for that old adage “drugs, rock and roll and fucking in the street”. That this was done with as much humour as revolutionary zeal showed that Mick, a bit of a prankster as well as a self-publicist of no little accomplishment, was not about to sacrifice the chance to have some fun just because he was on the frontline. Hell’s bells the man was an anarchist after all, not some anally retentive old Marxist-Leninist.
Farren was not above taking on what he saw as the unacceptable face of the counter-culture and particularly those who sought to exploit it for their own ends No-where was this more in evidence than the infamous Isle of White Festival of 1970, described by Mick as a “psychedelic concentration camp” and the scene of Jimi Hendrix’s last UK gig. Oh, and Desolation Row, the ramshackle shanty town overlooking the festival site and on which Mick Farren and his UK Chapter of White Panthers were prominent among the hordes of latter-day-Visigoths protesting at inflated ticket prices and poor facilities in what, symbolically at least, would come to represent the end of the Aquarian Dream in the UK much the same as Altamont had in the US some nine months previously. Mick drew on this experience when writing his first novel “The Texts of Festival” (published in 1973) about a dystopian post-apocalyptic festival society ruled by a gated elite in which the lyrics to rock songs are regarded as sacred text and with anything but community spirit. Inf fact how you’d imagine a “psychedelic concentration camp” to be once the music’s over, the money’s run out and the fun has gone.
By now Farren was pretty much a full time journalist and writer having for now forsaken music following the release of his supremely ambitious but, at the time, widely derided solo album “Mona the Carnivorous Circus” (1970) during the making of which Mick admits to have been mentally ill. By the early 1970s the noose was closing around the collective neck of the underground press with IT, Nasty Tales (another tasteful little Farren number) and OZ all having their day in court – albeit at the receiving end of a prosecutor’s boot. Although Mick successfully defended Nasty Tales against the obscenity charge against it the underground had had its day. IT and OZ both stopped the presses in 1973 (there was a half-hearted stab at reviving the former a couple of years later) and Mick together with the likes of Charles Shaar-Murray (OZ) and Nick Kent (Frendz) sought refuge at the NME, ushering in something of a golden age of rock journalism, helped no doubt by a level of artistic freedom which must have been home from home for the old subterranean refugees.
Farren’s most enduring contribution of many informed, entertaining and often downright opinionated articles for the NME during the 1970s is his apparently seminal piece “The Titanic Sails At Dawn” which analysed the malaise assailing an increasingly bloated, complacent and corporate rock establishment and, typically, calling for a bottom-up shake-up. It ended thus
“Putting the Beatles back together isn't going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might.
“And that, gentle reader, is where you come in."
Now there is some disagreement as to whether Our Micky was being prophetic or simply profiting from what was already out there and gathering quiet momentum. Conventional and perhaps lazy wisdom suggests the former but Mick himself, not usually one to shy away from the opportunity for a bit of self-aggrandisement, told the Quietus recently:” Yeah, it was kind of disingenuous anyway, because I was well aware that what I was calling for was already happening.”. His former colleague and latterly editor on the NME, Neil Spencer, someone you sense never had Mick on his Christmas Card list, went so far as to claim that Farren was part of an anti-punk rock faction at NME, something which is hard to credit when you consider the snotty credentials of the Deviants, its later agit-spawn the Pink Fairies (a name incidentally coined by MF) and their like, and who, rather than the 101-ers, the Hot Rods and the rest of the pub rock boys, were the true outriders of the late 70s Armagideon Apocalypse. Discuss...
At the same time as he was spreading the gonzo-gospel at the nation’s foremost inky music weekly Mick Farren was making something of a name for himself as an author, both as a chronicler of popular culture and a novelist. Following up “The Texts of Festival” with the heavily autobiographical “The Tale of Willy’s Rats” (1974), a book I must have read from cover to cover about five times and copies of which now seem as hard to find as the proverbial rocking horse droppings, the 1970s also saw publication of the DNA Cowboys trilogy, Farren’s first foray into sci-fi writing. In all he would publish 23 novels including the Renquist books (pre-dating the recent fad for vampires) and was rumoured to be working on the fifth of those stories at the time of death. His 1989 novel “Armageddon Crazy” dealt with a post-millennium US of A where fundamentalists worked to subvert the constitution. Fantasy writing, you say?
Anyway, by the late 1970s Our Man had reconnected somewhat with his muse, had signed to Stiff records and released a couple of EPs notably “Screwed Up” (1977) which featured a reworking of the old Deviants rant “Let’s Loot The Supermarket” (suffixed by “Like We Did Last Summer”), a song which Mick always claimed to re-invent every time the World seemed to be about to fall apart.
He was performing it in 2013.
This comparatively fertile musical period culminated in 1978’s “Vampires Stole My Lunch Money”, a patchy affair with an unhealthy number of songs about excessive drinking but featuring some genuine high points (Zappa’s “Trouble Coming Every Day” and the self-penned “People Call You Crazy” to name but a couple) and an impressive if somewhat unhinged supporting cast including Larry Wallis, Wilko Johnson, Andy Colquhoun and Andy Powell, and a pre-Pretenders Chrissy Hynde. The album coincided with Mick’s Dingwalls period, which revolved around said club at which former Deviants/Fairies manager Boss Goodman held court as DJ.
This was a wild and self-destructive period during which Mick first left the NME having become something of an anachronistic old anarchist in the wake of punk and beyond and then left these shores first for Manhattan and then LA where he would continue to write his books and work as respected columnist for LA City Beat and others. He still performed his music (occasionally releasing new work usually under the Deviants banner) and collaborated with MC5’s Wayne Kramer and old drinking mate and ex-Pink Fairy extraordinaire Larry Wallis on their solo projects. In 2001 he published his autobiography “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette”, an entertaining romp through several decades of poking the establishment in the eye, pissing off those who were meant to be on your side and doing all of this while completely off your face and writing beautifully into the bargain.
However, with his health failing and unable to afford the US medical fees to treat his chronic asthma, Mick remembered the passport in that side drawer and returned to Blighty a few years back, settling in Brighton (something of a seaside refuge for old London bohos and home to writer Julie Burchill with whom Mick had a brief dalliance at the NME and ended up losing a couple of teeth courtesy of a jealous, soon-to-be husband, Tony Parsons. I wondered, tongue in cheek, if they’d become reacquainted. Mick never had the chance to answer that one, more is the pity). From there he put out a hugely entertaining and subversive blog entitled Doc 40, the only site I consciously visit that requires me to negotiate a contents warning and to “speak friend and enter”. Chairman Mick was poking fun at the absurd and sticking it to The Man right up until the end. He’d also just published a collection of his writings under the name “Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine” and was mooted to be collaborating with Nik Turner on the latter’s surreal autobiographical project described in these pages in early 2012.
Shortly before his death Mick Farren was given the honour of being featured in a Portobello Road Wall of Rock'n'Roll Fame under the infamous Westway flyover – a counter-cultural blue plaque moment if ever there was one. His good friend and fellow Deviant Russell Hunter noted that at least a third of those featured were already dead and so Mick was ahead on that score, which Mick thought was “pretty fucking cool”. It’s still pretty fucking cool, I’d say, despite the change in existential status.
That Mick Farren should have breathed his last at the Borderline, Soho, just a few hundred yards from where he started gaining notoriety as doorman and mover/shaker at the legendary UFO Club is not only poignant but also bloody typical if not bloody minded. You would have sensed he would have approved and is out there somewhere chuckling to himself at the very idea.
Whichever way you cut it we’ve lost a great character. They don’t make the mould anymore, you know and if they did, you’d sense we ought to be chucking it on the old pyre as a mark of respect. For indeed respect is due...
So long Mick Farren, it’s time to take the salute.