Mick Farren died as he lived: onstage, in a spotlight, leading a band of Deviants.
The former NME writer was 69 when he collapsed at the Borderline on a Saturday night at the end of last month. He left behind a righteous body of work that included a dozen or so records with his band the Deviants and a mountain of countercultural writing that includes a startlingly prescient NME column from 1976: ‘The Titanic Sails At Dawn’.
In it, Farren set his coruscating sights on the “dazzlingly lit, wonderfully appointed Titanic that is big-time, rock-pop, tax-exile, jet-set show business.” Punctuated by his own capitalised exhortations from the ‘editor’, he predicted that this floating mausoleum, represented by the likes of The Stones, The Who and Rod Stewart, would soon be wrecked against the coming iceberg of punk. Yet 37 years on, how much has changed? Has anything?
At the time he quoted readers’ letters that rejected The Stones because who’d want to see “five middle aged millionaires poncing around” or pay “three quid to be bent, mutilated, crushed or seated behind a pillar or PA stack, all in the name of modern, seventies style super rock”? He lived to see five elderly millionaires carve Hyde Park into extortionately priced plots, and charge £95 for the cheapest.
(SO HISTORY PROVED HIM WRONG?)
No, he predicted all that too. He saw the danger in bands and promoters turning rock into a “safe, establishment form of entertainment”. When he asked whether rock and roll had “become another mindless consumer product that plays footsie with jet set and royalty” he was foreshadowing the day when Prince Harry would be at the side of the Pyramid Stage bopping along to ‘Paint It Black’.
Punk arrived, as he knew it would, but this Titanic proved unsinkable. He lifted his title from Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’, and the iconoclastic spirit of the piece is captured in the next few lines: “The Titanic sails at dawn / And everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?’” Farren wanted us to pick sides. He wanted punk’s safety pins to puncture the inflated egos of heritage rock once and for all. In the end, we got both. The only thing that will stop The Stones’ circus is the same mortal fate that took Farren.
(OKAY, OKAY, SO WHAT’S THE POINT THEN?)
The point is that even if mainstream rock and roll has become toothless, primetime entertainment, that doesn’t have to be the only option. Farren believed above all that rock and roll could stay dangerous. Even then, and as a Sixties mover and shaker himself, he was resisting the atavistic urge to simply ape the sounds and styles of that most tediously retrodden of decades. He had seen the golden era from the inside, and knew that it existed in the “tiny margin of a still affluent economy, a margin that doesn’t exist today”.
(THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR…)
It should. Even in the Seventies Farren was arguing that the real question was “not whether to compromise or not, but how much, and in what way”. Those are words to live by for a generation of musicians who have seen their income from record sales all but extinguished by the dawn of the internet era.
Farren wasn’t just a musician and a writer, he was also a militant political radical. He believed that rock music and writing could be a vehicle for real social change. He argued that rock’s salvation would only arrive when a new generation produced their own ideas to push out the old farts and their tired ways of doing things.
Farren concluded his column with the words: “Putting the Beatles back together isn’t going to be the salvation of rock’n’roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might.”
Same as it ever was.
“And that, gentle reader, is where you come in.”
Originally published in NME, 10 August 2013.